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Biblical Period

The preparation of cloth for clothing required several operations. After the cleaning of the wool or flax, it was dyed the necessary color, usually light blue or purple, with animal or vegetable dyes mixed with minerals and salts by chemical processes unknown today. Special dyeing plants and implements were used in Ereẓ Israel. Dye tools were found at Tel Beth-Mirsim, Gezer, and other places. They were made of stone, like hollow barrels: on the upper surface a groove was carved, which was connected to the inside by means of a hole. With the introduction of the material to be dyed into the dye-filled barrel, the liquid would rise, overflow through the hole, and be collected in the groove. Upon the removal of the wet garment, the overflow would return through the reverse process thus permitting the material to be dyed again and preserving the precious dyes. Some operations required heating or boiling, and portable earthenware vessels, which could be placed over a fire, were used for these purposes.

Mishnaic and Talmudic Periods

The craft had developed considerably by the mishnaic and talmudic periods, both in the preparation of dyes and in the dyeing of materials and clothes. The sources describe the dyer's workshop (mk 13b) and his equipment, such as the coverings which protected his hands (Kelim 16:6); before he cast the ingredients into the crucible, the dyer made a small sample for himself which was known as the "taste" (Men. 42b); the ingredients were ground with a special handmill (Tosef. Shab. 9 (10):19). During this period, some places were known as centers of dyeing: Migdal Zevaya on the eastern bank of the Jordan, which was noted for the production of cloth; *Haifa, which was also called Purpurin (Purple); and a place called Luz where the *tekhelet was manufactured (Sot. 46b). After the Bar Kokhba War (132–135 c.e.) dyeing was developed in *Lydda and *Beth-Shean, both important weaving centers.

Middle Ages

As the Jews had been masters of the techniques of the craft from ancient times, in some districts, especially in the Mediterranean region, the preparation of dyes and dyeing of cloth was considered mainly a Jewish occupation. Such occupations were generally despised and their practice by Jews was seen as part of the general humiliation of the Jewish people. However, some sources indicate that dyeing was a highly respectable profession. The apparent contradiction points to a difference in social and economic standing between the artisan engaged in the craft and the merchant who dealt in the ingredients (though this distinction was not always clearly expressed in the sources). During this period, Jewish trade in dyestuffs expanded extensively. Jewish merchants imported reseda from eastern India, via Egypt and Tunisia, to Italy and Spain, and exported saffron from Tunisia to southern Europe. Those trading in indigo between Egypt and Europe were known as alnili (nil = indigo). Contemporary letters illustrate the range of the undertakings: a Jewish merchant of Kairouan wrote to his friend in Egypt that in Sicily only indigo of the best quality could be sold; another merchant, head of the Babylonian congregation of Fostat (Old Cairo), wrote to an associate in Tyre in the 11th century, "The price of indigo has risen over the last fortnight because it was in great demand among the people of Syria and the West…." Documents also point to the high prices of these commodities: 270 pounds of indigo cost from 100 to 300 quarter dinars.

Jews also developed the manufacture of dyes, especially in Greece and Italy, where they were most active in the south, and in Sicily; important dyeing centers existed in *Brindisi, *Benevento, Salerno, Agrigento, Trani, and Cosenza. In these localities, the dyehouse was sometimes the center of the Jewish quarter, along with the synagogue.

*Benjamin of Tudela found Jews engaged in dyeing in several localities in Ereẓ Israel, notably in Jerusalem, Jezreel, Lydda, Bethlehem, and Bet Nubi. In Jerusalem, their shops were situated in a special building which they had obtained from King Baldwin ii. In 1231, Emperor Frederick ii created a crown monopoly of the silk and dyeing industries and Jewish firms in Trani were appointed to administer it. When the monopoly came to an end with the death of the emperor in 1250, the Jews continued to engage in this industry, which also spread to the north of Italy. In *Montpellier, France, Jews were prominent in the manufacture of dyes, while in Spain they had engaged in the craft from the Muslim period, especially in *Seville and *Saragossa. After the Christian reconquest, the Jews continued in this occupation, in particular in Saragossa where they owned special workshops. Among the responsa of Solomon b. Abraham *Adret are clear allusions to the existence of dyers' guilds. During the 16th century, the occupation expanded after *Safed had become the Jewish center of the wool weaving industry.

During this period, dyeing was highly developed in a number of Jewish communities in the Ottoman Empire, especially in *Salonika and *Constantinople. During the 17th century, the Salonika dye industry declined, along with weaving, mainly as a result of competition from Venice and Ancona. Jews of *Brest-Litovsk are often mentioned as experts in manufacture in Poland and Lithuania. Responsa literature contains numerous accounts of the craft of dyeing, the tools employed, and the various methods used in the preparation of dyes. There are descriptions of a dyeing shop where the work was carried out (Responsa of Abraham, the son of Maimonides, no. 117); of a dye-pit (ibid., no. 101); and of barrels in which wool was dyed (Responsa of Samuel b. Moses di Medina, Ḥm 462). Documents also mention dyers who were expert in a given color: Samāk, the expert in preparing dyes from the sumac shrub; quirmizini, the expert in crimson, etc.

Modern Times

In the Near East, the Jews continued to practice this profession during the 19th century. The surname Zebag (dyer), still widespread among Oriental Jews, is evidence of the fact. In Damascus in the middle of the 19th century, 70 of the 5,000 Jews were dyers. Jews also played an important part in the development of dye ingredients in the Americas. Planting of indigo was introduced in Georgia during the 17th century and Moses *Lindo from London invested large sums in the cultivation of indigo in South Carolina in 1756. The development of modern chemistry and the *chemical industry, in which Jewish scientists and entrepreneurs played a considerable role, brought to a close the traditional methods in the manufacture of dyes and dyeing.


Demsky, in: iej, 16 (1966); G. Caro, Sozialund Wirtschaftsgeschichte der Juden, 2 vols. (1908–20), index, s.v.Farben; R. Strauss, Die Juden im Koenigreich Sizilien … (1910), 66ff.; A.S. Hershberg, Ḥayyei ha-Tarbut be-Yisrael bi-Tekufat ha-Mishnah ve-ha-Talmud, 1 (1924), 207–316; I.S. Emmanuel, Histoire de l'industrie des tissus des Israelites de Salonique (1935), 16ff.; J. Starr, in: Byzantinisch-neugriechische Jahrbuecher, 12 (1936), 42–49; Ashtor, Toledot, 1 (1944), 176ff.; R.S. Lopez, in: Speculum, 20 (1945), 23f. (Eng.); Roth, Italy, index; J.R. Marcus, Early American Jewry, 2 vols. (1951–53), index, s.v.Dyeing Industry, Indigo; S. Avitsur, in: Sefunot, 6 (1962), 58ff.; Hirschberg, Afrikah, 1 (1965), 200ff.; M. Wischnitzer, History of Jewish Crafts and Guilds (1965), 127ff., 203f., and index; S.D. Goitein, Mediterranean Society, 1 (1967), index.