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The Chosen Few: How Education Shaped Jewish History, 70-1492

Author(s):Botticini, Maristella
Eckstein, Zvi
Reviewer(s):Chiswick, Carmel U.

Published by EH.Net (January 2013)

Maristella Botticini and Zvi Eckstein, The Chosen Few: How Education Shaped Jewish History, 70-1492.? Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2012.? xvii + 323 pp.? $39.50 (hardcover) ISBN: 978-0-691-14487-0.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Carmel U. Chiswick, Department of Economics, George Washington University.

The Chosen Few by Maristella Botticini (Bocconi University) and Zvi Eckstein (Tel Aviv University) reminds us ? for those who need reminding ? how Cliometrics can transform our understanding of historical events. They examine Jewish history from an economic perspective with results that are both innovative and insightful.?

The book is structured around a skeleton of straightforward economic theory, fleshed out with data ? quantitative and qualitative ? obtained from an extraordinary array of documentary evidence.? The historical period covered is a few decades short of 1,500 years, requiring us to step back and look through a very broad lens, yet the proof offers details on everyday economic life and on the timing of events.? The economic model is simple but not simplistic, presented elegantly without bells and whistles, sophisticated but accessible to a general reader.? (Technical language is wisely confined to appendices that spell out the model mathematically and present details on statistics that are new or controversial.)? And the overall result is a new perspective that will change forever the way we understand the economic history of Jews over a broad spectrum of time and space.

The economic model developed by Botticini and Eckstein uses a human capital approach to look at the way investments in religious education interact with occupational choice and earnings.? At the beginning of their story, approximately in the first century, Judaism was in transition from a religion centered on the Temple in Jerusalem to a synagogue-based religion that could be observed anywhere that Jews lived.? Part of this transition required that every Jewish male learn to read from the Torah, making basic literacy a part of religious training that began at the age of 5 or 6 and encouraging further study for those so inclined.? This meant that even ordinary Jewish men (and sometimes women) could read, and perhaps write, at a time when literacy was rare among the common people.?

Botticini and Eckstein develop a model placing Jewish literacy within its economic context.? When urbanization and commercialization raised the demand for occupations where reading and writing was an advantage, the religious training of Jews gave them a comparative advantage.? This meant that investments in Jewish religious education earned a reward in the marketplace as long as Jews moved into those occupations, which of course they did.? In contrast, when urban and commercial economies declined, Jewish religious training lost its economic advantage.? This deceptively simple model is the framework for understanding the economic incentives not only for Jewish occupational clustering but also for the strength of Jewish attachment to Judaism.

At the beginning of their story, in the year 70, Botticini and Eckstein estimate a population of some 5 million Jews (about the size of today?s American Jewish population), half of whom lived in the Land of Israel under Roman rule and the rest in various places in Mesopotamia, Persia, Egypt, Asia Minor and the Balkans.? Within the next century the Jewish population dropped by nearly half, and by the year 650 there were only one million Jews living mostly in Mesopotamia and Persia.? Throughout this period most Jews, like most non-Jews, were farmers, a fact that Botticini and Eckstein document in some detail. War and famine, including the exile that dispersed Jews after the Romans destroyed Jerusalem, explain no more than half of this decline, which was considerably greater than the general population decline during this period.? As long as Jews remained farmers, however, the literacy requirement provided benefits only in the religious sphere but not in the secular economy.? Many farmers responded by not investing in their children?s Jewish education, and most of their descendants assimilated into the surrounding (often Christian) populations.? Those who remained Jews would have been a self-selected group of people with either strong preferences for religious Judaism or a high ability for reading and writing.

The second part of their period, approximately from 750 to 1150, uses the same model to explain why Jews (most of whom still lived in Persia and Mesopotamia) shifted from rural to urban occupations, from a community of farmers to one of craftsmen and merchants.? Under the Muslim Caliphates cities grew, trade thrived, and the demand for occupations benefitting from literacy grew accordingly.? Literacy skills Jews acquired as part of their religious education transferred readily to these urban occupations and were rewarded with high earnings, generating an income effect that supported a Golden Age of Jewish culture.? Those Jews who remained as farmers were self-selected for persons who invested little in religious education and eventually assimilated into the general (Muslim) population.

Botticini and Eckstein look at demographic trends during this period of prosperity and cultural flowering, observing that the Jewish population not only grew in size but dispersed to cities all along the trading routes from India to Iberia, from Yemen to Europe.? They are at pains to show that these migrations were not motivated by push factors like discrimination or expulsion, but rather by the pull of new opportunities for urban craftsmen and merchants.? In most places the Jewish community concentrated in large cities, but in Europe ? where the cities were too small to support much activity in high-level urban occupations ? the Jewish communities were smaller and scattered more widely in many towns.? The Mongol invasions of the thirteenth century destroyed the cities of the Middle East, devastated its commerce, and dramatically reduced demand for urban occupations throughout the region.? Jewish religious education no longer yielded secular benefits in the impoverished Muslim economy, and the number of Jews declined as they assimilated into the surrounding population to avoid costly investments in religious human capital.

The Golden Age of Jewish culture in the Muslim world created a spiritual and intellectual legacy on which European Jewry could build.? In particular, the Talmud and Responsa literature (correspondence ruling on religious observance in everyday business and family matters) discussed the application of ancient (biblical) rules to contemporary activities.? This literature took Jewish religious studies well beyond basic literacy to develop literary sophistication and hone decision-making skills.? After the Mongol invasions destroyed the Muslim commercial economy, Europe became the new center of Jewish learning that nurtured these skills.? During the fourteenth century Spain had the most sophisticated economy in Europe and Spanish Jewry flourished in both religious culture and secular occupations.

Wherever they lived, Jewish communities maintained an active correspondence with each other on religious matters, creating networks that benefitted commercial activities as well.? These networks meant that urban Jews living in capital-scarce countries could borrow from Jews in more prosperous communities.? After the Mongol invasions, when European economies began to expand in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, imperfect capital markets created arbitrage opportunities that made money lending an especially profitable business.? Botticini and Eckstein argue convincingly that Jewish trading networks, mercantile experience, and universal literacy gave European Jews a comparative advantage in a very profitable profession for which few non-Jews had the relevant skills.? They thus argue that religiously-motivated education (creating literacy and decision-making skills transferable to secular occupations) and religiously-motivated correspondence networks explain why money-lending had become the dominant occupation of European Jews by the fifteenth century.?

Botticini and Eckstein?s simple yet sophisticated human capital analysis provides new insights into Jewish history for the fourteen centuries covered in this book.? In the last chapter of The Chosen Few they promise us a new book carrying the analysis forward for the next 500 years, from 1492 to the present.? Judging from the economic success of modern Jews, 80 percent of whom now live in the United States or Israel, their model suggests strong complementarity between skills developed by a Jewish religious education and those associated with business management and scientific investigation.?

Intentional or not, The Chosen Few follows an expositional style that suggests this very hypothesis.? Like the Talmud, each topic is introduced by a statement of fact (evidence) followed by questions about what those facts mean and how to explain them.? They then consider a number of opinions (hypotheses), including their own, and discuss the pros and cons of each with respect to internal consistency and historical evidence.? This methodology yields a very convincing Cliometric analysis that we can expect to inform all future economic histories of the Jews between 70 and 1492.

Carmel U. Chiswick is Research Professor of Economics, George Washington University, and Professor Emerita, University of Illinois at Chicago.? She has published widely on the economics of religion, especially on Jews, and much of her work on this subject is collected in C. Chiswick, The Economics of American Judaism (Routledge, 2008).

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Subject(s):Education and Human Resource Development
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Middle East
Time Period(s):Ancient
Medieval