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“Her Husband Went Overseas”: The Legal and Social Status of Abandoned Jewish Women in Medieval Provence and Languedoc

“Her Husband Went Overseas”: The Legal and Social Status of Abandoned Jewish Women in Medieval Provence and Languedoc


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“Her Husband Went Overseas”: The Legal and Social Status of Abandoned Jewish Women in Medieval Provence and Languedoc

By Nadezda Koryakina

ATINER’s Conference Paper Series (2013)

Abstract: This paper deals with the legal term “medinat ha-yam” (meaning “overseas”) in Jewish law, which, among other things, refers to a husband abandoning his wife, and to debtors who refuse to pay their debts, and commercial partners who took someone else’s property out of their homeland. That such disparate examples were considered conjointly is explained by the fact that the marital partnership was regarded in the Middle Ages as a commercial deal: the man ritually acquired the woman and provided her with food and clothes, in exchange for a number of services that she was obliged to give to her husband. The difficult consequences that abandoned women might face are listed and examined, as well as legal solutions provided by rabbinical authorities. The paper is intended to show, on the basis of rabbinical Responsa dealing with the Jewish communities of Provence and Languedoc, the controversial nature of the status of abandoned women. On the one hand, they were one of the most disadvantaged social groups within Jewish communities. On the other hand, they enjoyed liberties unavailable to other Jewish women. Some leniency was offered to them by the rabbis. They were more visible in public space than other women and more socially active.

Introduction: Among the Hebrew Responsa dealing with the Jewish communities of Provence and Languedoc, there are a number of texts examining legal issues that arose when a husband decided to leave his family. Various aspects of the history of Jewish women in the Euro-Mediterranean world during the Middle Ages have been studied in the relevant bibliography. One of most important monographs dealing with this topic is the book written by A. Grossman. This author presented a wide picture of femininity in the Bible, Talmud, texts written by geonim, local laws and regulations, and rabbinical Responsa mostly from Ashkenaz and Spain. The issue of regulations regarding abandoned women was addressed in Grossman’s article on the legal status of women in the works of a Jewish scholar from Perpignan Menahem ha-Meiri.

The term “medinat ha-yam” literally means “an overseas city”. It is used in Talmud for any country outside the land of Israel (with the exception of a few territories to the east). As far as Provence and Languedoc are concerned, the term “medinat ha-yam” applied to any other country, except for the Land of Israel, which was commonly referred to in a traditional manner.


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