Their Love For Tilling the Soil is Truly Great

Daily life in Palestine from the first through fifth centuries.

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The following article is reprinted with permission from A Historical Atlas of the Jewish People edited by Eli Barnavi and published by Schocken Books.

What Occupied Ancient Jews?

Jews living in Palestine in the early centuries of the Christian Era remained as they had been before the destruction of the Temple: an agrarian society. The process of urbanization of the Near East during the Roman and Byzantine periods only affected the Jewish population slightly. Although quite a few Jews resided in towns--Tiberias, Sepphoris, Ceasarea, Lydda--which were even accorded legal urban status by the Roman authorities, the great majority were still living in modest sized settlements of about 2000-5000 people, which Jewish sources describe as "villages." In the Byzantine period, most of these communities were to be found in the Galilee and on the Golan, but there were some in the Hebron area in the south, and a few along the coastal plain and in the Judean valley.

Thus, the Palestinian economy in talmudic times remained much the same as it had been in the Second Temple period, and could still be portrayed through the words of a second century BC author: "Their love for tilling the soil is truly great. The country is plentifully wooded with numerous olive trees and rich in cereals and vegetables, and also in vines and honey. Date palms and other fruit trees are beyond reckoning among them. And for cattle of all kinds there is pasture in abundance" (Letter of Aristeas, 112).

oil treeThe large number of presses found by archaeologists almost everywhere confirms the existence of flourishing wine and oil industries (the latter being used for cooking, for illumination and for skin lubrication). Fishing was an important industry in the northern part of the country. Crafts, however, were primarily an urban occupation. Jerusalem was apparently well known for the number and quality of its artisans. As more and more Jews moved to the coast they began to engage in regional commerce. During this time many Jews in the north traded with port towns in Lebanon and Syria […]

Patterns of Community Organization 

Patterns of community organization began to form in the Second Temple Period. The Book of Judith, probably composed in the Hellenistic period (or even in the late Persian period), describes the communities as governed by archons who received their instructions from the central authorities in Jerusalem. According to Josephus Flavius, each village was administered by a group of seven judges. Josephus himself, appointed commander of the Galilee with the commencement of the Great Revolt, took these legal-administrative units in the region under his charge. It is possible that these convocations of seven judges provided the bases for the institution of the "seven town elders" mentioned in the talmudic period.

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Isaiah Gafni is a Professor of Jewish History at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He specializes in the history of the Jewish people during the Second Temple period.