Law and History Review

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Commercial Forms and Legal Norms in the Jewish Community of Medieval Egypt

Phillip I. Ackerman-Lieberman 

Scholars agree that medieval Jewish legal writers responded to “the needs of the times” in making their legal rulings, carefully choosing the legal sources and precedents upon which they relied, rereading or even rejecting those sources in light of their quotidian reality. Particularly in the Geonic Period, as Talmudic norms encountered a geographically expansive community experiencing radical social transformations in the engagement with Islam, as well as rapid economic development concomitant with the rise of the ʿAbbāsids, which urbanized and transformed the economic life of the Jewish community, classical sources of Jewish law faced new pressures. Geonic leaders responded to these pressures by making recourse to the traditional institutions of taqqana (Hebrew, “legislative enactment”) and minhag (Hebrew, “custom”). Therefore, it is widely accepted that the vicissitudes of daily life influenced both the responsa of the Geonim and their contributions to the expanding codificatory literature. On the other hand, the potential influence of Jewish legal norms upon daily life remains an unsettled area in the study of the history of the premodern Jewish community. A paucity of documentary or archaeological evidence complicates this problem, and edited literary texts of various genres remain themselves among the most important witnesses to Jewish life in the period.

Assistant Professor of Jewish Studies and Law; and Affiliated Assistant Professor of Islamic Studies and History, Vanderbilt University. I wish to express my gratitude to colleagues in a number of fora for their insights: my colleagues in the Skirball Department of Hebrew and Judaic Studies at New York University, at the Legal History Colloquium at New York University Law School, and at the Jewish Law Association, before all of whom I presented earlier versions of this paper; four anonymous reviewers who provided invaluable feedback as the paper took shape; and to Professor David S. Tanenhaus for his insights and assistance as editor of Law & History Review.

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