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

Mark R. Cohen
  • From the Publisher
January 2, 2018

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.

Discussion Questions