Jewish Views on Trade, Tradesmen, and Trades’ Guilds
Even the greatest Rabbis were skilled in some kind of trade. They were also not ashamed of their manual labor and taught the same to their students. It was a Rabbinical principle that “whoever does not teach his son a trade it is as if he brought him up to be a robber.” All over the antiquities there sayings such as the following: “How highly does the Maker of the world value trades.” “There is none whose trade God does not adorn with beauty.” “Though there were seven years of famine, it will never come to the door of the tradesman.” “There is not a trade to which both poverty and riches are not joined; for there is nothing more poor, and nothing more rich, than a trade.” “No trade shall ever disappear from the world. Happy he whom his teacher has brought up to a good trade; alas for him who has been put into a bad one.”
Rabbi Gamaliel, the son of Jehudah the Nasi, said “Fair is the study of the law, if accompanied by worldly occupation: to engage in them both is to keep away sin; while study which is not combined with work must in the end be interrupted, and only brings sin with it.”
Rabbi Eleazar, the son of Asarjah, said “Where there is no worldly support (literally no meal, no flour), there is no study of the law; and where there is no study of the law, worldly support is of no value.”
The Mishnah has a saying that closely resembles what Jesus was saying about building upon the Rock in Matt. 7:24 and Luke 6:47. We read as follows: “He whose knowledge exceeds his works, to whom is he like? He is like a tree, whose branches are many and its roots few, and the wind cometh, and uproots the tree and throws it upon its face.”
This is in direct contrast to what Jeremiah said about a person who trusted in the Lord and had his hope in the Lord. Jeremiah 17: 7 – 8 – Blessed is the man that trusteth in the Lord, and whose hope the Lord is. For he shall be as a tree planted by the waters, and that spreadeth out her roots by the river, and shall not see when heat cometh, but her leaf shall be green; and shall not be careful in the year of drought, neither shall cease from yielding fruit.
It seems that the Jews derived their teachings on labor because God told Adam that “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread.” After Adam had sinned and God had told him he would have to be punished and leave the Garden of Eden, he had been afraid of what would happen after he left this Paradise. The Rabbis felt that since God had told him that he would be able to eat by the sweat of his brow, that it was here that lay the dignity of labor. They felt that though the labor may be hard, they would achieve the same results as when Israel had stood at the shores of the Red Sea and needed a miracle. They felt that the dignity of labor was great in itself – that it reflected honor, and that it would nourish and engage the person who did it. It was for this reason that the law punished five-fold the theft of an ox, but only four-fold that of a sheep. The ox was what a man worked with to till his fields.
Public opinion in those days, just as today, attached a very different value to different kinds of trade. Some were avoided on account of the unpleasantness connected with them, such as those of tanners, dyers, and miners.
The Mishnah wrote clearly that a man should not teach his son a trade which necessitated constant intercourse with the other sex. Some of these kinds of trades would include jewelers, makers of handmills, perfumers, and weavers. The trade of the weaver had a saying about it: “A weaver must be humble, or his life will be shortened by excommunication;” that is, he must submit to anything for a living. There was also a common proverb about them: “If a weaver is not humble, his life is shortened by a year.”
In general, the following sound views about labor are expressed in the Talmud: “The Rabbi of Jabne said: I am simply a being like my neighbor. He works in the field, and I in the town. We both rise early to go to work; and there is no cause for the one setting himself up above the other. Do not think that the one does more than the other; for we have been taught that there is as much merit in doing that which is little as that which is great, provided the state of our hearts be right.” In fact, there was a man who dug cisterns and baths for purification that told the great Rabbi Jochanan that he was just as great because he served the wants of the community just as much as the most learned teacher in Israel. There was no doubt that the Jewish tradesmen held great pride in their work and looked upon it as something that was truly needed and admired. They felt that all work, however humble, was really work for God.
It must have been a great privilege for any person to do work that was in any way connected to the Temple. A large number of workmen were kept constantly employed there preparing what was necessary for the services that were conducted.
There were excellent Jewish workmen in Alexandria also. From antiquity, it is known that they had excellent guilds, or unions, as we would call it. Any poor workman had only to apply to his guild, and he was supported until he could find employment. The guild of coppersmiths there had for their device a leathern apron. When its members went abroad they used to carry with them a bed which could be taken to pieces. This same guild in Jerusalem possessed its own synagogue and burying-place.
The Palestinian workmen supported each other, but they had no exclusive guilds. The principles of “free trade” prevailed among them. Bazaars and streets were named after their trade, and the workmen of Jerusalem were specially distinguished for their artistic skills. The whole Tyropoeon Valley was occupied by dairies which is why it was named the “valley of chessemongers.”
In Isaiah 7:3 we read of “the field of the fullers”, which lay “at the end of the conduit of the upper pool in the highway” to Joppa. There is a whole set of sayings written in the Talmud that are called the Proverbs of the Fullers.
The Herodian princes had a huge love for beautiful architect and buildings, so they must have kept many tradesmen in constant work. At the re-erection of the Temple, there were no less than 18,000 that were employed in various handicrafts. Some of these jobs required great artistic skill. Even before that, Herod the Great is said to have employed a large number of the most experienced masters to teach the 1,000 priests who were to construct the Holy Place itself, for no layman could work on the Holy Place itself.
There was neither hammer, axe, chisel, nor any tool of iron that was used within the sacred precincts of the Temple. The reason for this is explained in the Mishnah. It describes how all the stones for the altar were dug out of virgin earth, with no iron tool being employed in their preparation: “Iron is created to cut short the life of man; but the altar to prolong it. Hence it is not becoming to use that which shortens for that which lengthens.” Only another skilled workman in the same trade could understand what skill and workmanship all of its various parts must have required.
It is written in the Mishnah: “Rabbi Simeon, the son of Gamaliel, said, in the name of Rabbi Simeon, the son of the (former) Sagan (assistant of the high priest): The veil (of the Most Holy Place) was an handbreadth thick, and woven of 72 twisted plaits; each plait consisted of 24 threads” (according to the Talmud, 6 threads of each of the 4 Temple-colors – white, scarlet, blue and gold). “It was 40 cubits long, and 20 wide (60 feet by 30 feet), and made of 82 myriads” (the meaning of this in the Mishnah is not plain). “Two of these veils were made every year, and it took 300 priests to immerse one” (before use).
The above statements deal in round numbers, but they are most interesting as helping us realize, not only how the great veil of the Temple was rent, when Jesus died on the cross, but also how the occurrence could have been effectually concealed from the mass of the people.
The old Jewish employers of labor seem to have had similar trouble with their men to that of which so many in our own times loudly complain. There is an emphatic warning to beware of eating fine bread and giving black bread to one’s workmen or servants, and not to sleep on feathers and give them straw pallets. It might have been something of this kind that was on the mind of Paul when he said in I Timothy 6: 1,2 – Let as many servants as are under the yoke count their own masters worthy of all honour, that the name of God and His doctrine be not blasphemed. And they that have believing masters, let them not despise them, because they are brethren; but rather do them service, because they are believing and beloved, partakers of the benefit.”
The spirit of trade-unionism can be traced in the Talmud also. It gives them express permission to combine to work only one or two days in the week, so as to give sufficient employment to every workman in a place. There is another quotation that the Rabbis commented on: ” ‘He doeth no evil to his neighbour’ – this refers to one tradesman not interfering with the trade of another!”