Ever on the lookout for sound reasoning to support my book-buying habit, I just finished reading The Chosen Few: How Education Shaped Jewish History.
If you’re expecting a casual read, this book gets a bit academically
verbose at times, but stays sufficiently action-packed so as not to get
The central theme of the book revolves around the Jewish religious
mandate that children be educated in reading and study of the Torah
(i.e., the Jewish Bible), and how that this education, which was not
required in other religious or cultural societies, led the Jewish people
toward high literacy in general. This, in turn, made them fit for the
most profitable occupations wherever they lived.
Running parallel with that main theme, the authors make the case
that, while high literacy may be of spiritual value anywhere, it is only
of financial value in developed, urban areas. Highly literate people
may be well suited to work as bankers, physicians, and engineers, but if
the only industry available as far as the eye can see is farming, then
there’s not a lot of opportunity to engage in such high-paying work.
So Jewish people have, historically, sought to live in highly
populated areas where they could make the most use of their literate
professions. But not only have they sought out highly populated areas,
they have sought out highly populated areas that were not already
saturated with other (typically Jewish) people doing the same work. A
city might have need for ten bankers, say, but perhaps not a hundred.
This, the authors contend, played a significant role in Jewish people
migrating to numerous disparate areas, rather than all sticking together
in the same place.
But while they may not have all lived in the same cities, they
remained connected. This, the authors explain, has been another factor
in Jewish financial success over the years: they frequently networked
with each other, meeting in person from time to time, but mainly through
writing letters. They shared details about what goods were in most
demand in a region, so that traveling Jewish merchants could be equipped
to sell what people were most likely to buy.
They also maintained close connections with their spiritual leaders,
those responsible for interpreting the Torah and Jewish traditions and
offering guidance on how to conduct one’s life and business.
Finally, Jewish religious structures provided a framework for forming
and enforcing contracts, which proved helpful as literate Jewish
businessmen moved into perhaps their most profitable enterprise of
lending money, to be repaid with interest. Of this occupation, Rabbi
Joseph b. Samuel Tov Elem Bonfils wrote circa 1040:
Money lent on interest is profitable, because the pledge
remains in the hand of the creditor, and the principal increases without
effort or expense.
The work of being a merchant, or a craftsman, or a physician, or an
engineer, required regular time and effort put into the job. The work of
lending money involved filling out paperwork and keeping good records,
but mostly doing nothing at all while payments came in.
In the time period that the book covers, there was a fairly sharp
contrast between people who were “literate” and people who were
“illiterate”, with the illiterate people being literally illiterate. In
the final chapter, the authors hint at what will come in a future volume
covering the years from 1492 through today, suggesting that while
society as a whole has become more literate, Jewish people have
persisted in seeking to be maximally literate; i.e., pursuing higher
education and the most lucrative occupations intentionally.
What can we learn from this book to apply in our own lives? I think
the most obvious takeaway is that it is good to cultivate a practice of
learning, and especially learning things that would be the most
beneficial, the most useful, the most profitable. Is the company that
you work for opening a branch office in Brazil? Perhaps it would be
worthwhile to study some Portuguese. Are you looking for employment in
web development? While there’s plenty of PHP code still out there, the
But there are also some open problems for how we might apply the
principles described in the book today. Some professions, such as
physicians, will always be local to specific physical communities, but the world is increasingly flat.
Local merchants are up against online retailers. Much professional work
can be done entirely on computers, opening the door for the work to be
done not by merely the best professionals in the city, but by the best
professionals on the planet. (Or, alternately, the least expensive
professionals on the planet…) The notion of being the best, most
literate professional in a city, catering specifically to the people of
that city, might not carry as much weight when candidates to do the job
can be selected from any city at all.
On the other hand, the advantage of lending money as a business,
namely that “the principal increases without effort or expense,” can be
applied to many more fields today, by way of creating and selling
digital products. Literate experts in any field can make books and
software applications and multimedia products, which can be sold many
times over without incurring any significant effort or expense beyond
the initial production.
Other random tidbits from the book that I found interesting:
- Over some of the time span covered, the cost of buying a book was
routinely 2-4 times that of a typical monthly salary. This made
education an especially costly activity!
- Even around the first century, the Hebrew language was not heavily
used by the Jewish people. As is common (at least in the United States)
today, it was mainly used for reading and studying the Torah, and not so
much for everyday writing and talking.
- Jews were explicitly welcomed by many eleventh-century rulers in
Germany. Bishop Rudiger of Speyer wrote a charter in favor of the Jewish
people, which concluded with, “Lest any of my successors diminish this
gift and concession … I have left this charter as a suitable testimony
of the said grant. And that this may never be forgotten, I have signed
it, and confirmed it with my seal as may be seen below. Given on
September 15th, 1084.”
I found this book enjoyable and thought-provoking, and am looking forward to the sequel. I read a paperback edition, but the book is mostly plain text, with a few charts and maps, and would probably render well in Kindle format also.