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

Princeton University Press  2012


It can be argued that the high percentage of successful Jews in the business world, medicine, law, science, real estate, industry, securities and investments today, is due to a re-channeling of the traditional Jewish pursuit of rabbinic and Talmudic learning from the holy to the more mundane. How this pursuit of knowledge evolved, and why it was responsible for the early successes of Jews as businessmen, particularly as moneylenders, is the focus of this book. The authors maintain that the pursuit of advanced literacy in areas of Jewish law was responsible for their success. They offer a panoramic sweep of Jewish history and subject it to the lens of economic analysis to prove their point.

Cataclysmic events in Jewish history caused major shifts in Jewish life and destiny. After the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, the Priests were replaced by the Rabbis in terms of importance and influence and the primacy of study. The resulting Diaspora also witnessed the beginning of a shift from an agrarian society to crafts, business, trades, and money lending. Botticini and Eckstein demonstrate the relationship between religious values and economic outcomes.

The fact that universal Jewish education preceded literacy in their host countries gave Jews a decided advantage in urban centers requiring complicated agreements and higher order transactions. The key assets for being successful in business, finance, shipping, trades, and money lending, were capital, networking, literacy and numeracy, and contract enforcement institutions, all of which the Jews possessed almost exclusively. This capacity evolved in response to the destruction of the Temple, thrived during the rise of Islam and was further honed during the Mongol conquest of Mesopotamia and Persia.

Although written by economists, The Chosen Few reads well and is not dry nor full of the specialist’s jargon. There are the requisite charts, tables, and formulae but they do not hamper the flow of the book’s argument. The authors’ challenge to some heretofore sacred cows regarding the entry of Jews into the field of money lending will no doubt generate some scholarly debate. The analysis of population trends makes for fascinating reading.

There are, however, some technical criticisms. No historian can master the entire field of Jewish history. Those who have tried have failed. Jewish history, like medicine, has specialists. The authors, who are not historians, rely almost exclusively on secondary sources. They do a fine job, but their selections could have been guided by a more learned hand. For example, Grayzel’s work on papal bulls in the thirteenth century should have been cited when discussing money lending. Likewise, only one of Agus’s books is listed in the bibliography and he is never quoted, despite the fact that he made the same claims as the authors over fifty years ago. The footnotes are quite jarring. Often only the author and year are given, and when citing the Talmud, for example, instead of citing the text source, they quote a secondary source who quotes the Talmud.

The Jewish monopoly in international trade is only partially explained. The Jews’ success in Moslem countries was aided by the fact that Arabic was the lingua franca of Jews as well as Moslems. No explanation, however, is given to explain how Jews could cross the Mediterranean to trade in Christian countries, in each of which a different language was spoken, and how Jews from Christian Europe could trade in Moslem countries where they didn’t speak the language. Aside from the fact that Jews always (and still do) welcome other Jews, what they had in common was the Hebrew language, which was the Yiddish of its day. In addition, writs guaranteeing safety from pirates were also issued by various monarchs and caliphs. If a Jewish merchant was killed at sea, the local Jewish community had to investigate the cause of death in order to allow the widow to remarry. Since taxation on profits went to the various rulers, it was in their interest to protect their investment.

Despite the book’s lapses, The Chosen Few remains a worthwhile contribution to both Jewish history and economic theory.

Have You Read...