Many commonly-held beliefs about Jewish history are based on assumptions that fail to recognize perhaps the most significant development in the evolution of the Jewish people.
Take, for example, these questions: Why are so many Jews urban dwellers rather than farmers? Why are Jews primarily engaged in trade, commerce, finance, law, medicine, and scholarship? And why have the Jewish people experienced one of the longest and most scattered diasporas in history, along with a steep demographic decline? Here are the standard answers: “We are not farmers because our ancestors were prohibited from owning land in the Middle Ages.” “We became moneylenders, bankers, and financiers because during the medieval period Christians were banned from lending money at interest, so the Jews filled in that role.” “The Jewish population dispersed worldwide and declined in numbers as a result of endless massacres.”
But when one looks over the 15 centuries spanning from 70 C.E. to 1492, the oft-given answers seem at odds with the historical facts.
Another more powerful factor was at play.
The more historically accurate narrative begins with the profound and well-documented transformation of the Jewish religion after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E. at the end of the first Jewish-Roman war. Judaism permanently lost one of its two pillars—the Temple in Jerusalem—and consequently the religious leadership shifted from the high priests, who were in charge of the Temple service, to the rabbis and scholars, who had always considered the study of the Torah—the other pillar of Judaism—the paramount duty of any Jew. The new religious leadership, the Tannaim and the Amoraim in the yeshivot of the Galilee, set Judaism on a unique path, transforming it from a cult based on ritual sacrifices in the Temple (as many other religions were at that time) to a literate religion, which required every Jewish man to read and study the Torah and every father to send his sons to a primary or synagogue school to learn to do the same. Jews who did not obey this religious norm were considered outcasts (ammei ha-aretz) within the Jewish community.
From an economic point of view, it was costly for Jewish farmers living in a subsistence agrarian society to invest a significant amount of their income on the rabbis’ imposed literacy requirement. A predominantly agrarian economy had little use for educated people. Consequently, a proportion of Jewish farmers opted not to invest in their sons’ religious education, and instead converted to other religions, such as Christianity, which did not impose this norm on its followers. And so, during this Talmudic period (3rd-6th centuries C.E.), just as the Jewish population became increasingly literate, it kept shrinking through conversions as well as war-related deaths and general population declines. This threatened the very existence of the large Jewish community in the Land of Israel and in other places where sizable Jewish communities had existed in antiquity, such as North Africa (mainly Egypt), Syria, Lebanon, Asia Minor, the Balkans, and western Europe.
By the seventh century, the demographic and intellectual center of Jewish life had moved from the Land of Israel to Mesopotamia (and, to a lesser extent, Persia), where roughly 75 percent of world Jewry now lived. The economy was flourishing in Mesopotamia, so the Jewish population decline caused by conversions had been counterbalanced by an influx of Jewish immigrants, especially from the Land of Israel and North Africa, where the economic prospects were worsening.
Like almost everywhere else in the world, Mesopotamia had an agriculture-based economy. The situation changed with the rise of Islam during the seventh century and the consequent Muslim conquests under the Umayyad, and later, Abbasid caliphs in the following two centuries. Their establishment of a vast empire stretching from the Iberian Peninsula to India led to a vast urbanization and the growth of manufacture and trade in the Middle East; the development of new industries that produced a wide array of goods (e.g., ceramics, chemicals, clocks, glass, mosaics, pulp and paper, pharmaceuticals, shipbuilding, textiles, and weapons); the expansion of local trade and long-distance commerce; and the growth of new cities and towns. These developments in Mesopotamia and Persia, and later in North Africa, Syria, the Iberian Peninsula, and Sicily, vastly increased the demand for literate and educated people—the very skills Jews had acquired as a spillover effect of their religious heritage of study.
Over the centuries, as the Jews became increasingly literate, they abandoned farming and selected livelihoods as craftsmen, traders, money changers, moneylenders, physicians, and other skilled professionals. Between 750 and 900, almost all the Jews in Mesopotamia and Persia—nearly 75 percent of world Jewry—left agriculture and moved to the cities and towns of the newly established Abbasid Empire to engage in myriad skilled occupations. Many also migrated to Yemen, Syria, Egypt, and the Maghreb; to, from, and within the Byzantine Empire; and later to Christian Europe in search of business opportunities. And once the Jews were engaged in these occupations, they rarely converted to other religions (which is consistent with the evidence that the Jewish population grew slightly from the seventh to the twelfth century).
Wherever and whenever they lived among a population of mostly unschooledpeople, Jews had a comparative advantage. They could read and write contracts,business letters, and account books using a common alphabet (Hebrew) while learning the local languages of the different places in which they dwelled. These skills became very valuable in the urban and commercially oriented economy. Moreover, Judaism endowed the Jews with a uniform code of law (the Talmud), which contained myriad rabbinicaldiscussions, debates, and rulings on economic, social, communal, and religious issues; and a set of institutions (courts and the rabbinical Responsa) that fostered contract enforcement, networking, and arbitrage across distant locations. These institutions provided scattered Jewish communities with a common legal framework as well as advice and rulings on an endless array of secular, practical matters regarding the daily lives of the Jewish people—economic ones included.
In 10th- through 13th-century Europe,the revival of trade and growth of an urban, commercial economy paralleled the vast urbanization and trade growth within the Muslim caliphates, and increased the demand for literate and skilled people. Educated and skilled Jewish craftsmen, shopkeepers, traders, scholars, teachers, physicians, and money-lenders voluntarily migrated to Europe (from the Byzantine Empire or North Africa) in search of business opportunities, thereby reaping personal returns on their investment in education. By the mid-12th century, the Jewish traveler Benjamin of Tudela discovered Jewish inhabitants almost everywhere he went, from Spain to Mesopotamia.
Then in 1219, the Mongols invaded northern Persia and Armenia. Their subsequent conquest of Persia and Mesopotamia over the next three decades decimated urban centers and destroyed trade routes. The final blow to the Abbasid Empire came in 1258, when the Mongols demolished Baghdad. The economies of Mesopotamia and Persia collapsed and the population returned to subsistence farming. In the aftermath of the Mongol Conquest, the Jews in Mesopotamia, Persia, Syria, and Egypt found themselves no longer dwelling in the urban, commercially oriented economies of the Muslim caliphates, in which their literacy and skills had been highly valued. Instead, like their ancestors, they were living in the agrarian economies of the first half of the first millennium, having to obey the many norms of Judaism, including the costly one requiring fathers to educate their sons. Similarly to what had happened centuries earlier, a proportion of Jews in the Middle East and North Africa converted out of Judaism (this time to Islam), which partly explains the Jewish population decline and the smaller size of the Jewish communities in these regions in the two-and-a-half centuries after the Mongol invasions.Those who remained Jews continued to be engaged in crafts, trade, moneylending, and medicine.
While Jews in the Middle East and North Africa contended with the consequences of the Conquest, European Jews experienced episodes of persecutions, forced conversions, and then expulsions, which widely dispersed the Jewish people. Mass expulsions occurred from England (1290), France (1306, 1321–22, 1394), Spain (1492), Sicily (1492–93), and Portugal (1496–97).
Jews then brought their literacy and skills to their new locations. Jews formerly living in England, France, Germany, and northern and central Italy had become specialized in moneylending (unlike their co-religionists in the Iberian Peninsula, Sicily, and southern Italy, whose wide array of occupations included crafts, trade, money-lending, and the medical profession).Contrary to commonly held views, the Jews’ specialty in moneylending was not the outcome of usury bans imposed on Christians by the Church, or the exclusion of Jews from membership in crafts and merchant guilds. European Jews had become prominent in the moneylending business at least one or two centuries before both the Church began enforcing usury bans on Christians and the crafts and merchant guilds rose to power. Rather, the Jews specialized in this most skilled and profitable occupation at the time because they possessed the key assets to be successful players in credit markets: capital (accumulated through their earlier engagement in crafts and trade), literacy and education (the spillover effect of their unique religion), contract-enforcement institutions (Talmud, rabbinical courts, and Responsa),and networking abilities (giving them a comparative advantage in moneylending and later in banking and finance).
The rabbis and scholars who transformed Judaism into a literate religion certainly could not have foreseen the profound impact of their decision to make every Jewish man capable of reading and studying the Torah. However, an apparently odd choice of religious norm in the first millennium—the enforcement of literacy in a mostly illiterate, agrarian world—turned out to be the lever of the Jewish economic success and intellectual prominence to come.
Maristella Botticini is professor of Economics at Università Bocconi in Milan, Italy and director and fellow of its Innocenzo Gasparini Institute for Economic Research. Zvi Eckstein is dean of the School of Economics at The Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, Israel and the Mario Henrique Simonson Chair in Labor Economics at the Eitan Berglas School of Economics of Tel Aviv University. This article was adapted with permission from The Chosen Few: How Education Shaped Jewish History, 70-1492, Princeton University Press, 2012.