The Spice Trade & the Jews

Today the compliment "worth your salt" might be cause for a smile, but in ancient times the same saying was cause for celebration!

In antiquity, spices were essential to healthy living. Salt not only enhanced the taste of food; it was the only method of food preservation. It was so valuable, the word salary goes all the way back to the salt payment which was given to Roman soldiers for service to the Empire. Also in demand were pepper, cinnamon, and cloves, which counteracted the saltiness of food, making it more palatable. In the 5th century, the invading Visigoths demanded 3,000 pounds of pepper as partial payment for sparing Rome.

Jews played a significant role in the spice trade as early as the biblical times of Solomon (10th century B.C.E.). We know from I Kings (chapters 5 and 10) that King David bequeathed to Solomon vast lands which gave him control of the major trade routes to Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Anatolia as well as routes to the southern Arabian peninsula, where the vast majority of spices were traded from the Far East. In search of spices, Solomon later embarked on a three-year trade expedition by sea from Ezion-Geber (near Eilat) to the island of Chryse (in the Indian Ocean).

While such expeditions were perilous and costly, the growing demand for spices made the risks worth taking, and ushered in the age of exploration. Christopher Columbus set sail from Spain in 1492; five years later the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama sailed east in search of a quick route to the Spice Islands; and Ferdinand Magellan set sail across the Pacific on a similar quest in 1521.

In the late 15th century, following the Jewish expulsion from Spain and Portugal, many Jews settled in the Netherlands, South America, and the West Indies. Over time, Sephardic Jews who had settled in Holland established a vast trading empire grounded in their connections with other Sephardic Jews around the world. By the mid-1500s the Mendes family of Antwerp (former conversos from Portugal) controlled the major portion of the pepper and spice trade in northern Europe. Jewish traders also brought spices from Yemen, India, and the Dutch East Indies to Europe and the New World.

Little surprise, then, that Jews of the era, especially those who lived near the major trading centers (Aleppo in Syria, Cochin in India, the Moluccas Islands in Dutch East India, Cape Town in South Africa, and throughout the Netherlands), flavored their foods with ginger, cinnamon, black pepper, and other delectables.

Thanks in part to our courageous and clever ancestors, the spice trade flourished-and with it, culinary diversity around the globe. They truly were "…worth their weight in salt."