Maimonides and the Merchants: Jewish Law and Society in the Medieval Islamic World

Maimonides and the Merchants: Jewish Law and Society in the Medieval Islamic World

Maimonides and the Merchants: Jewish Law and Society in the Medieval Islamic World

Maimonides and the Merchants: Jewish Law and Society in the Medieval Islamic World


The advent of Islam in the seventh century brought profound economic changes to the Jews living in the Middle East, and Talmudic law, compiled in and for an agrarian society, was ill equipped to address an increasingly mercantile world. In response, and over the course of the seventh through eleventh centuries, the heads of the Jewish yeshivot of Iraq sought precedence in custom to adapt Jewish law to the new economic and social reality.

In Maimonides and the Merchants, Mark R. Cohen reveals the extent of even further pragmatic revisions to the halakha, or body of Jewish law, introduced by Moses Maimonides in his Mishneh Torah, the comprehensive legal code he compiled in the late twelfth century. While Maimonides insisted that he was merely restating already established legal practice, Cohen uncovers the extensive reformulations that further inscribed commerce into Jewish law. Maimonides revised Talmudic partnership regulations, created a judicial method to enable Jewish courts to enforce forms of commercial agency unknown in the Talmud, and even modified the halakha to accommodate the new use of paper for writing business contracts. Over and again, Cohen demonstrates, the language of Talmudic rulings was altered to provide Jewish merchants arranging commercial collaborations or litigating disputes with alternatives to Islamic law and the Islamic judicial system.

Thanks to the business letters, legal documents, and accounts found in the manuscript stockpile known as the Cairo Geniza, we are able to reconstruct in fine detail Jewish involvement in the marketplace practices that contemporaries called "the custom of the merchants." In Maimonides and the Merchants, Cohen has written a stunning reappraisal of how these same customs inflected Jewish law as it had been passed down through the centuries.


Research for this book began unexpectedly, with my study of poverty and charity in the Jewish community of medieval Egypt. That work is based primarily on documentary evidence from the Cairo Geniza about the poor and those who came to their relief—whether through private charity or communal institutions. For the normative stance of Jewish law (halakha), I consulted Maimonides’ Code, the Mishneh Torah—specifically, the section “Laws of Gifts for the Poor” (Hilkhot mattenot ‘aniyyim). Maimonides’ Laws of Gifts for the Poor represented the first attempt to draw together and systematically codify all the rabbinic teachings about charity, assembled from rulings scattered throughout the Bible and the Talmudic and post-Talmudic literature. To my surprise, I discovered that several enigmatic rulings about charity in the Code over which some medieval commentators had puzzled could be explained by drawing on Geniza evidence of how charity operated “on the ground.” I hypothesized that other subjects in the Code relating to daily life could be similarly illuminated using the same methodology. Commercial law seemed an obvious candidate for further inquiry.

0.1 Jews and Jewish Law in the Commercial
Economy of Medieval Islam

The Mishna and its commentaries, the Palestinian and Babylonian Talmuds, put heavy emphasis on agrarian life, and it is certain that most Jews in preIslamic Palestine and Babylonia engaged in farming. This does not mean that Jews were not to be found in urban areas. the situation was quite the contrary, especially in Palestine. the many craftsmen mentioned in rabbinic texts probably dwelled in towns, as did many farmers. the merchants we encounter in the Mishna, the Tosefta, and the Gemara of the two Talmuds seem to have operated mainly in local or regional markets connected with . . .

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.