Letters and Letter Writers

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The letter holds an honored place in Jewish history and literature and includes diplomatic correspondence, state papers, and letters as vehicles of religious or secular literature and as a means of polemics in communal and spiritual matters, business or private family letters, and so on. In Jewish law and ritual the authoritative opinion in answer to an inquiry has given rise to an entire literature of its own (see *Responsa).

The language of Jewish letters was above all Hebrew, and even after Jews adopted the languages of their homes in the Diaspora, it gained in importance as Jewry's lingua franca, apart from remaining the vehicle of all learned communication. At a later stage Yiddish occupied a similar position for European Jews. In style the language often became formalized and adopted the literary conventions of the dominant culture. Letters constitute a valuable source for Jewish history.

Biblical Period

From the 14th century b.c.e. there is the famous collection of diplomatic correspondence, the *El-Amarna letters with their first references to the *Ḥabiru, who perhaps had some connection to the Hebrews. These letters, on clay tablets written in Akkadian, contain numerous "Hebrew" words. To approximately the same period also belong letters written on clay tablets found at *Ta'anach. The first biblical letter is the one that sent Uriah to his death (ii Sam. 11:14–15), and to the same category belongs the one written by Jezebel arranging the judicial murder of Naboth (i Kings 21:8–11). In both cases the Hebrew word sefer (also meaning "book") is used for letter; in Ezra (1:1) and ii Chronicles (21:12; 36:22) it is mikhtav ("letter"); and in Esther (9:26, 29) as well as in ii Chronicles (30:1, 6) and Nehemiah (2:7–9; 6:5, 17, 19), iggeret ("epistle"). Nehemiah 6:5 speaks of an "open letter" sent by Sanballat to Nehemiah. As the use of sefer shows, the dividing line between "book" and "letter" is vague (cf. Isa. 29:11–12, "a sealed letter"; Ezra 2:9–10, "a scroll-letter"; and Zech. 5:1ff.).

Jeremiah wrote or dictated his famous letter to the exiles in Babylonia (29:1ff.), which produced an angry reaction by letter from Shemaiah the Nehelamite (ibid. 24ff.). The oldest Hebrew letters known at present are from the early or middle seventh century. Among the discoveries in the Dead Sea caves (Wadi Murabba'at) was a papyrus palimpsest on which was probably a seventh-century letter, of which only the greeting formula is still recognizable. This letter is thus far the only pre-Christian letter written on papyrus, all others being *ostraca, i.e., sherds of broken pottery (Pardee in abd). The judicial plea found near Yabneh-yam is probably a bit later. From Jeremiah's time are the *Lachish Letters, ostraca referring to Nebuchadnezzar's second campaign against Judah (589). ii Chronicles 21:12ff. records a letter of Elijah to Joram of Judah, and 30:1ff., proclamations by letter from Hezekiah. The Persian period in Jewish history begins with one by Cyrus to the Jews in Babylonia (ibid. 36:22–23), and the Book of Ezra (ch. 4ff.; cf. Neh. 2:7–9) contains correspondence and state papers in Aramaic concerning the rights of the returnees from Babylon. From the same period are the Aramaic letters from the Jewish military colony in Egypt at *Elephantine. The first she'elah u-teshuvah (inquiry and responsum concerning ritual) is found in Zechariah in 7:1ff., though it is not certain whether even the inquiry was in writing. Mordecai and Esther sent a proclamation by letter concerning the Purim festival to all Persian Jews (Esther 9:20ff.). Letter writing in biblical times required professional writers (i Chron. 2:55) and was no doubt the main occupation of the royal officer called the sofer ("scribe," ii Sam. 8:17). The many *seals found in archaeological excavations were used for signing letters, documents, and state papers (i Kings 21:8; cf. Gen. 38:18, 25) and also to close them (Job 41:7).

Persian and Greek Periods

Still close to biblical times are the *Elephantine (Yeb) letters, Aramaic papyri shedding light on the life of the military settlement of Jews on the Upper Nile from the sixth to the fourth centuries b.c.e. The Letter of *Aristeas, written in Greek in the third or second century, describes the origins of the Jewish community of Alexandria and of the Septuagint Bible translation; it includes an exchange of letters between Ptolemy Philadelphus ii and Eleazar the high priest. The work, a propaganda tract for Jews and Judaism, is an early Jewish example of the Greek genre of epistolary literature. Other Jewish letters in this period are those found in the first and second book of Maccabees. In the first (12:5ff.), the Hasmonean Jonathan sent a diplomatic message to Sparta; the second (1:1–9 and 1:10–2:18) contains messages sent by the Jews of Jerusalem to those of Egypt in connection with the Hasmonean victories and the institution

of the Ḥanukkah festival. *Philo in his "Delegation to Gaius" (Caligula) recorded the moving and historically important letters, which he may have drafted himself, of Agrippa i to the emperor, imploring him to desist from his plan to have his statue erected in the Temple of Jerusalem (ed. E.M. Smallwood, (1961), 122–36). *Josephus included in his works many letters, real or fictitious, among them the charter given to the Jews by Antiochus iii in 198 b.c.e. (Ant., 12, 3, 138–44). In his Life (364–67) he reports that Agrippa ii sent him 62 letters, complimenting him on the accuracy of his histories; two of these letters he quotes verbatim.

New Testament; Bar Kokhba Letters

Of the 21 Epistles in the *New Testament, those of Paul occupy a prominent place. Only 10 out of the 13 ascribed to him are generally recognized as really his; the others were written by other founder-members of the new religion. The most "Jewish" among them is the Epistle of James, which may have been based on some pre-Christian apocryphon. The discovery in 1952 in Wadi Murabbaʾat and Naḥal ḥever in 1960/61 of Hebrew letters written during the Bar Kokhba revolt, some signed by Bar Kokhba, have added further specimens of actual letters written in antiquity.

Talmudic Literature

In talmudic literature the earliest letter is the one sent by Simeon b. Shetah (first century b.c.e.) appealing to his colleague Judah b. Tabbai to return from his self-imposed exile: "From me, Holy Jerusalem (Jerusalem, the Great) to thee, my sister Alexandria (Alexandria, the Small): how long doth my betrothed dwell with you, and I dwell desolate on account of him" (Sota 47a; Sanh. 107b; tj, Ḥag. 2, 277d; Sanh. 6, 7, 23c). Letters conveying decisions in calendar and other ritual matters were sent to Jewish communities inside and outside Palestine on behalf of the Sanhedrin by Gamaliel i (before 50 c.e.; Sanh. 11b and parallels) and a generation later by his son Simeon and Johanan b. Zakkai (Mid. Tan. to Deut. 26:13). Letters like this are rare in Talmud and Midrash, where the preference was for oral transmission as against written communications. Messages like the one sent by the Jerusalem authorities to *Judah b. Bathyra at Nisibis (Pes. 3b) or to Theodoros (Thodos) of Rome (ibid. 53a) may or may not have been in writing, but the constant exchange of information and views between Palestinian and Babylonian scholars in the talmudic era is likely to have been partly in writing. For political reasons some of these messages had to be sent in code (Sanh. 12a). In this period, too, the writing of letters, particularly official ones, was entrusted to special secretaries (sofer or libellarius).

Belonging to the same period, but from non-talmudic sources, is the letter by *Julian the Apostate (in 363 c.e.) promising to restore Jerusalem and the Temple. Similarly, the brief episode of Empress Eudocia's kindness to the Jews 60 years later led to a flicker of messianic hope, which expressed itself in a letter by the Jewish notables to the Jews of the Diaspora (438; see Nau, in rej, 83 (1927), 196–7). Also in the fourth century the patriarch Gamaliel b. Hillel maintained correspondence with the Syrian Hellenist Libanius, but only Libanius' letters have been preserved.

Medieval Hebrew Literature

Throughout the Middle Ages letters served as a major literary form in all countries in which Jews lived and wrote. Neither the form of the letter nor the fact that it was addressed to a specific person implied that the contents of the letter were private, for letter writing was one of the more usual means of publishing one's views and bringing them to the attention of as wide a public as possible. Letters were delivered by hand, and in many Jewish communities en route it was common practice to stop the messengers in order publicly to read the letters they were carrying. Frequently, it was requested that the messenger allow a local scribe to copy the letter, which would be read by the rabbis and kept in the files of the community. This practice explains why many hundreds of letters found in the Cairo *Genizah were not addressed to the Egyptian

Jewish community, but rather to various communities in North Africa and Europe. It was also common for a man to write several copies of his letter and send them to different places for publication. At the end of their letters, some writers requested the reader to pass the letter on or make additional copies of it. Letters containing messages of importance to the whole community were read aloud in the synagogue; others of more limited interest were read by the bet din or the community council. There were also some efforts to make epistolary privacy secure: in the 11th century R. Gershon forbade the reading of letters addressed to someone else except with the person's knowledge and permission.

Treating letters as a means of publishing one's views gave rise to certain literary forms frequently utilized in epistolary literature. For instance, the published letter was an opportunity for the writer to demonstrate his erudition and his mastery of Hebrew language and style, which explains why many letters written in the Middle Ages contain numerous biblical and talmudic phrases and references. The introduction of the letter was often written in rhymed prose, and many letters were composed entirely in this style. The opening phrases of a letter were usually a series of formula descriptions of the addressee's wisdom, generosity, and greatness. These phrases were often employed interchangeably from one letter to another. Therefore, very little individual style is to be found in medieval letters, even those written by the most prominent Jewish thinkers, who developed a personal style in their other writings.

The character of epistolary literature made the distinction between a book and a letter very unclear. The usual word for book, sefer, was frequently used to denote a letter and the word for letter, iggeret, was used as the title of many books. Some of the more important books in the Middle Ages were originally written as letters, the most celebrated example being Maimonides' Guide of the Perplexed.

Large collections of letters exist in the fields of halakhah, polemics, ethics, and philosophy. Literary correspondence was also one of the best ways of developing Jewish culture in the Sephardi communities. In the same way, non-literary letters, on commercial topics or on personal subjects, were also a significant part of the manifestations of Jewish life during the Middle Ages. The letters could be public, related to the questions of the communities, or personal, dealing with private matters. Different languages were employed, usually in consonance with the particular tradition and vernaculars: Hebrew, Judeo-Arabic, and many other Jewish languages.

halakhic responsa

From the geonic period, Jews all over the world addressed halakhic questions to the supreme halakhic authorities of the time. The various geonim in Babylonia, Maimonides in Egypt, the tosafists and the Rashi school in Germany, Naḥmanides and Solomon ben Abraham Adret in Spain, Caro in Safed – all received hundreds of halakhic questions which they usually answered in great detail. Occasionally these responsa grew into whole treatises, later published as books (the first being Rav Amram Gaon's answer to a question on the laws concerning prayers, which became the first prayer book or siddur). Similar questions were also addressed to many less eminent rabbis, some of whom collected their answers and published them in book form. These responsa presented halakhah in a most concrete, everyday way. When writing halakhic exegesis or specialized treatises, the author may be preoccupied with fundamental, theoretical questions, but when writing responsa he is required to solve a specific problem. Accordingly, halakhic *responsa are regarded as one of the most important sources of medieval Jewish history.

polemical letters

By nature, *polemical literature is addressed to a specific person with whom the author is in conflict, yet the author wishes his views to be known as widely as possible. Therefore, most medieval Jewish polemical material is found in epistolary literature. Many of these letters are written, partially or wholly, in rhymed prose and include other literary forms developed for argumentation. Milḥamot Adonai by Solomon b. Jeroḥam, which was the Karaites' answer to Saadiah Gaon, is among the earliest polemical letters and includes one of the most perfect examples of the use of irony in medieval Hebrew literature. A whole vocabulary of sarcastic phrases and abusive references was developed in this literature. Very frequently the discussion of theological differences gave way to personal abuse.

Some major conflicts in Jewish life and thought are found solely in collections of polemical letters. In Spain, Italy, and Provence during the 13th and 14th centuries, the great controversies raging over Maimonides and his views, and over the study of philosophy in general, were carried on in hundreds of letters, many of which are extant. One of the first participants in the controversy, Meir ben Todros Abulafia, sent letters to communities in Spain and Southern France that reflected the beginning of opposition to the ideas of Maimonides. In the 13th century, a follower of Maimonides, Shem Tov ben Joseph ibn *Falaquera, wrote the Iggeret ha-Vikku'aḥ ("Epistle of the Debate") trying to prove the agreement between Torah and reason in keeping with Maimonides' views. Between 1318 and 1320 Joseph ibn Caspi wrote polemical letters reflecting his disputations with Christian scholars from the Kingdom of Aragon. At the turn of the 14th century Profiat *Duran wrote his anti-Christian epistle Al-Tehi ka-Avotekha, typical of the polemic produced by more or less forced baptisms and the controversy with the Christians. Letters written in Hebrew and Arabic were the vehicle for the controversy between the Karaites and Rabbinic Judaism. The controversy about the renewal of semikhah (ordination of rabbis) in Safed, Jerusalem, and Egypt was conducted through letters, which have been collected and serve as a primary historical source. Similarly, in the 17th century, the Shabbatean controversy, and the Eybeschuetz-Emden controversy which followed in its wake, were sustained by letters, many of which were later edited and published. Authors sometimes changed the wording of their original letters to suit changed circumstances, a tactic known to have been executed in many other controversies.

ethical letters

One of the literary forms which was developed in the Middle Ages within the framework of *ethical literature was the short ethical epistle. This literary form is very close in character to another sort of short ethical treatise – the ethical *will. In medieval times many ordinary as well as eminent Jews wrote letters – usually to their sons (for instance, some poems of Samuel ha-Nagid to his son Yehosef), but sometimes to other relatives or to communities – describing the ethical way of behavior, and imploring the readers to follow this path. These writers clearly intended that their letters be published, and that the letters were addressed to specific people is no more than a literary device. Because the letters were usually short, they therefore contained a complete ethical system in a nutshell, revealing what the age thought were the most important areas in which behavior had to be corrected. Like other letters, ethical letters also frequently employed rhymed prose.

philosophical letters

Maimonides made the most intensive use of correspondence, and his influence was largely due to the extensive correspondence he carried on with all parts of the Jewish world. In this way he offered practical guidance to the Jewish communities of the East and the West. Following his father's example in his "Letter of Consolation," Maimonides exercised his spiritual leadership over the Diaspora by means of pastoral letters, such as the "Letter to Yemen" on true and false messianism. He also was in correspondence with groups of, or individual, scholars, with friends and pupils, apart from the great number of responsa he wrote in answer to inquiries from all over. His style is clear and terse and has a beauty of its own, and found late imitators in Isaac *Abrabanel, Joseph Solomon *Delmedigo, and *Manasseh Ben Israel. Another interesting correspondence on philosophical topics took place at the beginning of the 15th century between Solomon *Bonafed, one of the last distinguished intellectuals of the Kingdom of Aragon before the expulsion of 1492, and a young disciple of Isaac Arondi, on the value of the logic taught at the time by Christian masters (Bodleian Library, ms. nº 1984, 87r-102r).

literary correspondence

In Andalusia, where letter writing developed into a specific genre, Moses Ibn Ezra took pride in the leading position occupied by his countrymen in this art (Kitāb al-Muḥāḍara wal-Mudhākara, ed. A.S. Halkin (1975), 29bff.). An early example is the correspondence of *Ḥisdai ibn Shaprut with the king of the *Khazars. His own letters were drafted by his secretary, the poet and grammarian *Menahem b. Saruk, who inserted an acrostic of his own name in addition to Ḥisdai's in an introductory poem. In contrast to his polished and allusive style, the letter of a Khazar Jew to Ḥisdai, found in the Genizah, is written in a clear and simple Hebrew. In the divan of many of the great Andalusian poets we find also examples of literary correspondence. We have, for instance, exchanges of poems between Isaac *Ibn Khalfun and *Samuel ha-Nagid, and between many other Andalusian poets. There are also letters in prose that have been preserved, for instance, in the divan of Judah Halevi (the letters published by M. Gil and E. Fleischer (2001) are of a completely different nature). Literary correspondence continued in the Christian kingdoms of the north of the Iberian Peninsula: Todros Abulafia in 13th-century Toledo often partook of this way of communicating with other poets. A particular development of this literary correspondence can be observed in some poets of the so-called "Circle of Saragossa" at the end of the 14th century and the beginning of the 15th, especially in Solomon *da Piera and Solomon Bonafed. A substantial part of the divan of these poets consists of literary correspondence with other poets of the time including sections in prose and poems. As J. Targarona has shown, the structure of these letters is substantially the same, consisting of a heading or rubric, the body of the letter, with a poem preceded or followed by short epigrams (simanim), and the "signature," including a text in rhymed prose; "on the back of the letter" there may be another short poem and a dedication to the addressee.

commercial letters

A large number of letters of the *Genizah published by Goitein (1973) is a good example of the diffusion of letters as means of communication among Jewish merchants and traders, usually occupied in international trade, who engaged in all kinds of business transactions, sent a multiplicity of goods from one country to another, etc., and among other things mentioned the commercial rulings of rabbinical courts in their letters and legal documents. The traders usually worked together in distant countries as friends or partners. The large quantity of international and even interdenominational business transactions produced frequent correspondence. The economic activities, and the letters connected with them, were mainly concentrated in two areas: the Mediterranean and the trade with India. Among the letters of the 11th century published by Goitein we also find the correspondence between great merchant families, and all kinds of accounts related to the transactions.

communal and personal letters

During the Middle Ages there was frequent correspondence among the leaders of the communities of the Jewish Diaspora. The European communities were linked in many ways with Babylon, and from the tenth century on, notable cultural ties grew between Muslim Spain, France, and Germany, creating a kind of network based on letter exchange on legal issues and on other specific aspects of Jewish life. The means of communication was often in the form of circular letters sent to the entire community. Among scholars, colleagues, and disciples there was also a frequent exchange of letters that helped clarify halakhic or scholarly matters, as in the case of R. Samson and Rabbenu Tam.

Exchange of letters of a more confidential nature was also the usual way of communicating between individuals who were not able to have personal contact. The contents of these letters were of an intimate character, or on occasion related to common business matters. Travelers, relatives, or friends separated in distant countries would communicate to one another news about deaths, weddings, or births of members of the family or their relatives. We can see this kind of personal correspondence in the letters from Jerusalem and Acre sent by *Naḥmanides to his son in Barcelona between 1263 and 1267. Other personal letters included requests for financial help, or questions by former students to their teachers.


One of the major sources for the study of the development of the Hebrew letter in medieval and early modern times is the literature of the agronim. An agron is a collection of form letters, compiled or written by a scholar for the use of the general public. Included in the collection are form letters of praise, reference, appointments, business requests for charity, for money to marry one's daughters, for money to ransom the release of Jewish prisoners, and for almost every other conceivable occasion in which a Jew may be in need of a special letter. All the user did was to fill in the name(s) and other necessary details and a well-written letter, which would evoke respect from the reader, was ready for sending. The first collection of stereotyped Hebrew letters, Iggerot Shelomim, was printed anonymously in Augsburg in 1534. This example was soon followed by others: Megillat Sefer or Mikhtavim (also anonymous, Venice, 1545–48?), and Samuel Archevolti's Ma'yan Gannim (Venice, 1553; Cremona, 1566).

The agronim, of which dozens were printed, became a very popular literary form, especially since the 18th century. There are, in manuscript, agronim from Spain dating as far back as the 15th century. Many agronim also include other literary works, like short poems of praise or riddles, which might be useful to the reader. Agronim are of great historical value inasmuch as they reveal the literary and social conventions of a given time and place; for example, the differences between a form of an application for the rabbinate in a small town and a big city are very instructive. Until recently this field had been neglected by scholars and especially historians; therefore, no definitive history of the development of the Hebrew epistle, from a literary and historical point of view, is to be found.

The epistolary form was used in other literary fields. The earliest extant medieval historiographical work, Iggeret Rav Sherira Gaon (in: Ḥ.J.D. Azulai, Shem ha-Gedolim (1967), 26–59), was probably written by Hai Gaon as an answer to a letter inquiring about the transmission of the halakhah from age to age. Letters regarding scientific and philosophical questions are also found in medieval Hebrew literature.

[Joseph Dan /

Angel Saenz-Badillos (2nd ed.)]

Modern Period

The expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492 produced letters from the exiles reporting their experiences in their new homes, particularly in Palestine. There had been antecedents for this, e.g., *Judah Halevi, Maimonides, Naḥmanides, Obadiah of *Bertinoro, and Elijah of Ferrara; but from the 16th century onward a growing volume of such letter reports from Palestine reached a news-hungry Diaspora. Among the most prominent correspondents were Solomon *Molcho in the 16th century, Isaiah *Horowitz in the 17th, and some ḥasidic leaders in the 18th (see A. Yaari, Iggerot Ereẓ Yisrael, 1943), Interesting, too, is a letter by *Elijah ben Solomon Zalman, the Gaon of Vilna, written before he set out for Palestine.


The true heir to Spain in Hebrew epistolary art was Italy, where the spirit of the Renaissance found able and congenial adepts among Hebrew letter writers. Nearly 100 letters by the banker-scholar Solomon da Poggibonzi (ed. by S. Simonsohn in Koveẓ al Yad, 6 (1966), 379–417) reveal an accomplished practician of the art. The most prolific of them all was Leone *Modena, who carefully kept copies of his letters, Leo Modenas Briefe… (ed. by L. Blau (1907)), which reveal his mind and life. Italy remained the home of letter writing, as shown by Modena's younger contemporary *Mahalalel Hallelyah of Ancona, who, like M.Ḥ. *Luzzatto a century later, can be regarded as one of the precursors of the Hebrew revival. In the 19th century I.S. *Reggio and S.D. *Luzzatto in their correspondence with other Jewish scholars made an important contribution to the new Wissenschaft des Judentums. Much of the argument in the battles around Reform and Haskalah at the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th century took the form of letters (cf. the collections of letters by N.H. Wessely, Nogah ha-Ẓedek (1818); Elleh Divrei ha-Berit (1819); Teshuvotbe-Anshei Aven (1845)).


S.R. Hirsch gave his book, which laid the foundations of modern Orthodoxy, the fictional form of 19 letters (Iggerot ẓafon; The Nineteen Letters of Ben Uziel (1899, 19692)). Moses Hess's Rom and Jerusalem (1862) is a call in letter form for a Jewish national renaissance, and Joseph Perl also used "letters" for his anti-ḥasidic satires Megalleh Temirim (1919) and Boḥen ẓaddik (1838). The emergence of the Wissenschaft des Judentums produced Hebrew periodicals such as Kerem Ḥemed and Oẓar Nehmad, which published scholarly contributions in letter form.

Enlightenment and Wissenschaft des Judentums

In the Enlightenment period the letters written by Moses *Mendelssohn (Jubilaeumsausgabe, 11 (1932); 16 (1929)); L. *Zunz (L. and A. Zunzan account in letters, ed. by N. Glatzer, 1958); I.S. *Reggio (Iggerot YaSHaR, 1834–36); S.D. *Luzzatto (Iggerot Sha-Da-L, 1882–94, repr. 1967); S.J. *Rapoport (Iggerot shir, 1845); and others are important sources for the history of that crucial period in Jewish history. Not one of the least achievements of modern Jewish scholarship was the publication of letters of prominent and even ordinary people of the past, such as those of Leone Modena (see above); correspondence between Jews of Prague and Vienna from the time of the Thirty Years' War Juedische Privatbriefe… ed. by A. Landau and B. Wachstein (1911); letters of Ḥ.J.D. *Azulai in Ha-ẓofeh le-Ḥokhmat Yisrael (11, 1927); M.Ḥ. Luzzatto (S. Ginzburg, RaMḤaL u-Venei Doro (1937); and some of those written by Akiva *Eger, Moses *Sofer, and members of their families (Iggerot Soferim, ed. by S. Schreiber, 1929).

Jewish-Christian Correspondence

A special place in the history of Jewish letter writing is held by Jewish-Christian correspondence. In the 13th century Solomon Cohen exchanged letters on philosophical themes with his imperial patron Frederick ii and the latter's court philosopher Theodorus. In the 16th century Lazarus de Viterbo corresponded in Latin with Cardinal Sirleto on the Bible, as did Leone Modena with Italian, French, and English scholars. Johannes *Buxtorf (the Younger) maintained a lively correspondence in Hebrew with Jewish scholars, and J.C. *Wagenseil entered into a polemic with R. Enoch ha-Levi. Manasseh Ben Israel wrote hundreds of letters in Latin, Spanish, and English as well as in Hebrew to the leading Christian scholars and theologians of his time. The 49 letters of *Spinoza still extant were all addressed to non-Jews. Nevertheless, they betray, more than any other of his writings, the Jewish roots of a man who had become totally estranged from his people. Anna Maria Schurmann was not the first, but certainly the most able and prolific, Christian woman writing letters in Hebrew.

Women Letter Writers

Given the mobile nature of medieval and early modern Jewish society, in which spouses and other family members were often separated for long periods of time, women frequently sent messages to absent loved ones. They also conducted correspondence in connection with their various entrepreneurial activities. The extant letters written by women tend to be in vernacular languages, but some are in Hebrew. It is likely that women sometimes depended on family members or professional scribes to prepare letters for them, but many of the surviving epistles, including some in Hebrew, transcend the formulaic and appear to have been written from the heart by literate, well-educated women.

A number of letters by women are found among the documents of the Cairo Genizah. These letters, generally from the 11th to the 13th centuries, are mostly in Judeo-Arabic with some Hebrew exceptions. A group of epistles that survive from the 16th century are in Judeo-Spanish and Yiddish. These personal documents often preserve direct and unmediated female voices, yielding many insights into socio-economic and cultural aspects of medieval and early modern Jewish life. In addition to letters sent within Egypt, women's letters in the Genizah originate from Aden, Byzantium, India, Italy, Seleucia, Tiberias, and Tunisia (Goitein; Kraemer).

Correspondence by Jewish women who interacted with the gentile world is extant in various European archives. A letter in Italian, dated 1508, survives from "Anna the Hebrew" of Rome to Catherine Sforza (1463–1509), extolling the virtues of various facial creams and explaining their costs and how to order them (Marcus). Esther *Handali (d. c. 1590), *kiera of Nur Banu, the Venetian wife of Ottoman Sultan Selim ii, took part in Nur Banu's correspondence with the Doge and Senate of Venice (Skilliter). British archives preserve a 1599 Italian letter to Elizabeth I of England that accompanied a gift of clothing, written by the kiera, Esperanza *Malchi, on behalf of the Ottoman Sultana Safiye (Kobler, 391–92).

The Italian poet Sara Coppia *Sullam (1592?–1641), known for her humanistic learning, remained loyal to Judaism despite many efforts to convince her to become a Christian. In addition to her extensive correspondence in Italian with Ansaldo Cebà, a Genoese nobleman and monk (only his letters are extant), she also responded in 1621 in an erudite and witty public letter to an attack by Baldassar Bonifaccio (later Cardinal of Cape d'Istria), who claimed that Sullam had denied the immortality of the soul (Kobler, 436–48).

A collection of correspondence sent from the ghetto of Prague and intended for family members and business associates in Vienna was intercepted in 1619 by the Austrian authorities and ended up in the archives of the Imperial Court of Vienna. Among these mostly Yiddish letters are many missives on personal, business, and other matters from women to their absent relatives (Kobler, 449–79).

Thirty-five of the letters written by Abigaill Levy *Franks (1733–48) of New York to her eldest son, Naphtali, who had returned to London, are extant. Written in English, they are among the earliest surviving correspondence of any woman in the British colonies (Gelles).

[Judith R. Baskin (2nd ed.)]

Collections of Letters

In more recent times the Ḥibbat Zion and Zionist movements have produced much letter writing among their leading figures. For the former A. Druyanow edited a collection of letters, Ketavim le-Toledot Ḥibbat Ẓiyyon… (3 vols., 1919–29). Theodor Herzl's letters of 1895–97 have been published in Hebrew as Iggerot (1961, vol. 9 of his collected writings) and those of Chaim Weizmann are being published (first volume Kitvei… series 1: Iggerot, 2 vols. (1969–70)). Collections of letters by the great modern Hebrew writers have also been published: J.L. Gordon (2 vols., 1894–5); Aḥad Ha-Am (6 vols., 1923–25); and Ḥ.N. Bialik (5 vols., 1937–39). Of particular importance for modern intellectual and spiritual history are the letters of Chief Rabbi A.I. *Kook, Iggerot ha-Re'ayah (3 vols., 1943; 1962–652) and those of Franz *Rosenzweig, Briefe (1935). Interesting selections of letters by the philosopher Hermann Cohen and the painter Max Liebermann were issued in the Schocken Buecherei (1937, 1939). The experiences of World War i are reflected in Kriegsbriefe deutscher Juden (1935, repr. 1961) and in E. Tannenbaum's Kriegsbriefe deutscher und oesterreichischer Juden (1915). Letters by Israeli soldiers in the Six-Day War of 1967 were collected in Be-Darkam; Ḥavrei ha-Iḥud she-Nafelu… (1968).

The first modern anthology of Jewish or Hebrew letters is S.J. Fuenn's Soferei Yisrael (1871), a collection of 55 letters. A pioneer in this field was Franz Kobler (1882–1965), who published Juden und Judentum in deutschen Briefen… (1935), Juedische Geschichte in Briefen… (1938), and Letters of Jews Through the Ages (2 vols., 1952, with bibliography). A. Yaari's Iggerot Ereẓ Yisrael appeared in 1943 and Cecil Roth edited Anglo-Jewish Letters (1938). Many Jewish letters are incorporated in such general works as H. Adler's Miscellany of Hebrew Literature (2 vols., 1873), J. Winter and A. Wuensche, Juedische Litteratur (2 vols., 1894–97), and B. Halper's Post-Biblical Hebrew Literature (2 vols., 1921). J.R. Marcus' American JewryDocuments18th century (1959) contains letters that are preserved in the American Jewish Archives at the Hebrew Union College, Cincinnati, which has specialized in letter collections. The British Museum possesses a great collection of Emmanuel Mendes da Costa's correspondence.

Formulas and Style

Hebrew and other Jewish letters are characterized by certain epistolary conventions, in which *abbreviations occupy a prominent position. The opening formula was ב״ה or בְּעֶזְרַת ה׳) בע״ה = "with the help of God") or לְנֶגְדִּי תָּמִיד שִׁוִּיתִי ה׳) שיל״ת – Ps. 16:8 = "I have set the Lord always before me"). This was followed by the Jewish date, either day, month, and year or the day of the week and the coming weekly Sidra. The latter was often hinted at by a characteristic verse, and the year, by a similar gematria. In the period between Passover and Shavuot, the respective day in the Omer counting took the place of the date as would any particular day in the calendar, such as the New Moon and fast days. However, the date was often added at the end. This is followed by an exordium in which the addressee is apostrophized according to his station and worth, usually in flowery and exaggerated terms. The most common greeting, used in the beginning or at the end, was shalom ("peace"), or berakhah ("blessing"), which is found even in the Lachish ostraca letters.

The epistolary style from the Middle Ages onward became increasingly flowery and allusive (meliẓah), and was overloaded with biblical and talmudic quotations, which produced a strong reaction in modern times. Among the enactments of Rabbenu Gershom b. Judah (11th century) was one protecting the secrecy of letters, threatening the unauthorized opener with excommunication. This used to be alluded to in the letters by adding the abbreviation בחרם דרבנוּ גרשום) = בחדר״ג).


F. Kobler, Letters of Jews Through the Ages, 2 vols. (1952); W. Zeitlin, in: zhb, 22 (1919), 32ff.; J. Buxtorf, Institutio Epistolaris Hebraica (Basel, 1629); H. Beinart, in: Sefunot, 5 (1961), 73–135; J. Katz, in: Sefer Zikkaron le-Vinyamin de Vries (1968), 281ff. biblical period: add. bibliography: D. Pardee, A Handbook of Ancient Hebrew Letters (1982); idem, in: abd, 4:282–85; W. Moran, The Amarna Letters (1992); F. Cross, in: idem, Letters from an Epigrapher's Notebook (2002), 121–24. other periods: add. bibliography: S.D. Goitein, Letters of Medieval Jewish Traders (1974); idem, A Mediterranean Society, 6 vols. (1967–93); Maimonides, Epistles of Maimonides: Crisis and Leadership, tr. A. Halkin, commentary D. Hartman (1993); E. Gutwirth, in: I. Benabu and J. Sermoneta (eds.), Judeo-Romance Languages (1985), 127–38; idem, in: S. Menache (ed.), Communication in the Jewish Diaspora (1996), 257–82; S. Menache (ed.), Communication in the Jewish Diaspora (1996); M. Gil and E. Fleischer, Yehudah ha-Levi u-Venei Ḥugo: 55 Te'udot min ha-Genizah (2001); J. Targarona and R. Scheindlin, in: rej, 160 (2001), 61–133; J.L. Kraemer, "Women Speak for Themselves," in: S.C. Reif (ed.), The Cambridge Genizah Collections (2002), 178–216; J. Marcus (ed.), The Jew in the Medieval World (1983), 399–400; S.A. Skilliter, "The Letters of the Venetian 'Sultana' Nur Banu and her Kira to Venice," in: A. Gallotta and U. Marazzi (eds.), Studia Turcologica (1982), 515–36; E.B. Gelles (ed.), The Letters of Abigaill Levy Franks (17331748) (2004).

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Letters and Letter Writers

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