Bookstore Glossary Library Links News Publications Timeline Virtual Israel Experience
Anti-Semitism Biography History Holocaust Israel Israel Education Myths & Facts Politics Religion Travel US & Israel Vital Stats Women
donate subscribe Contact About Home

Encyclopedia Judaica: Brokers

The large variety of commercial intermediaries and agents to which this term refers, in both medieval and modern times, generally included a substantial proportion of Jews. They were particularly numerous at fairs and in ports which were centers of interregional trade, and later also in various types of exchanges. In this kind of occupation, skill, information, a wide command of languages, and international connections were the chief requirements, and even men with little initial capital of their own could make a living and often a fortune.

Jewish brokers, itinerant and resident, were frequently found in the Mediterranean commercial centers throughout the Middle Ages. In Muslim countries brokerage was often specialized to a high degree. The activity of Jewish brokers was not distinct from that of non-Jews, but benefited periodically from Christian-Muslim political tension. In Christian countries the economic value of brokers was not widely recognized in the early Middle Ages, and their activity was often curtailed. In addition, Jewish traders and brokers suffered from religious animus. Nevertheless Jewish brokers were found in major ports such as Marseilles, Pisa, Barcelona, and Venice. In Spain the position of corredor ("broker") was a lucrative one, licensed by the king's bailiffs. Their activity was not limited to the ports, for they were also active in the countryside, particularly on royal and noble estates where they were in charge of selling agricultural produce and buying luxury commodities. The economic and social position of the broker within the Jewish community was generally inferior to that of the merchant. Brokers were excluded from community leadership in Majorca in 1356.

A new era in the history of Jewish brokerage began in the 16th century with the waves of exiles from Spain and Portugal to the ports of Italy, northern Europe, North Africa, the Balkans, and the Ottoman Empire, which coincided with European maritime expansion. Many of the exiles turned to brokerage, utilizing connections between their far-flung places of refuge. In Amsterdam brokerage in goods from the colonies, especially tobacco and sugar, was very profitable; Jewish brokers were allowed to operate unhindered; the entire brokerage of Brazilian sugar was in Jewish hands. In 1612 ten of the 300 authorized brokers were Jewish, and 30 of 430 in 1645. Among the 1,000 unauthorized brokers were many Ashkenazim. Of the 442 Jews who had an annual income exceeding 800 guilders in 1743, 25 were licensed and 100 unlicensed brokers. Marrano brokers had been active in England even before the readmittance (1656). In 1668 there were ten Jewish brokers on the London exchange; in addition there were also many unlicensed ones. An attempt to suppress the activities of unauthorized brokers (and to evict the Jews) led to a parliamentary commission which in 1697 regulated the number of brokers at 100 Englishmen, 12 aliens, and 12 Jews. Attempts to raise the permitted number of Jews failed in 1723, 1730, and 1739. In Hamburg there were four professional Portuguese-Jewish brokers in the early 17th century in addition to numerous unauthorized ones, mainly Ashkenazi; by 1692 there were 20 Sephardi and 100 Christian brokers. The city council succeeded in lowering the ratio and total number of Jewish brokers in the 18th century.

A different type of Jewish brokerage developed in Poland-Lithuania. During the 16th and 17th centuries domestic commerce as well as export (timber, grain, furs; see *Arenda ) and import (cloth, wine, luxuries) were largely in Jewish hands, and brokers played an important role, particularly at the regular fairs ( *Lublin and *Jaroslaw ). The anti-Jewish polemicist Sebastian *Miczyński wrote in 1618, "A short while ago … the Jews made, among themselves, a general agreement and regulation whereby no Jew is to deal with a Christian for their profit, neither to act as intermediary for any merchandise if they request it of him, nor to lead a merchant to Christian merchants or craftsmen, but to Jews alone. And on whoever transgresses this agreement they have applied great bans, curses, and punishments." This is a hostile presentation of a real conflict within the Jewish community. Merchants, who were predominant in community leadership, struggled to preserve their vested interests against brokers.

Tension between brokers and merchants is illustrated in the *Poznan community, where resident brokers dealing with foreign merchants were vigorously harassed. Between 1626 and 1696 the community records show an attempt to address their activity almost annually, but warnings, fines, and excommunications were to no avail for their numbers increased. Their commission was fixed between ½ and 1%, a rate that could be profitable only given a high turnover. Merchants were considered as justified in paying the regular fee only, even when a higher one had been agreed upon; brokers were accused of causing the economic ills of the community, in particular of revealing trade secrets to Gentiles; they were sometimes equated with informers. Toward the end of the 17th century pronouncements against brokers became milder and rarer. The community, in economic straits, had acquiesced to a situation in which ever-growing numbers of its members were brokers or prepared to deal in brokerage.

On their arrival in Western Europe and the United States, immigrants from Eastern Europe found a niche in several new types of brokerage, among them many new intermediary businesses like real estate brokerage, employment agencies, commodity and security exchanges, and commission agencies. In Central Europe the position of Jewish brokers combined Eastern and Western characteristics. Jews handled a large proportion of the trade between town and country, particularly grain and livestock, but were often excluded from the exchanges in the main cities. The first Jewish merchant to enter the Danzig exchange did so in 1808, accompanied by French gendarmes, after the occupation of the city. In Leipzig, center of the *fur trade , six Jews were appointed brokers for the duration of the fur fair in 1813. By 1818, 28 of 35 fair brokers were Jews, 14 of them from *Brody . Jews were prominent in regional as well as central exchanges in southern and central Germany, Hungary, and Romania. Their position deteriorated in the 20th century as a result of the rise of producers' cooperatives, which attempted to bypass the middleman, and other developments hostile to small traders.

In Yiddish literature Shalom Aleichem created the figure of the broker Menahem Mendel of Kasrilevke who with his dreams is a kind of Jewish Walter Mitty.


M. Breger, Zur Handelsgeschichte der Juden in Polen waehrend des 17. Jahrhunderts (1932), 13ff., 23f.; S.B. Weinryb, Neueste Wirtschaftsgeschichte der Juden in Russland und Polen (1934); H.I. Bloom, Economic Activities of the Jews of Amsterdam (1937); H. Gousiorowski, Die Berufe der Juden Hamburgs (1927), 20–23, 31–32, 45–46, 78–79; D. Abrahams, in: JHSEM, 3 (1937), 80–94; Halpern, Pinkas, index, S.V. sarsarut; R. Mahler, Toledot ha-Yehudim be-Folin (1946), index, S.V. sarsurim; A. Marcus, in: YIVOA, 7 (1952), 175–203; H. Kellenbenz, Sephardim an der unteren Elbe (1958); Baer, Spain; W. Harmelin, in: YLBI, 9 (1964), 243ff.; D. Avron (ed.), Pinkas ha-Kesherim shel Kehillat Pozna (1966), index, S.V. sarsurim; S.D. Goitein, Mediterranean Society, 1 (1967), index; A.S. Diamond, in: JHSET, 21 (1968), 53f.; J. Jacobson, in: MGWJ, 64 (1920), 293ff.; S. Mayer, Die Wiener Juden (1917), 220ff., 264f., 453f.; W.M. Glicksman, In the Mirror of Literature (1966), 203–8.

[Henry Wasserman]

Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.