Jewish Commerce in Muslim Lands

The learned merchant was the standard bearer of medieval Islamic civilization--and this was good for the Jews.

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The storehouses of thousands of commercial and personal papers discovered in the Cairo Genizah indicate how remarkably free travel was in the medieval Mediterranean world. The concept of law was personal, not territorial, and a person was judged according to the law of his religious community. Genizah letters are oblivious to political boundaries as Jewish merchant families moved back and forth between rival kingdoms. To be sure, there were customs stations everywhere, but both Christian and Muslim powers seemed intent upon preserving a free-trade community in the Mediterranean…

The Era of the Merchant Scholar 

Serious studies of this era have pointed out that the learned merchant was the standard-bearer of medieval Islamic civilization. The Muslim pilgrim’s standard wish was “May your hajj be acceptable, your sin be forgiven, and your merchandise not remain unsold.” Jews drew freely from this intellectual and commercial climate, as a large and influential merchant class began to rise all over the Middle East in the eighth and ninth centuries. Jewish, Muslim and Christian mercantile families dealt with each other in partnerships, and “formal friendships” characterized business relations. The bonds of friendship were solidified by marriages conducted between families all over the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean route. The family was considered the ideal form of business partnership, with ties of blood superseding ties of marriage.

Nahrai ben Nissim, Trader and Correspondent

The Genizah collection includes over 300 letters to and from Tunisian Jewish merchant scholar Nahrai ben Nissim, a regular commuter between Tunisian and Egypt in the eleventh century. His transactions over the course of a fifty-year career (1045-96) involved merchandise from Spain, North Africa, Sicily, Egypt, Syria and India. His extremely diversified trade included almost all the staples and luxuries of the commercial world of his day: flax and silk, olive oil and spices, metals and books, jewels and chemicals, food and hides. His detailed surviving accounts reveal a man of exceptional organizational and intellectual abilities who worked in partnership with a variety of experts, but it appears that such versatility in trade was an exception. Usually, leading merchants worked closely with others who specialized in one item of commerce. The remarkable Nahrai was also a talented scholar who was honored by his peers in Egypt, Palestine and North Africa.

The international trader is a familiar figure in the genizah correspondence, for merchants were practically commuters and would casually remark about the ordinariness of long-distance trips, although a spirit of adventure also permeates many of their letters. Such business travel was commonplace in part because merchants felt that they had to protect their merchandise, in part because they believed that “one who is present sees what one who is absent cannot see.” Although the rhythm of life in all Jewish communities was determined by the religious calendar, it was also shaped by the comings and goings of their itinerant merchants. As one of the genizah correspondents writes, “The synagogue is desolate, for the Maghrebis have left.”

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Jane S. Gerber

Jane S. Gerber is a Professor of History at City University of New York. Her book, The Jews of Spain: A History of the Sephardic Experience, won the 1993 National Jewish Book Award for Sephardic Studies.