Philologos Religious Online Books
Sketches of Jewish Social Life
by Alfred Edersheim
The remarkable change which we have noticed in the views of Jewish authorities, from contempt to almost affectation of manual labour, could certainly not have been arbitrary. But as we fail to discover here any religious motive, we can only account for it on the score of altered political and social circumstances. So long as the people were, at least nominally, independent, and in possession of their own land, constant engagement in a trade would probably mark an inferior social stage, and imply either voluntary or necessary preoccupation with the things of this world that perish with the using. It was otherwise when Judaea was in the hands of strangers. Then honest labour afforded the means, and the only means, of manly independence. To engage in it, just sufficient to secure this result, to "stand in need of no one"; to be able to hold up one's head before friend and foe; to make unto God moral sacrifice of natural inclination, strength and time, so as to be able freely and independently to devote oneself to the study of the Divine law, was a noble resolve. And it brought its own reward. If, on the one hand, the alternation of physical and mental labour was felt to be healthy, on the other this had been the main object in view never were men more fearlessly outspoken, more unconcerned as to mere personality or as to consequences, more independent in thought and word than these Rabbis. We can understand the withering scorn of St. Jude (Jude 16) towards those "having men's persons in admiration," literally, "admiring faces" expression by which the LXX translate the "respect" or "regard," or "acceptance" of persons (the nasa panim) mentioned in Leviticus 19:15; Deuteronomy 10:17; Job 13:10; Proverbs 18:5, and many other passages. In this respect also, as so often, St. Paul spoke as a true Jew when he wrote (Gal 2:6): "But of these who seemed to be somewhat, whatsoever they were, it maketh no matter to me: the face of man God accepteth not."
The Mishnah, indeed, does not in so many words inform us how the change in public feeling, to which we have referred, was brought about. But there are plenty of hints to guide us in certain short caustic sentences which would be inexplicable, unless read in the light of the history of that time. Thus, as stated in the previous chapter, Shemaajah admonished: "Love work, hate Rabbiship, and do not press on the notice of those in power." Similarly, Avtaljon warned the sages to be cautious in their words, for fear of incurring banishment for themselves and their followers (Ab. i. 10,11). And Rabbi Gamaliel II had it (ii. 3): "Be cautious with the powers that be, for they only seek intercourse with a person for their own advantage. They are as if they loved you, when it serves for their profit, but in the hour of his need they do not stand by a man." In the same category of sayings for the times we may rank this of Rabbi Matithja: "Meet every one with a salutation of peace, and prefer to be the tail of lions, but be not the head to foxes." It is needless to multiply similar quotations, all expressive of an earnest desire for honourable independence through personal exertion.
Quite different form those as to trades were the Rabbinical views about commerce, as we shall immediately show. In fact, the general adoption of business, which has so often been made the subject of jeer against Israel, marks yet another social state, and a terrible social necessity. When Israel was scattered by units, hundreds, or even thousands, but still a miserable, vanquished, homeless, weak minority among the nations of the earth, down-trodden, and at the mercy of popular passion other course was open to them than to follow commerce. Even if Jewish talent could have identified itself with the pursuits of the Gentiles, would public life have been open to them shall not say, on equal, but, on any terms? Or, to descend a step lower in those crafts which might be peculiarly theirs, could Jewish tradesmen have competed with those around? Would they even have been allowed to enter the lists? Moreover, it was necessary for their self-defence for their existence they should gain influence. And in their circumstances this could only be obtained by the possession of wealth, and the sole road to this was commerce.
There can be no question that, according to the Divine purpose, Israel was not intended to be a commercial people. The many restrictions to the intercourse between Jews and Gentiles, which the Mosaic law everywhere presents, would alone have sufficed to prevent it. Then there was the express enactment against taking interest upon loans (Lev 25:36,37), which must have rendered commercial transactions impossible, even though it was relaxed in reference to those who lived outside the boundaries of Palestine (Deu 23:20). Again, the law of the Sabbatic and of the Jubilee year would have brought all extended commerce to a standstill. Nor was the land at all suited for the requirements of trade. True, it possessed ample seaboard, whatever the natural capabilities of its harbours may have been. But the whole of that coast, with the harbours of Joppa, Jamneh, Ascalon, Gaza, and Acco or Ptolemais, remained, with short intervals, in the possession of the Philistines and Phoenicians. Even when Herod the Great built the noble harbour of Caesarea, it was almost exclusively used by foreigners (Josephus, Jew. War, 409-413). And the whole history of Israel in Palestine points to the same inference. Only on one occasion, during the reign of Solomon, do we find anything like attempts to engage in mercantile pursuits on a large scale. The reference to the "king's merchants" (1 Kings 10:28,29; 2 Chron 1:16), who imported horses and linen yarn, has been regarded as indicating the existence of a sort of royal trading company, or of a royal monopoly. A still more curious inference would almost lead us to describe Solomon as the first great "Protectionist." The expressions in 1 Kings 10:15 point to duties paid by retail and wholesale importers, the words, literally rendered, indicating as a source of revenue that "from the traders and from the traffick of the merchants"; both words in their derivation pointing to foreign trade, and probably distinguishing them as retail and wholesale. We may here remark that, besides these duties and the tributes from "protected" kings (1 Kings 9:15), Solomon's income is described (1 Kings 10:14) as having amounted, at any rate, in one year, to the enormous sum of between two and three million sterling! Part of this may have been derived from the king's foreign trade. For we know (1 Kings 9:26, etc.; 2 Chron 8:17, etc.) that King Solomon built a navy at Ezion-geber, on the Red Sea, which port David had taken. This navy traded to Ophir, in company with the Phoenicians. But as this tendency of King Solomon's policy was in opposition to the Divine purpose, so it was not lasting. The later attempt of King Jehoshaphat to revive the foreign trade signally failed; "for the ships were broken at Ezion-geber" (1 Kings 22:48; 2 Chron 20:36,37), and soon afterwards the port of Ezion-geber passed once more into the hands of Edom (2 Kings 8:20).
With this closes the Biblical history of Jewish commerce in Palestine, in the strict sense of that term. But our reference to what may be called the Scriptural indications against the pursuit of commerce brings up a kindred subject, for which, although confessedly a digression, we claim a hearing, on account of its great importance. Those most superficially acquainted with modern theological controversy are aware, that certain opponents of the Bible have specially directed their attacks against the antiquity of the Pentateuch, although they have not yet arranged among themselves what parts of the Pentateuch were written by different authors, nor by how many, nor by whom, nor at what times, nor when or by whom they were ultimately collected into one book. Now what we contend for in this connection is, that the legislation of the Pentateuch affords evidence of its composition before the people were settled in Palestine. We arrive at this conclusion in the following manner. Supposing a code of laws and institutions to be drawn up by a practical legislator unquestionably they were in force in Israel maintain, that no human lawgiver could have ordered matters for a nation in a settled state as we find it done in the Pentateuch. The world has had many speculative constitutions of society drawn up by philosophers and theorists, from Plato to Rousseau and Owen. None of these would have suited, or even been possible in a settled state of society. But no philosopher would ever have imagined or thought of such laws as some of the provisions in the Pentateuch. To select only a few, almost at random. Let the reader think of applying, for example, to England, such provisions as that all males were to appear three times a year in the place which the Lord would choose, or those connected with the Sabbatic and the Jubilee years, or those regulating religious and charitable contributions, or those concerning the corners of fields, or those prohibiting the taking of interest or those connected with the Levitical cities. Then let any one seriously ask himself, whether such institutions could have been for the first time propounded or introduced by a legislator at the time of David, or Hezekiah, or of Ezra? The more we think of the spirit and of the details of the Mosaic legislation, the stronger grows our conviction, that such laws and institutions could have been only introduced before the people actually settled in the land. So far as we are aware, this line of argument has not before been proposed; and yet it seems necessary for our opponents to meet this preliminary and, as we think, insuperable difficulty of their theory, before we can be asked to discuss their critical objections.
But to return. Passing from Biblical, or, at least, from Old Testament to later times, we find the old popular feeling in Palestine on the subject of commerce still existing. For once Josephus here correctly expresses the views of his countrymen. "As for ourselves," he writes (Ag. Apion, i, 60-68), "we neither inhabit a maritime country, nor do we delight in merchandise, nor in such a mixture with other men as arises from it; but the cities we dwell in are remote from the sea, and having a fruitful country for our habitation, we take pains in cultivating that only." Nor were the opinions of the Rabbis different. We know in what low esteem pedlars were held by the Jewish authorities. But even commerce was not much more highly regarded. It has been rightly said that, "in the sixty-three tractates of which the Talmud is composed, scarcely a word occurs in honour of commerce, but much to point out the dangers attendant upon money-making." "Wisdom," says Rabbi Jochanan, in explanation of Deuteronomy 30:12, "'is not in heaven' is, it is not found with those who are proud; neither is it 'beyond the sea' is, it will not be found among traders nor among merchants" (Er. 55 a). Still more to the point are the provisions of the Jewish law as to those who lent money on interest, or took usury. "The following," we read in Rosh Hash. 8. 8, "are unfit for witness-bearing: he who plays with dice (a gambler); he who lends on usury; they who train doves (either for betting purposes, or as decoys); they who trade in seventh year's products, and slaves." Even more pungent is this, almost reminding one of the Rabbinic gloss: "Of the calumniator God says, 'There is not room in the world for him and Me'""The usurer bites off a piece from a man, for he takes from him that which he has not given him" (Bab. Mez. 60 b). A few other kindred sayings may here find a place. "Rabbi Meir saith: Be sparing (doing little) in business, but busy in the Thorah" (Ab. iv. 2). Among the forty-eight qualifications for acquiring the Thorah, "little business" is mentioned (vi. 6). Lastly, we have this from Hillel, concluding with a very noble saying, worthy to be preserved to all times and in all languages: "He who engages much in business cannot become a sage; and in a place where there are no men, strive thou to be a man."
It will perhaps have been observed, that, with the changing circumstances of the people, the views as to commerce also underwent a slow process of modification, the main object now being to restrict such occupations, and especially to regulate them in accordance with religion. Inspectorships of weights and measures are of comparatively late date in our own country. The Rabbis in this, as in so many other matters, were long before us. They appointed regular inspectors, whose duty it was to go from market to market, and, more than that, to fix the current market prices (Baba B. 88). The prices for produce were ultimately determined by each community. Few merchants would submit to interference with what is called the law of supply and demand. But the Talmudical laws against buying up grain and withdrawing it from sale, especially at a time of scarcity, are exceedingly strict. Similarly, it was prohibited artificially to raise prices, especially of produce. Indeed, it was regarded as cheating to charge a higher profit than sixteen per cent. In general, some would have it that in Palestine no one should make profit out of the necessaries of life. Cheating was declared to involve heavier punishment than a breach of some of the other moral commandments. For the latter, it was argued, might be set right by repentance. But he who cheated took in not merely one or several persons, but every one; and how could that ever be set right? And all were admonished to remember, that "God punisheth even where the eye of an earthly judge cannot penetrate."
We have spoken of a gradual modification of Rabbinical views with the changing circumstances of the nation. This probably comes out most clearly in the advice of the Talmud (Baba M. 42), to divide one's money into three parts lay out one in the purchase of land, to invest the second in merchandise, and to keep the third in hand as cash. But there was always this comfort, which Rab enumerated among the blessings of the next world, that there was no commerce there (Ber. 17 a). And so far as this world was concerned, the advice was to engage in business, in order with the profit made to assist the sages in their pursuits, just as Sebua, one of the three wealthy men of Jerusalem, had assisted the great Hillel. From what has been said, it will be inferred that the views expressed as to Palestinian, or even Babylonian Jews, did not apply to those who were "dispersed abroad" among the various Gentile nations. To them, as already shown, commerce would be a necessity, and, in fact, the grand staple of their existence. If this may be said of all Jews of the dispersion, it applies specially to that community which was the richest and most influential among them mean the Jews of Alexandria.
Few phases, even in the ever-changeful history of the Jewish people, are more strange, more varied in interest, or more pathetic than those connected with the Jews of Alexandria. The immigration of Jews into Egypt commenced even before the Babylonish captivity. Naturally it received great increase from that event, and afterwards from the murder of Gedaliah. But the real exodus commenced under Alexander the Great. That monarch accorded to the Jews in Alexandria the same rights as its Greek inhabitants enjoyed, and so raised them to the rank of the privileged classes. Henceforth their numbers and their influence grew under successive rulers. We find them commanding Egyptian armies, largely influencing Egyptian thought and inquiry, and partially leavening it by the translation of the Holy Scriptures into Greek. Of the so-called Temple of Onias at Leontopolis, which rivalled that of Jerusalem, and of the magnificence of the great synagogue at Alexandria, we cannot speak in this place. There can be no doubt that, in the Providence of God, the location of so many Jews in Alexandria, and the mental influence which they acquired, were designed to have an important bearing on the later spread of the Gospel of Christ among the Greek-speaking and Grecian-thinking educated world. In this, the Greek translation of the Old Testament was also largely helpful. Indeed, humanly speaking, it would have scarcely been possible without it. At the time of Philo the number of Jews in Egypt amounted to no less than one million. In Alexandria they occupied two out of the five quarters of the town, which were called after the first five letters of the alphabet. They lived under rulers of their own, almost in a state of complete independence. Theirs was the quarter Delta, along the seashore. The supervision of navigation, both by sea and river, was wholly entrusted to them. In fact, the large export trade, especially in grain Egypt was the granary of the world entirely in their hands. The provisioning of Italy and of the world was the business of the Jews. It is a curious circumstance, as illustrating how little the history of the world changes, that during the troubles at Rome the Jewish bankers of Alexandria were able to obtain from their correspondents earlier and more trustworthy political tidings than any one else. This enabled them to declare themselves in turn for Caesar and for Octavius, and to secure the full political and financial results flowing from such policy, just as the great Jewish banking houses at the beginning of this century were similarly able to profit by earlier and more trustworthy news of events than the general public could obtain.
But no sketch of commerce among the early Jews, however brief, would be complete without some further notice both of the nature of the trade carried on, and of the legal regulations which guarded it. The business of the travelling hawker, of course, was restricted to negotiating an exchange of the products of one district for those of another, to buying and selling articles of home produce, or introducing among those who affected fashion or luxury in country districts specimens of the latest novelties from abroad. The foreign imports were, with the exception of wood and metals, chiefly articles of luxury. Fish from Spain, apples from Crete, cheese from Bithynia; lentils, beans, and gourds from Egypt and Greece; plates from Babylon, wine from Italy, beer from Media, household vessels from Sidon, baskets from Egypt, dresses from India, sandals from Laodicea, shirts from Cilicia, veils from Arabia were some of the goods imported. On the other hand, the exports from Palestine consisted of such produce as wheat, oil, balsam, honey, figs, etc., the value of exports and imports being nearly equal, and the balance, if any, in favour of Palestine.
Then, as to the laws regulating trade and commerce, they were so minute as almost to remind us of the Saviour's strictures on Pharisaic punctiliousness. Several Mishnic tractates are full of determinations on these points. "The dust of the balances" is a strictly Jewish idea and phrase. So far did the law interfere, as to order that a wholesale dealer must cleanse the measures he used once every month, and a retail dealer twice a week; that all weights were to be washed once a week, and the balances wiped every time they had been used. By way of making assurance doubly sure, the seller had to give rather more than an ounce in addition to every ten pounds, if the article consisted of fluids, or half that if of solids (Baba B. v. 10, 11). Here are some of the principal ordinances relating to trade. A bargain was not considered closed until both parties had taken possession of their respective properties. But after one of them had received the money, it was deemed dishonourable and sinful for the other to draw back. In case of overcharge, or a larger than the lawful profit, a purchaser had the right of returning the article, or claiming the balance in money, provided he applied for it after an interval not longer than was needful for showing the goods to another merchant or to a relative. Similarly, the seller was also protected. Money-changers were allowed to charge a fixed discount for light money, or to return it within a certain period, if below the weight at which they had taken it. A merchant might not be pressed to name the lowest price, unless the questioner seriously intended to purchase; nor might he be even reminded of a former overcharge to induce him to lower his prices. Goods of different qualities might not be mixed, even though the articles added were of superior value. For the protection of the public, agriculturists were forbidden to sell in Palestine wine diluted with water, unless in places where such was the known usage. Indeed, one of the Rabbis went so far as to blame merchants who gave little presents to children by way of attracting the custom of their parents. It is difficult to imagine what they would have said to the modern practice of giving discount to servants. All agreed in reprobating as deceit every attempt to give a better appearance to an article exposed for sale. Purchases of corn could not be concluded till the general market-price had been fixed.
But beyond all this, every kind of speculation was regarded as akin to usury. With the delicacy characteristic of Rabbinical law, creditors were expressly prohibited from using anything belonging to a debtor without paying for it, from sending him on an errand, or even accepting a present from one who had solicited an advance. So punctilious were the Rabbis in avoiding the appearance of usury, that a woman who borrowed a loaf from her neighbour was told to fix its value at the time, lest a sudden rise in flour should make the loaf returned worth more than that borrowed! If a house or a field were rented, a somewhat higher charge might be made, if the money were not paid in advance, but not in the case of a purchase. It was regarded as an improper kind of speculation to promise a merchant one-half of the profit on the sales he effected, or to advance him money and then allow him one-half of the profits on his transactions. In either case, it was thought, a merchant would be exposed to more temptation. By law he was only entitled to a commission and to compensation for his time and trouble.
Equally strict were the regulations affecting debtor and creditor. Advances were legally secured by regular documents, drawn out at the expense of the debtor, and attested by witnesses, about whose signature minute directions are given. To prevent mistakes, the sum lent was marked at the top, as well as in the body of the document. A person was not taken as security for another after the loan was actually contracted. In reference to interest (which among the Romans was calculated monthly), in regard to pledges, and in dealing with insolvent debtors, the mildness of the Jewish law has never been equalled. It was lawful, under certain restrictions, to take a pledge, and in the event of non-payment to sell it: but wearing apparel, bedding, the ploughshare, and all articles required for the preparation of food were excepted. Similarly, it was unlawful, under any circumstances, to take a pledge from a widow, or to sell that which belonged to her. These are only some of the provisions by which the interest of all parties were not only guarded, but a higher religious tone sought to be imparted to ordinary life. Those who are acquainted with the state of matters among the nations around, and the cruel exactions of the Roman law, will best appreciate the difference in this respect also between Israel and the Gentiles. The more the Rabbinical code is studied, the higher will be our admiration of its provisions, characterised as these are by wisdom, kindliness, and delicacy, we venture to say, far beyond any modern legislation. Not only the history of the past, the present privileges, and the hope connected with the promises, but the family, social, and public life which he found among his brethren would attach a Jew to his people. Only one thing was awanting that, alas! the "one thing needful." For, in the language of St. Paul (Rom 10:2), "I bear them record that they have a zeal of God, but not according to knowledge."