Old and new questions: "Quills over ploughs. Why were there so few Jewish farmers?"

Dlaczego tak niewielu Żydów zajmowało się rolnictwem?, fot. Muzeum Historii Żydów Polskich

In the year 70 CE, Jews were an illiterate people living mostly in the land of Israel and Mesopotamia, with farming being their primary profession. Yet even before the year 1492 CE, they have become a relatively narrow group of educated urban dwellers, specialising in crafts, trade, lending and medicine, their communities emerging in various locations in the Old World. What were the causes of such a fundamental change?

Professor Eckstein will answer this question by performing an economic analysis of the fifteen centuries which he believes to have been of key importance in the history of Jews. In their book “The Chosen Few.  How Education Shaped Jewish History”, Maristella Botticini and Zvi Eckstein conclude that, contrary to the prevailing view, this change has not been brought about by the legal restrictions imposed upon Jews. Instead, the key to this mystery lies in the changes which have taken place within Judaism itself.

After the year 70 CE, reading and studying the Torah and sending one’s sons to school came to be regarded as the duty of every single Jew. Throughout the centuries that followed, those Jews who lacked sufficient funds to accomplish this would usually convert to a different faith. A few centuries later, at a time of great civilisational advancement, this fact gave Jews a significant advantage within societies that were mostly illiterate. It was then that both crafts and trade became popular professions among Jews. Their mobility has also increased, allowing them to seek new business opportunities and ultimately leading to the emergence of a worldwide diaspora.

Lecture conducted in English with simultaneous translation into Polish.

The lecture is organized within the Global Education Outreach Program.

The lecture was made possible thanks to the support of the Taube Foundation for Jewish Life & Culture, the William K. Bowes, Jr. Foundation, and the Association of the Jewish Historical Institute of Poland.