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

Maris­tel­la Bot­tici­ni and Zvi Eckstein
  • Review
By – December 18, 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.

Wal­lace Greene, Ph.D., has held sev­er­al uni­ver­si­ty appoint­ments, and cur­rent­ly writes and lec­tures on Jew­ish and his­tor­i­cal subjects.

Discussion Questions