Monday, January 5, 2009

Jewish Professions

Are there certain professions that are “Jewish”? For instance, is finance a “Jewish business”? This is a strange question in the twenty-first century, when Jews can be found in a wide range of professions. So where did these assumptions come from and why do they persist?

The facts are that after the fall of the Roman Empire, Europe operated on the feudal system and was, in reality, ruled by the Catholic Church.

In 1179, the Church declared usury, the lending of money at interest, forbidden to all Christians. This prohibition took away all incentives for people to lend money to anyone other than one’s dearest and closest friends and neighbors. Those in need therefore turned to the Jews.

While Jewish law prohibits charging interest of a fellow Jew, there is no prohibition against lending money at interest to a non-Jew. But where did the Jews get the money to lend? Ironically, there was another law that Jews were forbidden to own land, which led Jews to become merchants. Jews excelled at being merchants because when they went from one town to the next they had a built in “network” with the local Jewish communities. This was also beneficial when it came to gathering large sums of money to provide the loans that the nobility needed. Thus, the Jews became the bankers of the world.

Sometimes having an exclusive profession has proven to be beneficial to the Jews. When Joseph’s family joined him in Egypt, they told Pharoah that they were shepherds so that they would be allowed to settle in an isolated area away from the general Egyptian population (who worshiped sheep), thus preserving their Jewish identity in exile.

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