Commerce – Part 1
There had been a change over the years in the views of Jewish authorities on manual labor. Their views had gone from contempt of it to looking upon it with affection. Since we fail to discover any religious motive for this, we can only account for it by political and social circumstances.
As long as the people were even a little independent, and in possession of their own land, constant engagement in a trade would have marked an inferior social stage. The reason for this thinking was that it would have implied too much preoccupation with the things of this world that would perish with the using.
It was a whole other story, though, when Judaea was in the hands of strangers. Then honest labor was the only way that they could be independent in any way. They had to engage in work so that they could hold up their heads before their neighbors. They considered this their sacrifice to God of their natural inclination, strength and time. Then if after that they resolved to devote themselves to the study of the Divine law, it was a very noble resolve. This in itself brought its own reward.
Though it was thought to be healthy when one worked and studied the Law, by this time the Rabbis had become fearlessly outspoken men who did not fear any consequences for anything they said. They had in a way become gods of their own among the Jewish people. In fact, they had so much power that the people feared what could be done to them if they came against these powerful men.
The following are some excerpts from ancient writings about their power:
“Love work, hate Rabbiship, and do not press on the notice of those in power.”
“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.”
With the above being the view they had on trade, they had a much different view on commerce. When Israel had been scattered and homeless from Israel, and was a weak minority among other nations, there was no other course open to them but to follow commerce. It was totally necessary for their self-defense, and almost their total existence, that they should gain influence among the foreign people that they lived among. The only way that they could do this was to be wealthy, and the sole road to this was commerce.
There can be no question that according to the divine purpose of God, Israel was not intended to be a commercial people. The following are several restrictions that God had placed upon them that would have prevented them from doing this:
They were not supposed to have anything to do with Gentiles in any way.
They were not supposed to take interest on any loan, which would have made commercial transactions impossible.
The Sabbatical and Jubilee years would have brought commerce to a standstill.
The land was not at all suited for trade, and the seacoasts which they could have used remained in the hands of the Philistines for the biggest part because Israel never occupied them. Even when Herod built the huge harbor at Caesarea, it was almost exclusively used by foreigners.
The whole history of Israel in Palestine is not one of commerce, except for a time during the reign of Solomon, and a brief time during Jehoshaphat’s reign. Solomon’s pursuits pulled him away from God and ultimately led to God splitting the kingdom, even though he made a lot of money in his pursuits. Jehoshaphat’s tries at commerce failed miserably and he lost a lot of money that he had sunk into building ships.
It seems that the feeling of the early Old Testament times had come back into Jewish thinking by the time of Josephus concerning commerce. In the following he expresses the views of his countrymen: “As for ourselves, 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.”
The Rabbis held the same opinion also, because Jewish peddlers were held in very low esteem by the authorities, and commerce was not highly regarded by them either. The Talmud 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.” Rabbi Jochanan said “wisdom 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.”
Still more to the point are the provisions of the Jewish law as to those who lent money on interest, or took usury. In Rosh Hash it says “The following 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.” Rabbis Meir also said: “Be sparing in business, but busy in the Thorah.”
Lastly, the great Rabbi Hillel had a very great and noble saying that is 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.”
With the changing circumstances of the people, the views as to commerce also underwent a slow process of modification. The main object now was to restrict commerce occupations and to regulate them in accordance with religion. They gradually drew away from the laws that God had set up for them in the wilderness, and over the years slowly developed their own set of values and laws to live by. They especially changed a lot after God took his hand off of them and they had to leave Jerusalem and go into strange cities that had conquered and subdued them. They began then to adapt to these cities’ style of doing business.