The sources below pertain to controversies over slave-owning by Jewish men and women in twelfth- and thirteenth-century Egypt. While slave concubinage was legal in Islamic law, medieval Jewish law did not allow men to have sexual relationships with their enslaved women. The children of Jewish men and enslaved women were also born with slave status in contrast to the Islamic law of umm walad. Despite legal prohibitions, Jewish men still purchased women to use for sex; they also exploited enslaved household servants for sex.

In legal queries and answers (responsa), petitions to communal officials, and in court testimonies, some Jews expressed views about Jewish men’s use of enslaved women that reveal a range of reactions from confusion to condemnation. Jewish women, some of them slave owners themselves, and children were also impacted by Jewish men’s use of enslaved women.

This collection of sources and their discussion questions are meant to steer readers to analyze the ways in which male competition over who had the power and authority to control enslaved women was one domain in which Jewish men constituted masculinity in a political and social environment in which they were subordinate to Muslims.

Translated from the Judeo-Arabic by S.D. Goitein, Craig Perry, and Oded Zinger. These translations CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.

Source 1 – A Legal Query to Abraham Maimonides and His Response

Source 2 – A Petition by the Wife of Abū al-Faraj

Source 3 – Comments on Medieval Masculinity by Ruth Karras and Oded Zinger

Source 4 – A Court Deposition from ʿAydhāb

Source 5 – A Legal Query to Moses Maimonides

Discussion Questions

  1. According to the above sources, what were the motivations and stakes for the different parties with interests in Jewish men’s use of enslaved women?
  2. To what extent might the arguments made by Karras and Zinger (Source 3) apply to these cases?

Related Primary Sources


Agency, Labor, Law, Men, Religion, Sexual Slavery, Women