Maimonides and the Merchants

Jewish Law and Society in the Medieval Islamic World

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Mark R. Cohen
  • Philadelphia, PA: 
    University of Pennsylvania Press
    , June
     248 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Mark R. Cohen is a leading expert on the materials of the Cairo Geniza and the community represented therein—Jews living in the medieval Islamicate world and thoroughly integrated into its economy. Maimonides and the Merchants: Jewish Law and Society in the Medieval Islamic World is his latest publication using Geniza materials to illuminate Jewish life in the medieval Mediterranean. After several works on poverty and charity, he turns here to the intricacies of Jewish legal consideration of mercantile activity, which is one of the most well-represented aspects of Jewish life in the Geniza material. Cohen explains that his work on poverty and charity led to an investigation of the connection between law—especially Moses Maimonides’s codification of law called the Mishneh Torah (finished ca. 1178)—and the daily lived reality of the Mediterranean Jewish community in which Maimonides was a prominent figure. In order to tease out the connections between law and the social world of medieval Mediterranean Jews, Cohen interrogates how Maimonides wrote into his comprehensive law code specific commandments that were meant to benefit the commercial practices observed in Geniza records. 

The question arises because the traditional bases of Jewish civil and ritual law, the Torah and Talmud, presume an agrarian society and thus lack specific systems for dealing with commercial and urban concerns. By the Middle Ages, Jews living in the Mediterranean world were thoroughly urbanized and integrated into the Islamicate economy. Maimonides’s family, having moved to Egypt around 1166, included several members who worked as merchants—including Moses himself, who profited from commerce locally, and his brother David, a long-distance trader on the India route. One of the traditional narratives about the Geniza merchants is that, because Talmudic laws did not incorporate systematic consideration of commercial practices, they either depended on informal, non-contractual arrangements that relied on community policing through “reputation” rather than legal repercussions or, when formal adjudication of disputes was necessary, they used Islamic law courts instead of Jewish ones. 

The traditional narrative about Jewish law is that it is essentially conservative, working to replicate and comment on the Talmud rather than to update or replace it—meaning that commercial practices would never be represented in Jewish law. Cohen disputes this view of a static and unchanging Jewish legal system. Maimonides himself, although a highly original and creative philosopher, presented his Mishneh Torah as simply a compilation of pre-existing laws under a new organization, not a set of new commandments. Cohen shows, however, that Maimonides’s code incorporated contemporary commercial practice—as found in both Islamic law and the interdenominational “custom of the merchants”—into codified law in creative and innovative ways. Some of these updates were small and almost unnoticeable, while others appeared even to medieval commentators to be confusing and unfounded. The most notable update was in regard to agency, an informal type of business arrangement that had no precedent in Talmudic law. Agency was regularly used by Mediterranean Jews—as has been widely discussed by economic historians working with the Geniza material—but historians have debated how it worked for Jews, given that the Talmud did not permit this type of arrangement. Maimonides’s solution was to associate agency with aspects of partnership, a more formal legal arrangement that was established in the Talmud.

Maimonides was not the first to try to accommodate agency into Jewish law. Earlier Geonim used other solutions to permit this type of cooperation, but Maimonides’s innovation was bold and significant. The Mishneh Torah was conceived as a permanent and comprehensive code of law that was to be applicable forever—even after the advent of the Messiah. Therefore, it had to consider all possible lived realities (66). Because he was part of the Geniza community and involved in commerce, Maimonides’s lived reality included a deep familiarity with mercantile practice and long-distance commerce, which then shaped his codification of Jewish law. 

This shaping was intentional, Cohen argues, as Maimonides worked to “bring law and society into harmony” (113) through incorporation of both mercantile custom and Islamic legal principles. Two factors were at work, according to Cohen: one, Maimonides’s recognition that the profitability of Jewish commerce depended upon their participation in practices (like partnership, agency, credit, interfaith partnerships, and working on festival days) that were common in the wider Islamicate economy but often not represented in Talmudic law; and two, his desire to stem the tide of Jews seeking legal decisions from Islamic courts rather than Jewish ones. Cohen demonstrates that Maimonides used clever reasoning to extend Talmudic principles to new concerns, especially agency, in order to allow Jews to keep using them.

However, not all of Maimonides’s innovations were so permissive. In several instances he reverted to Talmudic standards, sometimes even in cases where his predecessors (the Geonim of the Palestinian yeshivas and his Andalusi teachers) had brought innovation into their legal compendia. In some cases, this was because the conditions of his day were more consistent with Talmudic principles than had been true earlier. In other cases, he was displaying the concern shared by many community leaders that Jews were more often utilizing Islamic courts than Jewish ones. While this is evidence for the deep integration of Jews in the Islamic world, it was also a problem for community leaders wishing to maintain authority over matters of religious concern (such as marriage, divorce, and inheritance). Geniza evidence clearly demonstrates that Jews in this community were accustomed to taking their cases—both those involving Muslims and those that did not—to Islamic law courts for a variety of reasons. Cohen’s work shows that Maimonides was interested both in facilitating Jewish commerce and protecting their communal autonomy by supporting Jewish law courts.

This is a highly specialized work on the history of Jewish law, the mercantile practices of Jews in the medieval Islamicate world, and the intersections between law (Jewish and Islamic) and lived reality in medieval Judaism. Not intended as a primer on any of these topics, the book assumes basic knowledge of Jewish law and legal terminology, the Geniza community of merchants, and the commercial practices of the Islamicate world. Nonetheless, anyone interested in Jewish law, economic history, the Geniza community, the medieval Mediterranean region, and the intersections between law and social reality will welcome the book. It illuminates aspects of interfaith cooperation in legal, social, and economic matters, and the fairness of treatment that minority populations could expect in the Islamic law courts of medieval Egypt, but also the response of Jewish community leaders to their “embeddedness” (138) within Islamic society. 

Cohen views the Geniza holistically alongside a non-Geniza text, the legal compendium of one of Judaism’s greatest figures, and thereby shows not only the enduring utility of the Geniza evidence but also the impact that the Geniza community had on the longer history of Judaism. Some of Maimonides’s legal innovations did not survive him—many were questioned and rejected already in the medieval period—and his efforts did not stop Jews from using Islamic courts. Nonetheless, Cohen’s book demonstrates the deep impact that the Geniza community and their commercial dealings had on Maimonides’s legal reasoning. The Geniza community and their practices were significant aspects of Jewish history, making it all the more remarkable that we have this rich trove of texts for continued study.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Sarah Davis-Secord is Associate Professor of History at the Unviersity of New Mexico.

Date of Review: 
November 6, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Mark R. Cohen is Khedouri A. Zilkha Professor of Jewish Civilization in the Near East, Emeritus, and Professor of Near Eastern Studies, Emeritus, Princeton University. He is author of Poverty and Charity in the Jewish Community of Medieval Egypt and Under Crescent and Cross: The Jews in the Middle Ages.


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