A seventeenth-century rabbinic responsum from Germany related the following incident.
In some households in a certain town, more established Jews raised
chickens, while the women of some of the poorer households would rise
early in the morning and milk the cows of the gentiles before they were
taken out to pasture. Then they would sell this milk in the street. It once
happened that a woman set down her tub of milk on the doorstep of a
store in front of her house. And while she was tending to some other
errands, she forgot about the tub of milk. And a neighbor came out with
her chicklets and the little chicks got into the tub of milk and they
drowned. Each side suffered a financial loss, one from the milk; the other
from the drowned chicks.1
This simple story underscores two important dimensions of Jewish economic life. First, everyday Jewish commerce was mostly far removed from the dealings of the court Jews and rich merchants emphasized in so many descriptions of economic life. Second, the family very often worked together as an economic unit, with women filling an integral role in the family's economic endeavors.
Excluded from professions and crafts monopolized by the guilds and with only sporadic rights to own land, Jews had in earlier ages concentrated on moneylending as their primary source of income. The major development in everyday Jewish economic life during early modern times was the diversification from a high concentration on moneylending and pawn brokerage to a rich variety of commercial activities. This emphasis on commerce began in the late sixteenth century and intensified during the Thirty Years' War.2