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The Chosen Few

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

Maristella Botticini
Zvi Eckstein
Copyright Date: 2012
Pages: 304
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  • Book Info
    The Chosen Few
    Book Description:

    In 70 CE, the Jews were an agrarian and illiterate people living mostly in the Land of Israel and Mesopotamia. By 1492 the Jewish people had become a small group of literate urbanites specializing in crafts, trade, moneylending, and medicine in hundreds of places across the Old World, from Seville to Mangalore. What caused this radical change?The Chosen Fewpresents a new answer to this question by applying the lens of economic analysis to the key facts of fifteen formative centuries of Jewish history.

    Maristella Botticini and Zvi Eckstein show that, contrary to previous explanations, this transformation was driven not by anti-Jewish persecution and legal restrictions, but rather by changes within Judaism itself after 70 CE--most importantly, the rise of a new norm that required every Jewish male to read and study the Torah and to send his sons to school. Over the next six centuries, those Jews who found the norms of Judaism too costly to obey converted to other religions, making world Jewry shrink. Later, when urbanization and commercial expansion in the newly established Muslim Caliphates increased the demand for occupations in which literacy was an advantage, the Jews found themselves literate in a world of almost universal illiteracy. From then forward, almost all Jews entered crafts and trade, and many of them began moving in search of business opportunities, creating a worldwide Diaspora in the process.

    The Chosen Fewoffers a powerful new explanation of one of the most significant transformations in Jewish history while also providing fresh insights to the growing debate about the social and economic impact of religion.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-4248-3
    Subjects: Religion, Economics, Sociology, History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-x)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. xi-xii)
  4. List of Tables
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
  5. Preface
    (pp. xv-xviii)
  6. Introduction
    (pp. 1-10)

    This book is a journey back in time, embarked upon in order to uncover why the Jews became the people they did. The journey begins in Jerusalem in Judea and in Sepphoris and Tiberias in Galilee during the first and second centuries. It takes us to Babylon in Mesopotamia in the fifth and sixth centuries; to Baghdad, Cairo, Córdoba, and Palermo, the new urban centers of the Middle East and the Mediterranean, in the ninth and tenth centuries; to Tudela in Spain and Mangalore in India in the late twelfth century; and back to Baghdad in the 1250s before ending...

    (pp. 11-51)

    Spin a globe, wait for it to stop, then Put your finger on the first place you see. A Jewish community is likely to have lived there, in the ancient past or in recent times. Jews have lived in so many places, in such vastly diverse political, economic, and religious environments, that their history is difficult to summarize in multiple volumes, much less a single chapter. Familiarity with the basic facts of Jewish history from the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem to the mass expulsion of the Jews from the Iberian Peninsula is critical, however, to understanding why...

  8. CHAPTER 2 Were the Jews a Persecuted Minority?
    (pp. 52-65)

    Do legal strictures or discriminatory measures limiting the economic activities of the Jews throughout much of their history explain their occupational structure? Did their religious customs lead them to specialize in certain professions? Or did the Jews perhaps choose to invest in human rather than physical capital because of the precariousness of their situation as persecuted minorities, leading them to leave farming and enter urban skilled occupations such as crafts, trade, medicine, and moneylending?

    During the medieval and early modern period, monarchs, religious authorities, and local rulers subjected Jews in Europe to a variety of economic regulations. Based on this...

  9. CHAPTER 3 The People of the Book, 200 BCE–200 CE
    (pp. 66-79)

    The Jews looked, dressed, spoke, and earned their living mainly from agriculture like the rest of the population in the Hellenistic, Roman, and Persian empires.¹ The key difference between Jews and non-Jews was their religion. Solving the puzzles of Jewish economic and demographic history therefore requires an investigation of the pivotal events, religious leaders, and main characteristics of the Jewish religion from the founding of the Second Temple in 515 BCE to the compilation of the Mishna circa 200.

    During the first millennium BCE, the two pillars of Judaism were the Temple in Jerusalem and the Torah. The first pillar...

  10. CHAPTER 4 The Economics of Hebrew Literacy in a World of Farmers
    (pp. 80-94)

    One can think of religion as a consumption good: People derive satisfaction—what economists call “utility”—by following the norms and rituals established by their religion.¹ Obeying these norms may entail costs (spending time in a temple instead of doing other activities, contributing to the maintenance of a church or mosque or synagogue, restricting one’s diet). If these costs are lower than the utility derived from observing the religious norms, individuals obey the norms. If the costs exceed the utility, individuals may opt for another religious affiliation or decide not to belong to any religion at all.² Different religions may...

  11. CHAPTER 5 Jews in the Talmud Era, 200–650: THE CHOSEN FEW
    (pp. 95-123)

    Was the religious norm regarding the reading and the stUdy of the Torah in the synagogue implemented in the centuries following the compilation of the Mishna? Did world Jewry implement universal primary education centuries before any other population? Do the historical facts support the prediction of our theory that because investment in religious literacy is a major sacrifice in farming economies in which there are little or no economic returns to literacy and education, a proportion of Jews convert, causing the Jewish population to decrease over time?

    We examine whether our theory is consistent with the historical evidence by looking...

  12. CHAPTER 6 From Farmers to Merchants, 750–1150
    (pp. 124-152)

    By 650, the Land of Israel, Syria, Lebanon, Asia Minor, and North Africa (mainly Egypt) no longer hosted large Jewish communities, as they had done six centuries earlier. Nearly 75 percent of the roughly 1–1.2 million Jews in the world were living in Mesopotamia and Persia when Muhammad (c. 570–632) set the foundations of one of the largest empires in history.

    What were the main features of world Jewry at the inception of Islam? Most Jews were still farmers, just like the rest of the population. In Mesopotamia and Persia, they were a religious minority in a largely...

  13. CHAPTER 7 Educated Wandering Jews, 800–1250
    (pp. 153-200)

    By the late twelfth century, the world’s 1.2–1.5 million Jews were scattered across three economic and intellectually independent centers: Mesopotamia, Persia, and the Arabian Peninsula under Muslim rule, which was home to about 70 percent of world Jewry; the Iberian Peninsula (partly under Christian and partly under Muslim rule), which hosted wealthy communities in hundreds of cities and towns; and Christian France, England, Germany, and Italy where small Jewish communities, whose size varied from a handful of families to a few hundred households, lived in hundreds of locations (see table 1.6, map 1.3, and appendix, tables A.1 and A.2)....

  14. CHAPTER 8 Segregation or Choice? FROM MERCHANTS TO MONEYLENDERS, 1000–1500
    (pp. 201-247)

    Circa 1000, the main occupations of the large Jewish community in the Iberian Peninsula and the comparatively smaller Jewish communities in France, Germany, and southern Italy were shopkeeping, local trade, long- distance commerce, crafts, and medicine. As merchants, shopkeepers, traders, and skilled artisans, European Jews were often involved in credit transactions, because in medieval times, sellers frequently sold their goods or services by extending credit to buyers. Specialization in moneylending was not yet a distinctive mark of European Jewry.¹

    Circa 1100, lending money at interest was the occupation par excellence oftheJews in England, a very important occupation of French...

    (pp. 248-260)

    Our historical journey leaves medieval Europe and brings Us back to the Middle East and North Africa under Muslim rule circa 1170, at the time of Benjamin of Tudela’s journey. The majority of world Jewry was located in the enormous territory under Muslim rule stretching from Persia to Morocco, with communities in Samarkand, Isfahan, Baghdad, Basra, Mosul, Kufa, Aden, Damascus, Cairo, and Alexandria. Most of the Jews were engaged in crafts, local commerce, long- distance trade, moneylending, court banking, medicine, and a wide array of urban skilled occupations.

    By the mid- tenth century, the Abbasid Empire had fragmented into many...

  16. CHAPTER 10 1492 to Today: OPEN QUESTIONS
    (pp. 261-273)

    The historical journey in this book began in 70 CE, when the Second Temple in Jerusalem was burned and destroyed forever, and ended in 1492 with the edict of expulsion of the Jews from Spain. Between these two traumatic events, the history of the Jewish people has been marked by some unique features that we explained through the lens of economic theory. Before summarizing what we learned, we will let two well-known Jewish travelers take us to the Jewish communities in Egypt and the Levant in the 1480s to see how different these communities were from their ancestors who lived...

  17. Appendix
    (pp. 274-286)
  18. Bibliography
    (pp. 287-316)
  19. Index
    (pp. 317-324)
  20. Back Matter
    (pp. 325-326)