Linen fabrics produced in Israel were vital trade goods along the route to the East. The Chinese sought linen fabrics as much as westerners sought silks. Linens were therefore as marketable in China as silks were in the West.
Weaving linen textiles and glassmaking were both prime Judaic occupations in Alexandria. This was also true in the Holy Land, where Jewish artisans dominated the weaving and dyeing trades and Jewish merchants played a prominent role in the textile and fabric industries. The Jewish weavers of Beit She’an achieved worldwide fame as makers of fine fabrics. The Jerusalem Talmud refers to the “fine linen vestments which come from Beit She’an.”
Called “Scythopolis” by the Greeks, Beit She’an was one of the first Jewish communities overrun by Alexander. Its workshops, and that of weavers in other Jewish communities, supplied the Greeks and later the Romans with goods that enabled them to redress the balance of payments for merchandise from the East.
The exemplary quality of textiles and clothing produced by Jews of Beit She’an was noted by Diocletian in his “Edict of Maximum Prices.” The edict took note of the Jewish weaving products of Beit She’an: “Textile goods are divided into three qualities: First, second and third,” the statutes provide. “In each group the produce of Scythopolis appears in the first class.”
In a Latin work of the fourth century, Descriptotus Orbis, Beit She’an is described as one of the cities that supplied textiles to the whole world.
The redactor of the Talmud, R’ Yehuda HaNassi, moved to Beit She’an, where he was joined by R’ Chiyya bar Abba. Rabbi Chiyya dealt with four of the basic goods being traded from and to China: spices, glassware, silk and linen. The importance of the weaving industries of Beit She’an is further attested to in a Latin geographical work of the mid-4th century, Totus Descriptus Orbis, in which Beit She’an is described as a preeminent supplier of textiles to the world.
The Jewish weaving industry was not confined to luxury goods. Not far from the metropolis of Beit She’an was the predominantly Jewish town of Arbel, nested near the shores of Lake Tiberius. Rabbinic sources refer to the coarser textiles produced in Arbel as well as the finer wares of Beit She’an. The styles of textiles produced in Tarsus, capital of Anatolian Cilicia, were duplicated by the Jewish craftsmen of the Galilean village. The fashion became so popular that the producers, called Tarsim after the city that had given birth to it, were organized into special cooperatives, or guilds.
When the Romans arrested R’ Eliezer ben Partha and R’ Yehoshua ben Teradyon for contravening the prohibition against teaching Torah, R’ Eliezer denied the charge, whereupon the Romans inquired why he was called Rav (master, rabbi, or teacher). “Because I am a tarsim (master of weaving),” the good rabbi retorted, undoubtedly with tongue held firmly in cheek. The story illustrates the fact that all the sages of those times worked at a trade, for they received no compensation for teaching Torah. Many were weavers.
Before the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE, certain districts, markets and streets were inhabited by artisans of the same trade, who administered their own synagogue and cemetery. The fullers, dyers, and weavers occupied prominent and extensive districts, for they were a large portion of the proletariat. Josephus draws attention to the synagogue of the Tarsim, belonging to the weavers of “tarsian” cloth, and to a synagogue of the weavers in Lydda.
The advanced state of the Judaic art and technology of producing textile colorants was revealed by an extraordinary find in a cave near the ancient settlement of Ein-Gedi on the Dead Sea. Archaeologist Dr. Yigael Yadin identified the fabrics as clothing or shrouds used by the Bar Kochba rebels who retreated into the cave in the Judean Desert in 135 CE.
Professor Yadin asked Dr. Sidney Edelstein of Dexter Chemical to study the colors of the fabrics. “Never before,” stated the astonished Dr. Edelstein, “had such a large varied, old and precisely dated collection of dyed materials been available for analysis.”
“Jewish Traders of the Diaspora” Hebrew History Federation
“Jews and Carpets” by Anton Felton and Samuel Kurinsky, Hebrew History Federation
“Jewish Prayer Shawl Weaver” The Washington Post