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  • "Light at the End of the Tunnel":A Jewish Confraternity, Dowries, and Charity
  • Javier Castaño

"In our time there is no other option but to acknowledge that only from attention to the shadows and the darkness, in unison with the light, the [historical] picture in its entirety will become clear."1

Before reaching his mid-thirties, about the age when, according to the societies of the past, individuals were considered to have reached maturity,2 Elimelekh Horowitz published an essay in Tarbiz that signified a leap forward in the study of dowry and marriage in early modern Jewish societies.3 Its point of departure was the analysis of an unpublished manuscript of the Hasi Betulot (dowering of brides) confraternity established in 1576 in Venice among Ashkenazi and Italian Jews, predating the one established by their Ponentine brethren by more than three decades. The essay's subtitle is a nod to Jacob Katz's work but alerts the reader of the author's aim to go farther. In his analysis of the evolution of the commandment of assisting marriageable brides (hakhnasat kalah), Elimelekh placed it in the context of demographic restoration as well as [End Page 371] of coeval Catholic institutions, as a way to better understand its historical meaning without diminishing the institution's Jewish pedigree.

Some of the features he would develop in his historical writing are already present in this early essay: a relentless search for balance between Jews and their particular regional cultures and the common cultural traits shared with the surrounding population, with a stress on the Zeitgeist; avoidance of facile parallels and reciprocal influences between religious cultures; and use of a diverse array of documentary sources with the aim of obtaining, from apparently incongruous results, a fresh vantage point on long-known texts. Analyzing together the material, the spiritual, and the social, Elimelekh also worked to keep the histories of different disciplines in mind. He felt a duty to the historical craft to explain the relation between the phenomenon and the place—he was always deeply in tune with the specificities with which he was dealing, and keen to avoid anachronism.

His unique methodology is evident in his doctoral dissertation on Jewish confraternities, where he tried to show "how much can be learned about lay piety from an intensive local study followed by imaginative analysis."4 The dissertation reveals an anthropological investigation of rites related to youth, death, and early morning prayers—matters to which he would devote some of his most original and inspired writings in the years to come. Indeed, confraternities were for Elimelekh a vital window into the past, and his choice of Italy as a focus reflected, among other reasons, his own appreciation of deep familial associations with the country and its culture.

The Tarbiz essay encompasses a discussion of the historical and halakhic development of economic assistance to brides; a critical overview of the history of the Venetian confraternity, with its final transformation into a mutual aid society; and last, but not least, a clarification of missing details in Ḥ aye Yehudah's autobiographical narrative by Leone da Modena—who served as a sofer of Hasi Betulot. As a self-confessed Jewish autobiography reader, Elimelekh knew how to look at ego-documents critically and intertextually. As result, the source he uses exposes Modena's maneuvers to obtain benefits from the confraternity—among them, raising money for his daughters' (!) dowries and manipulating to his [End Page 372] advantage the timing of a conflict between Hasi Betulot and another confraternity. These episodes receive no mention in Modena's autobiography, but Elimelekh exposes them and explains, with a touch of irony, how such crafty procedures were in fact habitual within the confraternity overall.5

The Hasi Betulot confraternity was originally devised as a "sacred charity"—in the image of the coetaneous Catholic scuole, using similar operating methods—for the specific purpose of dowering Venetian Jewish brides. It was established as a way to preserve brides' honor and virtue. But after examining the proceedings of this confraternity for over half a century, Elimelekh concludes that its goal was not to help poor brides but to extend a hand to the daughters of good...


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pp. 371-375
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