A Treasury of Jewish Letters: Letters from the Famous and the Humble - Vol. 1

By Franz Kobler | Go to book overview

24
An Appeal for the Ransom of Captives

ACCORDING to Jewish law, Jews are obliged to ransom their brethren from captivity. In the eleventh century those of Fustat, the ancient Cairo, and Alexandria, were frequently called upon to fulfil this obligation. For various reasons Jews were great seafarers, and the Mediterranean was infested with pirates in those days. The capture of Jews was, therefore, a daily occurrence. They were largely taken prisoners for the express purpose of blackmailing Jewish communities. Great sacrifices were made in order to provide the sums demanded by the brigands, but in many cases single communities were quite unable to cover the expenses from their own resources, and appeals were made to others. The letters written for this purpose are not only moving testimonies to the solidarity of the Jewish people and their pious obedience to the law, but are also the first documentary traces of that organized relief and rescue work which grew into an invariable concomitant of all the persecutions the Jews have had to suffer in subsequent ages.

The Cairo Genizah contained many such letters, of which the following somewhat incomplete specimen is a good example:


(A)
THE JEWS OF ALEXANDRIA TO EPHRAIM BEN SHEMARYA AND THE ELDERS OF THE PALESTINIAN COMMUNITY OF FOSTAT

'When we saw them in the hands of the pirates...we had pity on them'

[ Alexandria, first half of the 11th century ]

To the highly respected Rabbi Ephraim, member of the great assembly,1 son of the R. Shemarya, of blessed memory, and the Elders, the noble and highly honoured men, may the Lord protect them, from your friends, the community of Alexandria, best greetings!...You are the supporters of the poor and the aid of the men in need, you study diligently, you rouse the good against the evil impulse. You walk in the right way and practise

-141-

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