Poverty and Charity in the Jewish Community of Medieval Egypt

Poverty and Charity in the Jewish Community of Medieval Egypt

by Mark R. Cohen
     
 

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What was it like to be poor in the Middle Ages? In the past, the answer to this question came only from institutions and individuals who gave relief to the less fortunate. This book, by one of the top scholars in the field, is the first comprehensive book to study poverty in a premodern Jewish community--from the viewpoint of both the poor and those who provided

Overview

What was it like to be poor in the Middle Ages? In the past, the answer to this question came only from institutions and individuals who gave relief to the less fortunate. This book, by one of the top scholars in the field, is the first comprehensive book to study poverty in a premodern Jewish community--from the viewpoint of both the poor and those who provided for them.

Mark Cohen mines the richest body of documents available on the matter: the papers of the Cairo Geniza. These documents, located in the Geniza, a hidden chamber for discarded papers situated in a medieval synagogue in Old Cairo, were preserved largely unharmed for more than nine centuries due to an ancient custom in Judaism that prohibited the destruction of pages of sacred writing. Based on these papers, the book provides abundant testimony about how one large and important medieval Jewish community dealt with the constant presence of poverty in its midst.

Building on S. D. Goitein's Mediterranean Society and inspired also by research on poverty and charity in medieval and early modern Europe, it provides a clear window onto the daily lives of the poor. It also illuminates private charity, a subject that has long been elusive to the medieval historian. In addition, Cohen's work functions as a detailed case study of an important phenomenon in human history. Cohen concludes that the relatively narrow gap between the poor and rich, and the precariousness of wealth in general, combined to make charity "one of the major agglutinates of Jewish associational life" during the medieval period.

Editorial Reviews

International Journal of Middle East Studies
This book will undoubtedly be required reading for anyone interested in the study of poverty and charity, both in medieval Islam and in the Jewish tradition. Because its source material is so exceptionally rich, it can be argued that it is also an important contribution to the understanding of non-European premodern charitable institutions. The lucid presentation of the material, especially the translated documents in the companion volume, make this work very useful for undergraduate and graduate students.
— Yossef Rapoport
International Journal of Middle East Studies - Yossef Rapoport
This book will undoubtedly be required reading for anyone interested in the study of poverty and charity, both in medieval Islam and in the Jewish tradition. Because its source material is so exceptionally rich, it can be argued that it is also an important contribution to the understanding of non-European premodern charitable institutions. The lucid presentation of the material, especially the translated documents in the companion volume, make this work very useful for undergraduate and graduate students.
From the Publisher
Mark R. Cohen, Winner of the 2010 Goldziher Prize, The Center for the Study of Jewish-Christian-Muslim Relations at Merrimack College

Runner-Up for the 2005 National Jewish Book Award in History, Jewish Book Council

"This book will undoubtedly be required reading for anyone interested in the study of poverty and charity, both in medieval Islam and in the Jewish tradition. Because its source material is so exceptionally rich, it can be argued that it is also an important contribution to the understanding of non-European premodern charitable institutions. The lucid presentation of the material, especially the translated documents in the companion volume, make this work very useful for undergraduate and graduate students."—Yossef Rapoport, International Journal of Middle East Studies

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781400826780
Publisher:
Princeton University Press
Publication date:
01/10/2009
Series:
Jews, Christians, and Muslims from the Ancient to the Modern World
Sold by:
Barnes & Noble
Format:
NOOK Book
Pages:
312
File size:
1 MB

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Poverty and Charity in the Jewish Community of Medieval Egypt


By Mark R. Cohen

Princeton University Press

Copyright © 2005 Princeton University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-691-09272-0


Introduction

POVERTY AND CHARITY IN CHRISTENDOM

"POVERTY, UNDERSTOOD in the usual sense of 'destitution,' was a permanent feature of the Middle Ages." With these words, Michel Mollat opens his classic study The Poor in the Middle Ages. Thanks in good measure to the scholarly leadership of Mollat beginning in the 1960s, the history of the poor has come to occupy an important place in the study of non-elites in premodern Europe, as part of the new social history-"history from below"-to which the French Annalistes and their heirs have contributed so much. The present book owes much to the work of these scholars as well as to the pioneering work of S. D. Goitein on the social and economic history of the Jews in the medieval Arab world. It constitutes a first book-length attempt to probe comprehensively the actual, lived experience of the poor and the mechanics of charity in one particularly well-documented place and period of the premodern Jewish past-medieval Egypt. With its nearly unique access to the actual voice of the poor through the Cairo Geniza, it strives to write "history from below" and "history from above" together.

Normally a study like this would seek its historiographical context within the Islamic world.But, while charity forms one of the five cardinal religious obligations of every Muslim, a well-developed research literature on poverty and charity in Islam does not yet exist. The recent growth of research on the idea of poverty and poor relief in the Islamic world has been long overdue, and the present work sees itself as part of that new field. To the extent possible, given the current state of scholarship, this book draws comparisons with the majority society and, in turn, sheds light on the Islamic case, even on some hitherto not sufficiently appreciated aspects of the latter.

Normally, too, a study like the present one would lean on research about poverty and charity in Judaism, both in antiquity and in medieval Europe. Unfortunately, and surprisingly given the centrality of the religious duty (misva) of charity, sedaqa, in Judaism, that field of Jewish history is similarly underdeveloped. Thus the theoretical models and many of the questions this study asks come not from the world of Islam or from the world of Judaism but from the orbit of Christendom, where research has been in progress for decades.

For many reasons, a community such as the one that lies at the center of this study is precisely where the research on poverty and charity in medieval Judaism ought to begin. First of all, as stated, it is particularly well documented compared with other parts of the Jewish world in the Middle Ages. Moreover, the Jews of Egypt belonged to the Near East, where rabbinic (preceded by biblical) Judaism was born, and where, under the leadership of the great yeshivot of Babylonia (Iraq) in the early Islamic period, the foundations of medieval Jewish culture both in the Near East and in Europe were laid. In addition, during the period covered by this study the vast majority of world Jewry still lived in the orbit of Islam. When communities like Fustat (Old Cairo) in Egypt could boast having a Jewish population of seven thousand and Alexandria three thousand in the mid-twelfth century, according to the famous Spanish Jewish traveler Benjamin of Tudela, the largest communities in the Ashkenazic lands of Latin Europe held perhaps no more than five hundred souls.

This book, therefore, stands as a point de départ for those seeking to investigate the subject of poverty and charity in the premodern Jewish world in general. Assuming, as is proper, that the Judaeo-Arabic community studied here represents some modicum of continuity with earlier Judaism in the Near East, where differences with the European world seem to exist European specialists will have to ask whether these differences reflect the particular environment of Christian Europe, and why. Conversely, since Jewry in medieval Europe is known to have perpetuated Jewish traditions transferred via the trade routes from the Near East to the northern shores of the Mediterranean and from there to inner Europe, the present study attempts to determine to what extent distinguishing characteristics of poverty and Jewish charity in the Islamic world reflect the Islamic milieu.

It is in the vast and sophisticated body of literature about poverty and charity in Christianity, however, that I found ideas and approaches that I could apply fruitfully to the Jewish community of Egypt. Principles and structural phenomena discussed by the Annales school of social history, as well as by others, turned out to have relevance to the Jewish case, even though my research lies in the orbit of Islam and not the world of Christianity. These insights and their pertinence will emerge in the chapters that follow. For the moment, it will be useful to give a concise synopsis of the scholarly understanding of the history of poverty and charity in medieval and early modern (Latin) Christendom.

Poverty and Charity in Medieval and Early Modern Christendom

Pre-Christian Greek and Roman philanthropy had little to do with pity for the poor-with charity as we know it. Rather, people, or the state, made gifts to cities or its citizens, built buildings, or provided shelter for wayfarers in order to gain prestige as benefactors (the Greek euergitism). Ancient Greeks knew that some people were poor and even distinguished between the ptochos and the penes, designating, respectively, in the words of Evelyne Patlagean, the passively impoverished individual, "depend[ent] on others for everything," and the person whose efforts at work "were not enough to provide him with a satisfactory and secure living." But there was no ethos of pity, of helping these people just because they were indigent. Things changed, however, with the coming of Christianity and especially the Christianization of the pagan Roman Empire beginning in the fourth century. Drawing upon its Jewish roots but carrying the legacy in new directions, the Church and the Christian Empire constructed charity as a response to pity for the poor. Bishops and monasteries became the new focal points for distribution of assistance for the needy.

In the early, feudal Middle Ages, the "poor" represented mainly a political and social category-the "weak," juxtaposed to the "powerful," as shown in an influential study by K. Bosl. With the growth of a commercial, urban, monetary society in the central Middle Ages, economic factors enlarged the ranks of the poor, now seen as victims of economic rather than "status" poverty. Catholicism extolled poverty as a religious virtue, and charity as a means to achieve salvation. The involuntary poor, for their part, even if disparaged or suspected when they engaged in begging, were said to perform a vital and positive religious function: they provided an opportunity for the well-off to atone for sins and earn salvation through gifts to the indigent and through prayers reciprocated by the latter on their behalf. Those who voluntarily undertook to live a pauper's existence, including the mendicant friars of the thirteenth century, were thought to be actualizing one of the highest degrees of Christian piety.

In medieval Christendom, relief reached the poor primarily through three routes: (1) distribution of alms (usually food, clothing, or fuel) by churches and monasteries, (2) private charity, and (3) hostels for wayfarers, the elderly, the physically and mentally sick, and others-institutions that later evolved into medical hospitals. None of these methods of poor-relief was particularly systematic. The sixteenth century saw the introduction of more organized, "rational" strategies for public poor relief, centralized in the hands of secular rather than ecclesiastical authorities and applying stricter and more effective rules than in the Middle Ages for determining who among the poor deserved relief. These developments resulted from a number of interacting factors. There was population expansion. At the same time, Europe fell upon economic hard times. Both of these contributed to the growth in the number of poor, especially in the cities. These factors were accompanied by an increase in vagabondage and intensified disdain for and fear of public begging. The new Protestant work ethic contributed significantly to the change in attitude toward the poor as did Catholic humanist proposals to improve social welfare. The English Poor Laws, crystallizing around 1600 and introducing the idea that poor relief should be supported by public taxation, represent one well-known manifestation of the secularization and "rationalization" of poor relief in western Europe in the early modern period.

Poverty and Charity in Judaism

Sketchy as such a portrait must be as well, it is useful at the outset to describe the basic features of poverty and charity in Judaism. The fundamental constellation of Jewish ideas about poverty-that the poor are to be viewed with compassion, assisted, and not oppressed-is firmly rooted in the Bible. The very word for "charity" in the Bible, sedaqa, which in its more inclusive semantic usage means "righteousness," is often paired with the term mishpat in the sense of "(social) justice." For the giver, it is a duty (mis va) commanded by God; for the needy, it is an entitlement. The biblical laws of charity themselves are mainly agricultural, in keeping with the agrarian nature of Israelite society. The poor collect crops left in the field each year at harvest time, and the benefactor's charity consists in his leaving them for the needy to gather. The stranger, the widow, and the orphan are particularly singled out as being deserving of charity. During the sabbatical year, when fields lie fallow, the poor gather the wild growth. Because the poor often had to borrow in distress, the Torah legislated other acts of benevolence, including interest-free loans, cancellation of debts, and release from debt-servitude after seven years. God commands that the poor be provided with enough to sustain him in his usual manner-dei mahsoro, "sufficient for whatever he needs" in the language of Deuteronomy (15:8).

Charity in biblical Israel, almost entirely a private affair, was believed to benefit not only the poor, but also those who aided them. The ethos of poverty is most explicit in the Prophets and the Writings, including the biblical Wisdom Literature. In one conception, everything in the material world belongs to the Lord ("The earth is the Lord's and all that it holds, the world and all its inhabitants," Psalm 24:1), so gifts to the poor constitute their due from heaven. According to another view, God made man the proprietor of the material world ("The heavens belong to the Lord, but the earth He gave over to man," Psalm 115:16). Human beings should imitate God in their material beneficence, for which God will reward them in return. Treating the poor with kindness is like lending to God; the giver will receive divine reward for his generosity (Proverbs 19:17).

In the postbiblical period, charity developed in new directions as Jewish society surrendered its predominantly rural and agrarian character, and craft-based and commercial urban life slowly emerged. Especially outside the borders of the Land of Israel, where the laws of the Bible regarding agricultural harvest gifts for the poor did not apply, new forms of assistance came to the fore. Private charity continued, of course, in the form of voluntary gifts to the poor made by individuals, and we read about this in many a story in the Talmud and midrash. Side by side with private charity, however, postbiblical Judaism-how early we cannot say-developed institutions of what we would call public charity, remembering that "public" here means the autonomous Jewish community and its synagogue congregations, not the ruling gentile state.

The Mishna (the code of Jewish law compiled in Palestine ca. 200 CE), the Tosefta (a collection of laws not included in the Mishna and thought to have been compiled ca. 400), and the Babylonian Talmud (the commentary on the Mishna, completed ca. 500) describe public means of collecting gifts for the poor, distributing food and clothing, and providing shelter. To a limited extent archaeological finds corroborate these prescriptions. Particularly prominent are the twin institutions of the tamhui, a daily distribution of food for the wayfarer, often translated loosely as "soup kitchen," and the quppa, literally "basket," the weekly dole of bread or cash for resident local indigents. There is some discussion in rabbinic sources of how to determine the poverty line, of discerning the deserving from the undeserving poor, and how to prioritize charity among family, local residents, and the foreign poor. Everywhere in Jewish literature, poverty is considered a misfortune. Unlike some forms of Christianity and Sufi Islam, Judaism does not approve of voluntary poverty as a form of piety, or encourage it.

At a time, therefore, when the pagan Roman world knew nothing of a concept of benevolence based on pity for the poor, Jews, out of empathy, organized communal relief efforts so that those in need would not starve, lack basic clothing, or go without shelter. The contrast that the last pagan Roman emperor, Julian the Apostate, drew in the fourth century between empathetic, benevolent Judaism and Christianity, on the one hand, and paganism's failure in this regard is emblematic of what Peter Brown argues constituted the "new departure" of Christianity and Judaism vis-à-vis the pagan world.

The legalistic substratum of so much of the discussion of charity in Jewish sources, both biblical and postbiblical, as contrasted with Christian rhetoric of love of the poor, has led many to espouse an unnecessary dichotomy, overlooking the fact that the compassion for the poor that Christianity imposed on the pagan world had its antecedent, like so much else in nascent Christianity, in Judaism, even though Christianity took charity in new directions with new emphases and new institutional forms. Judaism's and Christianity's notion that poverty is a social ill evoking sympathy and pity and calling for philanthropic response was assimilated later on by Islam as well.

After the redaction of the Talmuds, the Palestinian Talmud circa 400 CE and the Babylonian Talmud a century or more later, we enter a dark age in Jewish history, with few sources about anything in Jewish life until well after the rise of Islam. Furthermore, despite what we do know about the institutions of public charity in the talmudic literature, we know little about the actual practice of charity, whether private or public, even then. That is where the Cairo Geniza steps in.

The Cairo Geniza

The richest body of material for the history of poverty and charity in the Jewish world of the Middle Ages reposes in the documents of the Cairo Geniza. An ancient Jewish custom with roots in the period of the Mishna and Talmud prohibits the destruction of pages of sacred writing, in theory, fragments of the Bible containing God's name, but in practice anything copied or printed in the Hebrew script. These papers must be buried in a geniza (the word geniza means both "burial place" and the act of "burying"). Normally, a geniza is located in a cemetery. But the Cairo Geniza was special. For various reasons, not fully understood to this day, it was situated in a chamber behind a wall inside a synagogue, the so-called Ben Ezra Synagogue in Fustat, which dates back to the Middle Ages and possibly even to pre-Islamic times. This had two fortunate consequences. First, the contents of this Geniza were concentrated in one space and easily accessible once it was discovered. Second, because Egypt is such an arid country, the pages buried there stood the test of centuries without molding, so that even when a page is torn or riddled with holes the ink can be read today almost as clearly as when it was copied as long as a thousand years ago.

(Continues...)



Excerpted from Poverty and Charity in the Jewish Community of Medieval Egypt by Mark R. Cohen Copyright © 2005 by Princeton University Press . Excerpted by permission.
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What People are saying about this

Amy Singer
Cohen's book constitutes a significant contribution both to the study of the Jewish world of medieval Egypt and to the study of poverty and charity in medieval society generally.
Amy Singer, Tel Aviv University
Miriam Hoexter
Cohen has made the first comprehensive book-length attempt to study the subject of poverty in a premodern Jewish community. This book is an important contribution.
Miriam Hoexter, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem

Meet the Author

Mark R. Cohen is Professor of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University and a well-known authority on the Cairo Geniza and the history of the Jews in the medieval Islamic world. His publications include more than 80 articles and reviews and several books, among them: "Jewish Self-Government in Medieval Egypt" (Princeton), which won the National Jewish Book Award for Jewish history in 1981; "Jewish Life in Medieval Egypt 641-1382", translated into Arabic, 1987; "The Autobiography of a Seventeenth-Century Venetian Rabbi: Leon Modena's Life of Judah", (Princeton); and, most recently, "Under Crescent and Cross: The Jews in the Middle Ages", (Princeton), which has been translated into Hebrew, Turkish, and German.

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