Jewish textile industry in 16th-century Safed

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The textile industry became an important feature of 16th-century Safed, Ottoman Galilee (at the time within Damascus Eyalet of the Ottoman Empire), following an influx of Jewish immigration in late 15th and early 16th centuries. Run as a Jewish monopoly, textile manufacturing became the community's main source of income. The industry declined toward the end of the century.

Jewish refugees settle in Safed[edit]

Nahal Amud

After the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, many sought refuge in Turkish-controlled lands. They used the opportunity to introduce the production of high-quality wool which they had manufactured in Spain[1][2] and soon Jewish merchants became significantly involved in the wool trade in nearly all parts of the Ottoman Empire.[3] Many made their way to Safed, which with its numerous springs and nearby streams, had the perfect geological conditions for the manufacture of cloth.

In 1522, Safed's Jewish population stood at three hundred families. The influx of Spanish refugees transformed the town into an international hub of fabric production and by the end of the century, the number of Jewish families in Safed had increased to at least 20,000.[4]


Foreign wool was imported through the ports of Sidon and Acre to be processed[5][6] and the finished goods were exported abroad, including to Syria and Egypt.[7] The 16th century saw textiles becoming the principal regional industry[8][9] and in Safed it was the main source of income for the Jewish community[10] who maintained a monopoly on the trade.[11] David de-Rossi, an Italian Jewish merchant who visited in 1535, was amazed to witness the enormous growth of the tailoring trade and claimed that over 15,000 suits had been manufactured in Safed in that year alone.[6]

The Jews were active in all the stages of production: dyeing, spinning and weaving.[10] The women were involved in the spinning the raw, short-fibered wool at home while the weaving was performed in workshops.[6] Scholars residing in Safed who were involved in the business included Rabbi Moses Galante who owned a factory[12] and Rabbis Moses Berab, Menachem HaBavli and his brother Reuben who were wool dyers.[13]

Buildings containing special mills were used to cleanse the cloth.[6] By using water-powered mechanical technology in the fulling process, the Jews had introduced a modern and efficient manner of textile production in to the region.[14]

Production was not limited to Safed and its environs; other centres existed in Nablus and Jerusalem.[8] During the 1560s and 1570s Joseph Nasi initiated the cultivation of mulberry trees in Tiberias for the production of silk clothing "of the kind worn in Venice" and Merino sheep were to be raised for their wool.[15]

Economic and social consequences[edit]

Safed's economic growth during the period was chiefly due to the booming textile trade.[16] The Jews, heavily involved in the various stages of manufacture and trade, were levied with substantial taxes which provided a significant boost to the country’s economy.[6] When 1,000 of the most affluent Jews were faced with deportation to Cyprus in 1576, it was argued by the local revenue authorities that Safed would be "on the verge of ruin" and the "Treasury of Damascus will suffer a great loss" if, among other things, the "stamp duty on broadcloth, customs on felt and the tax farming of the dye-houses would be discontinued".[17]

The success of the trade resulted in the growth of Safed's Jewish community and consequently had implications for the country's religious establishment. Levi ibn Habib, the Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem, felt it was Safed's material prosperity which had allowed Jacob Berab and his group of rabbis to feel they could challenge Jerusalem's historic supremacy and attempt to revive ordination in Safed.[18] He wrote sarcastically: "Is it because of the great quantity of clothes that are manufactured in Safed that they presume to be the leaders of the Jewish people?"[19]

Towards the end of the century the industry faced a sharp decline. Cheaper woollen goods from western Europe began to flood the markets. Safed's labourers could not withstand the competition and when the merchants relocated, Safed's Jewish community itself began to decline.[8][10]


  1. ^ Mordecai Kosover (1966). Arabic Elements in Palestinian Yiddish: The Old Ashkenazic Jewish Community in Palestine, Its History and Its Language. Rubin Mass. In addition Jews in Safed carried on the manufacture and trade of weaving wool and clothing on a grand scale, developed by the skillful craftsmen and merchants among the exiles from Spain.
  2. ^ Jane S. Gerber (31 January 1994). Jews of Spain: A History of the Sephardic Experience. Simon and Schuster. p. 170. ISBN 978-0-02-911574-9.
  3. ^ Aryeh Shmuelevitz (1984). The Jews of the Ottoman Empire in the Late Fifteenth and the Sixteenth Centuries: Administrative, Economic, Legal, and Social Relations as Reflected in the Responsa. Brill Archive. p. 139. ISBN 90-04-07071-0.
  4. ^ Leo Trepp (2001). A History of the Jewish Experience. Behrman House, Inc. p. 122. ISBN 978-0-87441-672-5.
  5. ^ Alan T. Levenson (12 March 2012). The Wiley-Blackwell History of Jews and Judaism. John Wiley & Sons. p. 287. ISBN 978-1-118-23293-4. Wool woven in Salonica was sent to Safed, in Palestine, to be dyed.
  6. ^ a b c d e Lawrence Fine (2003). Physician of the Soul, Healer of the Cosmos: Isaac Luria and His Kabbalistic Fellowship. Stanford University Press. p. 48. ISBN 978-0-8047-4826-1.
  7. ^ Jane S. Gerber (31 January 1994). Jews of Spain: A History of the Sephardic Experience. Simon and Schuster. p. 170. ISBN 978-0-02-911574-9. In Palestine, the Sephardim transformed tiny Safed into a center of silk production for the markets of Syria and Egypt.
  8. ^ a b c Abraham David (24 May 2010). To Come to the Land: Immigration and Settlement in 16th-Century Eretz-Israel. University of Alabama Press. pp. 37–38. ISBN 978-0-8173-5643-9.
  9. ^ Alex Carmel; Peter Schäfer; Yossi Ben-Artzi (1990). The Jewish settlement in Palestine, 634–1881. L. Reichert. p. 101. ISBN 978-3-88226-479-1. The most important industry in Palestine in the 16th century was the textile industry, which was concentrated in Safad and its vicinity...
  10. ^ a b c Abdelwahab Meddeb; Benjamin Stora (27 November 2013). A History of Jewish-Muslim Relations: From the Origins to the Present Day. Princeton University Press. p. 207. ISBN 978-1-4008-4913-0.
  11. ^ Solomon Schechter (1 January 2003). Studies in Judaism. Gorgias Press LLC. p. 230. ISBN 978-1-59333-039-2. these trades were entirely in the hands of the Jews.
  12. ^ The Jewish Spectator. Vol. 53–54. New York, N.Y.: School of the Jewish Woman. 1990. p. 19. Rabbi Moses Galanti, the rabbi of the community, owned a clothing factory that employed many workers and enjoyed a good reputation.
  13. ^ Abraham David (24 May 2010). To Come to the Land: Immigration and Settlement in 16th-Century Eretz-Israel. University of Alabama Press. p. 162. ISBN 978-0-8173-5643-9.
  14. ^ Alisa Meyuhas Ginio (25 February 2014). Jews, Christians, and Muslims in the Mediterranean World After 1492. Routledge. pp. 224–229. ISBN 978-1-135-29974-3. It is this process of mechanical fulling which the Jewish exiles transferred to the Ottoman Empire. Use of water-driven fulling mill now spread. [...] Thus it is reasonable to conclude that the distinctive term and technology spread from the Maghrib into the Mashriq and into the Ottoman realm, as a result of the events of 1492.
  15. ^ Helga Dudman; Elisheva Ballhorn (1988). Tiberias. Carta. p. 120. ISBN 978-965-220-141-6.
  16. ^ Jane Hathaway; Karl Barbir (22 July 2014). The Arab Lands under Ottoman Rule: 1516–1800. Taylor & Francis. p. 209. ISBN 978-1-317-87562-8. Safed became a thriving regional commercial centre, thanks in large part to the textile, and above all wool, industry, in which Jews participated heavily, particularly in dyeing
  17. ^ Moshe Maʻoz (1975). Studies on Palestine during the Ottoman period. Magnes Press. p. 113.
  18. ^ Isidore Budick (1949). Moses di Trani and his time: a topical treatment of Jewish life in the Turkish Empire during the sixteenth century, particularly in the light of Moses di Trani's responsa and those of his contemporaries. Dropsie College for Hebrew and Cognate Learning. p. 4. In the year 1600 Safed reached the climax of its development with its thirty-thousand Jewish families. This remarkable growth would not have been possible without a corresponding material prosperity. The remark made by Levi ibn Habib, the great opponent of Berab's movement of ordination, that Safed's presumption to challenge Jerusalem's historic supremacy was due to its manufacture of clothing is to be taken as more than mere sarcasm.
  19. ^ Neil Asher Silberman (1 September 1998). Heavenly powers: unraveling the secret history of the Kabbalah. Grosset/Putnam. p. 151. ISBN 978-0-399-14448-6.

Further reading[edit]

  • Y. Canaani, "Economic Life in Safed and its Environs in the Sixteenth Century and the First Half of the Seventeenth Century" (in Hebrew), Zion, o.s., 6 (1933–34): 195–201.
  • Shmuel Avitsur, "Safed – Center of the Manufacture of Woven Woollens in the Sixteenth Century" (in Hebrew), Sefunot 6 (1962).
  • Shmuel Avitsur, "Contributions to the History of the Woolen Textile Industry in Salonika" (in Hebrew), Sefunot 12 (1971–78): 147–68.
  • Shmuel Avitsur, "The Batan, a Water-Powered Fulling Mill in Nahal Ammud — Relic of the Wool-Textile Industry in Safed," Israel, Land and Nature 7 (1981).
  • Shmuel Avitsur, "The Wool Textile Industry in Safed and Its Demise" (in Hebrew), in: A. Shmueli et al. (eds), Arzot Hagalil I, Haifa 1983, 353–360.