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Three medieval documents chronicle the life of a wealthy Jewish woman in Egypt at the turn of the 12th century.
In 1896, two remarkably adventurous twin sisters from Scotland, Agnes Smith Lewis and Margaret Smith, explored the Jewish community of Fustat, an ancient settlement not far from Cairo, Egypt. The so-called Westminster Sisters were daughters of an amateur linguist, and indeed they mastered a dozen languages, ancient and modern. Their remarkable talents served them well in their world travels, which included an ethnographic exploration of the Nile River and its communities.
The brilliant pair was trained at Cambridge University, which at the time refused to confer formal degrees on women. Nevertheless, they went on to write highly influential scholarly books on Syriac and Arabic manuscripts. Their most famous discovery of all was the incredible trove of nearly 300,000 Jewish documents stored in the geniza of the Ben Ezra Synagogue of Fustat. They returned to Cambridge with evidence of the massive, unparalleled collection of documents covering centuries of Jewish settlement in the region. The cache featured countless business contracts, ketubot, and other secular texts and rabbinic scholarship that even included autograph copies of Fustat’s most famous resident: Moses Maimonides, or the Rambam, himself.
The Cairo Geniza
Among the amazing finds preserved in the Cairo Geniza were three documents that reveal the contours of a remarkable woman known as Wuhshah the Broker. She lived about a hundred years before the illustrious Rambam, and the documents reveal three salient factors about her life:
Born Karima bas Amram into a banking family from Alexandria, the Geniza describes her origins as middle class, at least if we judge by the size of her modest bridal trousseau. She also possessed a phenomenal intellect and applied her talents to the world of business. She leveraged her initial investments – possibly by selling her jewelry – to create an international trading empire that stretched from India to western Africa. Her wealth was calculated at an astronomical 689 dinars at a time when 24 dinars was considered a reasonable middle-class yearly income (to equate that to modern US dollars, she would own assets of approximately $2.5 million). Her commercial prowess earned her the moniker “Wuhshah the Broker,” which means “the most desired” or “the unstoppable” broker.
Her family life, however, was marked with tragedy and controversy. She was briefly and unhappily married to a man named Aryeh ben Yehuda. The relationship produced a daughter but ended in divorce. Much later, Wuhsha gave birth to a son. Her behavior provoked a harsh reaction, and the community punished her in a humiliating manner by expelling her from the synagogue on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year. Wuhsha, fearing that her son might be considered unmarriageable, took matters into her own hand. Acting on the advice of a kindly court clerk named Hillel ben Eli, she secured witnesses to formally confirm paternity of her son and rescue him from any halachic stigma.
Despite the ostracism she suffered, Wuhsha did not bear ill will against the community. She recorded in her will that she forgave the community for the public embarrassment she endured. Moreover, she donated massive sums to each of the four synagogues in Fustat, including the Iraqi community that threw her out of the building on Yom Kippur. She specifically indicated that the funds be used to purchase oil to keep the candles burning long into the night to support the study of Torah.
Her largesse overshadowed the personal tragedies and ill-fated turns of her earlier life, a fact which is reflected in Geniza documents recorded over several later generations. Her many descendants continued to proudly identify themselves as the offspring of Wuhshah the Broker – a woman of great commercial talent and generosity. She bore her personal failings with humility, and did not bear ill-will to those who maligned her; rather she dedicated her material wealth to the promotion of the study of Torah.