The following article recounts the history of the main commercial occupation of Jews in Christian Europe, moneylending. It is reprinted with permission from Medieval Jewish Civilization: An Encyclopedia (Routledge).
Jewish Law Took an Interest in Interest
General histories of the Middle Ages, and even more specialized ones such as those on medieval commerce, say two things about Jews: they were “usurers” and they engaged in the slave trade. One of the oldest Christian accusations against Jews in the medieval period was, indeed, that of usury. If by “usury” we accept the Canon Law definition of any profit whatever, then Jews were of course usurers; but the modern understanding of the term is rather the taking of excessive interest, and to avoid that argument, and the pejorative connotations of the term, “moneylending” is preferred in this article.
Biblical law forbids taking or giving interest to “your brother” (a fellow Jew), whether money or food or “any thing.” The Talmud interpreted this very strictly, so much so that even greeting someone from whom you have borrowed, if such greeting had not previously been the custom, is forbidden. [For Biblical law regarding moneylending, see, for example, Exodus 22:24, Deuteronomy 23:20-21, Leviticus 25:35-37.]
The Bible further permitted lending money on interest to a “stranger”, but prohibited it to a fellow Jew (“your brother”). The Talmud observes that even the borrower transgresses the commandment if he borrows on interest…
Originally, the medieval rabbinical attitude toward lending money on interest to Gentiles was very conservative, restricting it to scholars (not only as a means of income but because it was felt that they would be cautious about such loans and limit the interest charged) or to cases where it was absolutely necessary for livelihood.
Moneylending Yielded High Profits for Little Risk
Ultimately, however, the potential of great profits and the widespread demand for moneylending made it universal among Jews. Mordecai B. Hillel of Germany (b. 1298) wrote that there is no profit in any form of commerce like that to be made in lending money. Ibn Adret in Spain observed that it has become permitted for everyone to charge interest on loans to Gentiles, “and now all have made themselves ‘sages’ in this respect, adding that he heard in the name of Rashi, that this is because taxes have constantly been increased and there is no longer any limit to “because of livelihood” (i.e. in order to meet their tax burden, Jews had no alternative.)
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