JEWISH COMMUNITIES AND COMMUNAL LEADERS IN PROVINCIAL EGYPT IN THE EARLY TWENTIETH CENTURY
Haskamat Ketoubot and Marriages in Egypt;
By; Andrew Strum BA/LLB (Hons), Barrister-at-Law (Australia)
On Sunday, 19 May 1901 (1 Sivan 5661), the Chief Rabbis of Cairo and Alexandria, Raphael Aaron Bensimon and Eliahou Hazan respectively, as well as the Rabbi of the Ashkenazi community of Cairo, Aaron Mendel Cohen, promulgated a "Haskama' or communal ordinance. The effect of that edict, which, in part, codified and re-enacted ancient communal ordinances, was threefold:
(A) All Jewish marriages required the prior authorization, in Cairo and Alexandria, of the `Av. Bet Din" (president of the Rabbinical Tribunal) of that city and in the other towns of Egypt, of the "Gabbay" (president) of the local community elected by the community to that position.
(B) All Jewish marriages were to be performed in the presence of a "minyan" or quorum of ten Jewish adult males, which was to include, in Cairo and Alexandria, the "Sofer" (scribe) of the "Bet Din or some other authorized representative of the "Bet Din", and in the other towns of Egypt, the local rabbi or a representative authorized by the president of the local community.
(C) The execution of a "ketouba" or written marriage contract was required in all Jewish marriages
Failure to adhere to any or all of these requirements rendered a purported marriage void. A party to such a void marriage was therefore free to contract another lawful marriage without a "gett" or bill of Jewish divorce dissolving that purported marriage.
In Cairo, the ordinance was read publicly in Arabic in all the synagogues of the city on four consecutive sabbaths after the "Shaharit" (morning) service, namely: Saturday, 22 June 1901(5 Tammuz 5661); Saturday, 29 June 1901(12 Tammuz 5661); and Saturday, 6 July 1901 (19 Tammuz 5661); and Saturday, 13 July 1901 (26 Tammuz 5661). The proclamation of the ordinance was arranged by the "sofer" of the "Bet Din" of Cairo, Abraham Levi-Tantaui.
The ordinance was binding upon the communities of Cairo and Alexandria and the Ashkenazi community of Cairo. In order to promote the adoption of the ordinance by the Jewish communities in the other towns of Egypt, Chief Rabbis Bensimon and Hazan visited those towns and explained the effect of the ordinance and the need therefor.
Mehalla el Kobra
On Wednesday, 17 July 1901(1 Av 5661), the chief rabbis traveled from Alexandria to Mehalla el Kobra. On Thursday, 18 July 1901(2 Av 5661), the ordinance was read to the members of the Jewish community of that town, assembled in the famous "El Ostad" synagogue. Soliman Mizrahi, son of Yehia Mizrahi, acting president of the community in the absence of its president, Eliahou (Lieto) Cohen, and the assembled members unanimously adopted the ordinance for the Jewish community of Mehalla el Kobra.
On the Sabbath, Saturday, 20 July 1901(4 Av 5661), the ordinance was read in the three synagogues of Tantah. Chief Rabbis Bensimon and Hazan visited each of the synagogues, namely: the Sephardi synagogue, of which Isaac Moussa Cohen was president; the "Kenisset el Magharba" (Moroccan synagogue), of which Samuel Benzakein was president; and the synagogue in the home of the president of the Jewish community of Tantah, Rahmin Chamla. In each of the three synagogues, the assembled members adopted the ordinance.
On Sunday, 21 July 1901 (3 Av 5661), the chief rabbis attended a meeting of the members of the Jewish community of Mit Ghamr held in the home of Moussa LevyAgami and presided over by the president of the community, Moussa Wahba, and the "shohet" (ritual slaughterer) of the community, Rabbi Isaac Pardo. The ordinance was read to the assembled members and its effect and the need therefor was explained to them, whereupon it was adopted by them to bind the Jewish community of Mit Ghamr.
On the same day, namely, Sunday, 21 July 1901, the chief rabbis summoned to Mit Ghamr the members of the Jewish community of the neighboring town of Zifa, situated across the river. As it was the end of the summer and the waters of the Nile had not yet risen, the river was very low and the ferry which usually traveled from one side of the river to the other was unable to pass. In the circumstances, the only manner of traveling from one town to the other was by foot or on animals across the river. As this was not considered befitting for the chief rabbis, the president, Aslan Zagdoun, and members of the Jewish community of Zifta went to Mit Ghamr and assembled in the synagogue there. After the "Minha" (afternoon) service there, the chief rabbis read the ordinance to the assembled people who adopted it to bind the Jewish community of Zifta.
On Monday evening, 22 July 1901(7 Av 5661), the ordinance was read to the members of the Jewish community of Mansourah assembled in the home of the brothers Menahem Cohen, president of the community, and Makhlouf Cohen, together with the vice-president of the community, Joseph Hassoun, where it was adopted by the community. Due to communal matters requiring their attention, the chief rabbis remained in Mansourah for several days until after the fast of the ninth of Av. On Saturday, 26 July 1901, Shabbat Nahamou, the sabbath following the said fast, Chief Rabbis Bensimon and Hazan prayed in the synagogue of Mansourah and further expounded upon the ordinance to those assembled there.
On Sunday, 28 July 1901(12 Av 5661), the ordinance was read to the members of the Jewish community of Zagazig, assembled together with the president of the community, Haroun Gabbai, in the factory of Simon Arbib, a resident of Cairo, situated opposite the railway station in Zagazig. This was because the chief rabbis did not wish to enter the town due to a disease that was rampant there at that time. After the chief rabbis explained the effect of and the need for the ordinance, it was unanimously accepted by the assembled members as binding upon the Jewish community of Zagazig.
On Sunday evening, 28 July 1901(13 Av 5661), the members of the Jewish community of Suez assembled in the home of the president of the community, Moise Toueg, together with another communal leader, Raphael Delbourgo. After the ordinance was read and explained to the assembled persons by the chief rabbis, it was adopted for the Jewish community of Suez.
On Wednesday, 31 July 1901 (13 Av 5661), the ordinance was read to the members of the Jewish community of Suez, both Sephardim and Ashkenazim, assembled in the synagogue of that town. It was explained by the chief rabbis to those assembled in both Judeo-Spanish and Arabic, whereupon it was adopted by the members and their lead
Leaders who had been elected at that meeting, Isaac Loria, Shabetai Gadol and Isaac Jabes, as well as the "shohet" of the community, Joseph Bushlkilla
On Thursday, 1 August 1901(16 Av 5661), the ordinance was read and explained by the chief rabbis to the members of the Jewish community of Benha assembled in the synagogue located in the home of the president of the community, Farahat Levy, and was unanimously adopted by the community
As Benha was close to Cairo, some three quarters of an hour away, and it would have been tiring for the Chief Rabbi of Cairo, Rabbi Raphael Aaron Bensimon, to travel in the Egyptian mid-summer heat from Benha to Damanhour, near to Alexandria, and then back to Cairo, he did not proceed to Damanhour, but returned from Benha directly to Cairo. Further, Damanhour was under the jurisdiction of Alexandria. Therefore, the Chief Rabbi of Alexandria, Rabbi Eliahou Hazan visited Damanhour alone and explained the ordinance to the Jewish community there, which, led by Moussa Seroussi, adopted the ordinance.
Upon its adoption by all the Jewish communities above, the ordinance became forever binding, "until the last generation of Jews to live in Egypt". It was not foreseen that the last generation of Jews to live in Egypt would be in that same century.!
Whilst the original text of the ordinance was in the Hebrew language, it was summarised in Arabic written in Hebrew characters (Judeo-Arabic) and was distributed to all the synagogues in Egypt to be affixed therein. The original text of the ordinance and the Judeo-Arabic summary thereof, as well as an account of the travels of Chief Rabbis Bensimon and Hazan to the various communities referred to above, and upon which this article is based, may be found in Rabbi Bensimon's book "Nahar Misrayim'', on the religious customs of the Jews of Cairo, published in Alexandria in 1901 by Farag Haim Mizrahi.