Jewish Occupations

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Jewish occupations were largely determined by the restrictions placed on Jews by the countries where they lived. Farming, for example, was not common among Jews because of various restrictions on the holding of land. There were many trades Jews were barred from because they were controlled by guilds.

The purpose of guilds was to train apprentices and regulate the practice of its trade. Depending on the time period and the country, Jews were admitted into some guilds. Records of guilds include lists of members, information on journeymen as they advanced in the trade, marriage information of guild members, and names of relatives.

Often the occupations of Jews were determined by religious considerations. Butchers were needed for kosher meat and printers for prayer books. Jews were often tailors, weavers, silversmiths, day-laborers, and bakers. Many Jews worked in business and commerce as bankers, pawn brokers, importers, retailers, wholesalers, merchants, tradesmen, shopkeepers, innkeepers, tavernkeepers, traders, dealers, peddlers, hucksters, and hawkers.

Until the 16th century, Catholics were forbidden by their church to engage in money lending. Jews, who were excluded from other business, often became money lenders. In some cases they were compelled to do so by the Christian authorities. Some Jews gained considerable prominence in the field of banking and commerce; however, most remained very poor, struggling to provide for their families.

Records of guilds, businesses, and commerce and trade directories can be found in local archives such as city or county record offices, in modern guilds, or in libraries. Books about guilds and occupations usually describe the life of a person employed in that occupation or trade and sometimes list records that may survive.

An example of a source containing information about an occupation that included many Jews of England is:

An example of a British trade directory is:

  • Culme, John. The Directory of Gold and Silversmiths: Jewellers and Allied Traders 1838–1914 from the London Assay Office Registers. Poughkeepsie, NY: Apollo Book, 1987. (FHL book 942.1/L1 D3c). WorldCat entry. Lists the business history of gold and silversmiths in England. Includes biographical information.

If there is a Wiki page for the country or state where your ancestor lived, see “Business Records and Commerce” and “Directories” in that set of Wiki pages.