Commerce – Part 2
Previously, the Jewish people had felt that their religion was everything and their trade could only be something that was an honest one. They felt that their trade should support them but they shouldn’t put it ahead of their religion. As their circumstances changed by being ruled by foreigners, so did their views on commerce go through a slow process of modification. Their main object now was to restrict and regulate the occupations that were available to them, and make sure that they complied with the Jewish Religion.
To make sure that things were done right, they appointed regular inspectors. It was their duty to go from market to market and fix the current market prices. Basically, though, the prices for produce were ultimately determined by each community. The inspectors didn’t want to interfere with the law of supply and demand, they just wanted to make sure that things were done fairly.
There were strict Talmud laws against buying up grain and then withholding it from sale at a time of scarcity. It was also prohibited for them to artificially raise prices of produce, and was regarded as cheating to charge a higher profit than sixteen percent. It was thought that when one cheated, that he cheated everyone. They thought that one should not make a heavy profit from the necessities that people had to have. They wondered how things could ever be set right if a person cheated everyone. They were all admonished to remember that “God punisheth even where the eye of an earthly judge cannot penetrate.”
With the gradual changing of the Rabbinical views, the Talmud clearly advised the following: 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.
The Rabbis taught that among the blessings of the next world that there would be no commerce. And so far as this world was concerned, the advice was to engage in business, in order to promote the Jewish faith and values with their money. This was what Sebua, one of the wealthiest men in Jerusalem had done in supporting the great Hillel.
What was true for Jerusalem did not exist for the Jews who lived among the various Gentile nations. To them commerce was a necessity for them to survive. This would have been especially true for the Jews of Alexandria, as that community was the richest and most influential of all. At the end of this text is a map of Ancient Alexandria.
The Jews had already started to immigrate into Egypt before the Babylonian captivity forced many of them there. The real exodus, though, came under the leadership of Alexander the Great. He gave to the Jews in Alexandria the same rights as he had given the Gentiles. This raised them up to a privileged class. As word of this got around, their numbers and also their influence grew under successive rulers.
They commanded Egyptian armies, largely influenced Egyptian thought and inquiry, and translated the Holy Scriptures into Greek. The Temple of Onias at Leontopolis and the magnificent great synagogue at Alexandria both rivaled that of Jerusalem.
There can be no doubt that in the very Providence of God, the location of so many Jews in Alexandria and the mental influence that they had acquired, were designed to have an important bearing on the later spread of the Gospel of Christ among the Greek world. They also had a Greek translation of the Old Testament that helped them spread the Gospel also.
At the time of Philo, the Jewish historian, the number of Jews in Egypt was at least a million. They occupied two of the five quarters of the town of Alexandria. They lived under their own rulers, and had a state of almost complete independence. The five quarters were named after the first five letters of the alphabet. The Jews lived in the Delta quarter along the seashore. They were totally in charge of navigation both by sea and river. Also, the large export trade in grain was entirely in their hands. At this time, Egypt was the granary for this whole region of the world.
Their business was basically providing the provisions for Italy and the rest of the whole region. During the troubles at Rome, the Jewish bankers of Alexandria were able to obtain early and trustworthy information that enabled them to secure full political and financial results. This also happened in the early 1900’s when the great Jewish banking houses were able to profit by early and trustworthy news of events that the general public could not obtain.
Following are some sketches of both the nature of the many of the trades carried on, and of the legal regulations which guarded them. The business of the traveling hawker 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 the latest articles of fashion or luxury from abroad.
The foreign imports were chiefly articles of luxury, with the exception of wood and metals. There was 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. These were just some of the goods that were imported from other places.
On the other hand, Palestine exported produce such as wheat, oil, balsam, honey, figs, etc. The value of imports and exports was nearly equal, or in favor of Palestine.
The idea of weights and balances was strictly a Jewish idea. There were some pretty strict regulations. The law demanded that a wholesale dealer must clean the measures he used once a 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 were used. To make sure that the customer was not cheated, the seller was to give an extra ounce for every ten pounds, if a liquid, and half that if solid.
The following are some of the principal ordinances relating to trade:
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 dishonorable and sinful for the other to draw back.
In case of overcharge, or larger than lawful profit, a purchaser had the right to return the article, or claim the balance in money, provided he applied for it after an interval of time where he had showed the goods to another merchant or relative.
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 there was actually less money than what they had bargained for.
A merchant might not be pressed to name the lowest price unless the buyer was really serious about making the purchase. The merchant also could not be reminded about an overcharge he had made in the past so as to make him feel guilty and offer a lower price.
Goods of different qualities could not be mixed.
For the protection of the public, agriculturists were forbidden to sell wine that was diluted with water in Palestine, unless the people knew about it in advance.
Also a merchant could not give small presents to children to make their parents feel guilty and buy something.
It was considered as deceit to try to make something look better than it actually was just to sell it.
Purchases of corn could not be concluded until the general market-price had been fixed.
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 asked for a loan. The laws were so strict, that a woman who borrowed a loaf of bread from her neighbor was told to fix its value at the time, lest a sudden rise in flour should make the loaf returned worth more than the loaf borrowed.
If a house or field were rented, a higher charge could be made if the money was not paid in advance. This was not true in the case of a purchase, though.
It was improper to promise a merchant one-half of all the sales he made, or to advance him money and then allow him one-half of the profits on his transactions. It was thought in either of the above cases that a merchant would be exposed to more temptation. By law he was only entitled to a commission and compensation for his time and trouble.
Equally strict were the laws and regulations that affected debtors and creditors. Advances were legally secured by regular documents that were drawn out at the expense of the debtor and detailed directions were given about the signatures. Then they were attested by witnesses. To prevent mistakes, the sum that was lent was marked at the top, as well as in the body of the document.
The Romans calculated interest monthly in regard to pledges. The mildness of the Jewish law in dealing with insolvent debtors has never been equaled. It was lawful under certain conditions to take a pledge and then sell it if the person could not pay. The things that were exempt from this law were wearing apparel, bedding, the ploughshare, and all articles required for the preparation of food. It was also unlawful under any circumstances to take a pledge from a widow, or to sell anything that belonged to her.
The above are only some of the provisions by which the interests of all parties were guarded, providing a higher moral for the Jewish people than what was in the secular world around them. Anyone who has really studied the nations that were around them, would be able to best appreciate the great differences in the way the Jews handled things and the way the Gentiles did. Everyday matters in commerce were handled with wisdom, kindness, and delicacy that is far beyond any thing that we see today in the modern world.
Religion, family, social, and public life could all be found in a magnificent fashion among the Jews, and they are the things that set them so apart from the heathen nations around them.