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

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

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

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


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 Few presents 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 Few offers 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.


Imagine two economists traveling back in time and arriving in the town of Sepphoris, in the Galilee, in the year 200. Upon entering the synagogue, they see a nine-year-old Jewish boy—the son of a farmer— reading a portion of the Torah in front of the local community. the economists, who know some stylized facts about the occupational structure and demography of the Jewish people today, wonder whether there might be a connection between what they saw in their journey back in time and the subsequent economic and demographic history of the Jews.

This research project has been a twelve-year long journey of studying and learning that began one day over a lunch conversation in the cafeteria of Boston University, during which we put ourselves in the shoes of the economist time travelers. We never imagined that what we thought was an interesting question for an article would develop into more than a decade of work that involved sifting through an immense body of literature, meeting with scholars and experts on Judaism and Jewish history, visiting ancient synagogues in the Galilee, thinking about and discussing how to interpret the key facts and puzzles of the history of the Jewish people through the lens of economic theory, and ultimately writing a book. the book relies on two pillars of scholarship: the remarkable body of literature that generations of historians and scholars of Judaism have produced and the thinking that economists adopt when studying a wide array of topics, including the choice of occupation, the decision to invest in education, the impact a social norm may have on the way individuals make choices and communities organize themselves, and the choice of a religion.

During this journey of learning, we accumulated many debts of gratitude to colleagues, scholars, and institutions. Joel Mokyr, at Northwestern University, is the person to whom we owe the most. Since the very beginning, he encouraged us with his boundless enthusiasm and provided valuable suggestions and deeply thoughtful comments. Joel was extremely generous in reading our manuscript several times and contributing in a major way to shaping the book. He was also pivotal in organizing a conference at Tel Aviv University in December 2010 in which a group of scholars from various fields read our manuscript and provided us with invaluable feedback.

At various stages of this project, our research and manuscript greatly benefited from the generous help and very useful suggestions of Mark . . .

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