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Jewish Inter-Communication in the Mediterranean Basin in the Eleventh Century as Documented in the Correspondence of 'Eli Ben 'Amram

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Over the years a variety of topics related to the Jewish experience in the Middle Ages have been studied. One topic that has still not been researched thoroughly, on its own, is the means of internal communication. The primary channel for conveying messages between individuals and between communities all over the Jewish world was the Jewish letter, which constitutes a literary genre of its own.

Within the realm of this correspondence, poems, which mainly accompanied the letters, but were often sent by themselves, constitute a special and interesting sub-genre of their own. It appears that the writing of poems for purposes of communication was one of the necessary qualifications, which a community leader had to have in order to withstand the constant pressure of heading a demanding community that closely scrutinized his actions. Another fact worthy of mention is that in the Middle Ages the Jews living in the lands of Islam were multi-cultured, or put another way, multi-lingual, or at least bi-lingual. The poems were all written in Hebrew, whereas some of the letters were written in Hebrew, others in Judeo- Arabic, and still others only in Arabic.

Since the Genizah documents prove beyond a doubt that letters were written not only by leaders and high-ranking figures, but also by members of the middle and lower classes, it would not be incorrect to say that most of the Jews of the Middle Ages were literate, at least in two languages. Another noteworthy fact is that the authors, no matter what their social status, frequently quoted passages from the Bible, Mishnah, Talmud, and Midrash. Many of these quotes were written from memory (since they deviate slightly from the original), which attests to a basic education acquired in all levels of society. The higher the person's rank, the more time they had to devote to broadening their education, but even ordinary people did not deny themselves basic education.

The fundamental assumptions are examined on the basis of the correspondence of 'Eli ben 'Amram, who headed the Jerusalem Congregation (kahal) in Fustat, Egypt, in the second half of the eleventh century (1055–1075). Evidently he did not overlook any leader in the Jewish world, inside or outside Egypt, who he could utilize for his political, social, and economic purposes. 'Eli ben 'Amram was an untiring correspondent. Dozens of examples of his writing were discovered, and are still being discovered in the Genizah, identified mainly by means of his handwriting; in his poems, he often signed the beginning of the lines, which helps the identification process.


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