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Ancient Jewish History: Table of Contents | Sha'atnez | Biblical Times

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In the biblical period garments were produced from both animal and vegetable materials. The most common garments were made of animal furs, especially of the less expensive sheepskin and goatskin, though rarer skins were also used. The pelts were processed to make them soft and hairy. Simple garments were sewn from these skins with the hairy surface worn either against the body or outward. Skins were prepared in two fashions: hard and thick for footwear, and soft, thin, and more delicate for clothing. Skins were also used for military dress and various military accessories. Beginning with the second millennium B.C.E., leather and fur were processed by specialists, who maintained facilities for this purpose. Natural silk, bought from India and Arabia, was used only in the most expensive garments, such as royal raiment. The most common, however, and almost the sole materials used for textiles were wool and linen. (The identification of meshi (Ezek. 16:10, 13) with silk, by Rashi, followed by all other commentators, is almost certainly a mistaken one. The first reference to silkworms is by Aristotle in his De Animalibus Historia, 5.) The preparation of cloth required several operations. The raw material was cleaned, and if necessary dyed (see *Dyeing ). It was then used for the spinning of threads which was done on a spindle – a short, narrow rod at whose end is a circular weight which maintains the rod suspended in a vertical position and serves as a small fly wheel to turn the rod on its axis. By turning the suspended spindle with deft finger motions, the fibers were inwoven into threads of uniform thickness. The threads thus produced were bound about the spindle stick as on a bobbin (H. Gressman, Altorientalische Bilder zum Alten Testament (19262)). Spinning was done by old people or women at home in their spare time (cf. Prov. 41:19). Some excavations have revealed perforated weights, generally made of stone.

The next process in the production of clothing was the weaving of the woolen or flaxen threads into cloth. For this purpose there were vertical or horizontal looms, and for larger cloths, the mobile looms were attached to the ground. The base for the woven cloth consisted of the warp strands that stretched through the length of the cloth. On a vertical loom the warp strands were closely spaced over the two horizontal bars of the fame. Larger vertical looms used only one horizontal bar, with perforated clay or stone weights attached to the other end of the warp strands. On horizontal looms, the tension in the warp was maintained by two bars held in place on the ground or on a table. The woof strands were passed alternately above and below the warp threads. More complex patterns were produced by picking up several warp strands at a time or by multidirectional weaving. The most advanced looms permitted more complex methods such as separating warp groups by attaching them to several upper or lower bars whose positions could be exchanged. The woof thread was bound about a beam, which served as a bobbin that was passed back and forth over the warp all the while unwinding the thread. To make the cloth more opaque, a rough comb was passed along the taut warp strands, to make the woof adhere more thoroughly. The proximity of the threads determined the strength of the cloth, while the thickness determined its coarse or delicate structure. Much use was made of colored threads which could be woven into particular patterns. Clothing was sewn by hand with metal or bone needles, also used for coloring embroidery on the fabric, which was an integral part of its decoration. Clothing was fastened with laces tied to one another by means of special pins. The use of buttons was very rare.

In the Talmud

During the talmudic period wool and linen continued to be the main sources for textiles. Whereas, however, wool was more plentiful in Ereẓ Israel, linen was so abundant and cheap in Babylon that its cheapness was regarded as one of the main material attractions of the country (Ta'an. 29b). To such an extent did the economy depend upon it that public prayers were offered when its value dropped by 40% (BB 91a). There were special districts where flax was soaked and where it was sold (Git. 27a). The difference between Ereẓ Israel and Babylon with regard to those two materials is reflected in the statement that whereas in Babylon colored woolen garments were regarded as the most expensive, in Ereẓ Israel white linen was so regarded (Pes. 109a). During this period a considerable number of new materials appear. However, it is interesting that two passages in which these new materials are mentioned are explicitly connected with this extension.

Mishnah Kilayim 9:1 states that "Wool and linen alone are forbidden under the law of *mixed species ," and the subsequent mishnayot deal with the new textiles common at the time. They are camel hair (cf. Matt. 3:4), hemp (9:1), silk and floss silk (9:2), and a textile made of a mixture of hemp and linen. Garments made of hemp were usually imported (9:7). In Babylonia hemp was even cheaper than linen (Ket. 8b). Similarly, on the law enjoining that the ẓiẓit must be attached to one's "garments" (Num. 15:38), the Talmud, acknowledging that the word in the Bible applies only to wool, continues "Whence then can I include camel hair, rabbit hair, goat hair, floss silk [kallakh], raw silk [Sirikon = Lat. Sericom], fine silk (Shira'in – Men. 39b; cf. also Sifra, Tazri'a, Perek 16)." Kallakh occurs in Mishnah Shabbat 2:1 as one of the materials forbidden for use as wicks for the Sabbath lamp. The Babylonian amoraim, uncertain of its identification, in their discussion mention a number of varieties of silk used in Babylon such as "metuksa" (Gr. μέτυξα) and peranda silk (Late Gr. πράνδιοι). In addition cotton was extensively used. It should be noted, however, that the talmudic word kutnah, or kitnah, is not cotton, but linen. The Arabic form of the word qutn was adapted by traders for the Arab cottons which they introduced into Europe. The talmudic name for cotton is ẓemer gefen ("vine wool"; Kil. 7:2, TJ, Ket. 2:4, 27d).

Home weaving was so essential an aspect of the domestic menage, at least in mishnaic times, that it is stated that even a wealthy woman "even if she brought a hundred maidservants" into the house, should still be obliged to engage in wool-spinning, "since idleness leads to lewdness" (Ket. 5:5); nevertheless, there is ample evidence of the existence of textiles, and specifically woolen goods, manufactured on a commercial scale. "Ben Zoma said, 'how many labors did Adam have to perform before he obtained a garment to wear! He had to shear, wash, comb, spin, and weave (the wool) before he had a garment to wear, whereas I get up early and find all that done for me. All kinds of people come betimes to my house, and … I find all these ready'" (Ber. 58a).

[Louis Isaac Rabinowitz]

Medieval Period

The prominence of Jews in the manufacture of textiles in the Mediterranean Basin in the Middle Ages was connected with the widespread commerce in textiles, particularly silk and the more expensive fabrics, in general, and with Jewish commercial activity in this sphere in particular. Cheaper types of cloth were also an important article of trade; thus, in the sources of the period, wherever a Jewish merchant is mentioned plying his trade he was most commonly dealing in textiles. In medieval Egypt the silk trade "fulfilled a function similar to that of stocks and bonds in our own society. In other words, it represented a healthy range of speculation, while providing at the same time a high degree of security" (S.D. Goitein, A Mediterranean Society (1967), 223).

In Muslim Spain, where many Jews engaged in the silk industry, there "were two brothers, merchants, the manufacturers of silk, Jacob *Ibn Jau and … Joseph … they became successful in the silk business, making clothing of high quality and pennants that are placed at the tops of standards of such high quality as was not duplicated in all of Spain" (Ibn Daud, Tradition, 68–69). To King Roger of Sicily was attributed the introduction of the silk industry into his lands by means of captured Jewish craftsmen from the Balkans (1147). *Benjamin of Tudela describes the Jews of Thebes as "the good craftsmen in making silk and purple clothes in the land of the Greeks"; at *Salonika he also noted that "they deal in the craft of silk," while among the Jews of *Constantinople he found "craftsmen in silk" (ed. Adler (London, 1907), 12–16). The occupation of *dyeing , then widespread among Jews and often mentioned by him, was connected with textiles. In Spain woolen cloth, produced from the famed local merino sheep, was produced by Jewish weavers, particularly in *Majorca and the eastern cities of *Barcelona , *Valencia , and *Saragossa . The weaver's guild in *Calatayud had its own synagogue. *Moneylending in Western and Central Europe brought Jews into contact with valuable textiles given in pawn which they had to maintain in good state, and also often to sell.

In the Ottoman Empire

Many of the exiles from Spain and Portugal (1492, 1497) continued their former occupations in the textile trade or crafts in their new places of settlement in the Ottoman Empire, or turned to them when they arrived in the Balkans and came into contact with the old tradition of Jewish occupation in this field. Salonika had been established as a center of the textile industry before the arrival of the refugees, many of whom joined in manufacture of the produce of the Balkan hinterland. Thus in the 16th century thousands of Jews engaged there in all stages of the production of cloth (known as "abba"). A textile workshop could be found in almost every Jewish home, where the head of the household worked with his wife and children. Jews also distributed and sold the local cloth. Textile workshops were bequeathed to synagogues and charitable institutions. At Ḥanukkah it was customary to donate pieces of cloth to poor yeshivah students. The scope and problems of the industry and trade in textiles in Salonika is shown in the many communal regulations and rabbinical injunctions issued against price slashing, the sale of wool to foreigners, and the purchase of raw wool with cash (which only the wealthy could afford to do). Locally made garments only could be put up for sale, and every Jew over 20 years old had to wear clothes locally produced. From 1586 the tax on Salonika Jewry levied by the Ottoman authorities was payable by a quota of cloth (1,200 standard pieces of cloth), which was presented to the janissaries.

The most flourishing period for the Jewish textile industry in Salonika was between 1500 and 1580, but afterward it gradually declined. A financial crisis in 1584, and others that succeeded it, forced many Jewish artisans to leave for other textile centers (Verria, *Rhodes , Smyrna). The Ottoman authorities afforded the industry no protection against the superior, foreign-made, European textiles, which swamped the market. Hence the Salonika Jews began to specialize in carpets and other local wares.

At the peak period of activity in the Safed textile center in Ereẓ Israel (1530–60), the majority of earners among the approximately 15,000 Jews there were employed in the manufacture of high-quality woolen cloth, produced from raw, short-fibered wool sent from the Balkans to Safed via *Sidon . All stages of production were carried out in Safed; the fulling mills (known as batan) utilized the many local springs; one is still standing. Tales of the leading Safed mystics show that many owned such textile mills. Both the trade and the community itself began to decline rapidly after 1560, for the same reasons as had operated against Salonika and because of transport hazards at sea.

Eastern Europe

Their occupation in *arenda and their predominant role in the grain and forest produce export trade in Poland-Lithuania, enabled Jews to take an important part in the import trade of textiles there. From the 16th century Jews traded extensively in textiles on every level of the trade and in all types and qualities of cloth. Though never occupied directly in weaving or spinning, Jews were predominant in the trade in raw wool, yarn, and textiles of all types. Three Jewish weavers are mentioned in Plotsk in the 16th century. In *Mezhirech the Christian weavers attacked some Jewish rivals in 1636. The Poznan community declared the trade in raw wool produced in the region to be a *ḥazakah , and appointed a special wool parnas in the 17th century to prevent foreign merchants from buying it up. In the Poznan region Jewish merchants would advance money, or farm out herds of sheep, in order to obtain the raw wool, which they gave out to local Christian craftsmen to make up into cloth for them. This expertise in capitalist entrepreneurship was in modern times transposed by many Jews of this region to Germany after the partitions of Poland-Lithuania at the end of the 18th century. Jewish *peddlers, in particular in the *Pale of Settlement and parts of Austria-Hungary, bought up raw materials in the villages, and supplied them to large-scale Jewish traders, and also sold fabrics and clothes in the villages.

Under Russian rule in modern times Jews were active on various levels in the development of the Polish textile industry, and in its celebrated center at *Lodz . In 1842, 39 of 82 Jews engaged in commerce in Lodz were suppliers of wool or yarn to artisans. In the early 1840s Jewish wool and yarn merchants and cotton importers began founding firms of their own. In 1864 there were more than 50 independent Jewish manufacturers in Lodz. The early 1860s witnessed a growing increase in Jewish investment and industrial ventures in textiles, with Jews leading in technological innovations and business organization methods at Lodz as well as at *Bialystok . In 1867 about 11% of the factory owners in Lodz were Jewish, but these accounted for only 8.5% of the total production. However, entrepreneurs such as Israel Poznanski, Bielchowsky, Joshua Birnbaum, and others forged ahead to become the leading Lodz textile manufacturers. Jewish participation in the textile industry there reached its peak before World War I, when 45.6% of all Lodz textile factories were owned by Jews and almost 27,000 Jewish workers were engaged in various branches of the industry and trade. Of these, one-third were still using manual looms, living in indescribable poverty in the Balut suburb of Lodz. Very few were employed in factories and virtually none in specialized technical work.

In independent Poland between the two world wars, Jewish participation in the Lodz and Bialystok textile industry was hard hit by the anti-Jewish discriminatory policies of the state. Some, however, like Oscar Cohn, managed to develop their factories with foreign capital. By 1931 textile enterprises in Jewish ownership were mainly on a smaller scale, and Jews were employed in the industry in clerical posts rather than as workers. In 1931, 16% of those employed in the textile industry in Poland were Jews, and 71.4% of the independent employers.

Central Europe

Jewish traders, generally from Poland-Lithuania, played a considerable role both as buyers and sellers of fabrics and clothes on *market days and at the fairs in Central Europe. At *Vienna , the entrepôt of all types of textile goods, Jewish merchants from the wool-producing provinces, Hungary, and Galicia, traded there with Jews from the textile-manufacturing areas of *Bohemia and Moravia, while the imperial army, and the city itself, took a large part of the products. Among the Viennese privileged manufacturers were Hermann *Todesco , who developed the silk industry there (further developed by S. Trebitsch and sons), and Michael L. *Biedermann , by whose single-handed efforts Vienna displaced Budapest as center of the wool trade in the Hapsburg Empire. Another privileged merchant manufacturer who was ennobled was M. *Koenigswarter . In 1846, 33 of 133 textile printing firms in Vienna were Jewish-owned, 11 of 72 cotton producers were Jews, as were also 27 of 53 textile commission agents, primarily for the Balkans and the Orient. In 1855 there were 89 Jewish-owned printing and weaving enterprises, about 5% of the total. After the official abolition of all restrictions on Jewish trade (1859; 1867) the participation of Jews in the Viennese textile trade became virtually a monopoly; even after World War I, when each of the Hapsburg successor states developed and protected its own textile industries.

In Hungary

The Hungarian wool trade was conducted almost entirely by Jews, who were thus in a position to establish textile industries. Adolf and Heinrich Kohner, originally Moravian feather merchants, established Hungary's first modern wool textile factories. Other notable textile manufacturers were Robert Szurday (originally Weiss, ennobled in 1899), Leo Buday (originally Goldberger), and Samuel Goldberger (ennobled in 1867).

Bohemia and Moravia

These areas, the most industrialized in the Hapsburg Empire, also produced most of its textiles, and Jews played a prominent role in this industry. From the 17th century Jews had been almost the sole dealers in raw wool, from the peasants together with furs, hides, livestock, and other agricultural produce. The peddler, who maintained immediate contact with the peasant, sold his wares to a Jewish merchant who had the wool washed and bleached, spun by peasants, and woven by artisans, and then sold it at the fairs. One of the earliest cloth manufacturers was Feith Ehrenstamm of Prossnitz ( *Prostejov ), who supplied the imperial army with large quantities during the Napoleonic wars by organizing the production of hundreds of local weavers.

In *Brno three of the first seven modern steam weaving factories were established by Jews, who had previously been supplying weavers with wool. Among the larger firms was that of L. *Auspitz , inherited and expanded by Phillipp *Gomperz , as well as the *Loew-Baer factories , and those of the Popper brothers and Salomon Strakosch. The textile industry also followed the same pattern in Reichenberg ( *Liberec ) where the earliest suppliers of wool there were the sons of Jacob *Bassevi of Treuenberg in the 17th century. Jews not only supplied the raw material but sold off the finished goods, primarily in Prague, where almost all the textile merchants were Jews (459 compared with 39 gentiles in 1772). Some of them established factories for cloth printing and other end processes, among them Moses and Leopold Porges, Salomon Brandeis, Simon *Laemel , and many members of leading Prague Jewish families. In Czechoslovakia after World War I Jewish activity in textiles continued and developed. The nationalization of the jute industry after 1918 was organized by Emanuel Weissenstein and Richard Morawitz, who remained president of the "Juta" concern until 1939. In Trutnov, the center of the flax industry, Alexander Videky was chairman of the flax exchange for many years.


The mercantilist policies of 18th-century Prussia encouraged *Court Jews and other Jewish financiers and purveyors to become entrepreneurs of various branches of the textile industry there. Levi Ulff brought Dutch artisans to Brandenburg in 1714 and founded a ribbon factory, which was soon commissioned to supply all the royal regiments. The elders of the Berlin Jewish community proposed setting up woolen cloth factories in Pomerania at their own cost (and to import 3,000 workers), in return for freeing the Jewish community from a newly imposed silver tax, but their proposal was rejected. Many Jews initiated new factories, some in new branches of textiles, such as Pinthus Levi of Rathenow, a horse and grain purveyor, who set up a canvas factory in 1763, which employed more than 1,000 workers. Isaac Bernhard, who imported silk from Italy, received state support in establishing a factory which soon employed 120 looms (his trusted bookkeeper was Moses *Mendelssohn , whose residence in Berlin depended on his employment). David *Friedlaender was a large-scale silk manufacturer. After the first partition of Poland (1772) Benjamin Veitel *Ephraim utilized the semi-professional local labor of Jewish women and girls in the Netze district, where Jews formed 6% of the total and one-quarter of the urban population. He established schools for teaching pillow-lace manufacture, and by 1785 was employing about 700 Jewish women and girls.

At *Stuttgart , center of the south German textile industry, there were in 1930 about 170 Jewish manufacturers and the same number of merchants; mainly in processing semi-raw products, semi-finished goods, and finishing, and particularly in the manufacture and trade in tricots and knitwear. Jews were also active in the nearby textile centers of Untertuerkheim, Bocholt, Westphalia, and Landeshut, Silesia, where the linen-manufacturing firm of H. Gruenfeld was well known. Jews participated in the trade and import of wool and in the finishing stages of the industry. Generally, Jewish entrepreneurs tended to concentrate in specific sectors, such as the manufacture of jute sacks, and drapery – lace ribbons, suspenders, garters, neckties, etc. – knitwear, and carpets. Between the two world wars the most important Jewish textile merchant in Germany was James *Simon , multi-millionaire philanthropist. A distinguishing feature of the Jewish participation in the German textile trade was its close connection with Great Britain, from which goods were imported, methods followed, and designs imitated, by means of agents and relatives. Jewish participation in the trade in finished textile goods (about 40%) was twice as high as their participation in the industrial sector of the textile industry.

Great Britain

Jews had mainly entered the textile industry and trade in Great Britain after the industrial revolution. One of the first was Nathan M. *Rothschild who established himself as a cotton-goods manufacturer (especially of uniforms) in Manchester in 1797. He was followed by many Jewish buyers from Jewish and non-Jewish firms from Germany and the continent, many of whom became independent exporters of cotton goods. At Bradford, Jacob Behrens became important after 1838, and several other German Jews were active there, as well as in other textile centers. In Scotland, they were prominent in the local jute industry in the last quarter of the 19th century, Sir Otto *Jaffe (see also *Tailoring ) was a leading figure in Northern Ireland.

United States

In the United States few Jews entered the textile industry, an outstanding exception being the *Cone family of Carolina. However, Jews became prominent in raw cotton and wool brokerage, as well as in the wholesale and retail trade in fabrics. None of the large producers of synthetic fibers was Jewish-owned.

[Henry Wasserman]

In Israel

In the late 1960s the textile industry became one of the largest industrial branches in Israel, second only to the foodstuff industry. The output in 1969 was 10% of the total industrial output, amounting to IL 925,000,000. At the same time textile products constituted about 12% of industrial exports, totaling $66,000,000, the second largest export branch after diamonds.

By 1937 there were already 86 spinning and weaving plants in Ereẓ Israel, with about 1,500 employees. The necessary capital and technical knowledge were brought by Jewish professionals from Europe, an example of such enterprise being the Ata plant near Haifa. The development of the textile industry received considerable impetus in World War II which cut off the European supply, stimulating local manufacture for army needs. In 1943 the number of factories had grown to 250, employing about 5,630 workers; invested capital had grown fourfold and the output value tenfold.

After the establishment of the State of Israel, during the government's drive to step up industry, the textile industry expanded, and special emphasis was put on its establishment in development areas. By 1965, 25% of the textile workers were employed in the three large cities – Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Haifa – while the rest were concentrated in new industrial areas, in particular in the development areas of Lachish, Ashkelon, and in the Negev and Galilee. The new plants were equipped with the latest machinery, including improved automatic weaving looms, which gave employment to hundreds of workers. While the older plants located in the central part of Israel employed about ten workers each, plants in the development areas employed an average of 50 workers each. There was a rapid growth in production, which before 1955 was mainly concerned with finishing processes. The products were then processed from the raw cotton stage. Apart from increase in quantity of production, there was an improvement in design and techniques. Export of textiles was expanded, and in 1971 exports had increased to one-fifth of the industry's output. In 1965 there were 1,007 textile factories employing 26,300 workers, including 100 plants employing more than 50 workers each. In 1970 there were 300,000 cotton-spinning machines and 50,000 wool-spinning machines, compared with 55,000 cotton-spinning machines before the outbreak of World War II. The number of mechanical looms grew from 2,000 before 1948 to 6,000 in 1970, more than half of them automatic and up-to-date.

The expansion of Israel's textile industry was also a result of the development of cotton growing in Israel as a profitable agricultural branch. Following successful experiments in 1953, the cotton-planted areas were expanded from 300 dunams in 1953 to 290,000 dunams on irrigated land and 32,000 dunams on unirrigated land, a total of approximately 330,000 dunams. The output of cotton fiber grew from 95 kg. per dunam in 1955 to 130 kg. per dunam in 1969. The total output of cotton grew from 2,000 tons in 1955 to 39,200 tons in 1969, when 21,000 tons of cotton were exported and about 18,000 tons were sold to the local industry. The carding machines were set up in various places in the cotton-growing areas. About 400 tons of wool were produced in 1969 by local sheep, but of this only 100 tons were sold to the local textile industry. The majority of the raw material for Israel's wool industry is therefore imported. Other raw materials for the textile industry are also imported.

[Zeev Barkai]

In the 1990s Israel's textile industry faced a crisis as cheap East Asian labor made it uncompetitive. At that time around 400 Israeli Arab sewing shops handled the brunt of the subcontracting work. These began to close down. The turnaround came when Israeli firms began doing their sewing work in Jordan and Egypt. The giant Delta company led the way, followed by Polgat, Argeman, Kitan, and others. In the early 2000s Israeli companies had 30 plants in Jordan employing 6,000 workers while employment in the industry in Israel dropped from a peak of 45,000 to 38,000. Israel's growing exports reached $370 million a year as it continued to supply such retailers and designers as Marks & Spencer, The Gap, Victoria's Secret, Wal-Mart, Sears, Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein, and Donna Karan.

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

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