Off the Shelf: Lived law and gender in medieval Egypt

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

The documents and manuscript fragments found in the Cairo Geniza offer scholars a treasure trove of information about life in medieval Egypt. However, as Oded Zinger notes in her “Living With the Law: Gender and Community Among the Jews of Ancient Egypt” (University of Pennsylvania Press), the material doesn’t present a complete picture of individual lives because not every document has survived. That means that the final results of many legal actions, including those that focused on marriage and divorce, are often not available. The information that can be gleamed from legal documents, though, offers insights into how people actually lived.

Zinger is specifically interested in marital disputes of the time and how they were resolved. Her interest is in lived law, by which she means “law as it was experienced and lived by Jews rather than law as it was developed by legalists in normative texts. This lived law was usually not directly opposed to Jewish law (halakha) and yet, as is shown in the book’s chapters, it had its own dynamics, logic, and power as a social practice.” Her reason for focusing on marital disputes is because she sees them as “sites of intense confrontation and cooperation between spouses, their families, the Jewish community, and, occasionally, the Muslim state... Jewish law claims control over the erection and dissolution of family, as well as over monetary, sexual, and labor aspects of married life.” The disputes the author features show the tensions within the system and the way that gender played a role in the decisions made.

In order to understand how this Jewish legal system worked, Zinger discusses the differences between medieval and contemporary times, with one of the most important aspects being that there were no lawyers or legal profession. People presented their own cases in person or writing. There were also no juries, only judges. However, these courts had no way to enforce their rulings: they depended on people’s willingness to accept their rulings and, therefore, often tried to have the two sides of a disagreement come to terms before having to make a ruling. The gender aspect came into play when the male judges pressured the women to settle for less than the written law prescribed, rather than continue with their case. This pressure caused many women to agree to reduce the amount of their settlements, rather than receiving the amount as written in their marriage documents. Because the court had no power to enforce its rulings, husbands who disagreed with a ruling had the option of ignoring it or moving to another city, rather than give their wives their due. Women who had men (fathers, brothers, etc.) to petition the court, or use their influence in other ways, often had a better chance of obtaining the full monetary payment due them.

But both men and women had other options in addition to going to the local court. They could attempt to settle the dispute themselves. They could appeal to other rabbis – particularly those who were powerful or well known legalists – who could declare the ruling of the local court invalid. Jewish state leaders – the heads of the community – could also be asked to pressure one side or the other. One of the last resorts – because the community frowned on it – was appealing to Muslim courts that had the power to enforce their rulings, although these courts often preferred not to interfere in internal Jewish community matters. 

Zinger notes that women were often at a disadvantage when it came to the financial aspects of marriage. In order to stay married, many gave up their legal rights to funds owed them and matters were often worse when it came to divorce. She writes that “some compromises took place during the marriage: in such cases women reduced their delayed marriage payment, removed the lien from their doweries over their husband’s property, or simply gave their husbands items of their dowry. Other compromises took place at the termination of a marriage, when the chances of divorced women or widows receiving their dowry and the promised delayed marriage payment could be quite slim.” Some women were forced to pay a marriage ransom in order to receive a divorce (only men could dissolve a marriage): otherwise their husband might simply leave the house and refuse to pay the legal maintenance required, or travel to another city where their spouse could not reach them. Most women had far fewer resources due to the limits placed on them by society: they had far less opportunity to encounter or befriend influential men who could plead their cause.

Wives were also dependent on their husbands in financial dealings because a wife’s labor generally belonged to him. Zinger suggests that a “fitting model for the economic aspects of the [Jewish] marital relationship is ‘rent’: a husband pays a certain down payment, promises a larger sum in the event of the dissolution of the contract, and commits to maintaining his wife throughout the marriage period. In return, he gains exclusive sexual access to his wife and a variety of other services (household care and fruits of her wealth and labor).” Since money flows from men to women in this situation, almost any compromise will result in the reduction of women’s monetary rights, if only because men had more options and resources. 

This led to more women approaching Muslim courts than men, particularly in cases concerning inheritance, marriage and divorce. These women were treated more harshly by the Jewish community, though, than men who turned to those courts. This is partly because the Jewish community preferred to act as if it had true autonomy, even though, in reality, that was not true. Also, women who did this were seen as defying male authority, which was considered a threat to the community.

Zinger does note the limitations of her study, which is based on the documents available that often do not reveal the final results of what took place. Her work offers examples of specific cases that make for fascinating reading. The author also makes clear that her focus is on one narrow aspect of society, but it’s one she does see as a vital part of the culture. For those unfamiliar with the legal aspects of Jewish marriage, “Living With the Law” opens with a discussion explaining the terms needed to understand the cases under discussion. Although this is a scholarly work, the prose is easy to read and the explanations make the material clear even for those with little background in Judaic studies.