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  • SKETCHES IN JEWISH SOCIAL LIFE - CH. 11 - C
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    In general, the following sound views are expressed in the Talmud (Ber. 17 a): "The Rabbi of Jabne said: I am simply a being like my neighbor. He works in the field, and I in the town. We both rise early to go to work; and there is no cause for the one setting himself up above the other. Do not think that the one does more than the other; for we have been taught that there is as much merit in doing that which is little as that which is great, provided the state of our hearts be right." And so a story is told, how one who dug cisterns and made baths (for purification) accosted the great Rabbi Jochanan with the words: "I am as great a man as thou"; since, in his own sphere, he served the wants of the community quite as much as the most learned teacher in Israel. In the same spirit another Rabbi admonished to strict conscientiousness, since in a sense all work, however humble, was really work for God. There can be no doubt that the Jewish tradesman who worked in such a spirit would be alike happy and skilful.

    It must have been a great privilege to be engaged in any work connected with the Temple. A large number of workmen were kept constantly employed there, preparing what was necessary for the service. Perhaps it was only a piece of Jerusalem jealousy of the Alexandrians which prompted such Rabbinical traditions, as, that, when Alexandrians tried to compound the incense for the Temple, the column of smoke did not ascend quite straight; when they repaired the large mortar in which the incense was bruised, and again, the great cymbal with which the signal for the commencement of the Temple music was given, in each case their work had to be undone by Jerusalem workmen, in order to produce a proper mixture, or to evoke the former sweet sounds. There can be no question, however, nevertheless Palestinian prejudices, that there were excellent Jewish workmen in Alexandria; and plenty of them, too, as we know from their arrangement in guilds in their great synagogue. Any poor workman had only to apply to his guild, and he was supported till he found employment. The guild of coppersmiths there had, as we are informed, for their device a leathern apron; and when it members went abroad they used to carry with them a bed which could be taken to pieces. At Jerusalem, where this guild was organised under its Rabban, or chief, it possessed a synagogue and a burying-place of its own. But the Palestinian workmen, though they kept by each other, had no exclusive guilds; the principles of "free trade," so to speak, prevailing among them. Bazaars and streets were named after them. The workmen of Jerusalem were specially distinguished for their artistic skill. A whole valley--that of the Tyropoeon--was occupied by dairies; hence its name, "valley of cheesemongers." Even in Isaiah 7:3 we read of "the field of the fullers," which lay "at the end of the conduit of the upper pool in the highway" to Joppa. A whole set of sayings is expressly designated in the Talmud as "the proverbs of the fullers."

    From their love of building and splendor the Herodian princes must have kept many tradesmen in constant work. At the re- erection of the Temple no less than eighteen thousand were so employed in various handicrafts, some of them implying great artistic skill. Even before that, Herod the Great is said to have employed a large number of the most experienced masters to teach the one thousand priests who were to construct the Holy Place itself. For, in the building of that part of the Temple no laymen were engaged. As we know, neither hammer, axe, chisel, nor any tool of iron was used within the sacred precincts. The reason of this is thus explained in the Mishnah, when describing how all the stones for the altar were dug out of virgin-earth, no iron tool being employed in their preparation: "Iron is created to cut short the life of man; but the altar to prolong it. Hence it is not becoming to use that which shortens for that which lengthens" (Midd. iii. 4). Those who know the magnificence and splendor of that holy house will be best able to judge what skill in workmanship its various parts must have required. An instance may be interesting on account of its connection with the most solemn fact of New Testament history. We read in the Mishnah (Shek. viii. 5): "Rabbi Simeon, the son of Gamaliel, said, in the name of Rabbi Simeon, the son of the (former) Sagan (assistant of the high-priest): The veil (of the Most Holy Place) was an handbreadth thick, and woven of seventy-two twisted plaits; each plait consisted of twenty-four threads" (according to the Talmud, six threads of each of the four Temple-colors--white, scarlet, blue, and gold). "It was forty cubits long, and twenty wide (sixty feet by thirty), and made of eighty-two myriads" (the meaning of this in the Mishnah is not plain). "Two of these veils were made every year, and it took three hundred priests to immerse one" (before use). These statements must of course be considered as dealing in "round numbers"; but they are most interesting as helping us to realise, not only how the great veil of the Temple was rent, when the Lord of that Temple died on the cross, but also how the occurrence could have been effectually concealed from the mass of the people.

    To turn to quite another subject. It is curious to notice in how many respects times and circumstances have really not changed. The old Jewish employers of labor seem to have had similar trouble with their men to that of which so many in our own times loudly complain. We have an emphatic warning to this effect, to beware of eating fine bread and giving black bread to one's workmen or servants; not to sleep on feathers and give them straw pallets, more especially if they were co-religionists, for, as it is added, he who gets a Hebrew slave gets his master! Possibly something of this kind was on the mind of St. Paul when he wrote this most needful precept (1 Tim 6:1,2): "Let as many servants as are under the yoke count their own masters worthy of all honor, that the name of God and His doctrine be not blasphemed. And they that have believing masters, let them not despise them, because they are brethren; but rather do them service, because they are believing and beloved, partakers of the benefit." But really there is nothing "new under the sun!" Something like the provisions of a mutual assurance appear in the associations of muleteers and sailors, which undertook to replace a beast or a ship that had been lost without negligence on the part of the owner. Nay, we can even trace the spirit of trade-unionism in the express permission of the Talmud (Bab. B. 9) to tradesmen to combine to work only one or two days in the week, so as to give sufficient employment to every workman in a place. We close with another quotation in the same direction, which will also serve to illustrate the peculiar mode of Rabbinical comment on the words of Scripture: "'He doeth no evil to his neighbor-'-this refers to one tradesman not interfering with the trade of another!"

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