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Centuries Ago, Jews Were Farmers Like Everybody Else. Why Did They Leave the Fields?

Two economists argue that literacy, not laws forbidding land ownership, created a small, widely dispersed and highly skilled minority

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(Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photos Shutterstock)

Passover, Sukkot, and Shavuot are harvest festivals that hearken back to a time when Jews were farmers just like everyone around them. But Jews as professional farmers did not endure in fact or as a stereotype. Instead, Jews moved into more highly skilled fields—as moneylenders, traders, doctors, lawyers. What happened centuries ago that caused most of the world’s Jewry to move from tilling fields to work that required them to be able to read and write? That’s the question that a pair of economists—Maristella Botticini of Bocconi University in Milan, and Zvi Eckstein of the School of Economics at ICD Herzliya in Israel, set out to answer in their recent book, The Chosen Few: How Education Shaped Jewish History, 70-1492.

What they found is surprising. The common explanations used to understand why Jews were moneylenders—that they were forbidden from owning land throughout the Muslim World and in Europe—do not hold up. Using an economics lens, Botticini and Eckstein rethink why, then, Jews landed in the professions they did as far back as the Middle Ages. From her office in Milan, Maristella Botticini joins Vox Tablet host Sara Ivry to discuss how the fall of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 C.E. led to greater literacy among Jews, what happened to Jews who could not afford to educate their sons as per rabbinical decree, and what they will cast their gimlet eyes on next—namely, why Jews were not inventors in the Industrial Revolution.

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Centuries Ago, Jews Were Farmers Like Everybody Else. Why Did They Leave the Fields?

Two economists argue that literacy, not laws forbidding land ownership, created a small, widely dispersed and highly skilled minority

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