A Medieval Jewish Medical Student’s Letter Home

Nov. 18 2021

Amid the many treasures of the Cairo Genizah—a repository for discarded manuscripts in the Ben Ezra synagogue—is a letter from a young Jewish student who came to the Egyptian capital to study medicine. Like many of the documents in the Genizah, it is written in Judeo-Arabic, that is, Arabic in Hebrew letters. In the letter, addressed to the writer’s mother, he tells her that “the whole world is covered in blackness because of my absence from you.” He then recounts fulfilling his dream of meeting with the great sage Moses Maimonides (1138–1204), who referred him to study with “the elder al-Muwaffaq.” The Princeton Geniza Lab summarizes the rest of the document, and provides pictures of the original:

[The writer] hasn’t started his studies yet, because he has to sort out some family issue involving his brother and maternal aunt and large debts. When he does finally meet his teacher (al-Muwaffaq), he takes advantage of the meeting to ask about “the heat” that has been afflicting him.

Al-Muwaffaq palpates his pulse and inspects his urine and says, “What you have is not a fever (ḥummā)—it is merely a dryness (yabs) in your body. You should take barley gruel (khashk shaʿīr).” A woman named Umm Abū l-Riḍā runs into him and insists that he stay with her till he gets better, and she prepares the barley gruel for him. He gets better!

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More about: Egypt, Jewish history, Medicine, Moses Maimonides


Israel Is Courting Saudi Arabia by Confronting Iran

Most likely, it was the Israeli Air Force that attacked eastern Syria Monday night, apparently destroying a convoy carrying Iranian weapons. Yoav Limor comments:

Israel reportedly carried out 32 attacks in Syria in 2022, and since early 2023 it has already struck 25 times in the country—at the very least. . . . The Iranian-Israeli clash stands out in the wake of the dramatic events in the region, chiefly among them is the effort to strike a normalization deal between Israel and Saudi Arabia, and later on with various other Muslim-Sunni states. Iran is trying to torpedo this process and has even publicly warned Saudi Arabia not to “gamble on a losing horse” because Israel’s demise is near. Riyadh is unlikely to heed that demand, for its own reasons.

Despite the thaw in relations between the kingdom and the Islamic Republic—including the exchange of ambassadors—the Saudis remain very suspicious of the Iranians. A strategic manifestation of that is that Riyadh is trying to forge a defense pact with the U.S.; a tactical manifestation took place this week when Saudi soccer players refused to play a match in Iran because of a bust of the former Revolutionary Guard commander Qassem Suleimani, [a master terrorist whose militias have wreaked havoc throughout the Middle East, including within Saudi borders].

Of course, Israel is trying to bring Saudi Arabia into its orbit and to create a strong common front against Iran. The attack in Syria is ostensibly unrelated to the normalization process and is meant to prevent the terrorists on Israel’s northern border from laying their hands on sophisticated arms, but it nevertheless serves as a clear reminder for Riyadh that it must not scale back its fight against the constant danger posed by Iran.

Read more at Israel Hayom

More about: Iran, Israeli Security, Saudi Arabia, Syria