Jewish Views on Trade, Tradesmen, and Trades’ Guilds
There is a passage in the Mishnah that reads as follows:
Rabbi Meir said: “Let a man always teach his son a cleanly and a light trade; and let him pray to Him whose are wealth and riches; for there is no trade which has not both poverty and riches, and neither does poverty come from the trade nor yet riches, but everything according to one’s deserving (merit).”
Rabbi Simeon, the son of Eleazar, also said: “Hast thou all thy life long seen a beast or a bird which has a trade? Still they are nourished, and that without anxious care. And if they, who are created only to serve me, shall not I expect to be nourished without anxious care, who am created to serve my Maker ? Only that if I have been evil in my deeds, I forfeit my support.”
Abba Gurjan of Zadjan said: “Let not a man bring up his son to be a donkey-driver, nor a camel-driver, nor a barber, nor a sailor, nor a shepherd, nor a pedlar; for their occupations are those of thieves.”
Rabbi Jehudah said: “Donkey-drivers are mostly wicked; camel-drivers mostly honest; sailors mostly pious; the best among physicians is for Gehenna, and the most honest of butchers a companion of Amalek.
Rabbi Nehorai said: I let alone every trade of this world, and teach my son nothing but the Thorah; for a man eats of the fruit of it in this world (as it were, lives upon earth on the interest), while the capital remaineth for the world to come. But what is left over (what remains) in every trade (or worldly employment) is not so. For, if a man fall into ill-health, or come to old age or into trouble (chastisement), and is no longer able to stick to his work, lo! he dies of hunger. But the Thorah is not so, for it keeps a man from evil in youth, and in old age gives him both a hereafter and the hopeful waiting for it… We find that Abraham our father kept the whole Thorah – the whole even to that which had not yet been given. ‘Because that Abraham obeyed My voice, and kept My charge, My commandments, My statutes, and My laws.'”
The above quotes give a specimen of Mishnic teaching. They also give insights into the principles, the reasoning, and the views of the Rabbis. At the very outset, it is known that Rabbi Simeon’s words were spoken nearly a century after the time when our Lord had been upon the earth. They might have been well known at the time and that might be why Jesus used the example in Matthew 6:26 – “Behold the fowls of the air; for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them. Are ye not much better than they?”
Jesus did not come to destroy anything, but to establish the law. Everything that was pure and good that was left of the Jewish teachings, he used in His parables to teach them the truths that He was trying to get across to them. There was no way that the Gospels could have left out the Jewish element when being written. They are Jewish in form, but most anti-Jewish in spirit.
Hence, the Jewish surroundings greatly influenced the circumstances of the gospel history. They help us to realize what Jewish life was like at the time of Christ, and also to be able to comprehend what we might think are peculiarities in the narrative that might be different from our customs today.
We can now come to the subject of how many of the disciples and followers of the Lord made their living by different crafts. In the same Jewish spirit of work, Jesus Himself made a living in the same trade as His earthly father. Just about all of the greatest of His disciples earned their bread by the labor of their hands. This was probably because they just went into the same trade of their father. Back then it took years to learn a trade well, so it would have just been natural for them to go into the same trade because they grew up around that particular thing. It might have even been done out of respect for the parent.
Paul also practiced what he preached. He sets forth very clearly in his Epistles the need for a man to be able to support himself. Even though Paul knew that biblically the church should support him so that he wouldn’t have to have an outside job, he did not want this to be a stumbling-block as he went to different cities and started new churches. He knew that the people there didn’t know the truth yet. He did not want to do anything that would take their eyes off of what he was trying to accomplish.
The sketch that he portrays from his life at Thessalonica was one of a loving, nursing mother who cherished her children and very tenderly imparted the truth of the Gospel to them. Paul was totally different from the Rabbis. He was not seeking glory nor courting authority as they were. He was not covetous for power and was not a man-pleaser so that he could keep his position. His main goal was to please God with everything in his life. He worked day after day at a secular job, and then preached in private and in public about the unsearchable riches of Christ, who had redeemed him with his precious blood.
Even though Paul seems to have been really anticipating the second coming of the Lord, he in no way made the people he taught just dreamers who were sitting back and waiting for Him to appear again. He taught them to pray for Christ’s coming, but also to live victoriously in the world they were in.
I Thessalonians 4: 1 1 – 12 – And that ye study to be quiet, and to do your own business, and to work with your own hands, as we commanded you. That ye may walk honestly toward them that are without, and that ye may have lack of nothing.
It is very significant that this plain and practical religion that Paul talked about was placed in immediate conjunction with their hope of the coming again of their Lord. The same admonition about them working and eating their own bread also comes again to them in II Thessalonians. Paul reminds them of his own example and what he has already told them.
Saul (Paul) of Tarsus was a Jew and deeply imbued with training at the feet of the great Gamaliel who was called “that son in Israel”. Many years later many of his writings still had some of the same sayings that he had been taught so long ago. For the Rabbis taught honest labor and manly independence.
In direct contrast to Israel, the philosophers of Greece and Rome denounced manual labor as something that was degrading. They felt that it was below their citizenry. A Roman who was trying to get into the political realm and be supported at public expense would never stoop to the defilement of work.
From the earliest of times labor had been recognized as honorable. Moses recognized its dignity and encouraged it among the Israelites. The book of Proverbs is full of the praises of much domestic industry and talks in a bad way about lazy people. With very few exceptions, all the leading Rabbinical authorities worked at some trade. Over the years the Rabbis started to assume more and more laborious duties so that they would impress others. This was not their natural behavior, but just one that they wanted others to see so that it would make them more pious. One Rabbi started to carry his own chair as he went to the synagogue, while others would drag heavy rafters or other heavy things. In an extreme instance, a man was actually summoned from his trade of stone-cutter to the high-priest office.
The high-priests under the Herodian dynasty were of a very different class. Their history possesses a tragic interest that bore on the state and fate of the nation. Hillel, who had the great school, was a wood-cutter. His rival Shammai, of the other great school, was a carpenter. There were many other well-known Rabbis who were shoemakers, tailors, carpenters, sandalmakers, smiths, potters, builders, and basically every other trade. There were not ashamed of their manual labor, either. One of the Rabbis was recorded as teaching his students from the top of a barrel, or cask, that he had made and he carried it everyday to the academy.
It was a Rabbinical principle that “whoever does not teach his son a trade is as if he brought him up to be a robber.”