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Background to the New Testament #11

Jewish Commerce


From the book "Sketches of Jewish Social Life" by Alfred


     THE remarkable change which we have noticed in the views of
Jewish authorities, from contempt to almost affectation of manual
labour, could certainly not have been arbitrary. But as we fail
to discover here any religious motive, we can only account for it
on the score of altered political and social circumstances. So
long as the people were, at least nominally, independent, and in
possession of their own land, constant engagement in a trade
would probably mark an inferior social stage, and imply either
voluntary or necessary preoccupation with the things of this
world that perish with the using. It was otherwise when Judaea
was in the hands of strangers. Then honest labour afforded the
means, and the only means, of manly independence. To engage in
it, just sufficient to secure this result, to "stand in need of
no one;" to be able to hold up one's head before friend and foe;
to make unto God moral sacrifice of natural inclination, strength
and time, so as to be able freely and independently to devote
oneself to the study of the Divine law, was a noble resolve. And
it brought its own reward. If, on the one hand, the alternation
of physical and mental labour was felt to be healthy, on the
other - and this had been the main object in view - there never
were men more fearlessly outspoken, more unconcerned as to mere
personality or as to consequences, more independent in thought
and word than these Rabbis. We can understand the withering scorn
of St.Jude (Jude 16) towards those "having men's persons in
admiration," literally, "admiring faces " - an expression by
which the LXX. translate the "respect" or "regard," or
"acceptance " of persons (the nasa panim) mentioned in Lev. xix.
15; Deut. x. 17; Job xiii. 10; Prov. xviii. 5, and many other
passages. In this respect also, as so often, St.Paul spoke as a
true Jew when he wrote (Gal. ii. 6): "But of these who seemed to
be somewhat, whatsoever they were, it maketh no matter to me: the
face of man God accepteth not."

     The Mishnah, indeed, does not in so many words inform us how
the change in public feeling, to which we have referred, was
brought about. But there are plenty of hints to guide us in
certain short caustic sentences which would be inexplicable,
unless read in the light of the history of that time.  Thus, as
stated in the previous chapter, Shemaajah admonished "Love work,
hate Rabbiship, and do not press on the notice of those in
power." Similarly, Avtaljon warned the sages to be cautious in
their words, for fear of incurring banishment for themselves and
their followers (Ab. i. 10,11). And Rabbi Gamaliel the 2nd had it
(ii. 3): "Be cautious with the powers that be, for they only seek
intercourse with a person for their own advantage. They are as if
they loved you, when it serves for their profit, but in the hour
of his need they do not stand by a man." In the same category of
sayings for the times we may rank this of Rabbi Matithja: "Meet
every one with a salutation of peace, and prefer to be the tail
of lions, but be not the head to foxes." It is needless to
multiply similar quotations, all expressive of an earnest desire
for honourable independence through personal exertion.

     Quite different from those as to trades were the Rabbinical
views about commerce, as we shall immediately show. In fact, the
general adoption of business, which has so often been made the
subject of jeer against Israel, marks yet another social state,
and a terrible social necessity. When Israel was scattered by
units, hundreds, or even thousands, but still a miserable,
vanquished, homeless, weak minority among the nations of the
earth - avoided, downtrodden, and at the mercy of popular passion
- no other course was open to them than to follow commerce. Even
if Jewish talent could have identified itself with the pursuits
of the Gentiles, would public life have been open to them - we
shall not say, on equal, but, on any terms? Or, to descend a step
lower - except in those crafts which might be peculiarly theirs,
could Jewish tradesmen have competed with those around? Would
they even have been allowed to enter the lists? Moreover, it was
necessary for their self-defence almost for their existence -
that they should gain influence. And in their circumstances this
could only be obtained by the possession of wealth, and the sole
road to this was commerce.

     There can be no question that, according to the Divine
purpose, Israel was not intended to be a commercial people. The
many restrictions to the intercourse between Jews and Gentiles,
which the Mosaic law everywhere presents, would alone have
sufficed to prevent it. Then there was the express enactment
against taking interest upon loans (Lev. xxv. 36,37), which must
have rendered commercial transactions impossible, even though it
was relaxed in reference to those who lived outside the
boundaries of Palestine (Deut. xxiii. 20). Again, the law of the
Sabbatic and of the jubilee year would have brought all extended
commerce to a standstill. Nor was the land at all suited for the
requirements of trade. True, it possessed ample seaboard,
whatever the natural capabilities of its harbours may have been. 
But the whole of that coast, with the harbours of Joppa, Jamneh,
Ascalon, Gaza, and Acco or Ptolemais, remained, with short
intervals, in the possession of the Philistines and Phoenicians.
Even when Herod the Great built the noble harbour of Caesarea, it
was almost exclusively used by foreigners (Jos. Jew. Wars, iii.
9,1). And the whole history of Israel in Palestine points to the
same inference. Only, on one occasion, during the reign of
Solomon, do we find anything like attempts to engage in
mercantile pursuits on a large scale. The reference to the
"king's merchants" (1 Kings x. 28,29; 2 Chron. i. 16), who
imported horses and linen yarn, has been regarded as indicating
the existence of a sort of royal trading company, or of a royal
monopoly. A still more curious inference would almost lead us to
describe Solomon as the first great "Protectionist." The
expressions in 1 Kings x. 15 point to duties paid by retail and
wholesale importers, the words, literally rendered, indicating as
a source of revenue that "from the traders and from the traffick
of the merchants;" both words in their derivation pointing to
foreign trade, and probably distinguishing them as retail and
wholesale. 1
     We may here remark that, besides these duties and the
tributes from "protected" kings (1 Kings ix. 15), Solomon's
income is described (1 Kings x. 14) as having


1 See Leyrer in Herzog, "Real Encycl." v. p.509; and Keil's
Comment. on the passage.


amounted, at any rate, in one year, 1  to the enormous sum of
between two and three millions sterling! Part of this may have
been derived from the king's foreign trade. For we know (1 Kings
ix. 26, etc.; 2 Chron. viii. 17, etc.) that King Solomon built a
navy at Ezion-geber, on the Red Sea, which port David had taken. 
This navy traded to Ophir, in company with the Phoenicians. But
as this tendency of King Solomon's policy was in opposition to
the Divine purpose, so it was not lasting. The later attempt of
King Jehoshaphat to revive the foreign trade signally failed; 
"for the ships were broken at Ezion-geber" (1 Kings xxii. 48; 2
Chron. xx. 36,37), and soon afterwards the port of Ezion-geber
passed once more into the hands of Edom (2 Kings viii. 20).
     With this closes the Biblical history of Jewish commerce in
Palestine, in the strict sense of that term. But our reference to
what may be called the Scriptural indications against the pursuit
of commerce brings up a kindred subject, for which, although
confessedly a digression, we claim a hearing, on account of its
great importance. Those most superficially acquainted with modern
theological controversy are aware, that certain opponents of the
Bible have specially directed their attacks against the antiquity
of the Pentateuch, although they have not yet arranged among
themselves what parts of the Pentateuch were written by different
authors, nor by how many, nor by whom, nor at what times, nor
when or by whom they were ultimately collected into one book.    
Now what we contend for in this connection is, that the
legislation of the Pentateuch affords evidence of its composition
before the people were settled in Palestine. We arrive at this
conclusion in the following manner. Supposing a code of 


1 The Vulgate renders, "Every year."



laws and institutions to be drawn up by a practical legislator -
for unquestionably they were in force in Israel - we maintain,
that no human lawgiver could have ordered matters for a nation in
a settled state as we find it done in the Pentateuch. The world
has had many speculative constitutions of society drawn up by
philosophers and theorists, from Plato to Rousseau and Owen.     
None of these would have suited, or even been possible in a
settled state of society. But no philosopher would ever have
imagined or thought of such laws as some of the provisions in the
Pentateuch. To select only a few, almost at random. Let the
reader think of applying, for example, to England, such
provisions as that all males were to appear three times a year in
the place which the Lord would choose, or those connected with
the Sabbatic and the Jubilee years, or those regulating religious
and charitable contributions, or those concerning the corners of
fields, or those prohibiting the taking of interest, or those
connected with the Levitical cities. Then let any one seriously
ask himself, whether such institutions could have been for the
first time propounded or introduced by a legislator at the time
of David, or of Hezekiah, or of Ezra? The more we think of the
spirit and of the details of the Mosaic legislation, the stronger
grows our conviction, that such laws and institutions could have
been only introduced before the people actually settled in the
land. So far as we are aware, this line of argument has not
before been proposed; and yet it seems necessary for our
opponents to meet this preliminary and, as we think, insuperable
difficulty of their theory, before we can be asked to discuss
their critical objections.

     But to return. Passing from Biblical, or, at least, from Old
Testament to later times, we find the old popular feeling in
Palestine on the subject of commerce still existing. For once
Josephus here correctly expresses the views of his countrymen.
"As for ourselves," he writes (Ag. Apion, i. 12), "we neither
inhabit a maritime country, nor do we delight in merchandise, nor
in such a mixture with other men as arises from it; but the
cities we dwell in are remote from the sea, and having a fruitful
country for our habitation, we take pains in cultivating that
only." Nor were the opinions of the Rabbis different. We know in
what low esteem pedlars were held by the Jewish authorities.     

     But even commerce was not much more highly regarded. It has
been rightly said that, "in the sixty-three tractates of which
the Talmud is composed, scarcely a word occurs in honour of
commerce, but much to point out the dangers attendant upon
money-making." "Wisdom," says Rabbi Jochanan, in explanation of
Deut. xxx. 12, "is not in heaven' - that is, it is not found with
those who are proud; neither is it 'beyond the sea' - that is, it
will not be found among traders nor among merchants" (Er. 55
a).  Still more to the point are the provisions of the Jewish law
as to those who lent money on interest, or took usury. "The
following," we read in Rosh Hash. i. 8, "are unfit for
witness-bearing: he who plays with dice (a gambler); he who lends
on usury; they who train doves (either for betting purposes, or
as decoys); they who trade in seventh year's products, and
slaves." Even more pungent is this, almost reminding one of the
Rabbinic gloss: "Of the calumniator God says, 'There is not room
in the world for him and Me'" - "The usurer bites off a piece
from a man, for he takes from him that which he has not given
him" (Bab. Hez. 60 b). A few other kindred sayings may here find
a place. "Rabbi Meir saith: Be sparing (doing little) in
business, but busy in the Thorah" (Ab. iv. 2). Among the
forty-eight qualifications for acquiring the Thorah, "little
business" is mentioned (vi. 6). Lastly, we have this from Hillel,
concluding with a very noble saying, worthy to be preserved to
all times and in all languages: "He who engages much in business
cannot become a sage; and in a place where there are no men,
strive thou to be a man."

     It will perhaps have been observed, that, with the changing
circumstances of the people, the views as to commerce also
underwent a slow process of modification, the maim object now
being to restrict such occupations, and especially to regulate
them in accordance with religion. Inspectorships of weights and
measures are of comparatively late date in our own country. The
Rabbis in this, as in so many other matters, were long before
us.  They appointed regular inspectors, whose duty it was to go
from market to market, and, more than that, to fix the current
market prices (Baba B. 88). The prices for produce were
ultimately determined by each community. Few merchants would
submit to interference with what is called the law of supply and
demand. But the Talmudical laws against buying up grain and
withdrawing it from sale, especially at a time of scarcity, are
exceedingly strict. Similarly, it was prohibited artificially to
raise prices, especially of produce. Indeed, it was regarded as
cheating to charge a higher profit than sixteen per cent. In
general, some would have it that in Palestine no one should make
profit out of the necessaries of life. Cheating was declared to
involve heavier punishment than a breach of some of the other
moral commandments. For the latter, it was argued, might be set
right by repentance. But he who cheated took in not merely one or
several persons, but every one; and how could that ever be set
right? And all were admonished to remember, that "God punisheth
even where the eye of an earthly judge cannot penetrate." 1

     We have spoken of a gradual modification of Rabbinical views
with the changing circumstances of the nation. This probably
comes out most clearly in the advice of the Talmud (Baba M. 42),
to divide one's money into three parts - to lay out one in the
purchase of land, to invest the second in merchandise, and to
keep the third in hand as cash. But there was always this
comfort, which Rab enumerated among the blessings of the next
world, that there was no commerce there (Ber. 17 a). And so far
as this world was concerned, the advice was to engage in
business, in order with the profit made to assist the sages in
their pursuits, just as Sebua, one of the three wealthy men of
Jerusalem, had assisted the great Hillel. From what has been
said, it will be inferred that the views expressed as to Palest-
nian, or even Babylonian Jews, did not apply to those who were
"dispersed abroad" among the various Gentile nations. To them, as
already shown, commerce would be a necessity, and, in fact, the
grand staple of their existence. If this may be said of Jews oif
the dispersion, it applies specially to that community which was
the richest and most influential among them - we mean the Jews of

     Few phases, even in the ever-changeful history of the Jewish
people, are more strange, more varied in interest, or more
pathetic than those connected with the Jews of Alexandria. The
immigration of Jews into Egypt commenced even before the
Babylonish captivity. Naturally it received 


1 Compare Hamburger, Real-Encycl. p. 494.


great increase from that event, and afterwards from the murder of
Gedaliah. But the real exodus commenced under Alexander the
Great. That monarch accorded to the Jews in Alexandria the same
rights as its Greek inhabitants enjoyed, and so raised them to
the rank of the privileged classes. Henceforth their numbers and
their influence grew under successive rulers. We find them
commanding Egyptian armies, largely influencing Egyptian thought
and inquiry, and partially leavening it by the translation of the
Holy Scriptures into Greek. Of the so-called Temple of Onias at
Leontopolis, which rivalled that of Jerusalem, and of the
magnificence of the great synagogue at Alexandria, we cannot
speak in this place. There can be no doubt that, in the
providence of God, the location of so many Jews in Alexandria,
and the mental influence which they acquired, were designed to
have an important bearing on the later spread of the Gospel of
Christ among the Greek-speaking and Grecian-thinking educated
world. In this, the Greek translation of the Old Testament was
also largely helpful. Indeed, humanly speaking, it would have
scarcely been possible without it. At the time of Philo the
number of Jews in Egypt amounted to no less than one million. 
In Alexandria they occupied two out of the five quarters of the
town, which were called after the first five letters of the
alphabet. They lived under rulers of their own, almost in a state
of complete independence. Theirs was the quarter Delta, along the
seashore. The supervision of navigation, both by sea and river,
was wholly entrusted to them. In fact, the large export trade,
especially in grain - and Egypt was the granary of the world -
was entirely in their hands. The provisioning of Italy and of the
world was the business of the Jews. It is a curious circumstance,
as illustrating how little the history of the world changes, that
during the troubles at Rome the Jewish bankers of Alexandria were
able to obtain from their correspondents earlier and more
trustworthy political tidings than any one else. 1
     This enabled them to declare themselves in turn for Caesar
and for Octavius, and to secure the full political and financial
results flowing from such policy, just as the great Jewish
banking houses at the beginning of this century were similarly
able to profit by earlier and more trustworthy news of events
than the general public could obtain.

     But no sketch of commerce among the early Jews, however
brief, would be complete without some further notice both of the
nature of the trade carried on, and of the legal regulations
which guarded it. 

     The business of the travelling hawker, of course, was
restricted to negotiating an exchange of the products of one
district for those of another, to buying and selling articles of
home produce, or introducing among those who affected fashion or
luxury in country districts specimens of the latest novelties
from abroad. The foreign imports were, with the exception of wood
and metals, chiefly articles of luxury. Fish from Spain, apples
from Crete, cheese from Bithynia; lentils, beans, and gourds from
Egypt and Greece; plates from Babylon, wine from Italy, beer from
Media, household vessels from Sidon, baskets from Egypt, dresses
from India, sandals from Laodicea, shirts from Cilicia, veils
from Arabia - such were some of the goods imported. On the other
hand, the exports from Palestine consisted of such produce as
wheat, oil, balsam, honey, figs; etc., the value of exports and
imports being nearly equal, and the balance, if any, in favour of


Hausrath, Neutest. Zeitzg. vol. i. p.57.


     Then, as to the laws regulating trade and commerce, they
were so minute as almost to remind us of the Saviour's strictures
on Pharisaic punctiliousness. Several Mishnic tractates are full
of determinations on these points. "The dust of the balances " is
a strictly Jewish idea and phrase. So far did the law interfere,
as to order that a wholesale dealer must cleanse the measures he
used once every month, and a retail dealer twice a week; that all
weights were to be washed once a week, and the balances wiped
every time they had been used. By way of making assurance doubly
sure, the seller had to give rather more than an ounce in
addition to every ten pounds, if the article consisted of fluids,
or half that if of solids (Baba B. v. 10,11). Here are some of
the principal ordinances relating to trade. 1

     A bargain was not considered closed until both parties had
taken possession of their respective properties. But after one of
them had received the money, it was deemed dishonourable and
sinful for the other to draw back. In case of overcharge, or a
larger than the lawful profit, a purchaser had the right of
returning the article, or claiming the balance in money, provided
he applied for it after an interval not longer than was needful
for showing the goods to another merchant or to a relative. 
     Similarly, the seller was also protected. Money-changers
were allowed to charge a fixed discount for light money, or to
return it within a certain period, if below the weight at which
they had taken it. A merchant might not be pressed to name the
lowest price, unless the questioner seriously intended to
purchase; nor might he be even reminded of a former overcharge to
induce him to lower his prices. Goods of different qualities
might not be mixed, even though the articles added were of


1 See my "History of the Jewish Nation," p.305, etc.


value. For the protection of the public, agriculturists were
forbidden to sell in Palestine wine diluted with water, unless in
places where such was the known usage. Indeed, one of the Rabbis
went so far as to blame merchants who gave little presents to
children by way of attracting the custom of their parents. It is
difficult to imagine what they would have said to the modern
practice of giving discount to servants. All agreed in
reprobating as deceit every attempt to give a better appearance
to an article exposed for sale. Purchases of corn could not be
concluded till the general market-price had been fixed. But
beyond all this, every kind of speculation was regarded as akin
to usury. With the delicacy characteristic of Rabbinical law,
creditors were expressly prohibited from using anything belonging
to a debtor without paying for it, from sending him on an errand,
or even accepting a present from one who had solicited an
advance. So punctilious were the Rabbis in avoiding the
appearance of usury, that a woman who borrowed a loaf from her
neighbour was told to fix its value at the time, lest a sudden
rise in flour should make the loaf returned worth more than that
     If a house or a field were rented, a somewhat higher charge
might be made, if the money were not paid in advance, but not in
the case of a purchase. It was regarded as an improper kind of
speculation to promise a merchant one-half of the profit on the
sales he effected, or to advance him money and then allow him
one-half of the profits on his transactions. In either case, it
was thought, a merchant would be exposed to more temptation. By
law he was only entitled to a commission and to compensation for
his time and trouble.
     Equally strict were the regulations affecting debtor and
creditor. Advances were legally secured by regular documents,
drawn out at the expense of the debtor, and attested by
witnesses, about whose signature minute directions are given. To
prevent mistakes, the sum lent was marked at the top, as well as
in the body of the document. A person was not taken as security
for another after the loan was actually contracted. 
     In reference to interest (which among the Romans was
calculated monthly), in regard to pledges, and in dealing with
insolvent debtors, the mildness of the Jewish law has never been
equalled. It was lawful, under certain restrictions, to take a
pledge, and in the event of non-payment to sell it: but wearing
apparel, bedding, the ploughshare, and all articles required for
the preparation of food were excepted. Similarly, it was
unlawful, under any circumstances: to take a pledge from a widow,
or to sell that which belonged to her. 

     These are only some of the provisions by which the interests
of all parties were not only guarded, but a higher religious tone
sought to be imparted to ordinary life. Those who are acquainted
with the state of matters among the nations around, and the cruel
exactions of the Roman law, will best appreciate the difference
in this respect also between Israel and the Gentiles.  

     The more the Rabbinical code is studied, the higher will be
our admiration of its provisions, characterised as these are by
wisdom, kindliness, and delicacy, we venture to say, far beyond
any modern legislation.  
     Not only the history of the past, the present privileges,
and the hope connected with the promises, but the family, social,
and public life which he found among his brethren would attach a
Jew to his people. Only one thing was awanting - but that, alas! 
the "one thing needful." For, in the language of St.Paul (Rom. x.
2), "I bear them record that they have a zeal of God, but not
according to knowledge."


To be continued

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