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Leather Industry & Trade

Biblical and Talmudic Times

The one Hebrew word רֹוע (or) covers skin, hide, and leather, so that it is difficult to establish whether references in the Bible are to skin or leather. The Bible frequently refers to garments made from skin (e.g., Gen. 3:21, 25:25). The prophet Zechariah wore a "hairy mantle" (13:14) and from the context it is obvious that he considered it a distinctive mark of the prophet. Elijah and Elisha probably wore a similar mantle (I Kings 19:13; II Kings 1:8). Such a garment was worn by the prophets to emphasize archaic values and simplicity after clothing woven from vegetable fibers had become the rule. Tanning is never mentioned in the Bible, although it is recorded in Egypt from the time of the earliest dynasty. It may be assumed that in biblical times the process was essentially one of simply drying the hide. Leather was widely used in biblical times: for sandals and shoes, and for straps and harnesses for horses, donkeys, and camels; the nod (דאֹנ), a skin bottle for storing and transporting liquids, is still widely used in the Middle East. All writing materials were also produced from hides. A ritually important use of leather and parchment since ancient times is for Torah scrolls, tefillin, the straps of which must be made from ritually clean animals, and the contents of mezuzot.

Talmudic literature contains several expressions for those occupied in leather production: the bursi was the dresser of the hides (Ket. 7:10); the tannery was called burseki (BB 2:9; Shab. 1:2); bursiyyon was the hide when it was being processed (TJ, Shab. 5:2, 7b); in time bursiyyon was used for the tanning process and finally for the tanner himself (Kid. 82b). The shalḥa (Shab. 49b) is an identical designation less frequently used. The expression avdan (Kel. 26:8; Shab. 1:8) was also used. The poshet or was the skinner, the intermediary craftsman between the butcher and the tanner. As in Greece and Rome, tanneries had to be located on the outskirts of the towns, far from residential quarters. According to the Mishnah (BB 2:9) a tannery should be situated on the east side of the town only, at least 50 cubits from the outskirts. This was because tanning was a primitive, malodorous process. Like a privy and a bathhouse, the tannery was exempted from having a mezuzah on the door post (Yoma 11a–b). The residents of an alley or lane could prevent one of their neighbors from becoming a tanner (BB 21b). A synagogue building may not be sold for use as a tannery (Meg. 3:2). For all these reasons the tanner's status in society was low. Of all the sages of the Talmud only *Yose b. Ḥalafta is known to have been a tanner. Like fullers and coppersmiths, tanners are exempted from appearing at the Temple on pilgrimage festivals because their unpleasant odor prevents them from going up with all the men (Ḥag. 7b), and forming a separate group is forbidden. An unnamed gaon (S. Assaf, Teshuvot ha-Ge'onim (1928), 93, no. 179) explains that they are exempt because their bad odor, having penetrated their flesh, cannot be removed. This, he said, was why they had their own synagogues in his day in Babylon. The tanner's trade was among those from which neither king nor high priest might be appointed, not because the tanner is ritually unfit, but because his occupation is despised (Kid. 82a). Maimonides adds (Yad, Melakhim 1:6) that whoever has worked at this trade for even one day is unfit for the high offices. In the words of the Talmud: "The world can exist neither without a perfume-maker nor without a tanner – happy is he whose craft is that of a perfume-maker, and woe to him who is a tanner by trade." According to Ketubbot 9:10, a tanner (as well as a collector of dung for tanning), whether he plied his trade before marriage or took it up afterward, may be compelled to divorce his wife if she demands it. Rabbi *Meir was of the opinion that even if a wife had agreed before the wedding to put up with her husband's trade, she must be allowed a divorce if she later found that she could not tolerate it. The example is given of a tanner who died, leaving a brother, also a tanner, who should therefore take the dead man's wife in levirate marriage. It was ruled that she might say: "I could endure your brother, but cannot endure you."

Later Developments in the East

Throughout the early Middle Ages, in countries under Muslim rule, tanning and leather craft remained in Jewish hands because of the low status of the profession. In 985 Muhammad ibn-Aḥmed al Magdisi reported that most tanners in Palestine and Syria were Jews. From the 12th to the 15th centuries the Dung Gate of the Old City of Jerusalem was called the Tanners' Gate because of its proximity to the Pool of Siloam, whose waters were considered unfit to drink but excellent for tanning purposes. Jews as tanners are mentioned frequently in *Byzantium : in the biography of an archbishop who flourished around 1150, they are compared to "hungry, leather-gnawing dogs." *Benjamin of Tudela considered that the Greeks of late 12th-century Constantinople hated the Jews because the Jewish tanners spilled their sewage water into the streets outside their houses and contaminated the Jewish quarter (Itinerary of…, ed. by M.N. Adler (1897), 16–17). The classical scholar Maximus Planudes mentions Jewish tanners in Constantinople in 1296; they lived in a separate quarter and were organized into a guild. Shortly after 1300 Jewish tanners who were Venetian subjects signed an agreement with the subjects of the empire, endorsed by the authorities, permitting them to lease ground for building houses and to pursue their trade in the city. To avoid competition, tasks were divided: the newcomers were to do the scraping, while the veterans did the tanning itself. In 1319 Emperor Andronicus II prohibited his subjects from engaging in tanning and ordered them to pursue other trades. The Venetian subjects seized the opportunity to break the earlier agreement and capture the whole trade. An imperial squad seized and destroyed their hides, and they were evicted from their houses. After protracted negotiations between the imperial and Venetian authorities, the Venetian claim for damages was refused. This was one instance of a conflict arising from the Byzantine policy of ousting Venice from the commerce in hides, furs, and leather from Crimea to Constantinople (J. Starr, Romania (1949), 25–35; D. Jacoby, in: Byzantiyyon, 37 (1967), 167–227; idem, in: Zion, 27 (1962), 24–35, passim).


On his journey to Ereẓ Israel in 1488, Obadiah di Bertinoro found Jewish tanners in Rhodes. He thought it worthy of note that their clothes were clean and their manners good.


In the 16th and 17th century, the production of leather and the export of hides and leather was one of the most important Jewish economic enterprises. Merchants from *Salonika bought hides from the Balkans and resold them after finishing. To put a stop to this competition the merchants of *Monastir (now Bitolj) forbade the sale of hides out of town. In the rabbinical responsa, trade in hides and mainly Cordoban leather is often mentioned. The responsa of Samuel b. Moses de *Medina (1506–1589) record a hide and leather merchant with his own shop in *Pleven (Plevna, Bulgaria) as well as the export of hides from *Adrianople (Edirne, Turkey) to *Ancona and Ragusa ( *Dubrovnik , Yugoslavia). According to Joseph b. David Lev (c. 1502–1588) and Joseph Moses Mitrani (1569–1639), who dealt with exports to *Venice , these transactions were usually conducted in partnership. Solomon b. Aaron Hason (d. before 1733) frequently dealt with the large–scale export of Cordoban leather to France via Venice; in one case there were 21 bales exported by five partners (M.S. Goodblatt, Jewish Life in Turkey in the 16th Century (1952), 53; Hananel-Eškenazi, 1 (1958), index).


Jews of *Fez at the beginning of the 18th century dried, salted, and exported hides to *Spain , *Portugal , and Gibraltar; after payment of a special tax (fayid), the royal seal was affixed (H. Bentov, in: Sefunot, 10 (1956/57), 438). In *Algiers in 1899 there were 45 Jewish tanners and 730 shoemakers (JE, S.V. Artisans).

In Europe


In Muslim Spain there were many Jewish tanners. The famous *Cordoba leather was exported to North Africa and Europe. In the Jewish quarter of *Seville there were two tanners' squares (Ashtor, Korot, 179–80). Three saddlers from *Saragossa were Obadiah di Bertinoro's shipmates (1486–88). A tanners' street (Teneria) existed in the Jewish quarter of Saragossa around 1336 and tanners were mentioned in Castile in 1443.


At the beginning of the 14th century, there were Jewish tanners in the Kingdom of Naples (Roth, Italy, 272). Under the rule of *Frederick II Hohenstaufen , trade in skins and in leather goods was one of their basic economic activities in *Sicily . Jewish tanners are mentioned in several Sicilian localities in the first half of the 15th century.


Jewish tanners are mentioned in Paris in 1258 and in *Montpellier in 1293. There is also mention of one tannery in *Troyes in 1189 and two in 1233. Jews in Central and Eastern Europe frequently engaged in tanning and other crafts connected with leather, from the Middle Ages onward. This was largely because the Christian attitude toward the trade was identical with the feeling prevalent in talmudic times. The family names which occur so frequently among European Jews, such as Gerber, Garber, Lederer, and Ledermann (Ger.), Korzownik, Skurnik, Ganbarz, and Garbowski (Pol.) and Koželuh (Cz.), bear witness to their occupations.


Buying hides from the local noblemen was one of the main tasks of the Jews, as stipulated in the charters on which their protection was based; purchasing the skins of small animals from peasants and from butchers was an important side line. Jews also imported and exported hides. At the end of the 16th century, Marcus *Meisel was granted the monopoly of the leather trade in Prague (Bondy-Dworsky, no. 1068). In 1629 the gentile tanners of *Tachov included a clause in their charter forbidding any of their number to finish hides for Jews because the Jewish leather trade was undercutting the tanners. When the Jews were expelled from *Litomerice in 1541, one man had to be allowed to remain because he alone was capable of supplying hides and tanning bark to the tanners (H. Ankert, in: H. Gold, Juden und Judengemeinden Boehmens, 1934). In Prague in 1729 there were 70 Jewish hide and leather merchants. The Jews who settled in Kremsier ( *Kromeriz ) in 1670 after their expulsion from Vienna were permitted to deal in "various crude and finished leather" ( *Frankl-Gruen , Kremsier, 1 (1896), 109). Leather and hide merchants frequented the large fairs, mainly the one at Breslau (Wroclaw), which was a center for the import of hides from Eastern Europe.

Jews were also active in tanning itself; since it was one of the trades outside guild control it was open to Jews, and after the Thirty Years' War tanneries became one of the most important Jewish economic outlets. When the Moravian guilds protested against the renewal of Jewish privileges in 1659, one of their arguments was the claim that the methods of tanning employed by the Jews were unsatisfactory (W. Mueller, Urkundliche Beitraege (1905), 27–28). Jews were permitted to settle as tanners in localities otherwise forbidden to them. Most of the tanneries were the property of the local nobleman and were leased to the Jewish randar (see *Arenda ), who was sometimes not a tanner himself but the employer of one. However, some Jews had their own tanneries. In *Polna the community as such leased the tannery from the municipality (1681) and in *Kolin the community bought the tannery (1724; R. Kestenberg-Gladstein, in: JJS, 6 (1955), 35–49). The council of Moravian Jewry issued several ordinances concerning the leather industry: it forbade the attempt to gain a monopoly on buying hides and other merchandise from a local nobleman (I. Heilperin, Takkanot… (1963), 83, no. 250), yet in another ordinance (ibid., 150, no. 449) it forbade anyone to buy in a locality where someone else had a monopoly by the terms of his contract with the local nobleman. It was considered the duty of the *Landrabbiner to protect Moravian Jews from the competition of buyers from other districts (ibid., 285, no. 485). The council did not hold tanners (nor butchers) in high esteem: in 1709 it ruled that they could be members of the council only if they also held public office in their home community.

Early in the 17th century the Hapsburg rulers, true to their mercantilist policies, were interested in encouraging tanning. A survey that they carried out in Moravia in 1719 revealed that there were two tanneries owned by Jews and 79 leased by Jews from local noblemen; six of them employed one gentile laborer each; the lease of 13 of these tanneries was connected with the lease of a distillery; only ten tanneries in Moravia were run by gentiles (V. Zacek, in: JGGJČ, 5 (1933), 175–97). In Bohemia in 1724 there were 80 Jewish tanners and furriers (grouped together under one heading) and 26 tanneries were leased to Jews; 252 Jews were occupied in the leather industry; 146 were hide and leather merchants, and 106 were engaged in tanning (R. Kestenberg-Gladstein, in: Zion, 9 (1944), 17; 12 (1946/47), 49–65, 160–89, and passim). In the 18th century tanning and trading in leather were often connected. One specialty of the Jewish leather trade in Moravia was the kid trousers which, finished and colored in various ways, were an important feature of the peasants' national costume (B. Heilig, in: JGGJČ, 3 (1931), 373). The tanners were the first craftsmen in the Hapsburg Empire who were permitted to hire open salesrooms (Verkaufsgewoelbe) in Vienna (1781). This offered several Jews the opportunity to settle there.

These tanneries continued to flourish in the 19th century, and when new chemical methods were introduced many of them became important factories, as in *Golcuv Jenikov and *Kosova Hora (Amschelberg). Jews also founded new factories where no tanneries had existed before: e.g., in *Pilsen where the first factory producing Moroccan-style leather was established in 1829 and in *Brno where a factory producing French-style leather was founded in 1846. More than 20 of the leather factories in Bohemia in 1863 were run by Jews, and a large part of their export trade was with the United States. Leather production remained a Jewish craft for many years. After chromium tanning was introduced (1884) Jewish factories led the move to modernization. Between the two world wars Jewish firms played an important role in the production and export of leather goods (Jews of Czechoslovakia, 1 (1968), 419–81).


In 1331 Jewish tanners were permitted, in return for a fee, to join the guild in *Esslingen am Neckar. In 1406 there were Jewish saddle-makers in Frankfurt, but Jewish tanners in general were not numerous. As late as the 17th century Jews were forbidden to engage in this craft in Hesse-Kassel. The Christian and Jewish tanners frequently clashed over the buying of hides and sale of the leather. In some districts, as in Hesse-Darmstadt, the trade was forbidden to Jews, and in all districts the tanners guild had an option on the hides for 24 hours after slaughtering. In 1718 the Berlin merchants' guild included hides and furs in a suggested list of merchandise in which Jews should be permitted to trade. In 1736 Samuel Slomka was granted the concession to establish a leather factory in Tilsit (Sovetsk) to produce, besides ordinary leather, Russian-style leather (Juchten; S. Stern, Der preussische Staat… 2 (1925, repr. (1962), 105). At the turn of the 17th century, Jewish merchants supplied tanners in Berlin with hides and processed the leather according to the putting-out system. The Prussian General-Reglement of 1750 limited Jewish trade in hides and leather to fairs (M. Freund, Emancipation (1893), 38–41).

*Frederick II founded, at his own expense, a factory for English-style leather, run by a Scottish expert, but it failed to prosper. After various unsuccessful endeavors to improve it, the firm was handed over to Daniel *Itzig (1761). Army regiments were commanded to place their orders there. Daniel's son, Elias, continued to manage the factory until it closed down in 1818. Daniel Itzig himself founded another factory for chamois leather. The ordinances permitting Jews to import leather frequently stipulated that this should be in exchange for exporting locally manufactured textiles.

At the end of the 19th century, Jews were important in the leather industry of Germany. Between the world wars the trust founded by Adler and Oppenheimer, until 1918 in *Strasbourg , developed into one of the largest industries of its kind in the world (S. Kaznelson (ed.), Die Juden im deutschen Kulturbereich (1962), 792–3). However, Jewish participation in actual tanning decreased: in 1907 there were only 334 Jewish tanners in Germany compared with 49,000 gentile ones. Many Jews were engaged in the production of leather goods such as purses, wallets, valises, etc. as entrepreneurs, managers, and workers, since conditions were similar to those in *tailoring : it was a light industry, easily adaptable to piece work and to home and family enterprises. Many of the leather firms in Germany, particularly in *Offenbach , were owned by Jews, and immigrant East European Jews supplied the labor.


In 1910 Belgium had 33 Jewish enterprises employing 104 workers in the maroquinerie industries (purses, wallets, etc.). By 1926, 1,600 Jewish workers were employed in 160 firms, most of which employed more than ten workers; almost all were concentrated in Brussels, Anderlecht, and the vicinity. The industry, revolutionized after World War I by a mass influx of East European Jews, not only grew to supply local demand but made Belgium an important exporter of leather goods.


In 1460 Jewish tanners are mentioned as having lived "for a long time" in a Lemberg ( *Lvov ) suburb. In *Przemysl Jewish tanners are mentioned in the 16th century. There was a Jewish tanners' guild in *Leszno (Lissa) in the 18th century. With the industrial development of the 1790s, Jewish entrepreneurs, among them Samuel *Zbitkover , established tanneries: e.g., in Praga (suburb of Warsaw) which employed 15 laborers, in *krakow , Wegrow, and *Lutomiersk . The Jewish community of *Opoczno ran a tannery. Tanning and the leather trades became an outstanding Jewish occupation toward the end of the 19th century, employing tens of thousands of Jews. In some localities, such as *Lukow , *Kozienice , *Siedlce , *Radom , *Bialystok , and *Kielce , a large proportion of the Jewish inhabitants worked in the leather trade, which lost its main market in the 1917 Revolution. In 1894, 400 Jewish tanning workers in *Krynki founded the Po'alei Ẓedek, one of the first trade unions in Russia (by 1898 they had 800 members). To fight the workers' demands the tannery owners founded the Agudat Ahim in 1906. In the eastern regions of the *Pale of Settlement , 64.6% of all leather workers were Jews. In czarist Russia 287 out of 530 tanneries were owned by Jews (162 of them in Russian Poland). The largest was in Shauli ( *Siauliai ). Other important centers were in *Vilna , *Smorgon , *Mogilev , *Minsk , and Dvinsk ( *Daugaupils , Latvia). Jewish participation in the leather trade in independent Poland remained considerable: in 1927, 41% of all tanners were Jews and in 1931 15,705 Jews were employed in the leather industries (45% of all leather workers). While among the gentiles, leather workers formed 0.9% of all industrial laborers, among Jews the percentage was 2.9; 31.8% of the independent employers of the larger and technologically developed factories were Jews, but only 4.8 of the laborers in these factories were Jews. The percentage of Jews employed in the leather industries (45%) was even higher than that of the needleworkers (44.1%; R. Mahler, Yehudei Polin Bein Shetei Milḥamot Olam (1968), 73–98, passim). Their trade unions (Leder-farayn) were strong; in Warsaw there were two after 1922, one dominated by the *Bund and one by the Communists (B. Ḥayyim, in Pinkes Varshe, 1 (1955), 387–96).


The leather industry received its impetus from immigrants from central Europe in the middle 1930s; in 1937, 850 workers were employed in 61 firms. Production of boots for the British army increased from 80,000 pairs in 1942 to 400,000 in 1944; an additional 700,000 were produced by artisans and workshops. Production, which increased after the establishment of the State of Israel, was encouraged by the population increase and by the rise in the standard of living. In 1969 it totaled 1.5% of the total industrial production; exports totaled $3,500,000 (1.5% of all industrial exports). According to a 1965 industrial census 7,440 workers were employed in 2,580 firms: only 111 employed more than ten workers; most work was done in family-style workshops. Exports in 2004 dropped to $1.0 million as opposed to imports of $17 million. In all, around 1,500 persons were employed in 140 firms.

[Meir Lamed]

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