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In Antiquity

There is evidence in the Bible of a certain unity among craftsmen. This appears to have played a role similar to that of the unions of artisans which assisted their members in the economic and social spheres in ancient Babylonia at the time of Hammurapi. In this period, association among the artisans was confined to the framework of the family, most of whose members were employed in the same profession over the generations, and took the form of concentration of a given group of craftsmen in a certain site in the town for residence and work. The Bible mentions a valley of craftsmen (I Chron. 4:14). In Jerusalem, there was "the bakers' street" (Jer. 37:21). During the period of the Return to Zion, after the Babylonian Exile, the social cells of the professions had consolidated and were acknowledged to the extent that some are mentioned as a group when the walls of Jerusalem were rebuilt: "between the upper chamber of the corner and the sheep gate repaired the goldsmiths and the merchants" (Neh. 3:32). Distinctive indications of the existence of craftsmen's unions according to families, and their concentration in particular streets, are found during both the Second Temple era and the talmudic period in Ereẓ Israel, Egypt, and Babylonia. However, the forms of professional organization prevailing in the Hellenistic world gradually gained in influence and appear to have obscured the unifying role of the family in many professions. This was replaced by a special association (ḥavurah) of the members of a given profession for defined purposes: the synagogue was a unifying factor for these associations. The place of the hereditary craft is still evident in the tradition recorded in the Mishnah concerning the families of craftsmen in the Temple (Shek. 5:1; Yoma 3:11; 38a).

From the period preceding the Bar Kokhba revolt there is evidence on the organization of the Tarsians (weavers of flax, so called after the industry of Tarsus, the capital of Cilicia) around special synagogues in Tiberias and Lydda (Meg. 26a; Naz. 52a; TJ, Shek. 2:6, 27a), while during the period which followed the revolt there appeared the "master" of the Tarsians (Av. Zar. 17b) and the chief of the slaughterers in Sepphoris during the days of Judah ha-Nasi (Tosef., Hċýǒ 3:2). From the period of the amoraim there is mention of the studies of the "apprentice of the carpenter" (Mak. 8b) and the "apprentice of the smith" and his relations with "his master," the craftsman, who issues orders which he is expected to obey (BK 32b, see Shab. 96b). In a later Midrash there emerges the "company of donkey drivers" which, in partnership, engages in transportation; "they had a chief over the company" who directed its activities (Mid. Ps. 12:1). In Hierapolis, Phrygia, there were unions of dyers of purple stuff and carpet weavers, to whom someone bequeathed a sum of money in order to adorn his tomb on the festivals of Passover and Shavuot; presumably all, or the majority of, the members of these unions were Jews. In Alexandria there were found "the goldsmiths by themselves, the silversmiths by themselves, the weavers by themselves, and the Tarsians by themselves, so that a visitor could come and join his profession and thus earn his livelihood" (Tosef., Suk. 4:6).

Mutual assistance was then one of the declared objectives of the companies of craftsmen and there is a specification how "the woolworkers and dyers … the bakers … the donkey drivers … the sailors are authorized" to act and reach agreement among themselves for the benefit of their fellow craftsmen; they purchased their requirements in partnership; it was accepted to "observe a period of relaxation," i.e., an agreement to refrain from competition in the market and reduction of prices (see Tosef . BM, 11:24ff.; Sefer ha-Shetarot of Judah b. Barzillai al-Bargeloni, no. 57). Those whose work took them on the highways introduced a mutual insurance of their animals and implements employed in transportation (Tosef., ibid.). It is also known that Jews belonged to the general unions of craftsmen, though presumably they did not participate in their religious cults.

[Haim Hillel Ben-Sasson]

Middle Ages and Early Modern Era

The guilds of the Middle Ages in Europe were thoroughly Christian in character and the Jew had no place in them. Since few Jews in Ashkenaz practiced crafts, they did not organize their own guilds, while the Jewish merchants were restricted in their professions and arranged their affairs through the general communal regulations. In the Byzantine Empire, in the 12th century, an authorization was granted to Jewish craftsmen by Manuel I (1143–1180) to establish guilds in their towns. In Sicily there were Jewish guilds of silk weavers, dyers, and carpenters during the 12th to 15th centuries. In 1541 the tailors' guild of Rome reached an agreement with the Christian guild of the city. In Christian Spain the occupations of the Jews were highly diversified and many engaged in crafts. They established associations (ḥavurot) active in the economic, social, and religious spheres. Solomon b. Abraham *Adret clearly formulated the legal character of the guilds: "every company which has a common interest is to be regarded as a town apart … this was customary in all the holy communities and no one ever raised any doubts as to this" (Rashba, Resp., vol. 4, no. 185). The responsa of R. *Asher b. Jehiel , Solomon *Adret , and *Isaac b. Sheshet Perfet provide information on the structure and activities of the "companies" in Spain. The regulations presented to the king by the company of Jewish shoemakers in Saragossa in 1336 for ratification include arrangements for financial assistance to colleagues in times of sickness, a compulsory arrangement for the visiting of the sick and participation in the rejoicing and mourning of members modeled on the arrangements of the Christian guilds. Also recorded are institutions for charitable purposes and special prayer designed for craftsmen (such as in Perpignan and Saragossa) and the (bet) "midrash of the weavers" (in Calatayud) "which were set aside … for the individuals of the company, and were not consecrated for everyone that comes" (Ribash, Resp., no. 331). A main development in Jewish guilds among Ashkenazi Jewry took place in Eastern Europe, in Bohemia-Moravia, and in Poland-Lithuania, with the increasing number of Jewish craftsmen in those countries. The earliest information on these goes back to the 16th century. Despite the violent opposition of the Christian guilds, the number of Jewish artisans increased considerably and they organized themselves in guilds during the 16th to 18th centuries after the pattern of the Christian guilds, and in order to protect themselves from them. In Prague, there were Jewish guilds of butchers, tailors, furriers, embroiderers, shoemakers, goldsmiths, hairdressers, and pharmacists. In several towns of Poland and Lithuania, such as Brody, Cracow, Lublin, Lvov, Lissa (Leszno), and Vilna, there were numerous Jewish guilds, with up to ten in one community.

The regulations of the Jewish guilds in Eastern Europe followed the spirit of the general guilds, but their social-religious content was influenced by Jewish customs and modes of life. Since they were essentially economic organizations, the Jewish guilds established rules on the relations between their members, the status of the craftsmen, the trainees and the apprentices, and the standards and quotas of production authorized to every craftsman. The guilds were concerned to prevent unfair competition between their members and to protect them from local craftsmen who were not organized in a guild or from craftsmen not living in the town. They cared for their members' welfare, assisted those in difficulties, and provided relief to the widows and orphans of guild members. They developed organized activity for the religious education of members and their children. All the craftsmen, trainees, and apprentices were compelled to take part in public prayers and to observe the Sabbath and festivals. The guilds also formulated detailed rules for the election of committee members. Even though many guilds were first formed through the initiative of the communal administration, the relations between the two bodies gradually deteriorated until open clashes occurred during the 18th century between the guilds and the community leadership in Berdichev, Minsk, and Vitebsk. With the political and economic decline of Poland-Lithuania, the guilds lost their importance. In Russia, Austria, and Prussia, among which Poland was partitioned in the latter part of the 18th century, the guilds with their typical medieval structure were already on the verge of extinction. They ceded their place to modern forms of economic organization. Associations (ḥavurot) of craftsmen existing in many communities during the 19th century had slight economic influence and their function was confined to religious, cultural, and social activities. They continued until the 1930s. In Poland between the two world wars the cechy (guilds) legislation which limited the Jewish craftsmen was revived. As a result, the debate was renewed on the role and organization of the Jews in this modern reincarnation of the guilds.

[Mark Wischnitzer]


M. Wischnitzer, History of Jewish Crafts and Guilds (1965); idem, in: HUCA, 23 pt. 2 (1950–51), 245–63; idem, in: JSOS, 16 (1954), 335–50: idem, in: Zaytshrift far Yidisher Geshikhte, Demografie, un Ekonomik, 2–3 (1928), 73–88; Juster, Juifs, 1 (1914), 486–7; T. Jacobovits, in: JJGJČ, 8 (1936), 57–145; M. Kremer, in: Zion, 295–325; idem, in: YIVOA, 11 (1956/57), 211–42; idem, in: Bleter far Geshikhte, 2 (1938), 3–32; I. Mendelsohn, in: BASOR (Dec. 1940), 17–21; Alon, Toledot, 1 (1953), 103–6; L. Frydman, in: Yivo Bleter, 12 (1937), 520–32; M. Hendel, in: Oẓar Yehudei Sefarad, 6 (1963), 77–84; I. Levitats, The Jewish Community in Russia (1943), index; I. Halpern, Yehudim ve-Yahadut be-Mizraḥ Eiropah (1969), 163–94.

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