Gold and Silver Smithing; A Judaic Tradition Part I - The Near-East and the Mediterranean

Fact Paper 17-I

© Samuel Kurinsky, all rights reserved


Ancient Metallurgy and the Jews

The advance of civilization is appropriately measured by the stage at which its pyrotechnology has reached. The Neolithic beginning of civilization is marked by the use of fire. The designations Chalcolithic, Bronze, and Iron Ages are simply reflections of the stage of pyrotechnology at which a particular culture has arrived.

Mesopotamia, the region from which the progenitors of the Jews stemmed, was the birthplace of the Copper and Bronze Ages. The subsequent Iron Age was born among the hundreds of Israelite villages that appeared upon the Canaanite hills in the 12th century B.C.E. Throughout the subsequent three millennia of Judaic existence as a nation and as a diaspora culture, Jews were closely associated with metallurgy.1

The Bible reflects the intimacy of the Judahites with the metallurgic arts. In the Book of Nehemiah we have a reference to Harhaiah, goldsmiths, and thereafter to Malchijah, "one of the goldsmiths."2 The Bible relates that to build the House of God,

"David prepared iron in abundance for the nails of the doors of the gates, and for the joinings.3 Thereafter David instructed his son, Solomon, to carry on his work. "I have prepared for the house of the Lord... of brass and iron without weight... Moreover, there are workmen with thee in abundance... all manner of cunning men for every manner of work. Of the gold, the silver, and the brass, and the iron, there is no number."4

Paul, in the New Testament refers to Alexander, a Jewish coppersmith, who "did me a great deal of harm."

The extent to which the metallurgical sciences had developed in Judah is reflected in the action of Nebuchadnezzer after defeating Judah in 597 BCE. The Babylonian king deported to Babylon "all the craftsmen and smiths"5

Metallurgical industries revived in Judah with the return of artisans from Babylonia under Cyrus, and continued to flourish into the Greek and Roman periods. Jesus ben Sirach (Ecclesiastus) writing during the Greek period at the end of the third century BCE, describes the activity of Judaic smiths in vivid poetry:

The maker of carving and cunning device,
Who by night as by day has no rest,
Who engraveth signet rings,
Whose art is to make the likeness true,
And his anxiety is to complete the work.
So also the smith that sitteth by the furnace,
And regardeth his weighty vessels;
The flame of the fire cracketh his flesh,
And with the heat of his furnace he gloweth;
To the hammer's sound he inclineth his ear,
And to the vessel's pattern he directeth his eyes

The Jewish artisans who had settled in Alexandria under the Ptolemaic Greeks (323-31 B.C.E.), continued to practice their metallurgic trades in that Egyptian city under the Romans. Alexandria was, outside of Asia, the most populous Jewish center in the Diaspora. Philo estimated the number of Jews in Egypt to have reached the one million mark. The Jews were concentrated mostly in seventeen cities of Northern Egypt (the "Arsenoite" district), and were 40% of the population of Alexandria, one of the largest cities of antiquity. They were organized into guilds with reserved sections in the synagogue of Alexandria. The Tannaic scholar, Rabbi Juda, visited Alexandria and reported:

"Whoever has not seen the Double Stoa of Alexandria, has not seen the glory of Israel...And they were seated there not in mixed order, but goldsmiths apart, silversmiths apart, blacksmiths apart, coppersmiths apart, and weavers apart. So that when a poor [artisan] entered there, he recognized the members of his own craft and turned to them to find means for the maintenance of himself and his family."6

Many skilled trades relate to work in precious metals within the broader metallurgical disciplines of smithing in iron, copper, bronze, and tin. There were esoteric specializations like engraving, minting, jewelry (chains as well as artifacts) and watchmaking. The Jews were notable sword-makers, a craft that involved not only skills in working iron and steel but expertise in gold, silver, and other precious materials with which the swords were inlaid. Many worked as armorers, which similarly involved the application of precious metals

The pyrotechnical arts reach their acme in the vitric arts, for melting quartzite materials into a viscous new form, glass, requires the use of a pneumatically drafted, reverberatory furnace. It is not accidental that Glass, Glasser, Glassman et al remain essentially Jewish names to the present days.

It was the practice among Jews to assume a surname either of the town or region from which they stemmed, or of the trade with which they made a livelihood. The fact that names such as Gold, Goldsmith, Goldberg, Goldstein, Goldman, and Silver, Silverstein, Silversmith, became generically Jewish names and remain so to the present day bespeaks the seminal role of Jewish artisans in these trades through the centuries. In Italian a typical Jewish family name, Orrefici, translates to goldworker.

Ferro, Ferrere, Ferriere Hierierro, Eisen, Eisenstein were likewise distinctly Jewish surnames that identified Jews as iron-smiths who carried on their trade in an Italian French, Italian, Spanish or German environment through the ages. Similarly the names Blecher (Yiddish, "tin-worker") and Klempner (German, "[metal]-folder") are recognizable Jewish names that translate literally to tinsmith. The names Messing (brass-worker) and Prager (minter) likewise derive from the German, and remained characteristically Judaic names for centuries.

Jewish Metallurgy of the Common Era

Metallurgy was practiced by Jews in ancient Galilee and there was a concentration of metal workers in Jerusalem, including smelters, blacksmiths, gold-, silver-, and coppersmiths, needle makers and armorers. Josephus pointed out that with the outbreak of the war with the Romans in 66 C.E., the smithies became a war industry.7 Then, in the battle for Jerusalem, the Romans first stormed into "that district of the new town, where lay the wool-shops, the braziers smithies, and the clothes market"8.

The operators of the smithies were among those enslaved by the Romans after the defeat of the Bar Khochba resistance. They were sent to Spain, Sardinia, and Sicily to work the mines and man the forges producing the iron, gold and silver objects now displayed in museums under a "Roman" label.

Jewish smiths were busy in the Trastevere, the western quarter of Rome among other sweaty, sooty and malodorous industries as glassmaking, unguent manufacture and leather tanning, all of which industries were largely if not exclusively in Jewish hands. Trastevere (Transtibiris, "across the Tiber"), was a dreary slum with crooked streets and dingy workshops. Pope Benedictus VIII gave a charter in 1019 to the bishopric of Portus, whose jurisdiction extended over the island of the Tiber and Trastevere, the area was designated fundum integrum, qui vocatur Judaeorum, ("The whole district, named after the Jews").9

Likewise, from the middle of the fourth century to the middle of the eleventh century, the Jews lived in and constituted the industrial heart of Byzantine Constantinople, the Chalkoprateia, a district named after its bronze and copper workers.10

The Jewish Smiths of Sicily

Descendants of the Jewish slaves and later immigrants endured as the smiths of Sicily for 1400 years! Christian notables bore witness to this fact. Thomas Aquinas refers, in his letter Ad ducissam Brabantiae, to the Jews as craftsmen who "work for a living as is done in parts of Italy." Obadiah of Betinoro, wrote in 1488 about the community of Palermo, which "contains about 850 Jewish smiths, porters, peasants...despised by the Christians because they are all tattered and dirty." Obadiah found a similar situation at Messina, where he counted "about four hundred family heads...better off than those at Palermo, all of them craftsmen, although a few are merchants."11

That was the time, as Sicilian history goes, in which "Jewish goldsmiths made precious reliquary for Christian saints, and mosques stood right next to "moschite," that is to say, synagogues."12

Such work was commonly done by Jewish artisans in Sicily for both Christian and Muslim clients until the Spanish decree of expulsion was extended to Sicily on June 18, 1492 (Sicily was then under Spanish rule). The state counselors saw the ruin which such an act implied for the Christians. They entreated Ferdinand to delay the measure he contemplated for, they complained:

"Nearly all the artisans in the realm are Jews. In case all of them are expelled at once, we shall lack craftsmen capable of supplying mechanical utensils, especially those made of iron, as horseshoes, agricultural implements, and equipment for ships, galleys, and other conveyances. Hence if the Jews are banished en masse, it will be impossible for Christian artisans to replace them, except after considerable delay, and apart from the inconvenience which must result from the cessation of the supply of these necessary implements, there will be the further detriment that the Christian artisans who are able to make the required articles will be in a position to enormously raise the price."13

A similar situation arose in Spain itself, where the Jews remained dominant in the crafts until the 16th century.

Yitzhak Baer, in his work History of the Jews, records that in Segovia (and Saragossa), artisans composed half of the income earners:

"Weavers, shoemakers, tailors, furriers, blacksmiths, saddlers, potters, and dyers... There was a street known as Shoemaker's Lane in the juderia of Toledo in the 14th century... Conspicuous in Aragon are Jewish bookbinders, scientists who devised scientific instruments, and gold and silversmiths (including some highly esteemed craftsmen who made Christian religious objects)... The same holds true for Saragossa."14

Max Margolis and Alexander Marx likewise note in their History of the Jewish People that "in Aragon... So considerable was the number of Jewish silversmiths and goldsmiths that, in 1415, Pope Benedict XIII, found it necessary to forbid having crosses, chalices and other church utensils made by Jews."15

At least three Jewish smithies operated in Toledo, and other iron workshops are registered in Avila, Valladolid, Valdeolivas, and Talavera de la Reina. The Jewish smiths of Burgos were employed to repair the great copper fountain of that city. Barcelona was famed for its roster of Jewish engravers, iron and goldsmiths.

With the mass conversions of 1391-1415, the process began of forcing Jews who would not convert from the arts in Spain. The anti-Jewish laws of 1412 stated that "Jewish blacksmiths, tailors, shoemakers, etc. might not serve Christian customers." This impelled Jewish philosophers to remind Jews of the Talmudic reverence for creative labor and to encourage its continuation, despite the restrictions. The moralist Lahmish Alami advised in 1415 that the Spanish Jew should continue to: "teach yourself a craft, to earn your living by your work... for it is to the honor of men to live off their work and toil.16

Baer notes that "The artisans had always been the most faithful element in Spanish Jewry. During the mass conversions of 1391-1415 many devout artisans remained steadfast."

It is no wonder then, that, struck with the need for the products of Jewish artisans, King Alfonso V himself complained in 1417 that community leadership had passed to "the artisans and the little people." [!]

The expulsion of the Jews from Spain was an industrial windfall for the Ottoman Empire. Sultan Beyezid II (1481-1512) registered his astonishment about the stupidity of the Spaniards in expelling their artisans and impoverishing their kingdom while enriching his. He had in mind, in particular, those Sephardim specializing in the manufacture of artillery and knowledgeable in the manufacture and use of gunpowder. The Sephardim set up factories on the Bosporus, and produced the sophisticated weapons with which the Ottomans achieved the expansion of their empire.

Two travelers, one Italian, Benedetto Ramberti, and one Frenchmen, Nicolas de Nicolay had the opportunity to observe these facilities at close range. De Nicolay, who accompanied the French ambassador to Turkey in 1551, reported that:

The excellent workers in all crafts and manufacturers among the newly 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.17

The inclusion of Portugal for the extent and excellence of pre-expulsion Jewish craftsmanship is expressed in A Brief History of Portugals Jewish Past: "What is truly amazing is the diversity of professions practiced by Portugal's Jewish citizens... Jewish craftsmen had a vital role in the development of Portugal's economy, and it cost them dearly in taxes. A national inventory taken between 1439 and 1496 showed that Portugal had 58 tailors and 41 goldsmiths. It was the success of these Jewish businesses that soon led to problems with non-Jews. The Jews were craftsmen long before their Christian neighbors."18

A fascinating sidelight of the struggle between the Ottomans and the Christians are the events which took place on the island of Rhodes during this period. At first, the Knights of St. John, the rulers of the island were tolerant of the Jews because Jewish smiths were the manufacturers of their swords and daggers. In 1502, however, the Grand Master of the Knights decreed that all the Jews of Rhodes must accept the Christian faith, or be banished from the island. Many Jews were constrained to publically follow the order.

Twenty years later, in 1522, Rhodes was conquered by the Turka. A Jewish smith, Abraham, immediately appealed to the Sultan Suleiman to allow these crypto-Jews to profess their faith openly. The Sultan not only agreed, but issued permission for the immigration of other Sephardic refugees. Spanish became the dominant language in the Rhodesian Jewish community.

The French Pilgrim, Carlier de Pinon, visited Rhodes in 1579, and found that most of the residents were Jews. Blacksmithing and tinsmithing were prominent among the listing of crafts then practiced by the Rhodesian Jews. Gold and silver work was part and parcel of sword and armor manufacture, inasmuch as elaborate patterns of the precious metals were inlaid into the weapons. Jews were still the armorers of Rhodes.

It can readily be assumed that the famous copper colossus of Rhodes, one of the ancient world's greatest wonders, was the work of Judaic coppersmiths.

Jewish Smithing in Arabia.

The Jews, in fact, were not only smiths in Christian Sicily and Spain but had remained the exclusive smiths and metal workers of the ancient Arab world from the pre-Islamic period to modern times.

"In the northwest of the [Arabian] Peninsula the Jews occupied the oases on the line of the caravan route running from north to south. Taima, Fadak, Khaibar, Wadi-l-Kura (vale of villages) were in their hands, and Yathrib (the later Medina, the prophet's city) was in all probability founded by them. These settlements consisted of aggregates of plantations, villages and strong castle-like houses which, now closer together, now wider apart, lay amid scattered palm groves, orchards and cultivated fields. It appears that the culture of the date-palm was introduced into Arabia by the Jews. They also engaged in commerce, and as jewelers and goldsmiths they were in great demand. They formed compact communities, enlarged by accessions from among the natives, who were attracted to Judaism."19

A sixth-century Christian monk, Cosmas Indicophleustes, a native of Alexandria, was, as his name indicates, was a traveler to India. He passed through southern Arabia on his way, and described in detail the arts and crafts being carried on by Jews in his work, Christian Topography. He found a large concentration of Jewish craftsmen in Medina; one quarter of the city alone had no less than 300 Jewish gold- and silversmiths. It is no surprise, then, that when Mohammed captured that city he found not only stores of agricultural tools and implements produced by the Jewish smiths, but of weapons, the work of Jewish armorers. Arabic sources tell of cuirasses, swords, spears, and projectile machines, employed by the Jews to defend settlements against hostile nomads, that were confiscated by Mohammed.20

The most famous of swords in the Arab milieu were the so-called "David cuirasses." Arab poets praised both their strength and their splendor. The name did not derive from King David, but from a skilled Jewish armorer in Arabia.20A

The thousands of documents recovered from the Geniza (storeroom) of an ancient synagogue in Cairo reveal much about the crafts and industries of the Jews of the Middle Ages. Some of these Egyptian Jews carried their metallurgic skills as far as India:

"We learn a good deal about Jewish craftsmen from the Geniza, the fact that some of them were employed in the imperial workshops of the Fatimids; or that around 1140 three Jewish silversmiths - including two from North Africa - emigrated to Ceylon to pursue their livelihoods; or that a Tunisian Jew ran a factory in India, in which Jews bearing Arabic names, possibly from Yemen, made brass vessels which are described to us I detail primarily for the sake of beauty..."21

Goitein states that we can safely assume that this newcomer to the subcontinent was only following the example of other Jews who preceded him. "the Jewish prominence in the metal trade probably went back to some ancient tradition. When the Arabs invaded the island of Rhodes in the eastern Mediterranean in 672 or 673, they destroyed the famous colossus, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. Its copper, weighing '880 camel loads,' was bought by a Jewish merchant in Emesa, Syria, who certainly was no novice in the copper trade.22 That Jew who made the Colossus of Rhodes into scrap metal at the time of the first Muslim conquests was charged with that task because he had been in the metal business before (later on, a business in which many Jews were engaged, as we may learn from the Geniza papers)...23 Goitein continues:

"The wealth of material about the Jewish trade in Arab countries preserved in the [Cairo] Geniza enables us to specify the branches of commerce in which Jews were engaged... The Jews were prominent in the great Indian trade of spices, aromatic, dyeing and medicinal herbs; in the textile and clothing business; in the metal trade, both in raw metals and all ingredients for the metal industry and in finished metal vessels of all descriptions. They exported iron and steel from India and brought there copper and lead; in addition, it seems that the Jews were active not only as gold- and silversmiths (i.e., makers of ornaments) - as they were in all Muslim countries from pre-Islamic times down to the present day - but also as manufacturers of brass, and possibly also of silver and gold vessels... As late as 1924, I found the Jews in Damascus specializing in metal vessels..."24

image of gun stocks

Goitein also cites an Iranian source of the twelfth century that speaks of a Jew who had leased copper mines in that country from the government.

One of the letters cited by Goitein is by an Indian-Jewish buying agent of a North African Jewish merchant, who writes to his "master" about the goods laded on board ships from India for delivery to North Africa. Spices (cardamom and pepper) and iron are most prominent among the goods cited. In one letter the agent refers to two shiploads, the smaller of which contained pepper and iron, and arrived safely.

The agent reported that the bigger ship arrived near Berbera (the present Somali - the ships were then routed around Africa) where it foundered. "The pepper was lost completely; God did not save anything of it. As to the iron, mariners were brought in from Aden, who were engaged to dive for it and salvage it. They salvaged about one-half the iron, and, while I am writing this letter, they are bringing it out of [the customs house of Aden]."

"... I regret your losses very much." the agent concludes, "But the H(oly one, be) b(lessed), will compensate you and me presently."

Jewish Smiths of Libya

Mordechai Hakohen was a nineteenth century North African chronicler of the Jewish village life in the Libyan mountains. In his Haghid Mordechai, Mordechai documented the fact that since all workshop labor was disdained by the Arabs, crafts were relegated exclusively to Jewish artisans.

The work of Libyan Jewish gold and silversmiths is well known, thanks to the purchase of jewelry and Jewish ritual artifacts by travelers in North Africa, and to the export of such items to dealers throughout the world. Artifacts with Jewish motifs, however, were but the smallest portion of Jewish metallurgical production. Jewish artisans produced metal-ware for the Arabic market, and through the centuries into modern times only Jews produced agricultural and industrial tools in brass and iron in the region. Even more startling is the revelation that Jews were exclusively the ancient gunsmiths of North Africa. The swords and guns of North Africa wielded by the common soldier as well as those sported by officers and chieftains, were all produced by Jewish hands. The exquisite workmanship of the weapons wielded by the Arab hierarchy, hand-wrought with "arabesques," or inlaid with gold, or silver, or mother-of pearl, were the products of these Jewish smiths. These are the weapons displayed as works of art in museums under an Arabic label!

C. Ofek in a work entitled The Jews of Libya, records the personal testimony of Reb Shaul, whose grandfather moved from the village of Tigris, to Tripoli where he opened a workshop in the "Goldsmith Market."

"The family names," recounts Reb Shaul, "which are still in use today," reflected the occupation of the family. "For example, Chadad meant blacksmith, Falach- farmer, Laban - painter, and more."

"The life of a goldsmith, however, was not a rosy one. Their prosperous business aroused jealousy. Once, in 1936, the ruler of Libya, the Italian fascist Italo Balbo (Libya was then under Italian rule) tried to force the Jewish goldsmiths to open their businesses on Shabbos, for no other reason than antisemitism. The Jews paid no attention to his repeated requests that turned into threats.... Not a single Jewish store opened."

"The Jewish disobedience aroused Bilbo's anger. The local newspaper published a sharp article under the headline, 'Tripoli is not Tel Aviv.' The air was charged. Over two hundred Jewish store owners were thrown into jail. Three of them were whipped in a large square near the Jewish streets of Tripoli, One of them was my father."

A stream of protests to the Italian government led to a decree that limited the opening to two hours on the Shabbath from 10:00 to 12:00 o'clock, when the Jews were attending Shul. "The 'fascist Sabbath' then began on Shabbos at noon and ended in the middle of Sunday night."

"Left with no other choice, the goldsmiths secretly took steps against the decree and gave their stores to Arab friends for those two hours. The decree was in effect until Italy entered World War II. I was only ten years old, but I shall never forget this terrible decree, nor the ruler. A few months later, his plane crashed and he was burned."25

The Jewish Smiths of Morocco

Jewish goldsmiths plied their trade in Morocco from ancient into contemporary times. No less than a half dozen synagogues front on the Rue Lusitania in Casablanca. Only a few steps away are the many shops on Rue de Rabat where Jewish goldsmiths work.

In Marrakesh a synagogue stands across from the Jewelers market, where "Jewish goldsmiths still produce pendants of the hand of Fatima, a symbol of good luck to both Jews and Muslims.26

The depth of the Jewish tradition of Moroccan smithing is exemplified by the story told about Rabbi Ibn Attar (1696-1743), the author of an important work, Or Hokum and other scholarly works. "Once two ministers from the court of the king of Morocco came to him with a certain amount of gold. "'The king has heard that you are the foremost expert in your craft,' they said, 'Therefore he sent us to commission you to fashion a piece of the finest jewelry in honor of his daughter's wedding. You will be paid a princely sum. However, you must complete the work in ten days.'"

Rabbi Claim Attar was a desperately poor man, but he was preoccupied with his studies, and let the time lapse without filling his commission. He was arrested, and was thrown into a lion's den. After an interlude, the keeper looked in, and to his amazement, saw that "There sat Rabbi Claim, wearing his tabis and tefillin, praying and studying in a loud voice, while in front of him crouched the lions in a semi-circle, like students before their teacher, listening attentively to his words." So impressed was the king on learning what had happened that he asked the learned man's forgiveness and ordered his release!26a

There is good evidence that Jewish trades and artisans penetrated deep into Africa, as evidenced by the appearance of glassmaking and other crafts for which the required pyro-technology was lacking. Lichtblau, a former U. S. State Department representative in Africa states that:

"[Jews] are said to have formed the roots of a powerful craft tradition among the still-renowned Senegalese goldsmiths, jewelers and other metal artisans. The name of an old Senegalese province called "Judddala," is said to attest to the notable impact Jews made in this part of the world.27

The Jewish Smiths of Yemen.

In 1679, the Jews of San'a and of central Yemen in general were expelled from the country in which they had been living for centuries - an occurrence very common in Christian Europe but absolutely unheard of in Arab Islam. To be sure, after a year or so they were recalled, mainly because they were indispensable as artisans and craftsmen28 Jewish artisans were virtually the exclusive workers of precious metals throughout the 2500 year history of their sojourn in Yemen.

The life of the Jews in Yemen was thereafter a miserable one under a succession of Muslim rulers, leading to the mass exodus of 46,000 Jews flown to Israel "on the wings of eagles."

Earlier, in 1943, one of the Yemenites who had already made Aliyah to Israel was Rabbi Yosef Kapach, renowned for his scholarship and vast publishing undertakings. "His most monumental undertaking was reissuing Maimonides Mishnah Torah, consisting of 24 volumes. In 1969 he received the Israel Prize for this work, the third prize he had won in recognition of two of his other important works.

"As a young man he was imprisoned on false charges by the Igashim, and almost forced to convert to Islam. Immediately after his release at the age of 19 he married, and shortly thereafter emigrated to Israel."


In Yemen, the young scholar, following an age-old tradition, became a silversmith. Once he arrived in Israel he continued his trade until he became the rabbi of a Tel Aviv synagogue.

We learn much about the ancient Jewish smithing tradition of Yemen from a photographic exhibition by a Yemenite Jew, Zion Ozeri. Ozeri was a child of Yemenite Jews rescued during the 1949-1950 "Operation Magic Carpet." He became a photographer, and returned to his birthplace to record the life of the remaining Jews of Yemen. In doing so he documented the remnants of the metallurgical activities of the Yemenite Jews.

Ozeri was among the Jews flown to Israel "on the wings of eagles." Jonathan Mark, in a report in Jewish Week, February 10, 1995, notes that "having migrated from ancient Israel with the warnings of Jeremiah still ringing in their ears," the promise of a return on eagle's wings was fulfilled.

Not all the Jews left Yemen. Some were reluctant to abandon a 2500 year-old legacy, and others who could not precipitously abandon their workshops, family enterprises handed down through the centuries.

Jews continued to trickle out of Yemen until 1954. The Yemenite hierarchy came to the distressing realization that the country's economy was hemorrhaging with the drain of basic industries and irreplaceable artisans. The government slammed shut the emigration doors so tightly that even sending a letter out of the country could land a Jew in Jail.


Yemen launched a campaign of taking over Jewish enterprises and the replacement of Jewish artisans. Some success in this effort, plus delicate diplomatic maneuvering, created an opening for the removal of more Jews. Jonathan Mark noted in his article that in 1992, "Operation Magic Carpet II" began selectively shepherding several hundred more Jews to Israel.

But 800 Yemenite Jews remained, locked into a country which held them hostage. Significantly, most reside in the industrial sectors of Raida and Sa'ada.

Zion Ozeri became an international photographer whose work has made a notable mark. In 1992 he returned to Yemen to document the life of the remaining Jews.

An exhibition of Ozeri's photographs, "The Last Jews of Yemen," depict such poignant scenes as that of a silversmith in Haidan Asham, taken before the Jews of that village made Aliya to Israel. Ozeri visited the village of his parents. In the small villages, now devoid of Jews, the workshops were left to other hands.

Jonathan Mark quotes Ozeri: "I easily located the village where my parents lived. An old man, who remembered my father took me into the blacksmith shop that my father owned." Looking at the men making plows, tools, and utensils, "I could not help but think that had my parents stayed, this could have been me."

Today Yemenite smiths carry on their ancient tradition, enriching the shops of Israel with their marvelously wrought artifacts.

The Jewish Smiths of Italy

The most famous sword maker of Italy was a Jewish armorer, Salomone da Sesso (1465-1519). During the period of the Inquisition, Salomone ostensibly converted to Christianity and assumed a new name. The erstwhile Salomone was the producer of the famous "Queen of Swords," for Cesare Borgia. Salomone's swords, etched with magnificent decorations, are displayed under his assumed name, Ercole di Fidele in numerous public collections, including the Metropolitan Museum in New York, the Musee des Invalides in Paris, the Kensington Museum in London.29

Over a period of two centuries members of a renowned Jewish jewelers family, Formiggini, worked for the Dukes of the House of Este. Isaac of Bologna was a Jewish silversmith who worked for the royal court of Naples in 1474. There was a street of Jewish goldsmiths in Mantua, who served the Gonzaga court. Jewish goldsmiths were prominent in the Duchy of Savoy; we learn this fact because a Christian guild was formed and attempted to halt their activities. Their action was effective only for a brief period, for the quality of the products of the Jewish masters could not be duplicated. Venice was the chief center for the manufacture of Jewish engagement rings, ceremonial objects such as crowns and mounts for Torah scrolls, pointers, candelabra, cups and amulets. Notable among the jewelers producing synagogue artifacts in Venice was Abraham ben Moses Tzoref, who carried on the trade in 1712 .

At least one Jewish goldsmith came to northern Italy from Sicily as early as 1460, a half century before the Jews were expelled from that island. We learn this interesting fact because of an action taken by Benedotto Siculo accusing the vender of cheating on the amount of the precious metal in the jewelry sold to him. The Queriniana Library of Brescia, a repository of ancient books and documents, one of which also cites an action taken in 1578 against the whole Jewish community. It concerns the sale of gold jewelry amounting to 1900 Lira. This action, holding an entire community responsible, suggests that the goldsmithing industry of the region was entirely in the hands of Jewish artisans.29A


Some of the goldsmiths of the region were Ashkenzai Jews from Germany. The international ties of Jews to working precious metals is indicated by other documents from the archives of the city of Cremona. On the 15th of June,1464, for example, the Master Aaron "son of Abraham of Nembrach" is documented as having rented his gold-working shop to the Orafo ("Goldsmith"), son of the master Marco, for two years. Aaron was originally from Nuremberg.29B

During the Renaissance the Goldshmidt family, an Italian/Jewish family of Bassano da Grappa in northern Italy (who obviously immigrated into Italy from the north), were carrying on the craft of goldsmithing. In the early 1700's the Goldshmidts moved to Verona, and finally, in 1817, they moved to Brescia where the head of the family, Giuseppe Goldshmidt, changed the family name to the literal Italian translation Orrefici. Giuseppe Orrefici was actively in the struggle for the unity of Italy. His grandson, Hieronemus Orrefici, became the mayor of Brescia from 1903 to 1912, and thereafter became a Senator from the region.29C

The Italian gold industry became centered in Bassano da Grappa (Veneto), from which the Orrefici

("goldsmiths") stemmed.. The beautiful town at the foot of the Dolomite mountains remains a major producer and exporter of gold rings and other gold products to this day. Many contemporary American graduation rings are produced in Bassano. The author visited a number of these enterprises in the course of doing business in Italy between 1955 and 1980. Virtually all the owners attested that their enterprise was founded by Jews, and some professed to have been of Jewish origin.

Jews were for many centuries the exclusive producers of fine gold and silver thread:

"The calligraphy of the Jewish scribes was of a very high order. Gold embroidery was another branch of the same decorative art, and here the Jews undoubtedly excelled. They were, naturally, clever gold and silver smiths. Their methods of refining and wire-drawing metals, especially silver were noted for their excellence. The Jews who in 1446 were expelled from Lyons, established a silver industry in Trevoux which was unrivalled."30

The role of the Jewish workers in precious metal in western Europe, England, and the Americas is addressed in the following HHF Fact Paper 17-II.

In that Fact Paper we will learn that two of the most renowned American silversmiths were Jews who also played a major role in American history. No, we are not referring to Paul Revere! Meyer Meyers, like Revere, was an important participant in the American Revolution. Another Jewish silversmith, Joseph Jonas, was a friend to Abraham Lincoln. It was he who suggested Lincoln's candidacy at a meeting of Republicans, and it was he who arranged for the Lincoln/Douglas debates.


1: Samuel Kurinsky, The Eighth Day; The Hidden History of the Jewish Contribution to Civilization, Jason Aronson, 1994, 207-220; . HHF Fact Paper 4-I; Iron Working; A Judaic Tradition; The Biblical Period.

2: Nehemiah 2:8, 2:31.

3: I Chronicles 22:2,3.

4: I Chronicles 22:14-16.

5: II Kings 24 12-14.

6: Sukka 51b.

7:Josephus, Warsof the Jews, II, 22.1.

8: Josephus, Wars, V, 8, 1.331.

9: David Philipson,, Old European Jewries,, Reprint, Jewish Publication Society,1943, 122.

10: Andrew Sharf, Byzantine Jewry, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1971, 16 [Reference: A. Galanti, Les Juifsa de Constantinople sous Byzance, Istanbul 1940, pp. 23-5; cf. C. Emereau 'Constantinople sous Théodore le Jeune,' Byzantion 2, 1925, 112.]

11: A. Yaari, Iggorot Erez Israel, 1943.

12: L'Art vous interesse?

13: La Lumia, Gli Ebrei Sicilian, Palermo, 1870 ii, 38,50.

14: Yitzhak Baer, History of the Jews in Christian Spain, 1961.

15: Max L. Margolis and Alexander Marx, A History of the Jewish People Jewish Publication Society of America, 1927, 420.

16: Iggeret Musur, ed. A.M. Haberman, 1946.

17: De Nicolay Les Navigations, peregrinations et voyages faits en Turkey, 1577.

18: A Brief History of Portugal's Jewish Past

19: Max L. Margolis and Alexander Marx, A History of the Jewish People Jewish Publication Society of America, 1927, 24.

20: Marc Wishnitzer, A History of Jewish Crafts and Guilds, Jonathan David, 51.

20A: Wishnitzer, idem.

21: S. D. Goitein, Jews and Arabs, Schocken Books, N. Y., 1974. 105.

22: Goitein, Letters of Medieval Traders Princeton University Press, 1943, 18.

23: Goitein, Ibid., 209.

24: Goitein, Jews and Arabs, Schocken Books, N. Y., 1974, 117.

25: C. Ofek, The Jews of Libya,

26: Marrakesh,

26A: Toldos Or Hokum, p. 11, ff. 4, citing Sefer Ma'aseh HaGedolim al HaTorahstate

27: George Lichtblau and Samuel Kurinsky, HHF Fact Paper 19-II, Jews in Africa; Ancient Black African Relations.

28: S. D. Goitein, Jews and Arabs, Schocken oks, N. Y., 1974, 74.

29: Wishnitzer, Ibid., 144.

29A: Franco Bontempi, Storia delle communità ebraiche a Cremona e nella sua provincia, Cremona, 2002, 156.

29B: Bontempi, Ibid., 155.

29C: Franco Bontempi, idem. The documents were found in the archives of the Queriniana Libray of Brescia