Jewish professions

Benjamin Belenky
4 min readJun 18, 2020

-- — online burials catalog.

For an unprepared person, the phrase “Jewish professions” is a set of stereotypes about the areas of activity that Jews once engaged in. During the scattering period, they were forbidden to acquire and cultivate land, so they mastered other areas of economic activity: trade, usury, craft, art and medicine. As soon as the restrictions disappeared, the Jews mastered all possible forms of occupation. For example, in the 1920s, the Soviet government tried to “create” Soviet Jews who were engaged in agriculture.

Jews were city dwellers for a significant part of their history, so they valued their craftsmanship so much that in the Talmud one can come across a phrase that a person who does not teach his son how to craft teaches him to be a robber.

Since the middle of the 18th century, in Austria-Hungary and Russia, where most of Ashkenazi lived, the authorities demanded documents with surnames. Until then, the Jews, who did not have them, began to take them from the names of the professions they owned. Therefore, tailors became Schneider, Kravits or Portnoy, shoemakers — Schumacher, Shuster and Sandler, weavers — Weber, shopkeepers — Kramer, merchants — Gendler and so on. Today, by the names of historians, they can establish the main areas of Jewish occupation in a particular locality.

Here are some of the craft professions that surrounding peoples have associated with traditional Jewish occupations:

· Jeweler.

In the Middle Ages, jewelry was one of the common occupations of Jews in Europe and Arab countries.

In some regions, the craft was so associated with the Jews that even non-Jewish jewelers were credited with Jewish roots. For example, among the jewelers of Yemen, it was believed that fellow workers professing Islam are descendants of Jews who were forcibly Islamized.

Jewish jewelers actively mastered related professions. For example, trading in precious stones and fixing watches.

One of the most famous Jewish jewelers is Yu. Rappoport, who since 1883 was the chief specialist in Faberge silver products and had the right to put his signature on the products.

· Weavers and tailors.

If in ancient times, tailors made clothes exclusively according to ritual rules and for fellow tribesmen, then by the Middle Ages they had mastered the manufacture of clothes for everyone, regardless of confession.

The Jews of Podolie became famous as skilled weavers. In the town of Bershad (now Vinnitsa region) was the largest center for the production of Tallit. In addition, local Jews mastered the dyeing of fabrics. Thanks to the Jews, the town of Klembovka became a center for the production of embroidered fabrics, the samples of which were even worn by the Empress Alexandra Fedorovna.

· Shoemakers.

Shoes were so highly valued in Jewish tradition that in Talmudic literature one can find a statement that for the sake of it, one can sell a house, and Kabbalists called the body “the shoe of the soul”. Therefore, it is not surprising that shoemaking was considered one of the most Jewish occupations.

Since shoes in an agrarian society were expensive and seasonal purchases, shoemakers could sit out of work part of the year. Podolsk Jews shoemakers solved the problem by buying shoes off-season from colleagues of Christians and then selling them at a higher price, when demand for goods increased.

For a person familiar with Jewish life, the term “Jewish professions” means activities related to Judaism and the Jewish way of life, that existed only within Jewish communities.

Here are some of the Jewish professions:

· Rabbi.

After the destruction of the Temple, the need for a separate caste of clergymen disappeared, but the need arose for people who knew the law. Any Jew who received a special education could become a rabbi.

In some communities, in order to become a rabbi, it was necessary to present documents on the completion of a special educational institution (yeshiva). In others, a written recommendation from a respected Torah scholar was sufficient.

Rabbi is an elective post. He signs a contract with the community and receives a reward — sekhar battalah, which translates as ‘suspension fee’. It is assumed that by performing rabbinical duties, a person loses income from the fact that he does not do anything else, and the community compensates him for this.

· Judge (Dayan).

Rabbi was a connoisseur of religious law, and Dayan was engaged in civil affairs. He specialized in divorce, granted permission for a conversion to judaism (giyur) and determined the halachic status of a person born in a mixed marriage.

· Hazzan (cantor).

In ancient times, Hazzans were called the caretakers of the Temple. Then they began to call the person whom the community trusted to read the prayer. To become a Hazzan, a person had to have a beautiful voice, a good appearance, behave impeccably in the synagogue, be married and not be too old or young.

· Gabbai (headman).

In the Middle Ages, this was the name of the person who led one of the communities in the commune. Over time, the gabbai began to fulfill the functions of disposing of the money and property of the synagogue. The duties of the elders were to monitor the order, allocate seats and organize celebratory worship.

· Shochet (carver).

The man who made the slaughter of cattle. Shochet had to undergo special training, be God-fearing and not drink alcohol.

· Shames (servant).

The man who served as the scribe and secretary under the rabbi and the dayan. He cleaned the synagogue after the worship, announced to the townspeople that Saturday was coming and shops and stores should be closed, collected donations. — online burials catalog.

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