Craftmanship: A Jewish Tradition Part III - The Roman Period

Fact Paper 13-III

© Samuel Kurinsky, all rights reserved

image of the Colosseum
THE COLOSSEUM OF ROME. Fourteen thousand of the Jewish slaves captured in Judah by its Roman conquerors and distributed throughout the Empire were assigned to construct three monuments in Rome dedicated to the crushing of the Bar Khochba revolt and the destruction of Judah: The Colosseum, the Arch of Titus, and the Temple of Peace. The Colosseum, greatest of all the amphitheaters of antiquity, begun under Vespasian and inaugurated in 80 CE by Titus, was used to titillate Roman audiences by forcing Jewish gladiators to battle to the death against each other and against beasts. The Arch of Titus depicted the looting of treasures from the Holy Temple, to be housed in the Temple of Peace. A great conflagration destroyed that edifice, and the Temple furnishings and treasures were forever lost. Tourists are unaware that in viewing these great Roman structures they are witnessing the sweat, blood, and tears of a host of Judaic artisans and martyrs. Harold Hart,Compendium of Illustrations in the Public Domain, 1903.

Greeks, Romans, and Manual Labor

When reading descriptive labels in museums, it is assumed that they accurately identify the creators of the objects displayed. Not so! At least, not if the producers were Jews!

Artifacts produced in ancient Israel and Judah are generally labeled "Syro-Palestinian," in crass disregard of the fact that such an entity did not exist at the time. The term, "Syro-Palestine" was coined by the Romans in 135 CE to delete Judah as a national entity from between Syria and Philistia. Museums may therefore be justified in applying that label to objects produced at that date or later, but cannot reasonably justify its use for objects produced in Judah as much as a thousand years earlier.

Insult is often added to injury when the label is shortened to "Palestinian" or "Syrian."

Archaeologists sheepishly and shamefully adopted such anachronistic labels. The only excuse offered is a lame one: "common usage." The archaeologist's use of spurious labels is, of course, what makes them "common" in the first place! One expects better than circular reasoning from scientists.

A few museums and archaeologists will defer to the labels "Near Eastern," "Eastern Mediterranean," or "Southwest Asia." It would seem that Israel and Judah never existed! Yet Judah was a sovereign nation for five centuries, twice the span of the existence of the U.S.A. It continued as a national entity for seven hundred years longer under Assyrian, Babylonian, Greek and Roman rule. Thus it was a national and cultural entity for twelve hundred years, a term few other nations can match.

AMPHORISKOS, 2nd - 1sr c. BCE. The provenance is given as "Eastern Mediterranean. Festooned glass vessels were being produced in Eretz Israel, the Land of Israel, for many centuries before the Greeks and Romans acquired a word for "glass." The word vitrum appears for the first time in 54 BCE. Photograph courtesy of the Corning Museum of Glass

All right! If the anachronistic term "Syro-Palestinian" is to be kept because of "common usage" it should be expected that it would likewise apply to all products produced within the same time period and geographical location. Not so! The products of the Edomites, Philistines, Syrians, Phoenicians, et al, are always properly labeled with an ethnic identification. Only Israelite and Judahite products are buried under the Roman shroud.

One should also assume that hand-crafted objects in museums labeled "Roman" were made by Romans. Not so! In fact, Romans were prohibited by law or deterred by convention from engaging in manual labor! No Roman of the upper classes could lawfully perform as an artisan, and no lowly plebeian Roman would deign to do work assigned to slaves and foreigners.

Conquerors do not aspire to artisanship. Arts and crafts were regarded by the Romans as odious occupations relegated to serfs, slaves or foreigners. The Romans were no different in this regard than were the Greeks, whose culture they had absorbed. To maintain a facade of superiority over subject peoples, Roman laws were instituted to preclude the upper classes from engaging in manual labor, and to dissuade any ethnic Roman from stooping to the level of a slave or of a foreign laborer. The products were admired, the producers were scorned.

The distinction between plebeian Romans and foreigners dimmed with the development of the Republic, but lower-class Romans nonetheless strove for noble similitude as befits an ethnic Roman. Among plebeians no less than among patricians, Roman sentiments regarding manual labor were comparable to modern Americans towards ditch-diggers or stoop farm labor, occupations consigned to immigrants from starving nations.

A Roman household was considered unworthy of its name without its retinue of slaves. Each middle-class household harbored a staff of eight or more servants. The upper classes engaged hundreds and even thousands of slaves and other laborers. The Familia Caesaris numbered no less than twenty thousand souls. Even the Roman lower classes retained servants. One of the bitter complaints of professionals of low status was that they could not afford enough of a corps of servants to maintain their Roman station in life. Libanius, the head of a philosophical school in Antioch, for example, complained that teachers under his wing were so poorly paid that they could afford no more than three or four slaves apiece!

Roman society was based on slavery. Traffic in slaves was one of the largest and most profitable of Roman enterprises. Up to 50,000 captives were taken in a single campaign; they were considered booty to be shipped off for sale throughout the empire. At times no less than ten thousand slaves were daily sold off the auction blocks of the slave clearing houses at Delos and later at Ostia. This impelled the Roman lawyer and satirist Juvenal to remark that "the Syrian Orontes [river] has poured into the Tiber."

Caesar is said to have taken nearly half a million captives in his nine years of campaigning in Gaul. Other Roman campaigners were no less avaricious slave-takers. Sixty thousand Carthaganians were taken in 146 CE; Epirotes enslaved one hundred fifty thousand in 167 CE. It has been computed that the Roman slave population during the reign of Claudius amounted to twenty million, of which four hundred thousand served in Rome.

Roman intellectuals adopted the attitude toward manual labor from the Greeks. They would have nothing to do with anything that had practical value. The aristocrats disdained association with the grimy folk who built their houses, made their shoes, fashioned their armor, and ground their grain.1 Equestrians, just under senators in rank, and all other "orders" of middle and upper class Roman society, were likewise constricted as to the type of gainful occupations they could engage in while maintaining their dignity and social standing.

Romans became soldiers, administrators, or the owners or landlords of farms. A proper Roman abjured participation in production and in the marketplace. Land management was considered a suitable occupation for a Roman so long as serfs, slaves, or, hired help sweated at the work to be done. As in modern societies, no place was provided in Roman society for "gentlemen merchants," or "gentlemen artisans," only "gentlemen farmers" were accorded a berth in "genteel society."

Cicero, the wealthy Roman patrician, orator, statesman, and man of letters, wrote a didactic treatise in 44 BCE for his 21-year-old son, in which he places Roman precepts parallel to those of the Greeks:

"Now in regard to trade and other means of livelihood, which ones are to be considered becoming to a gentleman and which ones are vulgar, we have been taught: Vulgar are the means of livelihood of all hired workmen whom we pay for mere manual labor..."

Cicero then elucidates: "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 entitles Oenomicus. When I was about your present age, I translated it from Greek to Latin."2

Xenophon (435-354 BCE), a Greek historian, essayist and military commander, had laid out the precepts by which the Greeks were to rule: "Greek citizens," Xenophon proclaimed, "are prohibited from practicing crafts where Greeks are in military control."3

Xenophon, a follower of Socrates, reflected the haughty attitude of Socrates and his famous pupil Plato, who restricted artisans to the lowest level of his "ideal society." Artisans are to be applauded, wrote Plato, but must be instantly deported from Plato's projected Republic. Aristotle inculcated his pupil Alexander, with the same principles: "The finest type of city will not make an artisan a citizen,"4 Aristotle likewise proclaimed, a wry commentary on the vaunted "democracy" the Greeks are supposed to have promoted.

image of sculpture
Detail of the sculpture on the arch of Titus depicting the treasures looted from the Holy Temple in Jerusalem and being transported to Rome. The artisans of Eretz Israel who turned out such magnificent works as the depicted menorah, became the producers of artifacts exhibited in museums under a "Roman" label. The Arch of Titus was built by Jewish slaves.

Archimedes (287-212 BCE), the Greek scientist, offers an apt example of the fact that even the haughty professions of designer and inventor were regarded with distaste by the supercilious Greeks and Romans. Archimedes designed catapults that hurled monstrous boulders capable of crushing defensive walls, engineered cranes whose "huge claws fastened upon ships and lifted them right out of the water, even a brobdingnagian burning glass that could set them on fire from a distance."5

Archimedes was reluctant to call attention to his accomplishments as a designer of fiendish war machines. It was not their destructive attributes that roiled Archimedes' conscience, but the fact that the act of designing worldly objects was beneath the dignity of an intellectual! Plutarch reported that "[Archimedes] never wanted to leave behind a book on the subject but viewed the work of an engineer and every single art connected with everyday needs as ignoble and fit only for an artisan. He devoted his ambition only to those studies in which beauty and subtlety are present uncontaminated by necessity."6

Cicero once again emphasized that "all craftsmen are engaged in a lowly art; for no workshop can have anything appropriate to a free man." Cicero, makes the circumstrictions clear; not only can no artisan's "workshop have anything liberal about it," but carrying on service of any kind is to be abjured, "Least [gentlemanly] of all are those trades which cater to sensual pleasures, fishmongers, butchers, cooks and poulterers, and fishermen."

Slaves were relegated not only to menial tasks or to crafts; they performed as trusted stewards, musicians, geometricians (draftsmen), managers of farms and estates, masters of ships, and even as money-lending bankers.7

The millions of slaves and other foreigners employed in Roman society came mostly from an unskilled and illiterate populace. The Jews were uniquely different in these regards; the technological arts they had practiced in the Near East and their high level of literacy set them apart from other slaves under Roman hegemony.

map of Transtiberim
TRANSTIBERIM (now "Trastevere"), Romeís Industrial quarter, was commonly called the Campo Judaeorum. It was accessed from the heart of the city through the bridge called the Pons Judaeorum and led to the Via del Pianto ("Lamentation Alley"). The road exited to ports on the Roman coast.

Trastevere, the Judaic Quarter of Rome

Josephus related that when the Jewish embassy made a petition to the Roman emperor to remove Herod's dynasty after the tyrant's death in 3 BCE, "It was escorted on its way to the imperial palace by a crowd of eight thousand Jews." Some scholars estimated the free Jewish population of Rome to be at least twenty thousand by the first half of the first century.8 Others appraise the numbers of free Jewish residents of Rome at the turn of the Common Era to as many as forty thousand. Tens of thousands of Jewish slaves were added by the Romans after crushing the Bar Khochba revolt. The Judaic population of Rome continued to expand during the next century as a result of manumission and immigration. It was thereafter referred to as the Università di Roma.

"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."9

At least thirteen congregations dating from the time of the early Roman empire have been identified, chiefly from Greek inscriptions, found on tombstones. One of the oldest of these scuole, or synagogues, stood in the heart of Trastevere (Transtiberim), literally, "over the Tiber river." Trastevere was, in fact, the Judaic quarter in the southeast-ern part of Rome. It was a sooty, smelly area with crooked streets and dingy workshops. Industry was concentrated here, an area from which smoke from the furnaces of the smiths and the glassmakers darkened the skies, where the odoriferous processes of unguent manufacturing and the tanning of leather assailed the nostrils of the Roman overlords who had to cross a bridge that spanned the Tiber and then passed through the Judaic quarter to reach the gardens of Caesar outside the city.10

The bridge is known as the Quattro Capi, but was once commonly referred to as the Pons Judaeorum, or "Jew's Bridge," a name it retained through the Middle Ages. The road over the bridge led to the aptly named Via del Pianto, or "Street of Lamentation," where Jewish prayers rose above the din from the activity of artisans plying their trades. The area became known as the Ghetto of Rome.11 The road terminated at the Porto Portese, or "Gate to the Port." In the foreground of the gate, and still within the Trastevere district was an area called the Campo Judaeorum, or "Jew's Field" until the seventeenth century.

Industrial traffic passed from and through the Jewish quarter, for the district was traversed by the Appian and Latin roads, and was the bridgehead for communication "with the great harbors of Puteoli and Brunisum, with Capua and Naples, with the seaside resorts, and country estates at Baiae and its environs."12

The district endured as 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."13

In 1556 all Roman Jews were confined to 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.

Judaic artisans and entrepreneurs were active at the ports serving Rome. An ancient synagogue that served a sizable Judaic community was uncovered at Ostia. A great number of Jews are known to have been buried at the harbor cities of Puteoli and Portus by virtue of their distinguishing names. It is difficult to determine the size of the Judaic population of these bustling commercial centers, inasmuch as most Jews of the period had assumed Greek or Roman names. Those that can be identified, however, "indicate callings which have to do with commerce and navigation.14

The New Testament records the existence of another synagogue in Puteoli in the first century of the Common Era15. It appears to have been located on the Via Vetrai, or "street of the glassmakers" located within the quarter for incense makers. Both glass and incense making were then distinctly Judaic industries.

The Jews of Italy were also deeply involved in the Roman metalworking and mining industries from the time Emperor Tiberius wrested tens of thousands of stalwart Jews from war-wracked Judah and consigned them 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."16

Dispersion into the Roman Diaspora

Roman soldiers who had completed their stint in the military were rewarded by grants of land on which they could establish an estate. The slaves they captured in war, or purchased in the marketplace, provided the labor force for small farms as well as for the latifundia, the great Roman plantations. Indigenous peoples, peasants or back-woodsmen, were put to work tilling the soil or serving both the newly enfranchised soldiers or local officials whose allegiance to Rome was purchased with a bribe of Roman citizenship and a continuation of their privileged position.

The needs of the new nobility stimulated a market for imported goods, goods that local, unskilled laborers were unable to produce. In addition to a supply of army gear for the garrisons, villa furnishings, elegant clothes, and other accouterments of luxurious living were in great demand by the reconstituted establishment.

Manumitted Jews pursued the opportunities created by the need of the burgeoning baronial estates for luxury goods and skilled services. The market thus created stimulated a movement of Jewish artisans into Pannonia and Nordicum, and up the Rhine and Seine valleys as far as Cologne. Worldly-wise entrepreneurs and artisans from the Persian and Alexandrian milieus likewise set up enterprises in strategic market areas to supply the Roman and non-Roman overlords.

The Jews became the doctors and the accountants, the smiths and the glassmakers, the weavers and the dyers, the miners and the engineers, the tradesmen and the bankers, the itinerant merchants who traveled the Roman roads and the navigators and sailors who plied the seas. Even Jewish warriors became part of the flotsam and jetsam of Jews who were first captured, enslaved and indentured into the Roman legions, and then found themselves Roman citizens, free to pursue their original arts or to join other Jews in their endeavors.

Heinrich Graetz eloquently describes the process: "The Jewish merchants whose business pursuits brought them from Alexandria or Asia Minor to Rome and Italy, the Jewish warriors whom the emperors Vespasian and Titus... had dispersed as prisoners throughout the Roman provinces, found their way, voluntarily or involuntarily into Gaul and Iberia....Gallic Jews, whose first settlement was in the district of Arles, enjoyed the full rights of Roman citizen-ship, whether they arrived as merchants or fugitives, with the peddler's pack or in the garb of slaves....In the Frankish kingdom founded by Clovis, the Jews dwelt in Auvergne (Arvena), in Carcassone, Arles, Orleans, and as far north as Paris and Belgium. Numbers of them resided in the old Greek port of Marseilles and Beziers (Biterrae) and so many of them dwelt in the province of Narbonne that a mountain near the city of that name was called Mons Judaicus....The Jews of Frankish and Burgundian kingdoms carried on agriculture, trade and commerce without restraint; they navigated the seas and rivers in their own ships. They also practiced medicine, and the advice of the Jewish physicians was sought even by the clergy, who probably did not care to rely entirely on the miraculous healing power of the saints and the relics. They were also skilled in the use of weapons of war, and took an active part of the battles between Clovis and Theoderic's generals before Arles (508 CE).17

The indigenous arts were enhanced by the "Easterners" and new technologies were introduced into the European milieu. W. A. Thorpe, the English glass historian, reported that the Semitic artisans who had settled along the route of the Roman legions, established "their quarters in the great industrial cities... They combined a willingness to migrate, a fervent sense of parenthood, a racial solidarity, a genius for selling, Semitic qualities that no other glassmakers ever possessed." Thorpe studied these communities and found that by the late Roman period: "[In] Nice, Marseilles, Orleans, Bourges, Treves, and above all, Paris, industrial capital was controlled by the Semites...Their activities were not confined to the blackcoat business of bankers, ship-owners, moneylenders and wholesale produce merchants. They were leaders in the professions of law and medicine and in the arts of jeweler, goldsmith and silversmith."18

The equally prestigious German glass historian, Axel Von Saldern, concurred with Thorpe, noting that an efficient industry was established by Jewish glassmakers who had emigrated from the Holy Land in the first century in "Naples, Rome, northern Italy, southeastern France, Cologne and other cities along the Rhine."19

Frederic Neuberg, still another German glass historian, likewise pointed out that "The oldest [Judaic] settlement in Germany was in Trier (a ghetto) and the first glasshouses of the Rhineland were founded there. After Trier, the oldest ghettos are in Cologne and Andernach, and it is significant that the oldest established houses in Germany were likewise those in Cologne and Andernach."20

The Judaic population of the Roman empire grew rapidly to number many millions. The Greek author of the Sibylline Chronicles puts the number at 6,944,000, a figure derived from a census taken by Emperor Claudius in 42 CE.21 That the Jewish population had reached such numbers bespeaks the significant impact of Judaic egalitarianism and religion on Greek and Roman life. Such phenomenal growth could only come about by the assimilation of large numbers of Greeks and Romans who became attracted to Judaism, and were then counted as Jews.

Historians, Jews and Gentiles alike, harp on the "hellenization" of sections of the Judaic populace; the Talmud focuses on that process. It is true that many Jews were attracted to Greek hedonism, a process that peaked during the time when Jason bribed his way into the post of High Priest. It appears from the record, however, that the humanitarian appeal of Judaic precepts proved so profound that, despite repression, opportunism, and hellenization, the numbers of Jews and their sympathizers multiplied many times faster that the numbers of the surrounding peoples.

A substantial body of Gentiles contributed to synagogues and participated in synagogue activity. These pious Gentiles were termed sebomenoi, that is, "worshiping ones." The Encyclopaedia Judaica (1972 ed.), states under "Jewish identity" that "There was an increasing number, perhaps millions by the first century, of sebomenoi, Gentiles who had not gone the entire route toward conversion."

image of a glass diatreton
A DIATRETON, or "CAGE CUP," employed as a lighting fixture. The Latin word "diatreton," derives from an ancient Hebrew word meaning "chiseling" or "cutting." It refers to the difficult an time-consuming work involved in the production of such a tour-de-force of the glassmakerís art.Photograph courtesy of the Corning Museum of Glass

In addition to the "worshiping ones" there were phobomenoi, or "God-Fearers." These followers of Judaic universalism were not necessarily circumcised. Nor did they necessarily subscribe to the 613 Mosaic laws. The "God-Fearers" and the "worshiping ones" were distinct from the ethnic Jews who were generally referred to as theosebeis, or "God Worshipers."

In the New Testament, for example, we find Paul in Antioch addressing the crowd at the synagogue, among whom are "men of Israel and you that fear God" (Acts 13:16). Again, in Athens, Paul "argued in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons" (Acts 17:17).

St. Augustine quoted Seneca ("The Younger," c. 5 BCE - 65 CE): "Seneca declares that the custom of this most accursed race has gained such influence that it has now been received throughout the world." 22 Similar comments were made by other Roman and Greek writers such as Epictetus (born c. 50 CE), who was first a slave in Rome, the Roman attorney Juvenal (c. 55-140 CE), the biographer and antiquarian Suetonius (75-160 CE), St. Justin (c. 100-165 CE), Tertullian (c. 160-220 CE), the 3rd century Latin poet Commodianus, and others. Josephus reported that each city, though believing that it had rid itself of the Jews, still had Judaizers and sympathizers who mixed Jewish customs with that of the pagans. Again Josephus alludes to a "multitude" of Greeks attracted to Jewish religious ceremonies in Antioch that the Jews had "in some measure incorporated them with themselves." In a key passage, Josephus describes the great wealth of the Temple in Jerusalem, noting that Asian and European Gentiles who worshiped the [Judaic] God had contributed to it for a very long time. Josephus refers to the wife of Nero as a worshiper of God who pleaded on behalf of the Jews.23

A major reason for the antipathy of the church and the Roman hierarchy toward the Jews was the fact that, unlike the Christians, the Jews stubbornly denied divine rights to a ruler or any earthly institution. As the egalitarian principles of Judaic philosophy impacted on the upper classes as well as on the general populace, and as Jewish pervasion of the economic sphere became more and more threatening, a reaction took place. The acrimonious complaints of Christian and pagan philosophers turned into severe repression of the Jews by both the church and the state.

Thorpe pointed out that the decline of the art of glassmaking and that of numerous other disciplines introduced into Gaul by the "Semites" was brought about by "the growth of anti-Semitism in the Merovingian Gaul during the 5th and 6th centuries. This movement had been made familiar in its religious aspect as a conflict of the Christian church with the Jews, but the real issue was racial and commercial. The Germans who invaded Gaul discovered that the capital of the country was largely in the hands of the orientals [easterners], in some trades their superiors as craftsmen, and invariably their superiors as men of business... The glass industry suffered with the other rackets of the Semites [that is, crafts exclusively Judaic] and high class models disappear when anti-Semitic propaganda was most intense.24

Roman industry became largely dependant upon Judaic craftsmanship, and the ascendancy of Jews in both industry and commerce threatened to undermine church influence. The church began to re-evaluate the supercilious Roman attitude toward manual labor, realizing that they had to wean the barons away from dependance on Judaic artisanship and commercial competence.

St. Jerome wrote a treatise, Orbe, Romano Occupato, a strident warning that the skilled trades were a means by which Semites made themselves indispensable. "Semitic artisans are everywhere," St Jerome bitterly complained, pointing out again that Semitic artisans, mosaicists and sculptors were everywhere, that not only was retail trade in Semitic hands but that the Semites controlled both the manufacture and export of such products as those made of glass, silk and leather. The saint cited glassmaking as one of the trades "by which the Semites captured the Roman world."25

The humiliating dependency of Roman society on Judaic artisanship spurred the church toward proposing a humbler attitude toward manual labor. A new policy was launched to replace the stiff-necked Semitic artisans. Self-sufficient monasticism was fostered; a regimen of manual labor introduced. The intentions were to restore respectability to the artisan and remove the disrepute under which manual labor had suffered throughout ancient times. The monks were made mindful of the Hebrew tradition that work was in accordance with God's commandments.

The Bible was credited for reverence for creative labor, but the Jews were expelled!

Manual labor finally achieved a modicum of respectability in Roman society. Guilds were formed and put under the "protection" of Christian saints. One had to be or to become a Christian to be a member of an artisan's guild. This requirement was unevenly enforced for a long time, inasmuch as no substitute artisans existed for certain disciplines. Glassmakers were given specific exemption from conversion as a condition for practicing their art: "In Cologne... where the guilds succeeded in ultimately barring Jews from almost all of industrial occupations, they still allowed them to become glaziers, probably because no other qualified personnel was available."26

The expulsion of Judaic artisans from industry, and the reticence to employ Judaic entrepreneurs for internal and external commerce, were large factors in the descent of the Dark Ages upon Europe. Time and time again the Jews were recalled by the barons of Europe to boost their economies, only to be expelled when the church, fearing a renaissance of Judaic influence, pressured them into a renewed expulsion of the Jews.

image of a murrhine bowl
A mosaic murrhine or millefiore bowl of the late 2nd or early 1st c. BCE. Valuable murrhine glassware was introduced into Roman Italy in the late 1st c. BCE. "Murrhine was an oriental dealerís word," noted the English historian W. A. Thorpe. Photograph courtesy of the Corning Museum of Glass

Creative Labor: A Judaic Ethic

The Jews, far from decrying engagement in physical labor, had always esteemed and extolled all creative vocations, physical, mental and spiritual. The admonishment cited in every Jewish household and synagogue world-wide: "Forget not that we were all once slaves in Egypt," serves as an enduring reminder of the dignity of labor and as a rebuke to those who would set themselves above the "common" laborer. 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."

The Tannaim (scholars of the Mishnah), and the Amoraim (scholars of the Talmud) not only preached combining labor with Torah study, they practiced it. The great sages of Jerusalem and Babylon labored proudly at various trades to earn their daily sustenance. Teaching was not considered an activity for which compensation was required. Teaching Torah was a privilege for which monetary compensation was redundant. "Torah is not a spade," was a principle practiced by the sages as they eked out a living by creative labor. An ancient, oft-repeated rabbinic maxim placed man within the context of divinic creativity: "He who is productive so that the world's work may go on, has a share in God's creation."

"God, after all," it was argued, "is the ultimate artisan. Through his labor was the universe created!"


Note: a comprehensive examination of the subject can be found in Samuel Kurinsky, "The Second Diaspora," ch. 6 of The Glassmakers; an Odyssey of the Jews, Hippocrene Books, NY 1991, 135-181, and in Samuel Kurinsky, "Hellenization versus Judaization," in The Eighth Day; The Hidden History of the Jewish Contribution to Civiliztion, Jason Aronson, 1994, 298-331.

  1. Lionel Casson, Ancient Trade and Society, Wayne Un. Press, Detroit, 1966, 227
  2. Cicero, On Duties, 1:150-151.
  3. Xenophon, Oeconomicus, 4.3.
  4. Aristotle, Politics, 3.3.
  5. Casson, Ibid., 142.
  6. .Plutarch. Marc 17.3-4.
  7. Philo Judaeus, Quod Amniote Probus Libus Sit, 157.
  8. Hermann Vogelstein, The Jews of Rome, The Jewish Publication Society, 1940. 17.
  9. Vogelstein, Ibid., 1 7-18.
  10. Vogelstein, Ibid., 25.
  11. David Phillipson, Old European Jewries, 1894, reprinted by the Jewish Publication Society in 1943, 122.
  12. Vogelstein, Ibid., 28.
  13. David Phillipson, Ibid., 43
  14. Vogelstein, Ibid., 33
  15. Acts 28:13, 14.
  16. Nachum Gross, ed., Economic History of the Jews, Keter, Jerusalem, 1975, 174.
  17. Graetz, Ibid., 41.
  18. W. A. Thorpe, English Glass, A & C. Black Ltd., London, 1953, 7, 8, 11, 75, 76.
  19. Axel Von Saldern, Glas von der antike bis zum Jugendstil, Mainz am Rhein, 1980, 19.
  20. Frederic Neuberg, Ancient Glass, trans. Michael Bullock an Alisa Jaffa, Barrie and Rockcliffe, London,1962, 56.
  21. Pococke, ed. and trans., "Bar-Hebraeus," in Historia compeniera dynastiarum, 1985, 73.116.
  22. St.Augustine, The City of God, 6:11). For a full exposition of the subject see Louis H. Feldman, "The Omnipresence of the God-Fearers," Biblical Archaeological Review, 12:5 (Sept-Oct. 1986. See also Samuel Kurinsky, The Eighth Day; The Hidden History of the Jewish Contribution to Civilization, Jason Aronson, 1994, 305-312.
  23. Flavius Josephus, Wars of the Jews, vol. 1, The Works of Flavius Josephus, trans. William Whiston, reprint, Baker Book House, 1974, 2.463; 745; Antiquities of the Jews, 14.110, 20.195; Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Typho, 10.2.
  24. Thorpe, Ibid., 37.
  25. St. Jerome, Comm. In Ezekiel, xxvii, in Pat. Lat. 25, 313, "Orbe, Romano Occupato.
  26. Salo W. Baron, et al, ed. Economic History of the Jews, Keter, Jerusalem, 1975, 40.