Jewish Literacy as the Road to Riches: The Chosen Path of the ‘Chosen Few’

By Maristella Botticini and Zvi Eckstein

In an encore post, Maristella Botticini and Zvi Eckstein explain that the early Jewish emphasis on literacy set Jews up for economic success.

Paul Solman: Of the three most popular posts in the six-year history of the Making Sen$e Business Desk, two seem unsurprising, at least in retrospect: Charles Murray’s “Do You Live in a Bubble Quiz” to test how in or out of touch you are with mainstream white American culture and “Ask Larry” Kotlikoff’s original retirement post: “34 Social Security Secrets You Need to Know Now”.

But the popularity of the third-ranked post, of the more than a thousand originals we’ve run on this page since 2007, was as remarkable as it was gratifying: a 3000-word essay by two eminent economic historians who teach in Italy and Israel respectively summarizing their explanation of Jewish economic success, a thesis more than a decade in the making that has become the book “The Chosen Few.”

The post also generated nearly 500 comments on our pages and questions on Facebook as well. We asked authors Maristella Botticini and Zvi Eckstein if they would read the responses and address them. Today, they do.

Maristella Botticini and Zvi Eckstein: Back on April 18, on the Business Desk, we briefly summarized the main message of our book “The Chosen Few: How Education Shaped Jewish History, 70-1492.” In the following few days, the post generated a flood of comments (many posted online, a few sent directly to us). We took some time to sift through and think about these remarks; here we answer some of them, hoping our responses may be of general interest.

Before doing this, a clarification may help dispel a few misunderstandings behind some of the comments posted. Ex-ante, when we started studying this topic more than 13 years ago, and then in writing the book, we did not have (and we still do not have today) any ideological agenda. As scholars, we had (and still have) a genuine scholarly interest in trying to understand one of the most fascinating puzzles of Jewish history: why such notable economic success?

Ex-post, what we learned from the history of the Jews between 70 and 1492 is a positive message for anyone, Jewish and non-Jewish: investing in education is a powerful lever that can lift people out of poverty, raise standards of living, improve well-being in several other dimensions, foster intellectual achievement and promote technological and scientific progress.

As to the responses to our article, there were a number of insightful comments and questions — some critical, some supportive of the main argument in our post — that are actually addressed in the book. Answering here some of the comments that Business Desk readers raised, though, gives us an opportunity to clarify and highlight some important points that were missing in our first post. For this reason, we are very grateful to those readers who raised these issues.

Why did you choose the title “The Chosen Few”? Don’t you feel it may create misunderstandings?

We explain the meaning of this title in the book’s introduction. But instead of repeating here what is clear throughout the book, let us communicate another positive message that our book intends to spread: in the world of almost universal illiteracy back 2,000 years, the Jewish religious leadership — the rabbis and scholars in the academies in Judea and Galilee — required each Jewish individual, child or adult, rich or poor, farmer or merchant, to learn to read and study the Torah. Instead of restricting learning, study and knowledge to a small elite, the Jewish religious leadership of that time went exactly in the opposite direction: it pushed Judaism toward making literacy, education and knowledge universal among all Jews. Centuries later, this apparently odd choice of a religious norm became the lever of the economic prosperity and intellectual achievements of the Jews.

Have the Jews been an urban population specialized in the most skilled occupations (e.g., trade, finance, medicine, law) since biblical times?

The answer is: no. Back 2,000 years ago, when our book starts, the occupational structure of the Jews was not peculiar at all: almost all Jews were illiterate farmers, exactly like the rest of the population in the locations in which the Jewish communities dwelled — Eretz Israel, Mesopotamia, North Africa, Syria, the Balkans and southern Europe. If one travels back in time and takes a picture of the world as it was 2,000 years ago, one could hardly distinguish a Jew from a non-Jew when it came to the way people earned their living. If we took the same picture in the 1920s to 1930s, as the eminent economist Simon Kuznets did, using a lot of data and statistical analysis, one would see a completely different pattern: between 91 and 99 percent of the Jews in the world were engaged in urban skilled occupations, whereas most of the population in the world, with the exception of very few countries such as the United States, was still earning a living from agriculture. In the almost 2,000 years from 70 CE to 1939, the occupational structure of the Jewish people had become distinctive.

More from Botticini and Eckstein:

The Chosen Few: A New Explanation of Jewish Success

This fact immediately raises a question: when and where did this occupational transition happen? It began in Mesopotamia (where more than 70 percent of world Jewry dwelled) under the rule of the Umayyad, and later, the Abbasid Muslim caliphates, during the eighth to ninth centuries, and then it spread to other locations. The economic changes prompted by the geographical expansion, the commercial growth and the vast urbanization in the newly established Muslim caliphates had a profound and lasting impact on the occupational structure of the large Jewish community dwelling in this enormous empire.

Literacy (which the Jews became endowed with because of the profound transformation of their religion after 70) is not enough to explain the specialization of the Jews in urban skilled occupations. There is much more than just literacy that can explain their peculiar occupational structure (e.g., the ability to think in an analytical way because of the study of the Talmud, networking abilities, mutual trust, etc.).

We agree with some of these suggestions. In fact, in chapter 6, we describe in great detail the positive spillover effects for the Jews of being able to read and to study the Torah in the vastly illiterate world of the first (and part of the second) millennium. Let us summarize them here, albeit briefly.

If Jewish children and adults learned to read the Torah in Hebrew (as their religion required), they could read other texts written in the same language (such as letters, contracts, account books, business records and other non-religious texts). Thus “religious literacy” (the ability to read the Torah in Hebrew) helped acquire “general literacy” (the ability to read any text). Back 2,000 years ago (and still many centuries later), general literacy was almost useless to farmers (Jewish and non-Jewish), but it was very valuable to craftsmen and merchants often in need of writing letters and business contracts and to keep account books.

Judaism after the year 70, required both children and adults to read and to study the Torah. That is, it was not enough to just read without understanding the text and it was not enough to just memorize the text. This means that after 70, Judaism imposed on its members not just literacy per se but also the duty of understanding what was written. Again, this skill was valuable for occupations that benefited from understanding what was written in a contract or business letter such as crafts, trade or banking.

From the way learning happens even today, we know that if someone learns one language, it is more likely that the same person can learn a second or third or a fourth language. In the period we study (70-1492), Jews read the Torah in Hebrew and learned the different local languages of the locations in which they dwelled (e.g., Aramaic, Greek, Latin, Arabic, Spanish and German).

Acquiring basic literacy was the first step in moving to higher studies and acquiring more and more education. So learning to read and studying the Torah were prerequisites for learning and studying more complex texts such as the Mishna and the Talmud. Those who studied these texts (consisting of extensive debates and discussions among rabbis and sages) acquired the ability to think in an analytical and argumentative way — skills that could become helpful in commercial, entrepreneurial and financial activities.

Literacy and education fostered mobility because literate and educated Jews could more easily migrate to new locations in search of business opportunities, learn the local languages, and stay in touch with relatives and business associates back at home by writing and reading letters. (In chapter 6, we provide a sample of these letters.) Mobility was not an asset for farmers, but it surely was for merchants and traders.

Literacy, education and mobility fostered networking abilities among Jews living in different locations: it is hard to stay connected with business associates if one cannot read and write letters and contracts. Again, networking was not especially valuable for farmers, but it was very valuable for traders and bankers, who could exploit arbitrage opportunities through networking with business associates in different locations, and exchange information and capital when needed.

Literacy and education are prerequisites for having legal codes and courts that can enforce contracts. Even today, having contract-enforcing institutions promotes commercial and trading activities. Many centuries ago, thanks to their literacy and education, the Jews had a set of contract-enforcing institutions, more precisely: a legal written code (the Talmud); the rabbinical courts that ensured that deeds and contracts among Jews could be enforced regardless of where the Jews were living; and the rabbinical written Responsa that helped solve legal controversies when unforeseen in the Talmud.

To sum up: in our first post we focused on literacy. However, in our book we explain that the Jewish religious leadership imposed religious literacy on its members after 70. It did so for purely religious motives — to ensure that every Jewish individual could learn and obey the Jewish Law written in the Torah — but the side effect was that Torah study endowed the Jews with other skills and assets, including general literacy, the ability to understand texts, analytical reasoning, mobility, networking abilities and contract-enforcement institutions. Centuries later, those skills would become the lever of the transition into high-skill occupations and specializations like crafts, trade, entrepreneurial activities, finance, medicine and the law.

In what sense does your book really deliver a novel argument? From reading your post, isn’t it obvious to anyone that Jews have been more educated than other people for most of their history and this is the reason why they became successful traders, bankers, doctors, lawyers, etc.?

To those readers who are skeptical about the novelty of the analysis in our book, we reply with three main points.

First, as described above, documenting the timing and geography of the Jewish occupational transition is one of the novel and main contributions of our book. In doing so, we did not re-invent history but coherently put together the evidence that many prominent historians have collected. Instead of focusing on one geographical area or a specific time period, we considered the stretch from 70 to 1492; in doing so, we could track the timing and geography of the profound transformation in the occupational structure of the Jews.

Only once we know when and where the occupational transition of the Jewish people occurred is it possible to address the second fundamental question: why, at a given point in their history, did the Jews become an urban population engaged in the most skilled occupations, which remains so today?

Before claiming to put forth any new theory, scholars doing serious academic research study and analyze what other scholars have written on the same topic. Others have cited restrictions on Jewish land ownership, bans on their lending money or religious persecution to explain the Jews’ investment in education and human capital. Still others have suggested Jews voluntarily segregated into urban jobs to preserve their religious and cultural identity. We disagree with these theories because we show that they are inconsistent with the key historical facts — facts that we did not invent, but that have been documented by many historians.

Second, it is well known that after 70 CE, Judaism became a religion focused on reading and studying the Torah by each member of the community. It may not be equally well known that Judaism was the only religion at that time (and for many subsequent centuries) that required families to send their children to school or the synagogue to learn to read and to study the Torah from the age of six or seven. As explained in our first post, this was a unique and quite revolutionary change in the primarily agrarian and illiterate world of 2,000 years ago. A farmer — whether Jewish or non-Jewish — needed children with physical strength who could help him with the farm work; by contrast, children who could read the Torah did not help farmers earn a living; they would have been an economic burden given the way the economy functioned back then.

Yet, unlike other scholars, we disagree with the argument that the investment in literacy and education was the outcome of persecutions (known as the “portable human capital” argument), and we go into a lot of detail in to explain why.

Here we just briefly summarize the two main points to highlight another key novelty of our book: two thousand years ago, the Jews were the majority of the population in Eretz Israel, where Judaism’s transformation into a literate religion began. It is therefore hard to apply the argument that Jews became educated because they were a persecuted religious minority where they clearly were not.

Moreover, in the first millennium, there were other religious or ethnic minorities, who experienced persecutions like the Samaritans, the Druses and the Christians in the first three centuries. Yet none of them decided to require their members to educate their children and themselves. In more recent times, the Roma, aka “Gypsies,” are an example of a minority that has been repeatedly persecuted, yet they have not invested in literacy and education.

As many historians have documented, Jews experienced restrictions, persecutions and massacres in some periods and in some locations. Nobody denies these historical facts. Neither do we. But we disagree with the argument that persecutions were the reason why Jews decided to invest — before and to a larger extent than any other population — in literacy, education and (portable) human capital. In contrast, the emphasis by one Jewish group (the Pharisees) on reading and studying the Torah and sending the children to school pre-dated the historical events of the year 70. The traumatic destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem accelerated this transformation of Judaism toward a literate religion — a transformation that one group within Judaism had pushed forward one or two centuries before the Jewish wars and related persecutions that punctuated the history of the Jews in Eretz Israel and the Diaspora during the first and second centuries.

Third, regardless of why a proportion of Jews invested in education and human capital, why does our book set forth a novel argument? Shouldn’t it be obvious that a literate and educated population would prefer earning higher incomes in the crafts, trade or banking instead of struggling to make a living as farmers?

We disagree with this statement. In fact — and this is the third novel argument of our book — the Jews remained mostly farmers for seven or eight centuries after the transformation of Judaism into a literate religion. Why? The Jews, now more literate and more educated than the rest of the population because of the unique requirement imposed by their religion, had to wait for the establishment of the vast empire under the Umayyad and later the Abbasid Muslim rulers. The concomitant commercial expansion and urbanization in the vast area stretching from Spain to India suddenly created a huge demand for professions that required and benefited from literacy, education, mobility, networking abilities and contract-enforcement institutions. The Jews found themselves accidentally equipped with these skills thanks to their unique religious norm. This is why they left farming and moved into crafts, trade, banking, medicine and other skilled occupations — the opportunity had finally arisen.

What else is novel in your book?

Another novel contribution of our book is to explain the striking decline in the size of the Jewish population from the first to the sixth century, and from the thirteenth to the fifteenth century. Like other scholars, we agree that war-related persecutions and massacres, as well as factors affecting general population decline (epidemics), account for a significant part of the Jewish demographic decline. However, we show that these factors cannot account for the entire decline of the Jewish population in those periods. There was something else that made Jews’ numbers dwindle: conversion to other religions with less demanding norms than the costly requirement of educating children that Judaism required.

To what extent was Judaism unique in requiring its members to read a sacred text? Didn’t Islam have the same requirement? What about Protestants?

During the first millennium, Judaism was the only religion requiring all its male members to learn to read and to study its holy text. Muslims are required to learn the Quran, but from reading experts on the history of religions, it seems this learning can occur through memorization, not necessarily through reading. Also, as far as we know, there was no norm in Islam in the time period we cover that required families to send their children to school to learn to read and to study the Quran.

As for Protestantism, we do not mention it (or other religions that spread after 1492) because our book ends in 1492. However, Protestantism also required its members to learn to read and to study the Bible. Indeed, literacy has often been suggested, by scholar Ernest Gellner for example, as a reason for Protestant economic success. Jews imposed this requirement 15 centuries earlier.

Why do you deny the role that restrictions, persecutions, banishments and expulsions had on the way Jewish history was shaped? Why do you put all this emphasis just on literacy and education?

We ask skeptics to read the explanations above, and chapters 2, 6, 7 and 8 of our book for a detailed answer to this question. Yet, let us repeat even more forcefully than we already have: we do not deny restrictions or persecutions or expulsions in Jewish history. When they happened, we record them in our book; we are not changing or re-inventing history, we summarize what hundreds of historians have documented.

What we say in our book is something different. There were documented times and locations in which legal or economic restrictions on Jews did not exist. For example, Jews could own land and be farmers in the vast Umayyad and Abbasid Muslim empire. The same is true in early medieval Europe.

Therefore, if these restrictions on land ownership did not exist for most of the time period we cover (70-1492), they cannot explain why the Jews left agriculture and entered trade, finance, medicine and other skilled profession. There must have been some other factors that led the Jews to specialize in the professions they do today.

A final word about why people should read your book?

We respect anyone’s opinion, but to agree or disagree with a book, you first need to know what the book really says. It is now summer, a good time to borrow a book (any book!) from the local public library and read it. Reading a book is rarely a waste of time, even when we end up totally disagreeing with its main message.

This entry is cross-posted on the Rundown — NewsHour’s blog of news and insight.