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The Chosen Few: How Education Shaped Jewish History, 70-1492: How Education Shaped Jewish History, 70-1492 (The Princeton Economic History of the Western World) [Kindle Edition]

Maristella Botticini , Zvi Eckstein
4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (24 customer reviews)

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Book Description

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 offer a powerful new explanation of one of the most significant transformations in Jewish history while also providing fresh insights into the growing debate about the social and economic impact of religion.

Editorial Reviews


Winner of the 2012 National Jewish Book Award in Scholarship
One of Jewish Ideas's 40 Best Jewish Books of 2012

"[A]mbitious . . . systematically dismantle much of the conventional wisdom about medieval Jewish history."--Jonathan B. Krasner, Forward

"[W]here so many have simply taken as a given universal literacy among Jews, [Botticini and Eckstein] find that a majority of Jews actually weren't willing to invest in Jewish education, with the shocking result that more than two-thirds of the Jewish community disappeared toward the end of the first millennium. . . . The astonishing theory presented here has great implications for both the Jewish community and the broader world today."--Steven Weiss, Slate

"[E]ventually, The Chosen Few will have changed the course of history in the Middle East . . . as part of a broad reinterpretation of the history of the peopling of the world, underway for a century and a half, that has begun gathering force since the 1990s. . . . This may be the first you have heard about The Chosen Few, but I pretty much guarantee you that it will not be the last."--David Warsh, Economic Principals

"[P]rovocative . . ."--Choice

"Botticini and Eckstein's simple yet sophisticated human capital analysis provides new insights into Jewish history for the fourteen centuries covered in this book. . . . [Their] methodology yields a very convincing Cliometric analysis that we can expect to inform all future economic histories of the Jews between 70 and 1492."--Carmel U. Chiswick,

"I found The Chosen Few, a book on Jewish economic history by Maristella Botticini and Zvi Eckstein, enormously enlightening and relevant to the draft-the-Haredim debate."--Shlomo Maital, Jerusalem Report

"If you've ever wondered how the Chosen People survived the vagaries of history, reading The Chosen Few will give you answers you cannot find anywhere else."--Huffington Post

"This is a trailblazing, original, illuminating and horizon-broadening book."--Manuel Trajtenberg, Haaretz

From the Back Cover

"Maristella Botticini and Zvi Eckstein have written a remarkably interesting book with a new hypothesis about the occupational structure of the Jews. The authors adduce serious evidence for their hypothesis, which lays stress on the requirement introduced nearly 2,000 years ago for universal male literacy among the Jews. This is a fascinating and persuasive combination of history and economics, worth reading by all, even the unhappy few who like neither history nor economics."--Stanley Fischer, governor of the Bank of Israel

"The Chosen Few is a masterpiece: an ambitious, informed, and inspirational reinterpretation of Jewish social and economic history."--Avner Greif, Stanford University

"In this bracing work of economic history, Maristella Botticini and Zvi Eckstein demonstrate how literacy and contract law combined to give Jews a competitive advantage in urbanizing societies. Sure to generate controversy, The Chosen Few takes on one of the truly big questions in Jewish history and sheds intriguing new light on it."--David Biale, University of California, Davis

"Botticini and Eckstein are changing the way economic historians think about Jewish history, and this seminal book will also change the way historians, Jewish studies scholars, and general readers think about the subject. Indeed, the importance of this book can scarcely be exaggerated. An excellent example of economic history that is accessible to general readers, The Chosen Few makes a compelling case for an exciting new perspective that will inspire much further research and be the focus of attention for years to come."--Carmel Chiswick, George Washington University

"This is a mature, original, and significant new attempt to answer one of the most vexing problems in Jewish and economic history. For the general reader it provides an incisive view of the salient facts of Jewish economic history. For the economic historian it opens up a challenging new thesis. And for historians of Judaism and religion it provides a new interpretation of the social and economic impact of religion."--Michael Toch, Hebrew University of Jerusalem

Product Details

  • File Size: 3853 KB
  • Print Length: 338 pages
  • Page Numbers Source ISBN: 0691144877
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press (August 5, 2012)
  • Sold by: Amazon Digital Services, Inc.
  • Language: English
  • Text-to-Speech: Enabled
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  • Lending: Not Enabled
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #193,459 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
42 of 43 people found the following review helpful
This fascinating, scholarly work begins with a large amount of Jewish demographic detail. At the time of the destruction of the Second temple (65), the Jewish population of the Middle East, North Africa, and eventual Europe was in the 2.5-8.0 million range. By 650, it had plummeted to 1.2 million. (p. 112). After a slight rise, it bottomed out at about 1 million in 1492. (p. 18, 49-50).

Ancient accounts speak of a large fraction of Israel's Jewish population exterminated by the Romans during and after the Bar Kokhba revolt. (p. 20). Some modern scholars doubt the extent of this murder. (p. 112). In any case, a large fraction of the world's Jews remained in eretz Israel after the Bar Kokhba revolt. However, this population was always outnumbered by that in the Diaspora, especially in Mesopotamia and Persia. (p. 17).

Why did Jews switch from farmers to merchants? The authors examine, and found wanting, the argument that Jews were driven by persecutions, restrictions, and privations to major in commerce. In actuality, at the time that Jews largely abandoned agriculture, there were few if any restrictions on Jews engaging in non-economic occupations. This was true of the Roman Empire, Persian Empire, Byzantine Empire, and Muslim caliphates. (pp. 54-57). Restrictions on Jewish land ownership existed, but did not appear until centuries after Jews had largely abandoned agriculture. (p. 58).

Nor is it correct that Jews feared investing in land because of its vulnerability to confiscation. At the time that Jews had largely abandoned agriculture, Jews enjoyed considerable security. (p. 59). By the time Jews did face significant persecution in (and expulsions from) Christian lands, in late medieval and early modern times (notably after about 1250: p.
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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent new perspective September 21, 2012
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This was a great book. It really opened my eyes regarding the real reasons for much of the "character" of the Jewish people, and showed how literacy provided a crucial edge in the survival of the people and the culture.

Most of us have been indoctrinated with the concept that persecution kept Jews from owning land and forced them into investing in education and "portable" careers. This book shows how incorrect that assumption is, and more importantly, it documents its conclusions with real numbers and research.

For me, what is most significant, however, is that it shifted the image of Jews from being victims of persecution to being voluntary seekers of opportunity to use their relative strengths at the time (literacy, consistent legal framework, etc.) for economic benefit, strengths that were a product of the religious practices that encouraged literacy.
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10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Original contribution to historical research September 3, 2012
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
The authors present a solid case explaining why, after the 2nd Jewish revolt in AD 135, Jewish populations started becoming more literate and urban, with occupation profiles predominantly in areas that demanded literacy. The surviving Jewish religious leadership accelerated the transition to rabbinical systems of worship (away from the vestiges of the old Priestly organization destroyed when the Romans leveled Jerusalem after the Bar Kobcha revolt in AD 135). By the time of the Ummayad Arab conquest of the Middle East, they were in the right position to capitalize on the economic opportunties that arose in the new Arab Caliphate's "free trade area" that ranged from Spain to the borders of India. In time, they would migrate across the world (including to Christian Europe) in search of economic opportunity.

While the authors focused on those populations that remained within the Jewish faith, they also mention what happended to those who left the Jewish faith. The rabbinical requirements to educate young children put those Jewish families without the resources to invest in education at a major disadvantage, as they were unable to fulfill a religious requirement. Poorer, non literate Jews in the Mideast, converted to other Abrahamic religions, to Christianity in the years up to the Arab conquest in 636-675 AD, and after that, to Islam. The authors also document that the geography of the growth of early Christianity across the Roman Empire coincided in great measure with the areas that already had high concentrations of Jewish inhabitants.

I look forward to reading about these author's future research projects.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant, Original, and Deeply Researched October 11, 2013
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
This is an extremely solid work of academic scholarship, written in a style accessible to general audiences that have some basic knowledge of Jewish history. The underlying thesis is very well supported, as the authors lead the reader step by step through their thought process and accompanying historical evidence. For those worried about "Jewish Genius" not being a "PC" subject, this is an excellent antidote: no biology -- just fundamental economics and a culture of knowledge seeking, each reinforcing the other. As a professor with an extensive knowledge base of Jewish history and the religious sources, I still learned much from this analysis -- and certainly added much to my knowledge of broad Jewish historical trends -- not to mention the fact-based debunking of some "conventional wisdoms", e.g. the historically false trope that Jews went into commerce and moneylending because they were not allowed to own or work the land.
Very highly recommended for scholars and general readers alike!
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
1.0 out of 5 stars This book is based on erroneous conjecture and should be recalled.
This book is so hideously and ridiculously WRONG that it buggers the imagination, when I try to imagine what publishing company would let such nonsense be set to paper without some... Read more
Published 1 month ago by Keith C Cannon
5.0 out of 5 stars Very interesting theory on the reason why Jews have historically ...
Very interesting theory on the reason why Jews have historically been above average in Intelligence.Also why they were not farmers from about 600 AD on until about 1948 in Israel. Read more
Published 3 months ago by Jerome Goodman
5.0 out of 5 stars This carefully researched history of what shaped the Jewish character...
This carefully researched history of what shaped the Jewish character and led to success in the various diaspora locations, is a fascinating read too!
Published 4 months ago by S V
1.0 out of 5 stars Too Repetitive
Would have been somewhat interesting if the thesis took less than 100 pages, the rest was repetition.
Published 5 months ago by richb395b
4.0 out of 5 stars Very insiteful and educational
I have been thinking about all the times that Jews have been persecuted and ejected from countries starting in ancient times. Read more
Published 6 months ago by Erica J Wool
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
Argument made convincingly and elegantly.
Published 7 months ago by Michael Sher
5.0 out of 5 stars Education is the secret of succees
Very interesting study on how much obligatory religious study led to literacy and advanced education in Jewish families. Well worth reading.
Published 7 months ago by Global Traveller
5.0 out of 5 stars The Chosen Few,
Loved this book, the way it is written so interesting and compelling. A page turner. The brilliant arguments, discussions, accuracy, language, I loved reading it. Read more
Published 15 months ago by Orit Murad Rehany
4.0 out of 5 stars Why some chose to remain Jews and others did not.
This book presents a very interesting take on the nature of religion in general and on reasons why some individuals chose to remain Jewish, while others did not. Read more
Published 17 months ago by Amazon Customer
2.0 out of 5 stars Disappointing
Other than the authors' reasonable claim that the destruction of the second Temple in 70 CE led to the drive for individual Jews to educate their sons so that they would be able to... Read more
Published 18 months ago by Michael
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