Cracking the case of the overworked doctor
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Cracking the case of the overworked doctor

It was a hard doc’s life.

“He was on duty at the hospital night and day, without being free more than two nights a week,” the unknown letter-writer wrote, explaining the difficulties he had in getting answers to the two questions posed to the Jewish communal leader.

“On his two free nights he would visit by candlelight the Jewish and Muslim sick until midnight,” the letter continued.

But who was that Jewish communal leader, the subject of letter that first was stashed away in the Cairo Geniza centuries ago with hundreds of thousands of other documents written in Hebrew characters, and then, in the 20th century, relocated to box VII in the Geniza collection of the Alliance Israelite Universelle Library in Paris?

Dr. Mark R. Cohen, longtime faculty member at Princeton University, raised the question in 1993, when he published a report on the letter.

Given that the position of head of the Jews did not develop until the 1060s, Dr. Cohen wrote, the letter must have been written after that. But in the subsequent centuries, “a number of heads of the Jews who were physicians are known to have been religious scholars,” Dr. Cohen wrote, listing half a dozen — the most famous of whom was Moses Maimonides, who held that position in various years ranging between 1170 and 1204.

But now, nearly three decades after Dr. Cohen’s initial report and translation was published, the mystery appears to have been solved.

Earlier this month, the Princeton Geniza Lab’s Twitter account reported that another piece of writing found in the geniza had been discovered to be the missing top portion of Dr. Cohen’s letter. This smaller fragment contained the name of the letter writer — Mufaddal— and the recipient — Abu l-Majd.

Neither are household names in most circles these days, though perhaps they were in the Jewish sections of Egypt back in the day, but those familiar with the Geniza letter cataloged as “T-S 13J26.6” will recall that it featured the same writer and the same recipient.

And most excitingly for those looking to date a beleaguered Jewish doctor and communal leader, that letter was dated. It was written on Wednesday, June 21, 1234 C.E. — or precisely 788 years ago last Tuesday).

That makes it extremely likely that the subject was none other than Abraham, Moses Maimonides’ son, who like his father was a doctor and led his community from 1205 until he died in 1237.

Case closed.

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