Jewish Economic History
- LAST REVIEWED: 11 August 2017
- LAST MODIFIED: 29 April 2015
- DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199840731-0106
- LAST REVIEWED: 11 August 2017
- LAST MODIFIED: 29 April 2015
- DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199840731-0106
Jewish economic history comprises the economic activities of Jews, their economic and social position as a minority within the surrounding societies, and the perception of and reaction to their economic activities and position. With some exceptions in the first third of the 20th century, economic history has been a rather marginal topic within Jewish historiography until recent years. While the scholars of the Wissenschaft des Judentums in 19th-century Germany focused on the study of Jewish intellectual history, Jewish historians in eastern Europe had a stronger interest in social and partly economic history, though often from a national, Zionist, or Marxist point of view. The Jews’ specific role as a minority within the economy of their host societies, and especially their alleged affinity to money and dominance in moneylending, commerce, and later banking, increasingly persuaded non-Jewish scholars of the late 19th and early 20th centuries to examine the role of Jews within economic history. It was especially the Jews’ alleged contribution to the emergence of modern capitalism that generated these studies, often enough with an anti-Semitic undertone. Since the late 1980s, Jewish economic history has been of an increasing interest to scholars of Jewish history, characterized by attempts at a better contextualization of Jewish economic activities and the integration of these activities within general developments, as well as a turn to new approaches such as the study of consumption in the wake of cultural history or the examination of transnational phenomena. This article will cover the literature on Jewish economic history and the perception of Jewish economic activities from the Middle Ages to the 20th century. As most general volumes on the history of the Jews of a certain territory, state, or time period contain some information on economic history, only literature that deals explicitly with Jewish economic history has been included. This bibliography focuses only on works that take Jewish economic history as their central concern; other studies that have Jewish economic concerns as ancillary topics, particularly those about the United States, are not included.
Only a small number of works have been published that cover various aspects of Jewish economic history in a broad and general fashion. Straus 1964 emphasizes the importance of the legal status of the Jews for their economic development. Baron and Kahan 1975 provides a broad overview of Jewish economic activities, while Arkin 1975 focuses on the Jewish role in the economic development of the Western world. Kuznets 1960 and Kahan 1964 provide rather programmatic essays on research into Jewish economic history, the first describing Jews as comparable to other minority groups, the latter arguing for applying economics to Jewish economic history. Attali 2002 is a recent attempt on general considerations of Jewish economic history, but is mainly interested in the relationship between Jews and money. Wischnitzer 1965 examines a much less studied field of Jewish economic history, the Jewish involvement in crafts and artisanship and its organizational forms like guilds from ancient Israel and Palestine to Europe, and from the Middle Ages until the early 19th century. Botticini and Eckstein 2012 is a recent though controversial attempt by two economists to overturn the common assumption that the shift from agriculture to urban skilled occupations among Jews was due to anti-Jewish measures and legal restrictions concerning landownership and the membership in crafts guilds. They argue that this shift was rather closely linked to the transition from Judaism as a religion based on ritual sacrifice to a religion based on reading and studying after the destruction of the Second Temple. Thus, the rise of literacy together with a uniform code of law (the Talmud) and legal institutions created the proneness to and precondition for the entry into moneylending, commerce, and entrepreneurship.
Arkin, Marcus. Aspects of Jewish Economic History. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1975.
Spans from antiquity to the modern period. Discusses especially the attitudes of authors like Werner Sombart and Karl Marx, and provides the biographies of well-known Jewish entrepreneurs.
Attali, Jacques. Les juifs, le monde et l’argent: Histoire économique du people juif. Paris: Fayard, 2002.
Recent attempt at a comprehensive overview of Jewish economic history, chronologically and geographically inclusive. Follows a strong interest in the question of whether Jews have a special relationship to money, and argues that the history of the Jews reveals the role of all minorities in human history.
Baron, Salo W., and Arcadius Kahan. Economic History of the Jews. Edited by Nachum Gross. Jerusalem: Keter Publishing House, 1975.
Offers a broad overview of Jewish economic activities, sorted mostly according to fields of economic activity; contains an extensive bibliography.
Botticini, Maristella, and Zvi Eckstein. The Chosen Few: How Education Shaped Jewish History, 70–1492. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2012.
Sweeping and argumentative overview of economic activities and the changing culture of learning in Judaism from the destruction of the Second Temple to the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, covering Palestine and the Middle East as well as the Mediterranean and partly western Europe.
Kahan, Arcadius. “A Note on Methods of Research on the Economic History of the Jews.” In For Max Weinreich on His Seventieth Birthday. Studies in Jewish Languages, Literature, and Society. Edited by Lucy S. Dawidowicz, 173–182. London and The Hague: Walter De Gruyter, 1964.
Short plea for the research on Jewish economic history due to the importance of economic factors in the historical process. Argues for the collection of broad demographic and economic data to reconstruct the economic milieu in which Jews were active, and for a more rigorous application of economic analysis.
Kuznets, Simon. “Economic Structure and Life of the Jews.” In The Jews, Their History, Culture and Religion. Vol. 2. 3d ed. Edited by Louis Finkelstein, 1597–1666. New York: Harper & Row, 1960.
Asks for repeated economic features among Jews despite their geographic dispersion, especially in the modern period. Argues that occupational choices are significantly narrower for a minority, and that its economic rise is often more significant than that of the general population.
Straus, Raphael. Die Juden in Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft: Untersuchungen zur Geschichte einer Minorität. Frankfurt: Europäische Verlagsanstalt, 1964.
Posthumously published study addressing the “Jewish question” as one of economy, religion, and nation. The first and longest part deals with how economic activities contributed to the emergence of the “Jewish question.” Provides an overview from ancient Palestine to modernity.
Wischnitzer, Mark. A History of Jewish Crafts and Guilds. New York: Jonathan David, 1965.
Posthumously published comprehensive study covering from ancient Israel until the 19th century, with an introduction by Werner J. Cahnman and an appendix with six documents regarding Jewish artisans and guilds in English translation.
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