A Match for a Misogynist
This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

A Match for a Misogynist*

This contract did not bode well for a happy marriage. It was dated inauspiciously on the thirteenth day of Adar, the Fast of Esther that is observed on the day before Purim; and the date was designated ominously as a day of infamy for the groom Zerah, a day on which “joy ceased from of his heart,” the occasion of his public humiliation. The terms of this ketubbah obligated the hapless husband to toil for his spouse for the duration of a life that would be likened to the travails of the Israelites in Egypt.

To make matters worse, the bride to whom Zerah was now wed was not the vivacious maiden Ayalah Sheluḥah who had originally captured his heart, but a wrinkled gold-digging harradan, the shrewish trollop Rizpah bat Ayah (a namesake of King Saul’s tragic concubine).

As was the custom, the groom volunteered additional gifts for the bride; but the relevant clause echoed the angry words of Isaiah: “instead of robes there shall be great plagues, and instead of rings—great and numerous tribulations; and instead of fine clothing—sackcloth; and instead of sweet perfume—a stench.”

As you have probably guessed by now, the ketubbah-from-Hell that I have been describing was a parody, one that was likely intended to be read and enjoyed on Purim, the special day on the Jewish calendar when it is customarily permitted to poke fun at institutions that are treated reverently during the rest of the year.

This ketubbah of Zerah and Rizpah made its appearance in a satirical composition by the Spanish Hebrew poet Judah Ibn Shabbetai, a work that bore the title “the Offering of Judah the Woman-Hater.” It belonged to a literary genre known as “makama” that enjoyed popularity among both Arabs and Jews in Arabic-speaking lands. Composed in rhymed prose, Most makamas took the form of humorous picaresque compositions.

In Ibn Shabbetai’s creation, Zerah’s unfortunate marriage was the result of a clever conspiracy hatched against him by a coven of hostile ladies. For Zerah’s wise father Taḥkemoni had carefully instructed him to eschew the company of women on the grounds that their caprice and treachery lie at the root of the appalling ignorance that afflicts mankind. To prove his point, Taḥkemoni discoursed on the villainy of most of the ladies in the Bible, from Eve who entrapped the innocent snake, through the matriarchs Rebekah and Rachel who were responsible for provoking sibling rivalries among their children.

Employing phraseology found in the book of Esther when describing the aftermath of the Jewish triumph over their foes, Ibn Shabbetai relates how “many of the people of the land ‘became Jews’ [i.e., were converted to his cause]; for the fear of Zerah fell upon them, and in every province, and in every city, whithersoever Zerah's commandment and his decree came, he filled the women with wormwood and gall.”

As more men were persuaded to join him in rejecting marriage, the female populace became alarmed. The ladies, under the leadership of the shrewd enchantress Kozbi and her consort Sheḳer (“Falsehood”) now set out to choose a lady who could lure their foe to his ruin. Toward that end they dispatched recruiters to screen all the eligible young ladies in the land until they found the one maiden who, like Esther in the court of Ahasuerus, “obtained favour in the sight of all them that looked upon her.” Sheḳer persisted in his campaign to persuade Zerah of the joys of marital bliss in which husbands enjoy their wives’ absolute obedience. This too was expressed using language taken from the Megillah: “all the wives shall give honour to their husbands.”

The winning candidate for Zerah’s seduction was Ayalah Sheluḥah, whose name translates as “a hind let loose”—employing imagery that was applied to Naphtali in Jacob’s blessing, where it was also stated that “he giveth goodly words.” As soon as Ayalah was declared the winner of the competition, they “set the royal crown upon her head.”

And indeed, Zerah’s nemesis was gifted not only with a graceful form and a pretty face—in the end she succeeded in ensnaring the confirmed misogynist by means of goodly words—in a poetry contest! As was the custom in medieval Andalusian salons, each of the contestants was called upon to improvise stanzas of elegant and formally crafted verse; and the fair Ayalah Sheluḥah was succeeded in outdoing her male opponent. She made effective use of seductive themes, praising the misogynist’s physical appearance; to which he responded in kind. Following the stereotypical rom-com format, the antagonists were becoming passionately enamored of one another. In the end, however, what won over Zerah was not the lady’s erotic poetry but an ingenious riddle that gave apt testimony to her agile wit.

But poor Zerah was not to enjoy the fruits of his romance. When he finally removed his bride’s veil and discovered the hoax that had been perpetrated upon him, he was devastated. Eventually his buddies persuaded him to file for divorce, but the ensuing trial, which was adjudicated by the author’s patron Abraham al-Fakhr, resulted in Zerah’ being sentenced to death.

At this point our author was impelled to step onto the literary stage and remind his readers that the whole story was a mere fabrication. And besides—Judah was really a devoted husband and family man whose venture into male chauvinism had been commissioned by his patron.

Readers of Ibn Shabbetai’s work have been at a loss as to how to interpret it. Are the views of the hero to be equated with those of the author (who attached the epithet “hater of women” to his own name)? Which passages are to be read seriously and which are intended ironically? Modern scholars have been divided into polarly opposite camps on these questions. Given the absurd liberties he takes with biblical heroines, I find it difficult to imagine that the author ever intended it to be grasped as more than an entertaining bit of Purim silliness.

And yet prominent medieval Hebrew authors in Spain, Provence and Italy took the work at face value—particularly when it provided them with opportunities to compose their own literary rebuttals in defense of the fair sex. Judah al-Harizi’s popular makama “Taḥkemoni” included a version of the “substituted bride” motif that was likely inspired by Ibn Shabbetai. In 1210 a poet named Isaac of Burgos, Spain, published “‘Ezrat Nashim” [“the defense of women”] to refute Ibn Shabbetai’s book by proving (against the views of his patron) that virtuous women do in fact exist in the world. Yedaiah Penini of Beziers countered with “the Woman-Lover” in which Ibn Shabbetai himself comes down from Heaven to unsuccessfully plead his case.

And of course the theme was eagerly taken up by Hebrew poets in Renaissance Italy who continued from the fourteenth through to the seventeenth century to compose works in condemnation or praise of womankind and married life. Creations of this type issued from the pens of Hebrew poets like Immanuel of Rome, Abraham of Sartiano (who composed a poem entitled “the Hater of Women”), the prominent dramatist Leone de' Sommi and numerous other authors who could not resist entering the literary fray.

At the conclusion of Ibn Shabbetai’s saga about the downfall of the misogynistic Zerah, everyone had a hearty laugh, the poet collected his salary, and they all lived happily ever after.

And it is likely that they all sat down to a sumptuous Purim feast, where perhaps they raised their cups in appreciation of Esther...or Vashti.


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My email address is: eliezer.segal@ucalgary.ca

[*]
  • First Publication:
    • The Jewish Free Press, Calgary, March 18, 2016, p. 13.
  • For further reading:
    • Davidson, Israel. Parody in Jewish Literature. Columbia University Oriental Studies 2. New York: Columbia University Press, 1907.
    • Dishon, Judith. Good Woman, Bad Woman: Loyal, Wise Women and Unfaithful Treacherous Women in Medieval Hebrew Stories. Jerusalem: Karmel, 2009.
    • ———. “The Bad Advice of Women: A Thematic Series in Medieval Hebrew Literature.” Jerusalem Studies in Jewish Folklore 19/20 (1997): 311–27.
    • Fishman, Talya. “A Medieval Parody of Misogyny: Judah Ibn Shabbetai’s ‘Minḣat Yehudah Sone Hanashim.’” Prooftexts 8, no. 1 (1988): 89–111.
    • Huss, Matti. “Critical Editions of ‘Minḥat Yehudah’, ‘Ezrat hanashim’ and ‘Ein mishpat’ with Prefaces, Variants, Sources, and Annotations.” The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 1991.
    • Jacobs, Jill. “‘The Defense Has Become the Prosecution:’ Ezrat HaNashim, a Thirteenth-Century Response to Misogyny.” Women in Judaism 3, no. 2 (2003): 1–9.
    • Pagis, Dan. Change and Tradition in the Secular Poetry: Spain and Italy. The Keter Library: The Jewish People and Its Culture 5: Literature. Jerusalem: Keter Publishing House, 1976.
    • ———. “The Controversy Concerning the Female Image in Hebrew Poetry in Italy.” Jerusalem Studies in Hebrew Literature 9 (1986): 259–300.
    • Rosen, Tova. Unveiling Eve: Reading Gender in Medieval Hebrew Literature. Jewish Culture and Contexts. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003.
    • Roth, Norman. “The ‘Wiles of Women’ Motif in the Medieval Hebrew Literature of Spain.” Hebrew Annual Review 2 (1978): 145–65.
    • Scheindlin, Raymond P., ed. Wine, Women, & Death: Medieval Hebrew Poems on the Good Life. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999..