Why the Jews Got Ahead

Why the Jews Got Ahead

Throughout history, a Jewish emphasis on literacy and education provided them with advantages over other cultures.

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the source: “Jewish Occupational Selection: Education, Restrictions, or Minorities?” by Maristella Botticini and Zvi Eckstein, in The Journal of Economic History, Dec. 2005.

One of the ancient calumnies against the Jews holds that an inborn instinct for sharp practices led them into the ranks of moneylenders and other urban occupational groups. Among scholars, the prevailing view has been that Jews were driven from the land centuries ago by local legal barriers to landownership and other privileges, and had no choice but to make their living as townspeople.

Economic historians Maristella Botticini of Boston University and Zvi Eckstein of Tel Aviv University have another argument: Beginning with religious reforms in the first century AD, Jews placed a strong emphasis on literacy and education that later gave them a big advantage in the skilled urban occupations that burgeoned first in the Middle East and then around the world.

After the Romans destroyed the Second Temple in Jerusalem in AD 70, the balance of power within Judaism shifted from the Sadducees to the Pharisees, a sect that rejected the old emphasis on sacrifices and other priest-led rituals. Instead, the Pharisees made it a prime requirement of the faith that every Jewish male read the Torah and teach it to his sons in the synagogue. In the main centers of Jewish life—Eretz Israel, Mesopotamia, and Egypt—virtually all Jews were still farmers and herders at the beginning of the 5th century AD, but literacy levels were high. Then Jews began a movement into the towns, where they worked as shopkeepers and artisans in industries such as tanning, silk, and glassware.

The Muslim Empire started to grow in the seventh century AD, and by the ninth century, lands under Muslim rule experienced a burst of urbanization that increased demand for skilled workers in professions such as moneylending, bookselling, shipbuilding, and long-distance trade. This accelerated the movement of literate rural Jews into Bagh­dad (which had been established only in AD 762), Basra, and other rising cities.

The argument that Jews were legally forbidden or otherwise prevented from owning land is contradicted by a great deal of evidence, the authors say. Documents from the era, including contracts, wills, court records, and especially the rabbinic Responsa—scholarly mun­ity—show that Jews could and did own land. Like Christians and other non-Muslim minorities, they faced but one occupational or economic restriction: a tax on land. The largely illiterate Christians stayed on the farm; the Jews, increasingly, chose the towns and cities. Farming may have been a minority occupation among Jews as early as the ninth century.

By then, Jews seeking economic opportunity were beginning to migrate to North Africa and southern Europe. Their ability to communicate by literacy and far-flung social networks proved an enormous advantage, and enterprising Jews established enclaves as far away as China. A religious transformation was remaking a people and the world they inhabited.

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