Jews, Money, Work, the Sabbath, Diamonds

Home | Category: Jewish Laws and Money


An antisemitic illustration of a Jewish army doctor searching a prisoner-of-war's mouth for gold fillings

Mitzvot (Jewish Laws) related to Business according to Maimonides, the 11th Century Jewish Thinker
N234 — Not demanding payment from a debtor known unable to pay
N235 — Not lending at interest
N236 — Not borrowing at interest
N237 — Not participating in a loan at interest
N238 — Not oppressing an employee by delaying payment of his wages
N239 — Not taking a pledge from a debtor by force
N240 — Not keeping a needed pledge from its owner
N241 — Not taking a pledge from a widow
N242 — Not taking food utensils in pledge
N243 — Not abducting an Israelite
N244 — Not stealing money
N245 — Not committing robbery
N246 — Not fraudulently altering land boundaries
N247 — Not usurping our debts
N248 — Not repudiating our debts
N249 — Not to swear falsely in repudiating our debts
N250 — Not wronging one another in business
N251 — Not wronging one another by speech
N252 — Not wronging a proselyte by speech
N253 — Not wronging a proselyte in business

The currency of Israel is the shekel, which is divided into 100 agorot. The plural of shekel is sheqalim, but most Westerners say sheqels. According to The Bible the shekel was the name of the Hebrew and Jewish currency during Moses’ time and Jesus’s time. Historians say it is named after fourth century B.C. unit used by Babylonians, Phoenicians as well as Israelites. A shekel was a measure of weight equal to around 11 grams. One shekel was equivalent to that weight in silver.

Hebrews and Assyrians pledged a sandal as symbol of good faith when making a deal. Tossing a shoe onto a piece of land meant that you claimed it.

Work and the Jewish Sabbath

Orthodox Jews are not allowed to do anything on the Sabbath that can be construed as work. Jewish law, or Halakha, outlines 30 categories of work that can not be performed on the Holy Day, including driving a car, using a telephone, listening to radio, watching television, lighting fires, turning on lights,, writing, operating machinery. To satisfy fundamentalists Israel's national airline El Al does not fly on the Sabbath.* Figuring out what is acceptable on the Sabbath and what isn’t has been described “one of the greatest complexities of Judaism. Even pushing the button of an elevator can be construed as work.

Hotels in Israel have special elevators for the Sabbath which stop at every floor so no one does any work by pushing a button. The Institute of Science and Halacha has extended great effort into making even submarines Sabbath-compliant. Completing an electrical circuit is considered work and ultra-Orthodox engineers have gone through great lengths to devise milking machines, metal detectors, motorized wheelchairs, medical machines, computers and alarms that work using circuits that remained closed all the time and thus can be used on the Sabbath. To get around the restriction on writing it engineers have developed pens whose ink disappears after a few days (writing is defined as leaving a permanent mark).

There are laws on the books in Israel that prohibit teenagers from working on the Sabbath. Ultra-Orthodox Jews want to see similar rules that prevent people from going to beach, visiting shopping malls and talking on their cell phones on the Sabbath. One ultra-Orthodox rabbis went as far as saying that Sabbath violators “will be killed.”

Websites and Resources: Virtual Jewish Library ; Judaism101 ; ; Chabad,org ; BBC - Religion: Judaism ; Encyclopædia Britannica,; Yivo Institute of Jewish Research ; Jewish Museum London ; Jewish History: Internet Jewish History Sourcebook ; ; Jewish History Timeline Jewish History Resource Center ; Center for Jewish History ; Jewish

Shmita Laws

The agricultural equivalent of the Sabbath are shmita (or shnat) years in which Jews are prohibited from tilling, planting or harvesting their fields which are supposed to lie fallow. The tradition is based on a Jewish law dictated to Moses on Mt. Sinai and recorded in the biblical book of Leviticus and is a way that Jews express that there land is a gift of God.

Shmita, meaning the time of “letting go,” comes every seven years according to the Bible and begins with the Jewish New Year in September and does not apply to land outside of Israel. Technically even tending flowers in a backyard garden is a violation.

To get around the laws some Jews temporarily lease their land or sell it symbolically to Israeli Arabs who grow crops on the land. Others grow crops on elevated platforms that do not touch Israeli soil. About 1,000 ultra-Orthodox farmers abide by the biblical prohibition and don’t raise any crops at all. Many ultra-Orthodox consumers don’t but fresh produce, canned goods or grain produced during the shmita year. They buy food produced other years that are kept in special storage facilities that are subsidized by the government.

Jews and Money

Jewish moneychanger

Because making money from interest was viewed as a sin by most Christians in medieval Europe many Jews were employed as moneychangers, pawnbrokers and moneylenders. Jews were not restricted from charging high interest by church rules against usury. Moneylenders sometimes charged interest rates as high as 40 percent a year.

Occasionally, however, Jews were expelled from towns by greedy lords so their goods were seized. As a consequence the Jewish moneylenders often charged high interest rates to cover the risks of simply being a Jew.

Jews were poor people until the 20th century. In Europe, they lived predominantly is shtetls (ghettos). In Europe, moneylending and trading were about the only professions that were open to them. Although many own shops and leant money for a profit, and some were rich, one said villager, "many were poor and sold goods from baskets in the streets." In North Africa there we nomadic Bedouin peddlers who were unable to own land.

In Eastern Europe, they were best known as moneychangers. Russians and other Slavic people have traditionally believed that buying and selling goods to make a profit or charging interest on loans was "cheating one's neighbor." This belief arises in part from the tsarist institution of mir , the periodic redistribution of land in accordance with family size. Russian ant-Semitism stems partly from the fact that Jews were the only ones low to lend money and trade goods.

Modern anti-Semitism has is roots in the 19th century when global capitalism emerged as a major force and Jews emerged from their ghettos and became visible as successful bankers, financiers and entrepreneurs. Jews were blamed for being greedy and fostering the ills associated with capitalism and undermining the communal nature of society itself. The Rothschilds were held up as an example of Jewish power and avarice.

“Protocols of the Elders of Zion” is a forged 19th century document which claimed power-hungry Jews plotted with Freemasons to take over the world. No one knows who forged it. It was employed to persecute both Jews and Freemasons. Hitler was among those who used the document to back up his views.

Hasidic Jews and the Diamond Business

Much of the trade in large carat diamonds in the United States is controlled by Hasidic Jews. Andrew Cockburn wrote in National Geographic, The diamond businesses "revolves around personal contacts and connections, thrives on rumor and gossip and cherishes secrecy. Multimillion -dollar deals are clinched with a handshakes and the word “ mazal” , Hebrew for "good luck." Van Bockstael told National Geographic, "Nothing is what it seems in the diamond business, and half the time you don't even know if that is true." The diamond business is regarded as a tough nut to crack. A Tel Aviv diamond merchant told the New York Times magazine, “The diamond company is usually a family company. People accumulate wealth slowly, over generations.” Many diamond businesses have tight security. Some have systems in their offices that photograph and fingerprint every person who enters.

Lev Leviev, the Man Who Broke the DeBeer’s Cartel

Lev Leviev is the founder and head of company that is the world’s leading diamond cutter and polisher. A Bukharan Jew born in Uzbekistan, he is regarded as the richest man in Israel. His real estate holdings span the globe from the former Soviet Union to Europe to the United States. Among his assets are railways in Russia, 7-11s in Texas, shopping malls in Israel and the former New York Times building in Manhattan, which alone is said to be worth $525 million. Trained as a diamond cutter, he grew up poor, emigrated to Israel as a teenager in 1971 and is so confident of his cutting skills and steady hands that he has performed more than a thousand ritual circumcisions — many on the sons of employees in his various businesses. In 2007 he was ranked by Forbes as the 210th richest man in the world. The magazine estimated his worth to be $4.1 billion. Others say the true figure is close to $8 billion. He is leading benefactor is Jewish causes. [Source: Zev Chafets, New York Times magazine, September 16, 2007]

Leviev is credited by some with breaking the back of the DeBeers cartel. Working out of the office of his U.S. diamond company, LLD USA, situated in Manhattan’s diamond district, he was able to achieve what he did by getting his hands on a large share of the world’s uncut diamonds, which traditionally have been at the heart of DeBeer’s ability to maintain its monopoly. A Tel Aviv diamond merchant told the New York Times magazine, “When Leviev started out, all he had was an amazing amount of ambition and the ability to understand the stone, Understanding the stone — that was the key.” Leviev himself said, “I never doubted that I would get rich. I knew from the time I was 6 hat was destined to be a millionaire. I’d go with my father to shops, and while he talking business, my eyes automatically counted the merchandise.”

Leviev’s first big break came when he became a DeBeers’s sightholder, a milestone he reached through hard work and harnessing the industriousness of his family. His second big break came when he forged crucial contacts in Russia in 1989 as the Soviet Union was coming apart. To do that he had to give up his sightolding place, a tremendous sacrifice.

Leviev came to Moscow on the invitation of the Soviet minister of energy and was able to exploit his connections in the Jewish community to set up diamond-rleated businesses in Russia. “When I got there, Gorbachev was till power, but you could see that things were coming apart,” he told the New York Times magazine. In Russia, Levied established a high-tech cutting and polishing plant and showed the Russians how they could take control of their own diamond industry. In Angola he forged close ties with country’s president , Jose Eduardo Dis santos, who speaks fluent Russian from his days as an engineering students in the Soviet Union.

The Tel Avi diamond merchant said, “He was breaking the rules, going after the source. When he succeeded in Russia, and then in Angola, others saw it and were suddenly emboldened. That’s how Leviev cracked the DeBeers cartel. With the instincts a tiger and the balls of a panther.” Leviev now presides over a top to bottom diamond company that embraces mines in Russia, Angola and Namibia, cutting and polishing operations and outlets that sell diamonds wholesale and retail.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Jewish History Sourcebook; “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “ Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); “Old Testament Life and Literature” by Gerald A. Larue, New International Version (NIV) of The Bible,; Wikipedia, National Geographic, BBC, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine,, Library of Congress, The New Yorker, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, and various books and other publications.

Last updated March 2024

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