In the Bible

Genesis 4:2, 17, 20–22 describes Cain and four of his descendants as the first to engage in crafts. Cain worked the land, Enoch engaged in building, Jubal, in music, Jabal (like Abel) was a shepherd, and Tubal-Cain worked with metals (i.e., copper and iron).

This division apparently reflects the social development of the ancient world from around the fifth or fourth millennium B.C.E. This period saw the beginning of the development of agriculture and the increase and diversification of the types of crafts connected with it. During this period, there was increased knowledge of each individual occupation, and many types of work were undertaken by experts who handed down their professional know-how from father to son as a family tradition or as a closed tribal tradition. For example, in the 12th century B.C.E., the Philistines held the monopoly in the processing of iron and the sharpening of iron implements (I Sam. 13:19–22).

The first known crafts were directly connected with the production and preparation of food. Other crafts that were also connected with agricultural production were the tanning of *leather and the manufacture of clothing. Examples of textiles preserved since the Bar Kokhba period were found in the *Judean Desert Caves. Evidence of weaving and dyeing are the loom weights and dye vats discovered in excavation. This group of crafts also included braiding, which consisted of the production of ropes and mats, and other similar industries. The development of agriculture and allied crafts also gave rise to the development of tools, such as the manufacture of plows, digging implements, vehicles of transportation, leather implements, and so on (see *Agriculture; *Carts and Chariots).

Another group of crafts are the various artistic crafts: the making of jewelry and of fine vessels of wood, stone, and ivory inlaying; the production of hammered metal objects; embroidery; and so on. There are biblical references to the work of the potter and many examples have been found in excavations (see *Pottery). This group of crafts developed with the building of palaces and temples:

And I have filled him [Bezalel son of Uri] with the spirit of God, in wisdom, and in understanding, and in knowledge, and in all manner of workmanship. To devise skillful works, to work in gold, and in silver, and in brass. And in cutting of stones, to set them, and in carving of timber, to work in all manner of workmanship (Ex. 31:2ff.).

Artisans of various types were numbered among the slaves of the kings of Egypt, Mesopotamia, and other permanent settlements. The Bible does not mention craftsmen of this type, apart from *Bezalel, who worked on the construction of the Tabernacle, and the people of Tyre, who participated in the construction of the Temple in Jerusalem (I Kings 5:15–25). Gold and silver were used for vessels etc. to be used in the temples or palaces, for jewelry, figurines, sewing implements, pins and clasps, etc. These metals were processed by means of casting or hammering, and separate parts were joined together by means of welding and coating. Other products, especially jewelry and tiny vessels of precious metals, were formed from different shapes, such as squares, circles, and rectangles, which were welded together in various patterns, or joined together on a chain (II Chron. 3:16). Another artistic craft consisted of inlaying fine vessels and jewelry with precious and semiprecious stones as a decoration or for finishing other items. The biblical term millu'at apparently refers to this technique of inlaying (e.g., Ex. 28:17). Metal frames inlaid with precious stones have been found, dating to the second millennium B.C.E. Inlaid furniture and tablets dating to the third millennium B.C.E. have also been found, as well as another example of metal inlaid with stones from the second millennium B.C.E. and others. The Bible describes the stones of the breastplate (Ex. 28:15ff.) as being inlaid within their frames. Inlaying ivory ornaments into wooden furniture, walls, and other fine objects was also prevalent during the second millennium B.C.E. In general the Bible conveys the picture of the development by the Jewish people in Ereẓ Israel of manifold skills in the arts and crafts which they later carried with them throughout the Diaspora.

[Ze'ev Yeivin]

Post-Biblical and Talmudic Period

There is little information about crafts in the period between the return from the Babylonian captivity in 538 B.C.E. and the talmudic era. Carpenters and masons are explicitly mentioned in Ezra 3:7 as being among those who returned from the Babylonian exile, and they must have been active in the building of the Temple. Among those who took part in the building of the wall of Jerusalem under the guidance of Nehemiah are mentioned the ẓorefim ("refiners and workers in gold and silver"; Neh. 3:8 and 31), the perfumers (3:8), and the builders, who, in addition to the stonework, "set up the doors, the bolts, and the bars" of the various gates. Little is known of the life of the Jewish people in Judea during the period after Nehemiah until the establishment of Seleucid rule in 198 B.C.E. Discoveries at Tell al-Naṣba indicate that the manufacture of pottery was carried on by entire villages during this period. Aristeas described Jerusalem as "a city rich in crafts" (Aristeas to Philocrates, ed. M. Hadas, p. 147). Ben Sira (Ecclus. 38:27–32) describes in some detail the work of the various craftsmen of his time, wood carvers, signet engravers ("whose art is to make every variety of design; he is careful to make the likeness true"), metalsmiths, and potters, and concludes, "All these are deft with their hands, and each is wise in his handiwork; without them a city cannot be inhabited, and wherever they dwell they hunger not."

Arts and crafts were greatly fostered by the Hasmonean kings, as a result of the extensive building operations which they undertook. Simeon built the port of Jaffa to attract seaborne commerce, and the increased maritime trade also promoted the development of crafts. The description of the mausoleum which he erected for his parents and brothers in Modi'in (I Macc. 13:25) makes it certain that skilled craftsmen of every kind were employed in its erection and embellishment. The huge building projects undertaken by Herod, both in Jerusalem and Caesarea, but above all the rebuilding of the Temple, so vividly described by Josephus (Ant., 15:380ff.), called for skilled workers in many spheres – masons, carpenters, metalworkers, weavers and embroiderers, goldsmiths and silversmiths. Jews were employed for the building of the Temple as is specifically mentioned. Priests were trained as masons and carpenters for the edifice itself – as Josephus states, "Into none of these did King Herod enter, for he was forbidden, because he was not a priest. However, he took care of the cloisters and outer enclosures" (15:419–20). Excavations in Jerusalem have revealed the sarcophagus of "Simeon, the builder of the Sanctuary."

There were some families of craftsmen who were experts in skills required for the Temple service itself. The *Bet Garmu specialized in the preparation of the *shewbread and the house of Avtinas prepared the incense. These families actually monopolized their position. When they demanded higher wages, the Temple administration dismissed them and summoned shewbread and incense makers from Alexandria to take their place. The experiment failed because of the inefficiency of the new craftsmen, and the houses of Garmu and Avtinas were reinstalled. They only resumed work after receiving double their previous salary (Yoma 3:11, 38). That Jews engaged in the building of pagan edifices is specifically mentioned in the Mishnah with regard to the problems of conscience and halakhah for the Jewish workers. The sages ruled that "none may help them to build a basilica, scaffold, stadium, or judges' tribunal; but one may help them to build public baths or bathhouses, yet when they reach the cupola in which the idol is placed, it is forbidden to help them to build it" (Av. Zar. 1:7).

In ancient Jerusalem, before the city fell in 70 C.E., specified streets, markets, and districts were inhabited by artisans of the same trade. Bakers, cheese-makers, blacksmiths, goldsmiths, leatherworkers, dyers, weavers, fullers, potters, and other craftsmen were concentrated in their own quarters. The different trades seem to have had synagogues of their own. When passing through the city or a nearby village, the artisan was recognized by the distinctive badge he wore: the tailor had a needle stuck in the front of his dress; the worker in wool showed a woolen thread; the dyer carried different colored threads from which patrons could select the desired shade; the carpenter displayed a ruler; the leatherworker was recognized by the apron he wore; and the weaver carried a small distaff behind his ear and the scribe, a pen. Eleazar b. Azariah said of this practice of wearing badges: "There is something grand about artisanship; every artisan boasts of his trade, grandly carrying his badge in the street" (ARN2 21, 45); and the rabbis stated that he who does not teach his son a craft, teaches him brigandage (Kid. 29a). The rabbis classified leather dressing among the coarser trades, but quilting or stitching in furrows was considered a clean and easy craft (Kid. 82a–b). The tanners of Palestine, like those of ancient Greece, practiced their trade outside the cities because of the unpleasant odor. Gold and silversmiths produced articles for the household as well as ornaments. An ornament produced for women was a "golden Jerusalem," which contained the picture or the engraving of Jerusalem (Shab. 59a). The institution of apprenticeship was frequently mentioned in rabbinic literature. The master was called rav and the apprentice, talmid or shulyah. The term of apprenticeship was agreed upon between the master and the parents of the boy. The son of an artisan generally followed the trade of his father, and orphans were instructed by members of the guild of their late fathers.

An impressive description is given by the rabbis of the massive basilica synagogue in Alexandria. The worshipers did not occupy their seats at random, but goldsmiths, silversmiths, blacksmiths, metalworkers, and weavers all sat together in groups so that when a poor man entered the place he recognized the members of his craft and on applying to that quarter obtained a livelihood for himself and for the members of his family (Suk. 51). The guild of Jewish weavers in Alexandria was registered according to Roman law as a corporation (J. Juster, Les Juifs dans l'empire romain, vol. 2, 306), and the Jewish coppersmiths of Alexandria were renowned. According to the Talmud the coppersmiths were employed to repair the bronze utensils in the Temple and were commissioned to make doors of Corinthian bronze for the Temple which "shone like gold" (Yoma 38a). The craftsmen of Jerusalem used to come out in groups to welcome the pilgrims bringing their first fruits to the Temple (Bik. 3:3). Both the Jerusalem and the Babylonian Talmuds have many references to craftsmen of every kind in Ereẓ Israel after the destruction of the Temple and an echo of their prosperity to which Ben Sira refers in the third century B.C.E. is heard in the proverb, "though a famine lasts seven years it does not pass through the gate of the artisan" (Sanh. 29a).

The textiles of Beth-Shean, referred to in the Talmud (TJ, Kid. 2:5) were famed for their quality and praised by Roman writers; Sepphoris had a synagogue of the weavers. Dyeing was a particular Jewish occupation; to the statement of a fourth century work, Totius Orbis Descriptio, that purple silk was manufactured in Sarafand, Caesarea, Shechem, and Lydda, the Talmud (Sot. 46b) adds a village, Luz, in Galilee, where the famous purple dye was made. As mentioned, whole villages engaged in pottery making, and Tiberias was a center for glass. Many beautiful mosaic pavements have been uncovered in Israel; that of the sixth-century synagogue in Bet Alfa is inscribed with the names of the craftsmen *Marianos and his son Ḥanina. In Babylon also, Jews worked in a multitude of crafts, including weaving, dyeing, tapestry making, leather work, metalwork, and wicker work (BB 22a; cf. Pauly-Wissowa S.V. Babylonia). Pumbedita was a center for the weaving of linen (Git. 27a; BM 18b). Josephus (Wars, 5:212) describes in detail a "truly wonderful" Babylonian-made curtain (parokhet) in front of the Holy of Holies in the Temple. The frequent references in the Babylonian Talmud to rashei ommanot ("heads of crafts") suggests that the craftsmen were organized in guilds, and in fact there are references to guilds of basketmakers and to weavers (Sot. 48a). Perfumers, carpenters, and art metalworkers were apprenticed (Krauss, Tal Arch, vol. 2, 255–6). Glassblowing seems to have been an occupation among Jews not only in Ereẓ Israel, but also in Egypt and Rome. Although a reference in the Talmud (Men. 28b) to Alexandrian goblets does not mention that they were of Jewish manufacture, names of Jewish glassblowers have been found in Oxyrhynchus and Thebes, and Roman glasswork of the third and fourth centuries decorated with typical Jewish symbols, the ark, the menorah, the Temple, and the sukkah, strongly suggest Jewish craftsmen in glass (Classical Review, 51 no. 4 (1937), 144–6).

From the Middle Ages to the End of the 18th Century

The Jewish occupational structure was gradually eroded with the destruction of the ancient Jewish social pattern and with the change in social attitudes through the relentless pressure from the Christian church, from the fourth century on. With the burgeoning of city life in the lands of Islam and the gradual exclusion from and relinquishment by Jews of agriculture under both Muslim and Christian rule, a process which had been accomplished more or less by the eighth century, crafts became almost the only economic sphere where Jews still worked with their hands. The respect paid to crafts in the period immediately preceding this profound change in Jewish life waned in the atmosphere of the medieval cities, where the merchant and trade had a more honored status.

Two entirely different patterns in the practice of crafts and their place in Jewish life and society are discernible throughout the Middle Ages. One characterizes the communities in countries around the Mediterranean, including in the south those in the continents of Asia and Africa, and in the north extending more or less to an imaginary demarcation line from the Pyrenees to the northern end of the Balkans. The other, in the Christian countries of Europe, was more or less north of the Pyrenees-Balkans line.


In the ancient places of Jewish settlement, crafts continued a major occupation of a large part of the Jewish population. The Karaite Benjamin b. Moses al-*Nahāwendī described in the ninth century those who "come to another's house, do his work and make what he needs for him for pay – like the tailor and the launderer, the worker in iron, in copper, tin, and lead, the dyer and the weaver as well as every other artisan" (in his Massat Binyamin [1834], 4b). There was thus a wide range of itinerant Jewish craftsmen in Persia and its vicinity. In the same century a hostile Muslim denigrated the Jews because among them are found "only dyers, tanners, bloodletters, butchers, and cobblers." This limitation in Jewish society must have been a figment of his imagination, but in any case he must have found many Jews in these occupations in Egypt and its surroundings in his time. The responsa of the geonim contain ample evidence of Jewish crafts and craftsmen throughout the Muslim Empire in the 10th and 11th centuries.

In the 11th and 12th centuries extensive Jewish activity in crafts is attested. S.D. Goitein has shown (A Mediterranean Society, 1 (1967), 362–7) how widespread and ramified were partnerships in crafts. He stated (p. 87) that these partnerships "range in date between 1016 and 1240…. Concerned are gold and silversmithing and other metal work…, dyeing (purple… indigo… silk),… the manufacture of glass vessels,… weaving,… silk work,… the making of wine,… and cheese, sugar factories,… and a pharmacy." The amounts of money and quantities of materials involved in these partnerships and in other craft enterprises (ibid., 80–89) indicate a wide range in scale of the work. Sometimes the equipment of such a workshop is mentioned:

An inventory of the workshop of a silk-weaver, dated 1157, contained 32 items… He possessed four looms, three combs connected with silk-weaving, three cylinders of wood on which the woven materials were rolled, two irons, one for the pressing of robes and another for the pressing of fabrics worn as turbans, wickerwork baskets full of warps, various quantities of bleached and other linen (which was woven together with silk), a small pot with weaver's reeds, copper threads covered with silver, and other items not preserved. The instruments taken away from a silk-weaver in Dahshū (the village famous for its pyramids) counted 26 items, of which nine were different from those just mentioned (ibid., 86).

Most workshops were smaller, like the one whose "weaving tools" were sold for 12 dirhem only (J. Blau (ed.), Teshuvot ha-Rambam (1961), 85–86, no. 52).

*Benjamin of Tudela began to find Jewish craftsmen on his travels only on reaching Greece. At Thebes he found "about two thousand Jews. They are the good masters for preparing silk and purple clothes in the land of the Greeks, and among them are great sages in Mishnah and Talmud" (M.N. Adler (ed.), Itinerary of Benjamin of Tudela (1907), 12, Heb. section). He also found the Jews of Salonika, numbering about 500, among them scholars, "and they busy themselves in silk work" (ibid., 13). At Constantinople he was told that Jews are hated mainly "on account of the tanners, who work in hides, because they throw out their dirty water into the streets at their doorsteps and they befoul the Jewish quarter. Therefore the Greeks hate the Jews, the good ones as well as the bad ones" (ibid., 16). Benjamin's information not only expressed the usual superiority of merchants toward craftsmen in a medieval city, but also gave evidence of differing attitudes – an inimical one, toward "base" professions, like tannery, and a more friendly one, toward "better" professions like silk manufacture and dyeing, among Jews.

Throughout the later Middle Ages and up to modern times the same structure of Jewish society persisted in Islamic countries, in which a broad layer of various Jewish craftsmen was a distinct feature. Several crafts – like silk work and dyeing, in some countries also silver and gold work (e.g., in Yemen) – were considered a Jewish specialty.

Not only Sicily under Norman and Hohenstaufen rule relied on Jews for silk work and dyeing, but in Italy there were many Jewish craftsmen, in particular in the south. It would seem that Thomas Aquinas was referring to them in his letter Ad ducissam Brabantiae (March 7, 1274), advising Christian rulers that "they would do better to compel the Jews to work for their living as is done in parts of Italy" (ut Judaeos laborare compellerent ad proprium victum lucrandum, sicut in partibus Italiae faciunt). The same situation was found about 200 years later, by Obadiah of *Bertinoro. Writing in 1488, he describes the community of Palermo, which "contains about 850 Jewish families…. They are poverty-stricken artisans, such as copper-smiths and ironsmiths, porters and peasants… despised by the Christians because they are all tattered and dirty… They are compelled to go into the service of the king whenever any new labor project arises; they have to drag ships to the shore, to construct dykes, and so on. They are also employed in administering corporal punishment and in carrying out the sentence of death" (ed. A. Yaari, in Iggerot Ereẓ Yisrael (1943), 104). He found a similar situation at Messina, where he counted "about four hundred Jewish family heads… better off than those of Palermo, all of them craftsmen, though a few are merchants" (ibid., 108). As in the 12th century, so in the 15th century, the Jewish onlooker from the north expresses shock at and a sense of superiority toward this artisan Jewish society.


In the kingdoms of Christian Spain, craftsmen made up a large and important sector in Jewish occupations and society. The family name Escapat, Scapat, derives originally from an Aramaic term for a shoemaker. In many communities artisans were the majority or formed at least half of the income earners. In Segovia, in the late 14th century, out of 55 Jewish earners, "23 were artisans – weavers, shoemakers, tailors, furriers, blacksmiths, saddlers, potters, and dyers" (Baer, Spain, 1 (1961), 198). "There was a street known as Shoemakers' Lane in the judería of Toledo in the 14th century" (ibid., 197). "Conspicuous in Aragon are Jewish bookbinders, scientists who devise scientific instruments, and gold- and silversmiths" (ibid., 426). Baer assumes that in the 14th century "at least half of the Jews of Barcelona… were artisans: weavers, dyers, tailors, shoemakers, engravers, blacksmiths, silversmiths (including some highly esteemed craftsmen who made Christian religious objects), bookbinders (who bound the registers of the royal chancery), workers in coral, and porters" (ibid., 2 (1966), 37). The same holds more or less true for Saragossa (ibid., 55–56). The anti-Jewish laws of 1412 stated that "Jewish artisans (blacksmiths, tailors, shoemakers, etc.) might not serve Christian customers" (ibid., 168).

There is every reason to assume that the main outlines of Jewish society in the kingdoms of Christian Spain were a continuation of its structure in the kingdoms of Muslim Spain. The importance of artisans was evident in Jewish social and even cultural life there. The artisans were the mainstay of the opposition led by the mystic trend to the rule of the rationalist patrician stratum in Spanish communities. Artisan *guilds were behind many of the demands for democratization of community leadership and for equal distribution of taxes in communities like Saragossa and Barcelona in the 13th and 14th centuries. Shocked by the catastrophe of the persecutions of 1391, the moralist Solomon ibn Laḥmish *Alami demanded in 1415 of the Spanish Jew: "Teach yourself a craft, to earn your living by your work… for it is to the honor of men to live off their work and toil, not as the proud ones thought in their foolishness" (lggeret Musar, ed. A.M. Habermann (1946), 29).

The artisans had always been the most faithful element in Spanish Jewry. During the mass conversions of 1391–1415, many devout artisans remained steadfast" (Baer, Spain, 2 (1966), 354). No wonder that King Alfonso V stated in 1417 that community leadership had passed to "the artisans and the little people" and Solomon *Bonafed complained about this time that in Spanish Jewry "the tailors render judgment, and the saddlers sit in courts (quoted by Baer, ibid., 248).

The workshop of the Jewish artisan in Spain was not always a small one. Mention is made of workshops (operatoria) on a large scale for the manufacture of clothes in Saragossa and Huesca (Baer, Spain, 1 (1961), 425). About the beginning of the 14th century there came before *Asher b. Jehiel (the Rosh) the case of a dyer or saddler "who has an annual expense in the form of gifts to the judges and officials, to keep them from trumping up charges against him – the usual contribution that craftsmen are required to make out of their handiwork" (quoted by Baer, ibid., 201). At the other end of artisan society there would be the case of that "worthless scamp among the artisans [who] will marry a woman here today and then become enamored of another and go and marry her elsewhere and return brazenly to his home town" (responsum quoted by Beer, ibid., 424).

After the expulsion from Spain the exiled artisans merged into the artisan class of the communities in North Africa and the Ottoman Empire. It would seem that many other exiles took up crafts in their new straitened circumstances; some would even see it as a moral obligation, as formulated by men like Solomon ibn Laḥmish Alami (see above). The Safed community in its days of glory in the 16th century was based on a broad stratum of craftsmen practicing on a large and small scale. Stories about Isaac b. Solomon Ashkenazi *Luria (Ari) tell much about the social relationships and place of artisans in this holy community. One of the exiles who went to Jerusalem advised his correspondents: "Let anyone who wants to, come. For they can live out their lives earning through crafts. These are the worthwhile crafts here – gold- and silversmithery, tailoring, carpentry, shoemaking, weaving and smithery… I who know no craft except for my learning derive my needs from Torah study" (A. Yaari (ed.), Iggerot Ereẓ Yisrael (1943), 181).


Crafts played a very small role as a Jewish occupation, from the inception of Jewish settlement in this part of Europe. Around the beginning of the 11th century mention is made of a Jew in northern France who owned a furnace and made his living by working it with Christian hired men and letting it out for baking to other people (S. Eidelberg (ed.), Teshuvot Rabbenu Gershom (1956), 61–63, no. 8).

Neither the documents of privileges granted to Jews in these countries up to the 15th century nor their own writings reveal much concern with crafts or the presence of craftsmen. Certainly the Christian guilds prevented the growth of a Jewish artisan class in the cities of Western and Central Europe up to the 15th century. Since moneylending brought various articles in pawn into Jewish houses, to be able to return them undamaged or to sell them profitably the Jew had to learn to repair them and keep them in good condition. Hence a part-time, unspecialized kind of "pottering" artisanship always existed in those countries and times where Jews were engaged in moneylending. Jews attempted to maintain their own butchers for the sake of kashrut, although Christian butchers' guilds always tried, often with success, to thwart this aim. It is reasonable to assume that there were always at least part-time tailors among Jews everywhere, to avoid using the forbidden admixture of wool and flax (sha'atnez).

From these beginnings there developed from the 15th century a resumption of crafts among communities in Southern and Central Europe (Bohemia, Moravia, and Austria) and especially in Poland-Lithuania.

Rabbinical responsa tell of women – widows or spinsters – who worked in shawl-making and thread-making for gentile customers. Jewish craftsmen are mentioned in Poland in 1460. In 1485 the municipal council of Cracow permitted "poor Jewesses to sell every day shawls and scarves made by their own hands and craft." Jews increasingly penetrated crafts in the towns of Poland in the 16th century as the constant complaints of guilds and municipal councils abundantly show. The same development is reflected even more strongly in the various royal decisions and agreements between municipalities and Jews, or Christian guilds and their Jewish counterparts, all of which combine to give a picture of consistent, even if much hampered, penetration of Jews into various crafts.

In the grand duchy of Lithuania, the Jews of Grodno already had permission in 1389 in their charter of privileges "to exercise different crafts." In time, crafts became a well-developed sector of the Jewish economic structure. When needy, displaced refugee children from Germany arrived in Lithuania in the wake of the destruction of the Thirty Years' War, the Council of Lithuania (see *Councils of the Lands) gave the compassionate instruction: "It has been resolved and decided to accept 57 boys into our country to be under our protection, to divide them among the communities to feed them, to clothe and shoe them. Boys to whom God has granted wisdom that their study will be successful shall be induced to study Torah at school; boys whose abilities are not sufficient for the study of the Torah shall be induced to take service or to learn the work of some craft" (S. Dubnow (ed.), Pinkas ha-Medinah (1925), 73, no. 351). This indicates both that there was opportunity for learning a craft, and the disregard in which it was held by the leaders of Jewish society. Accordingly crafts are associated with intellectual incapability; it would be a sin, it seems, to send an able boy to be apprenticed to an artisan. The council also dealt with supervision of Jewish tailors to ensure that they should not transgress Jewish law in their work (ibid., 178, no. 728). The increase in craftsmen is reflected in the hostile decision of the Council of Lithuania in 1761 forbidding craftsmen in all large communities from taking part in the assemblies of the community (ibid., 268, no. 983). Indeed, in the bitter divisions in the Vilna community in the second half of the 18th century craftsmen played an important role in the opposition groups and activities.

Despite a general disparagement of crafts, *printing was considered an honorable profession. The Cracow community is found in 1595 trying to defend the printers of Cracow and Lublin against competition from Italian printers (M. Balaban, in jjlg, 11 (1916), 93, no. 79).

In the rapidly developing southeast of Poland a Jewish craftsman named Kalman, mentioned as a proficient tanner and furrier (in arte pellificiaria bene versatus) in *Przemysl, was important enough to be granted a special privilege by King Stephan Báthory in 1578 (M. Schorr, Żydzi w Przemyślu (1903), 88–89, no. 12). In the same town – which was certainly not exceptional in economic structure – the king defended in 1638 "the Jewish craftsmen who do their work for Jews only" against restrictions by the municipal authorities (ibid., 143, no. 71). The Jews, however, penetrated the Christian market there. In 1645 the same king ratified an agreement between the municipal authorities and the Jews, paragraphs 5–14 of which show Jewish craftsmen as serious competitors to the Christian craftsmen in the branches of tanning, furriery, tailoring, barbering, goldsmithery, painting, cobbling, saddlery, baking, candle-making, hat-making, and sword-making; some of their products were intended by the Jewish craftsmen for the Jewish market only – or so their Christian competitors demanded. Some were entered on the Christian market with the reluctant agreement of the guilds (ibid., 150–1, no. 74). By the end of the 17th century the citizens of Przemysl prepared a complaint which generalized that "every Jew is either a merchant or a craftsman." They state that the Jews had "totally ruined the goldsmiths', the tailors', the butchers', and the bakers' guilds." The method of competition used by the Jews is described. They employ mobility and initiative. "They [i.e., the Jews] have totally eradicated the barber-bloodletters' guild for there are several Jewish barbers who go with their physicians to the manor houses to the patients there letting blood, putting on suctions cups (bańki); the same they do in town. There were not a few Christian soap-makers; now there remains only one, and at that, very poor. But there are several Jews who make soap, carrying it down river and selling it in town too" (ibid., 206–8, no. 129). In this town, as in others, Jewish guilds developed, and from the last quarter of the 17th century various ordinances and regulations are extant of the Przemysl Jewish tailors' guild – which called itself grandiloquently "the holy society of the dressers of the naked ones" (חברא קדישא דמלבישי ערומים) – showing relations between masters and apprentices, and between masters and hired workers, and demonstrating the strict supervision by the community and rabbi over the observance of sha'atnez laws by the tailors (ibid., 259–74, nos. v–xxiii).

The situation in the west of Poland-Lithuania, i.e., Great Poland, is seen clearly in various ordinances of the Poznan community. In 1535 a council of community elders – usually very conservative and patrician in its attitude – admonished the Jews in their jurisdiction

To remember for their good the clothes makers of Śwerzeniec community, a reminder of help and mercy, to look upon some among them with care and particular supervision – for we have seen that crafts are diminishing daily and many of our people have deserted craftsmanship, hence it is fitting to strengthen the hands of the artisans, not to let them fall, for this is a great benefit and an important rule for the entire society (D. Avron (ed.), Pinkas ha-Kesherim shel Kehillat Poznan (1966), 55–66, no. 273).

The same council devised in 1747 a set of model ordinances for guilds in the community and for regulating their relations with other community institutions (ibid., 398–403).

By the end of the 18th century the Poznan community had a well-developed artisan class. In 1797 there were in the town 923 Jewish and 676 Christian tailors; 22 Jewish goldsmiths and 19 Christian; 51 Jewish hatters, 24 Christian; 52 Jewish buttonmakers, 6 Christian; 238 Jewish ironsmiths, 6 Christian; 51 Jewish bakers, 607 Christian. In total there were 1,592 Jewish craftsmen, about one-third of the 4,921 craftsmen in Poznan in this year.

In Bohemia-Moravia also, as well as in southern Germany, Jews increasingly engaged in crafts. A community like that of Prague had long-standing and well-developed Jewish guilds by this period based on a ramified craft structure and professional life and organization.

Some circles of these craftsmen developed a specific ethos and pride in their own calling. As early as the 17th century there were tailors in Poland-Lithuania who asked to be buried with the boards of their tailoring tables, being certain of the honesty and righteousness of their life's work.

Modern Times

In the aspirations for emancipation of the Jews and spread of Enlightenment – and as a corollary of the program for "productivization" of the Jews – occupation in crafts became an issue of the ideological and political strivings for change and betterment in legal status and social standing. Christian W. von *Dohm regarded the encouragement to enter crafts as part of his proposals for "betterment of the Jews." Emperor *Joseph II included encouragement of crafts among Jews in his legislation for them.

Yet, the practical changes in crafts did not eventuate from this ideology or legal enactments, but from the actual economic and social situation among the masses of Jews in Poland-Lithuania and later on in the Pale of Settlement in czarist Russia. In the 18th century many Jewish craftsmen in the private towns of the Polish nobility began to bring their products to fairs and market days in the main royal towns. The general tendency, in which craftsmen were now working for the open market instead of producing to order, encouraged this development. The Jewish craftsman – being outside the guild structure – was unattached and ready to prepare stock and sell it in free competition. He thus became anathema to the Christian craftsmen and the guilds.

In the early 19th century Jews in the impoverished and overcrowded shtetl in the Pale of Settlement tended either to continue in the old crafts – mainly tailoring, textiles, and cobbling – or to enter new professions where not much training or outlay on equipment was needed, such as leather work, and carting. Many of those craftsmen peddled their work in villages around the townlets. Through the 19th century a specific Jewish crafts structure developed in Eastern Europe, as reflected in Table 1 for the end of the century.

This situation made for hardship and competition among Jewish crafts in the Pale of Settlement. It also gave rise to a specific way of life, and even folklore among the masses of Jewish workers. By the end of the 19th century, Eastern Europe had a strong element of class-conscious Jewish craftsmen who through their poverty and hardship formed an embryonic Jewish proletariat. Much of the force of the Jewish revolutionary movement and sentiment, the bitterness and impulsion to social activity, came from this stratum of Jewish society. The writings of *Shalom Aleichem and other writers of this generation immortalize the spirit of "amkho, sher un eyzen" ("our folk of the scissors and flatiron").

In the same period of the 19th and early 20th centuries, Jewish crafts in the old centers, for instance Prague and in Bavaria, disintegrated under the impact of flourishing capitalism and the crossing over of Jews in Central and Western Europe to the more profitable and "respectable" professions of the middle class. Emancipation in these countries brought about not productivization but practically the end of Jewish participation in crafts.

Jewish emigration in the second half of the 19th century, and in a large measure up to the 1930s, was predicated on and characterized by this craftsmen element.

Among the Jewish immigrants to the United States before World War I, over one-third were craftsmen, mostly tailors, whereas among non-Jews only 20% of the immigrants had a

Table 1. Crafts Structure in the Pale of Settlement, 1898 Table 1. Crafts Structure in the Pale of Settlement, 1898

Crafts Masters Hired Workers Apprentices Total
Garment 108,527
Food 43,665
Woodwork 25,653
Metalwork 25,499
Construction 19,791
Textiles 10,589
Leather 6,123
Paper and Print 5,998
Chemicals 2,764
Other Crafts 10,787
Total 259,396

skilled profession. Of 106,236 Jewish immigrants to the United States in 1903–04 there were 16,426 tailors, 4,078 carpenters, 2,763 cobblers, 1,970 glaziers and painters, 1,400 butchers, 1,173 bakers, and 14,830 in miscellaneous crafts. (See Table 2: Jewish Craftsmen in New York, 1890). In Paris in 1910 Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe included 16,060 craftsmen of whom 11,460 (71.4%) were in garment manufacture – 7,000 tailors, 2,000 hatters, 1,900 furriers, 1,200 cobblers – 2,700 (16.8%) iron workers, 1,000 (6.2%) wood-workers, 600 (3.7%) leather workers, and 300 (1.9%) in other crafts. The same structure held good for Eastern European Jewish immigrants in England as well as other countries.

Table 2. Jewish Craftsmen in New York, 1890 Table 2. Jewish Craftsmen in New York, 1890

(Women's Coats)
9,595 2,084 1,043 976
Haberdashers Painters Carpenters Tinsmiths
715 458 443 417
Butchers Gold + Silver smiths Bakers Glaziers
413 287 270 148
Typesetters Machinists Shoemakers Musicians
145 143 83 67

Thus the sweatshop of New York, London, and other centers of Jewish immigration and the preponderance of Jews in tailoring and ready-made clothes businesses in countries of large immigration from Eastern Europe derived from the structure of the Jewish crafts world which had taken shape during the 19th and early 20th centuries in Eastern Europe.

This situation underwent many changes, mostly destructive, between the two world wars. In Soviet Russia the general trend against the practice of the independent craftsman and the industrialization of the country diminished the role of crafts among Jews. In the countries built on the ruins of the empires of czarist Russia and Austria-Hungary – like Poland, or Lithuania – the old enmity of the Christian craftsmen rapidly reasserted itself in modern guise. Jews were pushed out or barred from crafts either explicitly or more frequently by seemingly innocuous demands by the trade unions or authorities. Entry to the trade, for instance, was made conditional upon proper apprenticeship with proper masters (and Christian masters only were usually recognized as such); stringent demands for modern equipment and modern conditions of work were usually formulated in a way that hampered the Jewish craftsman in particular. The response of Jewish crafts to this challenge was pioneered by *cooperatives and loan banks; a stimulus was given to schooling and the establishment of educational systems; vocational training was provided by the *ORT organization.

In modern Ereẓ Israel the pioneering spirit of exaltation of work did not noticeably turn in the direction of crafts. Enthusiasm was mainly reserved for agricultural work and manual labor.

By the end of World War II, a large segment of Jewish craftsmen had disappeared as a result of the Holocaust. The specific technical requirements and social structure of the State of Israel and its growing prosperity, with the predominance of the middle-class, liberal and administrative professions governing the structure and ethos of Jewish economy and society in the countries of the West (Western Europe, the United States, Great Britain and the Commonwealth, South Africa, South America), have created a situation where in many places Jewish occupation in crafts is at a vanishing point, and in others they play an increasingly minor role. The large

Table 3. Professional Structure of Jewish and non-Jewish Population between the Two World Wars (approx.) Table 3. Professional Structure of Jewish and non-Jewish Population between the Two World Wars (approx.)

Figure 1. Share of small- and medium-scale enterprises in crafts and industry in Israel, 1968 (includes artisans workshops  24,500 workers) Figure 1. Share of small- and medium-scale enterprises in crafts and industry in Israel, 1968 (includes artisans' workshops – 24,500 workers)

concentrations of Jewish tailors and tailoring in New York, London, and elsewhere have almost disappeared in the lower echelons of the craft in particular.

A 1957 survey conducted by the U.S. Bureau of the Census found that 9% of employed male Jews were working in crafts. A similar breakdown in Canada put the percentage at 14%.

On the other hand, the large scale immigration of Jews from Near Eastern countries to Israel and the entry of survivors of the Holocaust to Israel and some western countries brought a certain temporary revival of Jewish crafts there as shown by Table 4. Craftsmen among Immigrants to Israel.

An indication of ORT activity in assisting young Jews to train for modern and sophisticated crafts in the postwar period is shown by Table 5. Crafts Specialization among Graduates of Ort. In keeping with this trend, from the late 1960s ORT schools began moving toward comprehensive education, academic as well as vocational, with an emphasis on technological occupations.

It now seems that despite efforts at modernization and the near disappearance of many of the old inimical forces, Jewish occupation in crafts and the role of craftsmen as an important factor in Jewish society are disappearing, as in other societies, through the influence of modern industrial techniques and organization.


Throughout the medieval and modern periods crafts played an uneven role and were differently evaluated in the various Jewish centers. The greatest continuity in position and constancy of attitudes toward crafts is found in the countries of the Middle East up to the end of the 19th century. Crafts and craftsmen weighed most importantly in the social and economic structure of the Jewries of Christian Spain (to the end of the 15th century) and those of Eastern Europe in the late Middle Ages and modern period. For a relatively brief interval they played a dynamic role in the new urban centers of Jewish immigration in the West.

Whereas in the Near East and Spain crafts were accorded – even if sometimes grudgingly – a positive evaluation and craftsmen had a certain recognized influence in Jewish

Table 4. Craftsmen among Immigrants to Israel (19501968) Table 4. Craftsmen among Immigrants to Israel (1950–1968)

Clothing Paper, Printing and Bookbinding Wood Leather Food, Drink and Tobacco Metal Fine Mechanics Machinery and Motor Vehichles Electronics Total Number of Craftsmen Total Number of Immigrants
1950 7,139 422 1,632 2,394 1,587 1,009 1,408 1,071 702 17,364 169,405
1951 4,875 324 1,477 2,217 1,365 665 1,397 687 398 13,405 173,901
1952 791 66 327 407 145 155 141 225 113 2,370 23,375
1953 311 38 103 150 54 63 80 158 61 1,018 10,347
1954 664 63 261 404 88 117 124 203 92 2,016 17,471
1955 1,870 141 746 1,148 219 229 275 407 180 5,215 36,303
1956 2,594 209 931 1,236 308 427 358 565 350 6,978 54,925
1957 3,265 314 828 1,235 615 1,025 507 828 719 9,336 69,733
1958 805 66 242 275 223 191 189 286 179 2,456 25,919
1959 1,013 88 313 284 214 277 193 274 202 2,858 22,987
1960 973 90 315 215 187 283 182 326 222 2,793 23,487
1961 2,047 229 604 668 358 152 479 844 483 5,864 46,571
1962 2,366 244 643 1,171 375 154 443 747 380 6,523 59,473
1963 2,063 208 672 1,147 394 165 419 735 445 6,248 62,086
1964 2,731 243 738 822 515 235 385 1,053 664 7,386 52,193
1965 1,318 152 297 304 252 96 204 616 354 3,593 28,501
1966 435 47 132 178 97 41 81 270 155 1,436 13,451
1967 472 61 125 106 87 35 102 214 119 1,321 12,237
1968 573 85 162 137 76 35 126 291 190 1,675 18,087

society, in the centers of Ashkenazi Jewry, even in Eastern Europe, they had to wait until the late 19th century and for modern revolutionary tendencies to attain some positive evaluation and social standing. It would seem that both the slighting of crafts in modern Zionist thought, even if this is subconscious, and the ephemeral character of their prosperity in the West, are not solely to be ascribed to the advent of modern techniques and industrialization but also to the legacy of this long-standing negative Ashkenazi attitude.

Table 5. Crafts Specialization among Graduates of ORT (19501970) Table 5. Crafts Specialization among Graduates of ORT (1950–1970)

Trade Male Female Total %
Metal and Mechanics 42,344 299 42,643 24.8
Electricity and Radio 28,404 347 28,751 16.7
Carpentry 5,973 8 5,981 3.5
Agriculture and Agro-mechanics, Telephones 1,629 290 1,919 1.1
Needle Trades 9,324 35,548 44,872 26.1
Leather Work 1,746 2,005 3,751 2.0
Textile 1,344 3,306 4,650 2.7
Industrial Arts, Drawing, Printing 6,671 2,285 8,956 5.2
Building, Plumbing 2,638 75 2,713 1.6
Chemistry Laboratory Assistants, Beauty Culture, Secretarial, Languages 11,785 15,996 27,781 16.2
Total 111,858 60,159 172,017 100.0

[Haim Hillel Ben-Sasson]


M. Wischnitzer, History of Jewish Crafts and Guilds (1965); Krauss, Tal Arch; A. Ruppin, Jews in the Modern World (1934), 182–204; J. Lestschinsky, Das wirtschaftliche Schicksal des deutschen Judentums (1936; Goralah ha-Kalkali shel Yahadut Germanyah, 1963); E. Tcherikower (ed.), Geshikhte fun der Yidisher Arbeter Bavegung in die Fareynigte Shtatn, 2 vols. (1943–45); C. Singer et al. (eds.), A History of Technology, 1 (1954); Pritchard, Pictures, 305.

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