Jewish Glass-makers

Articles Image

Although books on occupations which are characteristically Jewish seldom mention glass, Jews have been involved in the craft from very early times. The earliest traces of glass-making seem to occur in Mesopotamia in the early 2nd millennium b.c.e.1 By about 1500 b.c.e., the Phoenicians were involved, whether as traders or actual manufacturers. Egyptian glass was at a peak at the time of the Captivity, which makes it very possible that these skills were brought back by the former slaves; similarly the Jews on their return from the Babylonian exile in the sixth century b.c.e. must have brought knowledge of the very advanced glass tech? nology of Mesopotamia.

There is no documented evidence of glass making by Jews in early times but there are many legends and literary references. The only mention of zechuchit (glass) in the Old Testa? ment comes from the book of Job, 'Gold and sapphire and glass cannot equal wisdom.' In the Blessing of the Tribes in Deuteronomy2 Zebulun is assigned land in lower Galilee around the present Haifa-Acco districts. This includes the Na'aman, the ancient river Belus. Zebulun and neighbouring Issachar shall 'suck the abundance of the seas and the treasures hid in the sands'. Targurn Jonathan comments 'and from the sand they shall bring forth mirrors, and kinds of glass which are hidden in the depth will be revealed unto them'. This is explained as, 'these hidden treasures are fish, snails, and white glass'.

This is the site of the fable which Pliny1 retells of the invention of glass. Phoenician sailors were said to have used blocks of saltpetre which they were carrying as cargo to make a hearth on the sand dunes, above the Belus river, 'when they became heated and were completely mingled with the sand on the beach, a strange translucent liquid flowed forth in streams and this, it was said, was the origin of glass'. Tacitus and Strabo4 echo Pliny, and Josephus5 stresses the trade in sand. 'Many ships there loaded . . . where the Belus flows into the Jewish sea.'

This is of course the locality of the great Phoenician cities of Sidon and Tyre, later to become the centres of the Syrian glass in? dustry. But glass is also found here in an indisputably Jewish context. Bet Shearim, nine miles south-east of Haifa, was the home of Rabbi Yehuda Hanassi (170-217 g.e.), Judah the Prince, and it was here he compiled the Mishna. In the catacombs where he is buried, among many tombs carved with Jewish sym? bols, is the third largest block of glass in the world, 11x7 feet and 18 inches thick. Its use is uncertain, but from Talmudic evidence it appears it was meant to be broken up into 'ingots' to be remelted to make glass objects.6 Herodotus speaks of a legendary emerald column at Tyre which must have been glass.7 Bet Shearim must have been a great centre of glass-making, for the hillsides are strewn with lumps of blue-green glass which shine out after rain on the

Become a member to read the full article
Become a member today


24 hour access to JHSE online resources

Instant access to over 700 articles View the original articles as a PDF
Learn More


Annual JHSE Membership

Members are entitled to a free copy of the latest Jewish Historical Studies, free access to our online resources and associate membership of the UCL Library in London.  In addition, they receive the JHSE Newsletter, special offers on books for sale and pay less to attend our series of lectures and other public events.
Learn More


Student Membership

The JHSE want to encourage students to engage with Jewish history.  Apply for a Student Membership with your university email account and once we have verified your status you will soon have all the benefits of being a full JHSE member.
Learn More


Associate your Institution with the JHSE

Give your members access to JHSE online resources and special offers on book sales.  Use your institutional email account when applying, and once your status is verified we will explain the scheme.  Preferred payment is by credit or debit card.
Learn More

Your Cart