Artisanship, and Literacy; The Salvation of the Jews

Fact Paper 12

© Samuel Kurinsky, all rights reserved


Survival and Accomplishment

Mark Twain once asked, "If the statistics are right, the Jews constitute but one per cent of the human race. It suggests a nebulous dim puff of star-dust lost in the blaze of the Milky Way. Properly the Jew ought hardly to be heard of; but he is heard of, has always been heard of... All things are mortal but the Jew; all other forces pass, but he remains. What is the secret of his immortality?"1

A common religion is doubtless an important element of Judaic survival. Many peoples who shared a religion, however, have disappeared from this earth. As Mark Twain put it, "The Egyptian, the Babylonian, and the Persian rose, filled the planet with sound and splendor, then faded to dream-stuff and passed away; the Greek and the Roman followed, and made a vast noise, and they are gone; other peoples have sprung up and held their torch high for a time, but it burned out, and they sit in twilight now, or have vanished."

A remarkable aspect of Judaic survival is, to paraphrase a famous aphorism, that "Neither holocaust, nor conquest, nor oppression, nor contumely, nor ridicule could keep these people from their appointed place at the peak of the professions they practiced." Mark Twain regarded this fact with more than a modicum of admiration: "[The Jew] has made a marvelous fight in this world, in all the ages; and has done it with his hands tied behind him!"

Another remarkable aspect of the Judaic presence on this planet is the depth of the Judaic impact upon the evolution of civilization despite their meager numbers. "[The Jew's] contributions," continued Twain, "to the world's list of great names in literature, science, art, music, finance, medicine, and abstruse learning are also away out of proportion to the weakness of his numbers."

Jews are not endowed with unique innate qualities, for Jews share their genes with the rest of humanity. What then, other than their common religion, accounts for this remarkable record of survival and accomplishment?

Literacy and Learning

The answer lies, first of all, in the fact that through the ages until modern times, Jews were the only people on earth that were literate as an entire people. Literacy together with a common language bound the Jewish communities together wherever in the world they went.

Literacy engendered knowledge, and enabled Jews to transmit knowledge to other Jews apart from time and space. Knowledge could not only be passed from a person to those unknown to him, it could be passed from one corner of the earth to another, and could even be passed on after death to become privy to those who could read.

Literacy and learning were always revered as essential to Judaism. Jews became, therefore, prominent among the professions that required literacy: science, medicine, law, and commerce. These disciplines were of basic value to the development of the societies in which Jews were immersed. The efforts to expel the Jews (or to slaughter them) were, as often as not, compromised by the need to retain them! The market for Judaic erudition was universal.

Art and Artisanship

A second reason for Judaic survival stems from the fact that, in Judaism, manual labor was never reviled but was traditionally respected. The application of learning to labor leads to artisanship. Inherent to Judaic culture was the regard for artisanship as an adjunct to literacy for a fulfilled life. Jews were, therefore, likewise prominent among the craftsmen and technicians at the junctures of civilization where industry, technology, and commerce flourished. The market for Judaic artisanship was universal.

Art is inherent to artisanship. The former soars in the world of the imagination, and the latter produces the practical things that enhance the environment and prosperity. Through the written word, the reverence of learning, artisanship, and the subjective arts of imagery, Jews became quintessentially a creative people.

Creativity was the salvation of the Jews.

Creativity deifies humankind

Creativity is a process by which something is produced that never existed before. The universe exists because it is continually undergoing creation.

It is written that God created the universe in six days and rested on the seventh. It is written that from the eighth day forward the conscious ordering of natural forces became the province of humankind.

Creativity deifies humankind.

The application of creativity distinguishes humans from the rest of the natural world. No other attribute provides humans with greater satisfaction. In art, in literature, in science, in industry, or in sex, the act of creation is the ultimate expression of human fulfillment.

Human creativity transcends mere physical changes. Consider literature, art, poetry, music, and mathematics, unearthly environments created by humans alone.

Creativity is humanity's highest attribute.

Creativity engenders change, and change generates diversity. Changes in the natural world take place by evolution. Consider the billions of life-forms, past and present, and their infinite potential. The potential of human creativity, when applied constructively, is to accelerate proliferation in both the natural world and the uniquely human transcendental realities.

Creativity generates diversity

Creativity is motivated by dissatisfaction with what is and a striving for what could be. Creativity is therefore antithetic to the status quo. Creativity counters conformity Creativity is revolutionary. Hierarchies distrust creativity.

Creativity deifies humankind.

Creativity is humankind's highest attribute.

Creativity generates diversity

Creativity counters conformity

Roots of Judaic Ethics of Artisanship

When humans became instrument-makers they achieved an enhanced ability to create, that is, to transform their own environment and nature itself. On the seventh day, the Torah attests, "God took man and placed him in the garden of Eden to work it..." Soon thereafter Jubal and Tubal appear on the scene. Jubal was "the father of all such as handle the harp and the organ," and his brother Tubal was "an instructor of every artisan in brass and iron."

Thus the Torah reflects what archaeologists affirm. Agronomy and tool-making were the harbingers of civilization. The making of music, representing the esoteric ability to create a unique and subjective environment, is given equal precedence in the Torah's rendition of creation.

The reverence for creativity in the forms of art and artisanship was inherent to Jewish culture from the beginning. It persisted throughout the ages and remained with the Jews wherever in the world they went.

"God, after all," the ancient Judaic sages argued, "is the ultimate artisan; it was through his labor that the universe was created. He earned a rest on the Sabbath, setting an example for all mankind."

An ancient and oft-repeated maxim placed man within the context of divinic creativity: "He who is productive so that the work of the world might go on," the ancient maxim states, "earns a share in God's creation."

The Tannaim (scholars who recorded the oral law in the Mishnah) and the Amoraim (the succeeding expounders of the Mishnah) not only preached combining work with Torah study, they practiced it. The sages of the great universities of Babylon and Judah labored proudly at various trades to earn their daily sustenance. Teaching was considered an activity for which compensation was not required. Teaching Torah was a privilege for which remuneration was redundant.

"Torah is not a spade," was the precept practiced by the sages as they eked out a living by creative labor. Prospective scholars were enjoined not to rely on public funds, even if it meant to engage in such menial trades as skinning carcases in the shuk, the ritual slaughterhouse. "The recorded biographies of hundreds of Talmudic sages show that they typically worked hard for a living, some serving in the menial occupation of 'wood-choppers and water-carriers.'"2

The title Rav, translating to "rabbi, teacher or master," also serves in a number of Semitic languages as the designation for an artisan or for the chief of a company of tradesmen or artisans.3 The story is told that when the Romans arrested Rabbi Eliezer ben Partha and Rabbi Joshua ben Teradyon for ignoring the prohibition against teaching Torah, Rabbi Eliezer denied the charge, whereupon the Romans inquired why he was called Rav. "Because I am a tarsim (master of weaving)," the good rabbi retorted, perhaps with tongue held firmly in cheek.

The Talmud records that the great but haughty sage, Rabbi Gamaliel II, head of the Sanhedrin (the Jewish admin-istrative body), humiliated the erudite but modest Rabbi Joshua Ben Hananya. on a number of occasions. Consequent-ly, for this and other transgressions, Gamaliel was deposed.

Joshua made his livelihood as a needle-maker, working for his bread. He lived in a modest house, blackened with soot. Gamaliel came to visit him.

"I see that thou usest charcoal," Gamaliel noted imperiously.

"Woe unto the generation," reprimanded Joshua, "leader thou art, seeing thou knowest not the privations of scholars, nor how they maintain themselves."

A reconciliation followed. Gamaliel was subsequently reinstated, and the Gamaliel dynasty of Sanhedrin heads continued for many generations.3a

The lesson taught by Rabbi Joshua Ben Hananya was heeded and a new twist given to it, for Gamaliel is later quoted as saying, "A fine thing indeed is the study of Torah when it is combined with an occupation, for labor demanded by both of them leaves neither time nor thought for sinning."

The Mishnaic accounts are among many that illustrate the respect with which the ancient Judaic sages regarded creative labor, and the humility which it should be performed. The Jews, far from decrying engagement in labor, esteemed all creative vocations: physical, mental, and spiritual.

The sages proclaimed that "work is a great, strong foundation of Torah, a precondition to the study of Torah, and of greater value than God-fearing." This maxim was emphasized by Rabbi Yohanan Ben-Zakai, who declared that "if a man is planting a sapling and is told that the Messiah has arrived, he must first complete the planting and only then go to greet the Redeemer."4

"Forget not that we were all slaves in Egypt," is a Talmudic admonishment repeated again and again in every Jewish household and synagogue. It serves as a reminder of the dignity of labor and as a rebuke to those who would set themselves above the "common" laborer.

The artisans of Judah proudly wore distinctive badges of their trade. A Tannaic scholar of the first century, Eleazar ben Azariah, said of the wearing of these badges, "There is something grand about artisanship; every artisan boasts of his trade, carrying boldly his badge on the street."

The dignity of labor was recognized by Jews throughout the Diaspora. The intimacy of the Alexandrian Judaic artisans with various arts was expressed through their establishment of guild-like organizations. This familiarity is made explicit in the description of the seating of the congregation of the great synagogue of Alexandria, assembled within the Diplostoön ("the double colonnade of the synagogue"). "[In the synagogue] the people do not sit at random, but rather grouped by trades: goldsmiths in their own section, silversmiths in theirs, weavers (tarsim) in theirs. So that when a newcomer entered, he sought out the members of his own craft, and on applying to that quarter, received his livelihood..."5

The philosophic reverence for creative labor differentiated the Jews from their masters, and was an adjunct to literacy in propelling them to ever higher economic and artistic stations throughout the Diaspora. The integral facets of Judaic culture, literacy and artisanship, together with their counterparts, learning and art, are responsible for the survival of the Jews as a people.

Roots of Judaic Literacy

The Jews are widely termed "The People of the Book." Thus is the literacy of the Jewish people acknowledged. In fact. Judaic literacy is attested early on in the Book of Nehemiah, chapter 8, which describes how Ezra the Scribe conducted a series of readings from "the book of the laws of Moses," to an assembly of all the citizens of Judah. The readings by Ezra "standing upon a pulpit of wood, which they had made for the purpose," inspired intense emotion and a new, solemn covenant was made, pledged, and thereupon signed by every man and woman, by their sons and daughters, and "everyone having knowledge and everyone having understanding."

The Book of Judges relates that when Gideon was in Succoth he cornered a young man and sought information about the area. The lad accommodated Gideon by writing down the names of "threescore and seventeen" local landowners and elders.

The biblical accounts are substantiated by archaeology. Literacy was apparent in the earliest Israelite villages that were already flourishing atop the Canaanite hills at the beginning of the thirteenth century B.C.E. The archaeologist, John A Callaway, described in detail the house of an Israelite named Ahilud, existing in 1220 B.C.E. in the village of Khirbut Raddana in upper Israel.6 The identification of the family owning the house was evident from Ahilud's name inscribed on a storage jar handle in old Hebrew script.7 The name Ahilud also appears in the Bible as the father of Jehosaphat, an official recorder at king David's court. Thus literacy is evident as one of the attributes of this and other Israelite families occupying several hundred Canaanite villages as early as the 13th century B.C.E..

Evidence of Israelite literacy is attested by a text found at Izbet Sartah. dated to about 1200 B.C.E., a date falling into the transition from Israelite settlement to the period of Judges.8 The text was evidently written by two persons, and the last line is composed of all twenty-two letters of the Hebrew aleph-beth (an abecedarius). It was evidently written by a student practicing the aleph-beth.9 Another student's inscription was found at Gezer. It dates to the tenth century B.C.E. and attests to a continuing tradition of literacy. In addition, many Israelite signatures on pottery handles, bullae, and the like indicate that literacy was not confined to a few scribes but was widely practiced. Examples of Israelite writing dating to a time prior to the establishment of Judah have turned up at Megiddo, Shechem, Beth-Shemesh, Lachish, Gezer and elsewhere.

Literacy was thus an attribute of Judaic families from time immemorial. Ancient Judaic tradition made it a father's duty to teach his children to read. So vital was literacy deemed in Judaic culture that questions arose as to whether education was indeed being carried out in every family and even in the case of orphans. A beginning to the resolution of the matter was made in the earlier half of the first century B.C.E. by Simeon ben Shetah, the "Nasi" or official political representative of the Jewish people. Rabbi Shetah set out to establish a universal, community-supported school system.

About 64 C.E., a few years before the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E., the high priest Joshua ben Gamala fleshed out the system by decreeing that teachers be appointed in every province and in every city to whom every boy of the age of six or seven should be sent. A Judaic community with 25 students or less was required to provide one teacher. A community of between 25 and 50 students was required to provide a teacher and an assistant, and communities of 50 or more had to provide two teachers.10

Would that contemporary American schools would universally maintain similar standards for the proportion of teachers to pupils!

Judah II, Patriarch in Palestine between 225 and 255. "endeavored to perfect elementary education by organizing schools in all towns and villages, holding that the world is sustained by the breath of school children and that their education must not be interrupted even for so worthy a cause as the building of the Temple."11

An appendix to a Talmudic treatise records that, "At five years (a student comes) to the reading of Scripture, at ten to the Mishnah, at thirteen to the practice of the commands, at fifteen to the Talmud, at eighteen to marriage."12

Literacy thus became mandatory, at least for boys, almost two millennia before similar facilities for universal education were established anywhere else in the world.13 Most girls continued to be taught to read at home, inasmuch as education was deemed one of the primary duties of a mother. A mother's obligation to see to it that education was provided was not confined to males. Albeit universal education was not deemed the obligation of the community, schools for girls were not uncommon through the ages. Communal education for girls became the rule in contemporary Judaic society.

Dereliction by a husband of support to his wife's obligation to supply education to the family's children could be given weight in an application for divorce. A case in point was given in the papers recovered from the Geniza (archive) of the Cairo Synagogue. "A wife who wanted to prove that the husband did not act as a proper father for their children claimed in court that he did not pay for school fees."14

"That early ideal has never been lost sight of. Hence in the ghetto period there existed, in the smallest Jewish community, an educational system of a breadth and universality which the most advanced state in modern Europe of America has even now barely equaled, and certainly not surpassed. Enrollment for either sex was free. It was recognized in Judaic society early on that education cannot be effective where deprivation carries over into the school. Therefore "meals were given to those that required them. Boots and clothing were distributed to the most needy in winter."15

From ancient times forward, scholarship was valued more than wealth or position in Judaism. "Nobility of birth, wealth, or social station was categorically denied as justification of authority. 'A learned bastard,' the Rabbis said, 'takes precedence over an ignorant high priest.'"16

Only in China was such a cultural anomaly evident. Chinese education was classless but, nonetheless, was restricted to a few, albeit exceptional students.

In ancient times one who did not live up to his tithing obligation and the norms of ritual purity was contemptuously referred to as an am ha-aretz lemitsvot. In contrast, from the third to the sixth century (the Talmudic period), the word acquired a new meaning of 'one who is illiterate,' someone who did not know and did not teach his sons the Torah. To be an .Am ha-Aretz letorah' in a Jewish community meant to be considered an outcast."17

Josephus emphasized the fact that, indeed, the education of children was of primary concern in the community as well as in the home. "Our principal care of all is this," Josephus wrote, "to educate our children well." Again Josephus points out that "the greatest part of mankind are so far from living according to their own laws, that they hardly know them... but for our people, if any body do but ask any one of them about our laws, he will more readily tell them all than he will tell his own name, and this in consequence of our having learned them immediately as soon as ever we became sensible of any thing, and of our having them as if engraven on our souls."18

The Pagan philosopher, Seneca, independently made the same observation, noting that, out of all peoples, by virtue of their literacy, only the Jews knew the reasons for their religious rites and customs.

The synagogue has not served solely as a sanctuary for worship, but as a place where learning takes place on a communal level. "The word 'synagogue' is derived from the Greek sunagoge, and means 'assembly' or 'congregation....' As far back as Hellenistic Egypt in the pre-Christian years, the Jew there often equated the word scola (school) with 'synagogue'... By the Middle Ages the word 'school' had taken the place of 'House of Assembly' or 'House of Prayer' in Jewish usage. The church Latin term for 'synagogue' is 'scuola Judaeorum' (or 'Jewish school'); in Italian it is scuola; in Spanish 'escuela'; in Provencal 'escolo'; in German 'Schul'; and in Yiddish, 'shul' or 'sheel.'"19

Roots of Judaic Inquiry and Analysis

Reference to a body of Judaic oral law goes back to at least the fifth century B.C.E.20 It was consolidated and universalized when the Judaic sages, the Tannaim, decided to put the oral law into writing. The main body of the resultant Mishnah consists of the recording of discussions and interpretations of the ancient oral laws attributed to these scholarly authorities. They began this work about the middle of the first century, and continued through the second decade of the third century C.E. It is composed of six orders, each of which is broken down into subsidiary tractates. They deal with agricultural matters, religious matters and ritual, purity, marriage and divorce, a full range of civil and criminal laws, and the structure of the judiciary itself.

What makes this registrar of Jewish oral law unique is that the differing opinions on juridical questions are registered within it. The respect given to divergent opinions rendered them all open for interpretation and even to rebuttal from that time forward. A culture of inquiry and analysis thereby became part and parcel of Judaism It was not enough to simply learn a law; it was first necessary to question its authenticity, application, and even its legitimacy.

In fact, an extension of the dialogue continued with the Amoraim, sages in the Palestinian academies of Tiberias, Sepphoris, and Cæsarea on the one hand, and in the Babylonian academies of Nahardea, Sura, and Pumbaditha on the other hand. Both regions produced volumes of the Talmud, a word meaning "study," or "learning." The main object of the lectures and deliberations in those academies was to interpret the often brief and concise expression of oral law in the Mishnah, to investigate its reasons and sources, to reconcile seeming contradictions and to apply its decisions and established principles to new cases not yet provided for. The Jerusalem Talmud was completed at the end of the fourth century, and the Babylonian Talmud followed a century later. Other scholars joined in and their work finally became embodied in the Gemara.

From the fifth century forward, the dialectic continued in the form of Perushim, or commentaries on both Talmuds by other sages. The result is a vast Talmudic compendium of law and opinion that makes the entire body of Judaic law available to a people who were universally literate. Talmudic study became an organic body which continuously evolved through the centuries into modern times.

The rigorous application of inquiry and analysis is considered as important an aspect of learning as is knowledge of the opinions of the sages. It is deemed, in fact, not enough to learn the opinions of the sages but to question and analyze them in order to understand how they were derived, and thereafter to apply the same dialectic process to new inquiries. Every Talmudic student is subjected to this rigor, and is thereby provided with the tools with which to inquire into and analyze all matters.

"...The sophisticated logical and argumental structure of the Talmud that is related to daily life and economic pursuits were certainly an important input in the ability of Jewish men to engage in handicrafts and trade. In following the rules established by Judaism, Jews not only gained literacy, but also learned the rules regarding agriculture and trade, and acquired the logical thinking of the rabbis who were often traders and merchants..."21

Many Jewish Nobel Prize winners attributed their analytic abilities to the rigorous training they had undergone at a Yeshiva. Baruch Blumberg, for example, a scientist who won the Nobel Prize for Physiology in 1976, ascribed his analytic ability to such training. "I received my elementary education at the Yeshiva of Flatbush, a Hebrew parochial school, and, at an early age, in addition to a rigorous secular education, learned the Hebrew Testament in the original language. We spent many hours on the rabbinic commentaries on the Bible and were immersed in the existential reasoning of the Talmud at an age when we could hardly have realized its impact."22

Greeks, Romans, and Creative Labor


Conquerors do not aspire to artisanship. Conquering peoples disdain to engage in manual labor. Arts and crafts were regarded by "master races" as odious occupations relegated to inferior peoples. Among the privileges accruing to conquerors is the power to oblige the vanquished, whether as serfs, slaves, or freemen, to toil at manual labor.

The product is admired; The practice is scorned.

The transformation of the Greeks from a conglomeration of contentious tribes and mercenaries to arrogant rulers engendered new standards of Greek comportment. As early as the fifth century B.C.E., Greeks were already legally dissuaded from manual labor wherever they held hegemony over other people.

"Greek citizens are prohibited from practicing crafts where Greeks are in military control," proclaimed the Greek historian and military commander Xenophon (435-354 B.C.E.) to his fellow citizens."23

The principle expressed by Xenophon was no dilettantish expression of a pompous military adventurer; it was the policy instituted by the Greeks wherever they imposed hegemony. Xenophon was a follower of Socrates, and reflected the haughty attitude of Socrates. Socrates' famous pupil, Plato, relegated artisans to the lowest social strata of his "ideal" society.

Aristotle inculcated his pupil, Alexander (later, "The Great"), with the same principle: "The finest type of a city will not make an artisan a citizen," Aristotle taught the future conqueror of a large sector of the Near East.24

As William Safire noted in the N.Y. Times, the Greek word for artisan, banauso, "then had a pejorative connotation: working with the hands was considered a grubby thing to do."

Roman laws were likewise instituted to maintain a facade of superiority over subject peoples. The laws precluded members of the Roman upper classes from engaging in crafts and dissuaded any ethnic Roman citizen from so doing. A Roman who engaged in manual labor was considered to have stooped to the level of a slave or to the demeaning status of a foreign laborer.

The rigorous, sweaty toil to which smiths bent their backs, the malodorous trade of slaughterers and tanners, the perilous activity of miners, the ceaseless patience required of weavers, and all the other arts and crafts that constitute industry, were relegated to slaves and foreigners.

Consumption, not creativity, was the concern of Roman gentlemen..

The primary objective of Romans was the maintenance of power for the accumulation of luxurious surroundings and ostentatious accouterments befitting their noble status. They had, after all, loosed rivers of blood for the right to have the world support their privileged position.

A Roman household was considered unworthy of the name without a substantial retinue of slaves. Each middle-class household harbored a staff of at least eight servants, and members of the upper classes engaged hundreds, even thousands, of slaves and other laborers. The Familia Caesaris ("Caesar's Household"), numbered no less than twenty thousand persons.25

A bitter complaint of professionals of low status was that they were unable to retain enough of a corps of servants to sustain their Roman station in life. Libanius, the head of a philosophical school in Antioch, complained that the teachers under him were so poorly paid that they could afford no more than three or four slaves apiece.25

Slaves were relegated not merely to menial tasks nor restricted to crafts; they performed as trusted stewards, scribes, musicians, geometricians, managers of farms and estates, masters of ships, accountants, and bankers. Literate and skilled people were essential for these occupations.

The distinction between plebeian Romans and foreigners dimmed with the development of the Republic, but lower-class Romans continued to strive for noble similitude as befits a Roman. Even the Roman proletariat retained servants. Among plebeians no less than among patricians, Roman sentiments regarding manual labor were comparable to those of modern Americans towards ditch-diggers, or stoop farm labor, occupations currently assigned to immigrants from starving nations, or to illegal immigrants from Mexico.

The eminent Roman statesman and orator, Cicero, proclaimed that "All craftsmen are engaged in a lowly art, for no workshop can have anything appropriate to a free man."

Cicero wrote a didactic treatise in 44 B.C.E. for his 21-year old son, in which he apposes Roman precepts to that of the Greeks:

"Vulgar are the means of livelihood of all hired workmen whom we pay for mere manual labor... for in their case the very wages they receive are a pledge of their slavery... These privileges Xenophon, a pupil of Socrates, has set forth most happily in his book."26

As Cicero pointed out to his son, the Romans were no different in this regard than were the Greeks, whose culture the Romans had absorbed. Nor were the Greeks different than the Egyptians or the Persians who preceded them as conquerors.

It is, therefore, misleading when museums, archaeologists, and historians assign the creation of the products to the conquerors by labeling them as such. After all, once empowered, conquerors contributed little more to the creation of products and edifices than the wielding of whips.

Artisanship, a Judaic Lifeline

The Jewish quarter of Hellenic Alexandria was the district in which industry and commerce flourished. It remained so through the Roman period. A synagogue was the only religious institution in the district.

In Persia and in Babylonia the commercial and industrial heart of the cities were likewise where the main body of Jews resided. Baghdad had two Jewish quarters. The largely residential and administrative quarter was located on the east side of the Tigris River. The industrial and commercial suburb of Baghdad, al-Karkh, lay across the Tigris to the west. It was the center in which Jewish artisans plied their trades, and in which most of the city's industry and business was conducted. It remained a mainly Jewish quarter through the centuries until Saddam Hussein forced an exodus of Jews from Iraq.

map of baghdad

The pattern in which a city's creative and productive center was also an area of Jewish activity, and in which the only religious institutions were synagogues, was also true of all the major cities of Europe. In Rome the Trastevere ("across the Tiber') district was both the Jewish quarter and Rome's industrial center.

A Roman emperor, Hadrian Augustus, was impressed with the industriousness of the Jews and with the range of their technological accomplishments. The Jews of Alexandria, he wrote to his consul, Servianus, "are prosperous, rich and fruitful, and in it no one is idle. Some are the blowers of glass, others makers of paper, all are at least weavers of linen or seem to belong to one craft or another; the lame have their occupations, the wounded have theirs, the blind have theirs, and not even those whose hands are crippled are idle."

This was still the case in the 6th century C.E., when Cosmas Indicopleustes, a Christian merchant in Alexandria, Egypt, journeyed extensively along the Judaic routes to the Far East, finally sojourning in India. Cosmas returned to Egypt about 550 C.E. Cosmas recounted his experiences in a work on "Christian Topography." Cosmas was impressed by Jewish artisanship along the entire route of his travels. The Jews are a people, he wrote, "endowed by divine grace with special aptitude for handicrafts."27

Emperor Tiberius had previously wrested tens of thousands of stalwart Jews from war-wracked Judah and consigned.14,000 of them to build three great monuments to their own defeat. The arch of Titus depicted the event, and the Temple of Peace was constructed to house all the treasures the Romans had pilfered from the Temple in Jerusalem. Jewish slaves were put to work building the great coliseum, and were thereafter forced to entertain their Roman masters in its arena to fight wild beasts and each other.

Unfortunately, the Temple of Peace burned down to the ground, and the artifacts from the Jerusalem Temple were lost forever.

"It was from this stratum that the Roman proletariat and its petty bourgeoisie for the most part was recruited. It was from this stratum that the Roman Jews predominantly belonged... These humble immigrants settled by the Tiber and especially in Trastevere,or the right bank. There the boats which brought the goods from Ostia docked; there lived harbor and transport workers, boatmen, shop-keepers, numerous artisans. There were sailors taverns and all trades and industries which could not be admitted into the city."28

The district endured as both the center of Roman Judaic life and as the craft and mercantile center of Rome for a millennium and a half. Even after the Jews were proscribed from engaging in their traditional vocations elsewhere in Christendom, manual arts continued to be practiced by the Jews of Trastevere. In the year 1019 Pope Benedictus VIII designated the area fundum integrum qui vocatur Judaeorum, "the whole district, named after the Jews."29

In 1556 all Roman Jews were confined to the industrial district of Trastevere by the cruel Paul IV Caraffa, a pontiff hated by the Christians no less than by the Jews, who referred to him as the reincarnation of the biblical Haman. Not until 1885, under King Victor Emmanuel, were the first steps taken for the abolishment of the ghetto.

Trastevere, the Jewish Quarter of Rome was typical of the Jewish quarters of Alexandria, Baghdad, and other cities where those sectors were also industrial and commercial centers. A robust artisan's quarters, for another example, formed the heart of the Jewish section of Byzantine Constantinople. Its furnaces and forges gave it its name, the Chalkoprateia, or "Brass Market."

As in Trastevere, the fiery district of Constantin-ople surrounded a sizable synagogue that, from the mid-fourth to the mid-eleventh centuries served a heavy concentration of Constantinople's Jews30. The furnaces that spewed smoke into the balmy Mediterranean breezes adjoined those of the glassmakers, Jewish artisans who were ensconced in a separate area allotted to them just outside the walled district.

Significantly, no church existed in the industrial area until the Jews were expelled from the synagogue by either Theodosius II or Justinius II, and the synagogue itself was seized and converted into the "Church of the Mother of God." Recurrent edicts were passed through the centuries, directed at the conversion or expulsion of the Jews.

Despite these measures, the core of the Chalkoprateia's artisans remained Jewish. The glassmakers, metal-smiths, silkworkers, dyers, and other skilled craftsmen of Constantinople, Thessalonika, Corinth, Thebes and numerous smaller communities were essential to the florescent economy of Byzantium, and the attempts to obliterate Jewish "heresy" gave way recurrently to economic pragmatism. The exodus of Jews during each traumatic period led to a decline in Byzantium's economy. Again and again the Jewish artisans were enticed to return.

During this entire period Jews were also deeply involved in Sicilian industry from the time they were sent as slaves to apply their expertise in the mines and at the forges of Iberia, Sardinia and Sicily. Sicilian mining and metallurgy remained in Judaic hands for more than a millennium into the Middle Ages, when Sicily was under Spanish hegemony.

It is by virtue of Spanish persecution that we learn how inclusive was the involvement of Jews in metallurgy, sericulture, weaving, and dyeing. The metalworking industries were so dependant on the skills of Jewish artisans that, despite the opposition of local ecclesiastic and other authorities, a royal decree of 1327 ordered Sicilian officials to support Jewish prospectors and miners. As late as "the beginning of the 15th century two Jews of Alghera received special authorization to exploit the resources of the region, on condition that half the output be turned over to the crown."

In 1400, the Jews in Sicily received formal license from the king to open their own university, "with faculties of Medicine, law, and presumably in humanities. Twenty four years later, the idea was revived in northern Italy."31

The Spanish expulsion of the Jews from Sicily on June 18, 1492 raised a clamor among the Sicilian officials as well as the Christian leaders in Palermo and other cities. "In this realm almost all the artisans are Jews." they complained. " If all of them will suddenly depart there will be a shortage of many commodities, for Christians are accustomed to receive from them many mechanical objects, particularly iron works needed for the shoeing of animals and for cultivating the soil; also the necessary supplies for ships, galleys, and other maritime vessels."32

Expelled from Spain, the Sephardim were eagerly given refuge in the Ottoman Empire That Jewish metallurgical expertise must have been considerable is attested by the fact that the munitions factories built by the Sephardim along the Bosporus gave the Ottomans the weapons with which they created an empire.

An Italian, Benedetto Ramberti, and a Frenchman, Nicolas de Nicolay, noted with consternation the advanced designs of artillery and other ordnance introduced into Turkey by the Jews. De Nicolay who accompanied the French ambassador to Turkey in 1551, wrote that the "excellent workers in all crafts and manufactures among the recently arrived Spanish and Portuguese refugees, especially Marranos who, to the great detriment and damage of Christianity, have conveyed to the Turks many inventions, arts, and machines of war, namely, how to produce artillery, guns, gunpowder, cannon balls and other weapons."33

The Ottoman Sultan Bayezid II invited the Sephardim to settle in his dominions, and issued firmans to "protect the talented Sefardim" against the machinations of the Inquisition. The Sultan expressed his astonishment at the stupidity of the Spanish monarch, Ferdinand for having expelled the most productive and creative elements of his country. "You call Ferdinand a wise king," he is reported to have exclaimed, "he who impoverishes his country and enriches ours."34

In Constantinople the Sephardic smiths took their place in the alai, a pageant of the guilds that took place in 1638 during the reign of Sultan Murad IV. The pageant was described in a travelogue of the times. "... Some crafts were represented entirely by one ethnic group. Thus the 100 tin smelters were all Jews and apparently belonged to a Jewish guild. This was also the case regarding the acqua forris makers, (the alchemists or gold and silver refiners).35

So it was throughout Christendom. Time and time again the Jews were expelled, and time and time again they were recalled for their literacy or expertise. A common religion and tradition welded the Judaic community together. Judaic literacy, unique in the ancient world, made them invaluable as administrators, international intermediaries, doctors, and innovators. Judaic artisanship, a product of their egalitarian philosophy when combined with literacy, made them invaluable to their host's economies.

Creativity was the salvation of the Jews.



1: Mark Twain, in an excerpt from an article, "Concerning the Jews,"Harper's Magazine, March 1898.

2: Salo Baron, A Social and Religious History of the Jews, Columbia Un. Press, 1952, 256, quoting from Talmud Torah, I.9.

3: Avodah Zarah, 17b.

3a: Seder Nezikin, Horayot:10a.

4: Avoth DeRabbi Nathan' b' ch.31.

5: Tosefta Sukhah 51b; and Yerushalmi Sukhah 55b.

6: John A. Callaway, "A Visit with Ahilud," Biblical Archaeological Review, Sept. - Oct. 1983, reprinted in Archaeology and the Bible, Biblical Archaeological Society, 1990, 65-70.

7: Callaway, Idem., and Yohanan Aharoni, Khirbet Raddana and its Inscriptions," Israel Exploration Journal, 1971, 130-135.

8: Trude Dothan, "In the Days When the Judges Ruled - Research on the Period of the Settlement and the Judges," Recent Archaeology in the Land of Israel, ed. Herschel Shanks, Biblical Archaeological Society, 1981, 35.

9: Aaron Demsky and Moshe Kochavi, "An Alphabet from the Days of the Judges," Biblical Archaeological Review, Sept.-Oct. 1978, 23-25.

10: Talmud: B. Bava Batra 21a.

11: Max L, Margolis and Alexander Marx, The History of the Jewish People, Atheneum NY 1927, .225.

12: Aboth, 21.

13: Nathan Drazin, History of Jewish Education from 515 B.C.E. to 220 C.E., Baltimore, Johns Hopkins Un. Press, 1940.

14: Shlomo D. Goitein, A Mediterranean Society, The Jewish Communities of the Arab World as Portrayed in the Documents of the Cairo Geniza, Vl. II, The Family, Un. Of California Press, 1971, 173-74.

15: Cecil Roth, The Jewish Contribution to Civilization, London. 1956, 30.

16: Salo Baron et al, Great Ages and Ideas of the Jewish People, The Modern Library, NY 1956, 187.

17: Peter Haas, "The Am Ha-aretz as Literary Character," in From Ancient Israel to Modern Judaism. Intellect in Quest of Understanding. Essays in Honor of Marvin Fox, edited by Jacob Neusner, Vol. 2, Scholars Press, 1989,149.

18: Flavius Josephus, Against Apion, I:12, II:19.

19: Nathan Ausabel, The Book of Jewish Knowledge, 1964, 431.

20: Nehemiah 8-10.

21: M. Botticini and Z Eckstein, From Farmers to Merchants; A Human Capital Interpretation of Jewish Economic History, Centre for Household, Income, Labour and Demographic Economics, (ChilD)n\ no. 12.2002. Citing, Warner Sombart, The Jews and Modern Capitalism, Free Press, Glencoe. Illinois, 1913, 149.

22: Autobiography on Website Nobel Prizes,

23: Xenophon, Oeconomicus, 4.3.

24: Aristotle, Politics, 3.3.2.

25:Judaeus Philo, Quod imnis Probus Libus Sit., 157.

26: Cicero, On Duties, 1:150-151.

27: The book was written in Greek. It was edited by Montfaucon in 1706, by Winstedt in 1910, and was translated with notes by Mckrindle, Halk in 1898. was edited by Montfaucon in 1706, by Winstedt in 1910, and was translated with notes by Mckrindle, Halk in 1898.

28: Hermann Vogelstein, The Jews of Rome, trans. From the German by Moses Hades, Phil. 1940, 9-10.

29: David Phillipson, Old European Jewries, 1985, 122; D. Cassel, "Juden," Allgemeine Encyclopedia, XXVII, Eds.: Ersch und Gruber, 148.

30: Andrew Sharf, Byzantine Jewry, 1971, 16, ref.: A Galante, Les Juifs de Constantinople sous Bysance, 1940, 23-25; cf. C Emereau, "Constantinople sous Theodore de Jeune," Byzantion, 2, 1925, 112.

31: Ausabel, Ibid., .31

32: Baron et al, Ibid., 40.

33: Nicolas de Nicolay, Les Navigations, pérégrinations et voyages faits en Turqyuie, Antwerp, 1577, 245.

34: Norman A. Stillman, The Jews of Arab Lands, citing M. Francis, Essai sur l'histoire des Israelites de l'Empire Ottoman depuis les origines jusqu'a a nos jours, Paris 1897, 37-38. See also Stanford J. Shaw, The Jews of the Ottoman Empire and the Turkish Republic, N.Y. Un. Press,1991, 33

35: Wischnitzer, A History of the Jewish Crafts and Guilds, Jonathan David, 1965, 135.