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

4.3 out of 5 stars 27 customer reviews

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Length: 338 pages Word Wise: Enabled

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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


"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)
  • Publication Date: August 5, 2012
  • Sold by: Amazon Digital Services LLC
  • Language: English
  • Text-to-Speech: Enabled
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  • Word Wise: Enabled
  • Lending: Not Enabled
  • Enhanced Typesetting: Not Enabled
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #276,478 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
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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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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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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Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
The central premise in this book is that Jewish specialization in money lending and other professions that require high degree of literacy was not the result of external pressures, but rather the result of self-imposed religious injunction to educate all Jewish males post the destruction of the Second Temple. This rabbinical injunction, the authors argue, placed such an economic burden on the Jews, that they had to find profitable occupations that required a high degree of literacy or else convert.

It is in the proof of this premise that the authors stumble; they do not seem to decide, throughout the book, whether they are writing a scientific paper of a piece of popular economic history. A particularly interesting example of this is the inclusion of actual mathematical models represented by actual mathematical equations (which render horribly on the Kindle, by the way) that would not be understood by anyone not having a bachelor of science degree at the very least. Even for someone who has no problem with the math, these equations break up the narrative and are tedious and unnecessary in this context.

Furthermore, while the authors often mention that Jews were not precluded from owning land and thus could in theory become farmers, they contradict that notion by specifying that Jews were almost in all cases prohibited from holding real property as collateral for loans precisely because the Gentile authorities did not wish that the Jews accumulate significant real estate holdings. More significantly, the authors document the extreme diversity of gentile acceptance of Jewish communities in both Christian and Muslim jurisdictions, ranging from active "headhunting" of Jews by various authorities to expulsions and forced conversions and worse.
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