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Goldsmiths and Silversmiths

The two closely related professions of refining, casting, beating, and filigreeing silver and gold have occupied Jewish craftsmen uninterruptedly from biblical times to the present. The highly skilled nature of the work, the relatively constant value of the two precious metals and the universal demand for artifacts made of them, their ready transportability, and not least, their use throughout the ages in Jewish ritual and ceremonial objects, all help account for the fact that Jewish goldsmiths and silversmiths can be found in almost every period of Jewish history wherever Jewish communities existed. However, because their creations were so often melted down or plundered for their metallic worth, no identifiable work of any Jewish craftsman has survived from before late medieval times, except for the artifacts and cult objects that have been excavated.


Apart from archaeological finds – ear and finger rings, anklets, pendants, beads, eating and drinking utensils, and figures of gods and goddesses such as those uncovered at Beth-Shean, Tell al-ʿAjjūl, and Tell al-Faraḥ – there is ample literary evidence from the Bible that both silver and gold were worked by Israelite craftsmen from the earliest times; indeed, according to the biblical narrative, the first two Jewish goldsmiths and silversmiths were the builders of the Tabernacle, *Bezalel and Oholiab. The many biblical injunctions against making silver and gold idols point in themselves to the widespread manufacture of such objects from the time of the Israelite conquest on, as borne out also by stories like that of Micah and his idol of silver (Judg. 17) or Jeroboam's golden calves (I Kings 12). Numerous passages in the Bible refer to silver and gold artifacts of all kinds and to the many silver and gold utensils in the Temple. Though neither of these metals was ever mined in Palestine, both were available throughout the ancient Near East; the Bible speaks of *Ophir and *Tarshish as sources, and this has been partly corroborated by a recently found eighth-century B.C.E. ostracon on which appear the words "gold from Ophir." Israelite craftsmen most probably learned to work both gold and silver directly from the Canaanites among whom they settled. In the time of Ezra and Nehemiah, to judge by two verses in the Book of Nehemiah (3:8, 31–32), they were organized into guilds. Such societies undoubtedly persisted later in the Second Temple period, and it is known that in the years preceding the destruction of the Temple goldsmiths occupied their own quarters in Jerusalem. The Mishnah (Mid. 3:8) and Josephus (Ant., 15:395) write of a golden vine with grape clusters "a marvel of size and artistry" adorning the Herodian Temple. Several references to Jewish goldsmiths and silversmiths occur in the Mishnah and Talmud. Rabbi Eliezer, a tanna living in the first half of the second century, ruled that Jewish craftsmen could not make ornaments for idols but could supply gentile customers with "necklaces, earrings, and finger rings" – a clear indication that such artisans competed for the non-Jewish trade as well. The Talmud (Sot. 49b; Shab. 59a) twice refers to a specific piece of gold jewelry, the "city of Jerusalem" (yerushalayim shel zahav) or "city of gold," apparently a pendant, engraved with an illustration of a wall encircling a city, that was customarily given to young brides. The first record of Jewish gold- and silversmiths active outside Palestine comes from the description in Suk. 51b of the great synagogue of Alexandria. It is stated that various groups of artisans, among them silversmiths and goldsmiths, sat each in their own pews, "so that when a poor man [i.e., artisan] entered there, he recognized the members of his own craft and turned to them to find means for the maintenance of himself and his family." This presumably refers to organized guilds. That Alexandria continued to harbor many Jewish gold- and silversmiths as late as the eve of the Muslim conquest, by which time the Jewish population of the city had greatly dwindled, is known from the writings of the sixth-century monk and geographer Cosmas Indicopleustes, who also mentions an even greater concentration of such Jewish craftsmen in Medina, where, he writes, 300 Jewish gold- and silversmiths lived in one quarter of the city. Presumably this records the beginnings of a tradition of Jewish gold and silver work in the southern Arabian peninsula.

Middle Ages and Modern Times

Like the practice of *crafts in general by Jews in the Middle Ages, the intricate craft of the goldsmith and silversmith continued to be a widespread Jewish occupation south of the Pyrenees and in the Mediterranean lands, while there was little activity among Jews in this profession north of this demarcation line. The specific combination of skills and financial acumen needed for the goldsmith's trade is evidenced in the information that has been preserved about the plying of this craft by Jews in Muslim countries. The records of the Genizah of Cairo show that goldsmithing was a common, lucrative, and highly specialized profession of Jews in Egypt and the surrounding area as far as Aden in the 11th and 12th centuries. In Iraq, Persia, Yemen, and the Maghreb many of the goldsmiths were Jews. That this was a widespread Jewish occupation in Muslim countries may be explained by the contempt in which artisans were held by the Arabs. In pre-Islamic Arabia there was a tribe of Jewish goldsmiths, the Zuaynuga, who were defeated and forced to accept Islam by Muhammad. The preponderance of Jews in goldsmithing and silversmithing, particularly in the manufacture of jewelry, continued well into the modern period. In Baghdad, in 1844, 250 of 1,607 Jewish families employed in industry and trade were goldsmiths by profession. In Yemen in particular, the Jewish artisans attained a high standard of skill and artistry. Jews there even believed that the few Muslim goldsmiths were descendants of Jews who had been forcibly converted. The mass immigration to Israel after 1948 of the Jews of Yemen and other Arab countries helped to develop a local jewelry industry.

Jewish goldsmiths are among the first Jews mentioned in Muslim Spain, and are repeatedly referred to there in the following centuries. In Christian Spain Jewish goldsmiths were to be found in practically every sizable town; they were employed by the royal households and occupied their own row of shops in large cities like Tudela and Pamplona. The Augustinian eremites of Barcelona in 1399 commissioned a Jewish artisan to make them a silver reliquary. Jews manufactured Christian religious artifacts in violation of Jewish law and the antipope Benedict XIII in 1415 had to forbid Spanish Jews to produce such objects as goblets and crucifixes. Jewish silversmithing was expressly permitted in the 15th century: in Aragon in 1401 and in Castile in 1419. A magnificent pair of silver *rimmonim, decorated with semiprecious stones and executed by a Spanish Jewish artist in Camarata (Sicily) in the 15th century, still survives in the Cathedral treasury in Palma de Mallorca. Delicate filigree work surrounds the horseshoe arched repoussé areas and the Hebrew inscriptions. The expulsion from Spain in 1492 left many *Marranos in the Iberian peninsula and Balearic islands who now engaged freely in silversmithing and goldsmithing. Numbers of the exiles from Spain and Portugal entered these crafts in the Ottoman Empire. This was recognizable particularly in Walachia where Jews sometimes even headed the silversmith guilds. In Ereẓ Israel, in particular in Safed, goldsmithing was considered one of the profitable crafts for Jews in the 16th century. In Italy the refugees from Spain met local well-established Jews in the craft. An apostate of Ferrara, Ercole dei Fideli (before baptism, Solomon de Sessa), was celebrated in this renaissance environment for the ornamental daggers and other works he produced (1465–1519). The gold- and silversmith Abraham b. Moses Ẓoref ("goldsmith") is mentioned in Venice in the early 18th century. Jewish goldsmiths are found in Rome in 1726. In Bohemia-Moravia gold- and silversmithing developed as a flourishing craft among Jews from the 16th century. Emperor Rudolf II appointed Isaac Goldscheider ("gold refiner") elder of Bohemian Jewry in 1560. He was followed in the craft by his son Jacob. The profession became widespread there, as attested by the frequent appearance of the name Ẓoref on Prague tombstones until 1740. In the 18th century Jewish goldsmithing was combined with the Jewish trade in precious stones and metals centered in Amsterdam and Hamburg. The craft continued to develop. There were eight goldsmiths among the Jews who returned to Prague in 1749. Several families practiced the craft for successive generations. The program of "enlightenment" and "productivization" of the Jews, animating the legislation of Emperor *Joseph II, encouraged practice of the craft among Jews; a separate Jewish guild came into existence in 1805 and continued until the abolition of the guilds in 1859. There were 29 Jewish apprentices recorded in Prague in 1804 and in 1830 there were 55 goldsmiths. In Germany, Jews did not begin to enter the craft until the middle of the 19th century when, however, the general developments in Jewish society were tending to deflect them from occupation in crafts. Silesia was an exception, for Jewish goldsmiths and silversmiths were working there in the second half of the 18th century. In Poland-Lithuania Jews entered this craft as they entered others, as a result of the weakness of the guilds and the activities of Jews in the private towns of the nobility. In 1664 Hirsch Jelenowicz was officially called "goldsmith to His Majesty" in Poland. With the mass emigration of Jews from Eastern Europe to Western Europe and the Americas, Jewish goldsmiths – now combining the profession with watchmaking – joined the few Sephardi goldsmiths who had arrived there earlier. The most noted of early Jewish goldsmiths in the United States was Myer *Myers. Between 1725 and 1837, 50 Jewish goldsmiths are recorded in England. Thus in modern times Jewish goldsmiths in Northern and Central Europe severed the old connection with moneylending and pawnbroking and the trade became allied with formal banking, on the one hand, and with the making of delicate instruments and the watch trade, on the other. Jewish *art, in particular, the ornamentation of Torah scrolls, mezuzot, and similar cult objects, was influenced by the Christian artisans who did the work for Jews, especially in Northern, Central, and Eastern Europe in the early Middle Ages. Family names like Goldschmidt, Goldsmith, Goldsmid, Ẓoref or Soref, and Orefice (Italian) generally indicate that at some stage in its history the family derived its livelihood from goldsmithing.


L.A. Mayer, Bibliography of Jewish Art (1967), index, S.V. Goldsmith and Ceremonial Art; A. Wolf in: MGJW, 9 (1902), 12–74; 15 (1905), 1–58; 24 (1907), 103–17; M. Gruenwald, ibid., 74 (1925), 419f.; Y. Bronner, in: Zeitschrift fuer die Geschichte der Juden in der Tschechoslowakei, 1 (1931), 243–7; H. Flesch, in: Die juedischen Denkmaeler in der Tschechoslowakei (1933), 32–33; Baer, Urkunden, index; Baer, Spain, index; Y.W. Rosenbaum, Myer Myers, Goldsmith (1954); A.G. Grimwalde, in: JHSET, 18 (1953–55), 113–26; C. Roth, The Jews in the Renaissance (1959), 195–8; S. Simonsohn, Toledot ha-Yehudim be-Dukkasut Mantova, 2 vols. (1962–64), index, S.V. Ẓorefim; M. Wischnitzer, A History of Jewish Crafts and Guilds (1965); A. Ben-Yakob, Yehudei Bavel mi-Sof Tekufat ha-Ge'onim ad Yamenu (1965), index, S.V. Ẓorefim; O. Muneles (ed.), Prague Ghetto in the Renaissance Period (1965), 108–25; Ashtor, Korot, 1 (1966), 180; J. Hrasky, in: Judaica Bohemiae, 2 (1966), 19–40, 97–106; H. Bentov, in: Sefunot, 10 (1966), 413–83; J.M. Landau, Ha-Yehudim be-Miẓrayim ba-Me'ah ha-Tesha-Esreh (1967); S.D. Goitein, A Mediterranean Society (1967), index; W. Pillich, in: Zeitschrift fuer die Geschichte der Juden, 4 (1967), 79–82; B. Brilling, ibid., 5 (1968), 21–26; 6 (1969), 137–46; idem, Geschichte der juedischen Goldschmiedwerke in Schlesien (1969); I. Roukhomovsky, Zikhroynes fun mayn Leybn un fun mayn Shtetl (1930); A. Kanoff, Jewish Ceremonial Art (1970).

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