Mulroney's Persian Predecessor [1]

News Item:

June 1993--After heated public debate, the Canadian government under Prime Minister Brian Mulroney ratifies the North American Free Trade Agreement with the United States, which will go into effect in January 1994.

The Canadian free trade debate is by no means without precedent.

The argument over the relative wisdom of protecting local industry or of opening up foreign markets has been with us for millenia. Talmudic literature records a number of instances of such exchanges, many of which sound as if they could have been taken straight out of today's newspapers.

One of the earliest recorded instances of rabbinical legislation dates back to the time of the Maccabees and consists of a decree declaring that glass is capable of becoming ritually impure.

In a famous lecture delivered at the opening of the Institute of Jewish Studies of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem in 1929, the noted talmudic scholar Louis Ginzberg argued that this measure was originally intended to curb the imports of glass products from Tyre and Sidon (in what is now Lebanon), which at that point in history were just beginning to export this novel and desirable product to the Holy Land. Judean technology was not yet capable of manufacturing glass vessels and was at a disadvantage since this material, which is not mentioned in the Torah, was thereby thought to be exempt from the possibility of ritual defilement. Such a claim would have made the product very attractive in a market that was dominated by the Temple and the priesthood.

By declaring that the imported dishes were equally susceptible to impurity, the ancient Jewish sages were in effect protecting the local manufacturers of earthenware vessels from what they perceived as unfair foreign competition.

According to Ginzberg, similar motives were at work in a number of other early laws. One generation after that first decree, Jewish sages were arguing that such commodities as Alexandrian wheat, Baalbekian garlic, and metal vessels were all impure or susceptible to defilement. All these decisions can be perceived as attempts to protect local industries.

Other scholars of the time opposed this protectionism; they felt that free international competition would ultimately serve to lower prices, better serving the broader needs of the average consumer.

Ginzberg also notes that the sages of talmudic times were concerned as well with limiting exports of strategic resources, especially the sale of real estate and large cattle to foreign land-owners who would use these items to undermine Jewish control over Judean territory.

Ginzberg's interpretations have not been universally accepted by scholars, but they do offer a fascinating insight into the interrelations between Jewish law and day-to-day concerns.

Reprinted from the Calgary Jewish Star

Free Trade Negotiations

Visitors to Jerusalem may be familiar with the nearby village of Motsa, down the hill on the road to Tel Aviv.

The Arab name of this village was Qalunia, reflecting the Roman title of the village as recorded in the Talmud: "Colonia" (i.e. colony), which denoted a status that carried with it an exemption from customs duties. Talmudic tradition fancifully traced the Hebrew name to the same source--motza in Hebrew means removed, in the sense of "removed (or exempted) from the obligation to pay duties."

At the beginning of the third century we find one of the greatest of talmudic leaders, the Patriarch Rabbi Judah Ha-Nasi (the renowned compiler of the Mishnah) actively lobbying to have the Galilean town of Tiberias declared a colonia.

As described in Rabbinic legend, "Rabbi" (as Rabbi Judah was known) was approached by his constant companion, the Roman Emperor "Antoninus" (possibly the Stoic philosopher-ruler Marcus Aurelius), who sought his advice: "I want my son Severus to succeed me, and to have Tiberias declared a colonia. If I ask them [the Senate] to allow one request, they will do it; but not if I ask for both." This phenomenon of a head of state facing a hostile senate is not a recent invention.

In those days too, free trade negotiations were conducted in secrecy. Rabbi Judah, who was obviously in favour of instituting free trade in Tiberias, replied with the following coded message: He ordered to have a man carry another on his shoulders, and the topmost man to carry a dove. The lower figure was to tell the upper to release the dove.

Antoninus understood the symbolism. He asked the Senate to confirm his son"s appointment, and in turn instructed his son to declare Tiberias a free trade colonia. [2] The rabbis would often read their own preoccupations into events depicted in the Bible. For example, when we read the midrashic versions of the Book of Esther we often have the impression that the free trade debate was one of the major themes of the Purim story.

To cite some typical examples: in describing the elaborate decorations for King Ahasuerus' great banquet, mention is made of dar and soharet (Esther 1:6), generally translated as "shell and onyx marble." A talmudic rendering reads this as, "He declared freedom (dror) to all who dealt in trade (sehorah)."

Similarly, among the various promises made by the king in order to persuade Esther to divulge her nationality, the rabbis include a pledge to reduce duties (as indicated in Esther 2:18 "And he made a release to the provinces").

Indeed, according to the Aramaic version of Esther, the official edict issued by Ahasuerus in support of the Jews is addressed to "all who desire to export goods from one nation to the other, from one people to the other."

The Persian monarch truly comes across in these sources as an oriental Brian Mulroney.

These quotations, cited from among a wealth of materials in our traditional literature, should suffice to indicate once again how similar the world of our ancestors was to our own.

This article and many others are now included in the book

Why Didn's I Learn This in Hebrew School?Why Didn't I Learn This in Hebrew School

by Jason Aronson Publishers

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First Publication: JS November 18 1988, pp. 4, 7.


[2] A similar tactic was employed shortly afterwards by the Canadian Prime Minister when the enactment of the unpopular Goods and Services Tax threatened to be blocked in the Senate. Brian Mulroney decided to appoint enough sympathetic new Senators to ensure passage of the bill.