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VCU Menorah Review Summer/Fall 2011
Number 75
For the Enrichment of Jewish Thought

Zachor: An Appeal for the Ransom of Captives

According to Jewish law, Jews are obliged to ransom their coreligionists from captivity. In the 11th century those of Fostat (ancient Cairo) and Alexandria, were frequently called upon to fulfill this obligation. Jews were great seafarers, and the Mediterranean was infected 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 unable to cover the expenses from their own resources, and thus appealed to communities abroad. The letters written for this purpose are testimonies to the solidarity of the Jewish people and their pious obedience to the Law. They are also the first documentary traces of that organized relief and rescue work.

The Cairo Genizah contained many such letters, of which the following is a good example, though it is somewhat incomplete.

The Jews of Alexandria to Ephraim ben Shemarya and the Elders of the Palestinian Community of Fostat. [Alexandria, first half of the 11th century]

To the highly respected Rabbi Ephraim, member of the great assembly, son of the Rabbi Shemarya, of blessed memory, and the Elders, the noble and highly honored 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 inclination. You walk in the right way and practice justice. We let you know that we always pray for you. May God grant you peace and security!

We turn to you today on behalf of a captive woman who has been brought from Byzantium. We ransomed her for 24 denares besides the governmental tax. You sent us 12 denares; we have paid the remainder and the tax. Soon afterwards, sailors brought two other prisoners, one of them a fine young man possessing knowledge of the Torah, the other a boy of about ten. When we saw them in the hands of the pirates, and how they beat and frightened them before our own eyes, we had pity on them and guaranteed their ransom. We had hardly settled this, when another ship arrived carrying many prisoners…

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