Lawrence H. Schiffman, From Text to Tradition, Ktav Publishing House, Hoboken, NJ, 1991.

The survival of the Jews and Judaism as a distinct entity in the Greco-Roman world, and, for that matter in every other time and place, depended on the organization of Jewish communal structures. With the exception of a few who were so Hellenized that they disassociated themselves from their coreligionists, virtually all Diaspora Jews were members of the Jewish communal organization, termed in Greek either politeuma (“political body,” “citizens”), katoikia (the designation for a separate settlement or body of residents within a city), or synagoge (“community”). The Jews were organized into autonomous bodies of this kind because they were seen as foreigners born abroad. Other ethnic groups in the Hellenistic world were similarly organized either as foreign ethnic communities or as religious corporations. All such organizations required royal permits and, in the case of the Jewish community, were guaranteed the right to conduct their affairs in accord with their ancestral laws. Thus, the Jewish communities had complete freedom to build synagogues, set up independent courts of justice and other institutions, educate their youth in the tradition, and elect their own officials.

Various officials are known to have existed in the Jewish communities. The archons, from the Greek for “chief, head,” were the members of the Gerousia. The head of the Gerousia was the gerousiarch. There were also the archisynagogos, or head of the synagogue (i.e., the Jewish community, not the house of worship), and various other officials. The synagogue, or temple, was the central building, providing facilities for the instruction of children, the dispensing of justice, and the lodging of visitors, and, of course, serving as the house of worship. Throughout the Diaspora the synagogue became the major institution for the preservation of the Jewish tradition, a role it would soon come to occupy even in the Land of Israel with the destruction of the Temple. Because Jews tended to live in proximity to the synagogue, and would not eat or intermarry with non-Jews, anti-Semites often accused them of exclusivity. From later sources it seems that Jews were not granted equal rights as citizens of the Greek cities, except for small numbers who were considerably Hellenized and were admitted to citizenship as individuals.

In the Hellenistic and Roman eras Jews constituted distinct communities within the larger society. Foremost among their particular needs was exemption from the requirement to worship the local deities, which usually constituted the formal cult of the city. This was usually forthcoming, but it had to be granted informally and is never directly mentioned even in the many documents relating the privileges of the Jews in this period. This unspoken privilege seems to have had the effect of restricting the entry of Jews into full citizenship in most Greek cities.

Yet numerous other privileges are documented. The Jews were permitted to live according to their ancestral laws. Sabbath observance was made possible by excusing them from appearing in court or in municipal offices on the seventh day. Further, Jewish military units were exempted from marching on the Sabbath. Despite the strong resentment of their non-Jewish neighbors, Jews were permitted to send money to the Jerusalem Temple, and later to the patriarchate in the Land of Israel These seemingly minor privileges amounted to a recognition that Jews could live in the Greco-Roman world only at some distance from their neighbors. At the same time, this bit of tolerance made possible their entry further and further into Hellenistic life, and may have sown the seeds for the eventual assimilation of the Hellenistic Jews and the disappearance of Hellenistic Judaism.

The Jews of the Western Diaspora engaged in manifold occupations. They originally came to Egypt, Cyrene, and Asia Minor as soldiers, a role Jews played in many parts of the Hellenistic world. They were generally assigned land which eventually became their private property, thus creating a class of Jewish small farmers throughout the region. Some Jews leased royal lands, while others worked as tenants for large landholders. Agriculture had been important in Palestine, so it is not surprising that Jews continued to be farmers in the Diaspora.

The various literary sources lead us to believe that Jews practiced a wide range of crafts, and that Jewish craftsmen were organized into guilds. There was a large middle class, made up of Jewish traders, including some who owned their own ships and others who were involved in investment. A few Jews amassed tremendous wealth and lent money on interest. Under the Ptolemies Jews occupied government posts in Egypt, including tax collecting. All in all, Jews reflected the occupational distributions of the societies in which they lived and cannot be said to have attained the role of “economic catalyst” to which the Middle Ages, with its restrictions on Jewish occupations, would bring them.