Shaya Cohen -


Stasis vs Dynamism: Why are Jews Merchants and Lawyers?

Lots of things in life rely on instability to thrive. Think of “Necessity is the mother of invention,” or even, “No pain, no gain.” But mankind (and womankind, especially) also have a deep and visceral fear of insecurity and risk. Stability is planning for the long haul, while instability means being able to improvise and function “in the moment.” No person can live a good and full life at either extreme – those who live to avoid all risks are not living, and those who embrace all risks will not live for long.

But for some reason, Jews are more risk tolerant than the average person. I think this is because the Jewish people are forever involved with sha’ar, gates. It is a blessing to Avraham:

I will bestow My blessing upon you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars of heaven and the sands on the seashore; and your descendants shall inherit the gates of their foes.

Gates? That is odd. After all, one might think that we are supposed to end up with land or possessions. But gates?

Gates are interesting places. Gates are a doorway into a new world (“This is the gate of heaven!”). Lot welcomes the angels at the gates. Avraham buys the burial place at the gates – that is where deals get done. Hamor and Shechem go to the gates of the city convince the men to become circumcised. Mordechai (and the blessed husband in Proverbs) “sits among the elders at the gates.” When a widow shames her brother-in-law for not preserving his brother’s name, she spits on him and throws a shoe at him “at the gates.” The gates of a city is where all the action happens: interaction with outsiders, the marketplace for goods, services, and ideas (the forum is in or near gates). Judges sit at the gates, and so do businessmen and traders of all kinds.

But unlike private property, gates are not owned, at least not by individual people. They are places of action and interaction, not ownership. And the events at the gates are the least predictable. By contrast, a farmer has a limited range of expected action and reaction based on what nature throws at him. But anything can go down at a gate – a new rumor, a riot, an invasion. Gates are sources and breeding grounds for chaos. In part this is because a gate is where people meet each other, and people, not nature, are always the X Factor in the world. Nature is cyclical, but people can actually change and grow.

Classical Jewish professions include dealing in law, finance, and commerce of all kinds. Indeed, outside of medicine, every stereotypical Jewish profession would be practiced at the gate of a city. There are historical reasons for this (for much of the last few thousand years, Jews were forbidden to own land in many countries). But I think there are temperamental reasons as well. Jews seem more comfortable in those worlds than are many other people.

Why? What makes Jews more willing to be traders or financiers?

I think the answer is found in the text, when G-d tells Avraham why he is getting this blessing.

Because you have done this and have not withheld your son … your descendants shall inherit the gates of their foes.

What is the connection? Why does being willing to sacrifice your son mean that your descendants will inherit the gates of their enemies?

I think the answer comes down to risk tolerance. Here is why: Avraham takes a huge risk when he trusts in G-d. He has no idea how it will play out, but he is willing to take that risk anyway. The word play reinforces this: the word for “withheld” is the same root word as “darkness.” In other words, Avraham’s decision was made in the dark. He was aware of that he had no idea what the future held, but he was prepared to do what he thought was best, and pray that G-d would sort things out.

This is an essential ingredient for Jewish businessmen. It is a reason why solo entrepreneurs in commerce and finance and real estate continue to succeed, long after corporations would logically have forced them from the field: Jews are willing to take risks that rational companies, companies who always need more information before they take a risk, will delay or outright avoid. Yet it is through businesses like that that wealth is created: trade allows for expansion, and Adam Smith observed that trade, each person’s desire to maximize their own assets, grows wealth much better than does keeping your wealth locked away. The Hebrew word for “gates” also means “to multiply,” a reminder that wealth is multiplied through trade.

Entrepreneurial business is a leap of faith, and the road never leads where you think it is heading. It is not for the faint of heart – or those without faith. Business risks are often unique and the waters are fouled with the mines of unknown, unforeseeable, and unintended consequences, just waiting to explode. Few people choose that kind of risk if a nice, safe options are at hand. But Jews do.

It all connects. Avraham is blessed to inherit the gates of his enemies – that Jews will prosper in the gates of sometimes-hostile host nations and peoples – because Avraham was willing to take a risk with inadequate information and faith. In both cases, we do all that we can, and then we believe that G-d will help everything turn out all right, somehow. Because that is precisely what has happened for thousands of years, and continues to happen to this day.

[an @iwe, @susanquinn, @kidcoder and @eliyahumasinter collaboration]

Comments are welcome!

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