Why Jews Don’t Farm

I’ve been a little swamped lately and my daily blogging has fallen off. Until things get back to normal, I think I’ll fill the breach by reprinting a few of my old columns from Slate. Today’s entry is on “Why Jews Don’t Farm”.

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In the 1890s, my Eastern European Jewish ancestors emigrated to an American Jewish farming community in Woodbine, N.J., where the millionaire philanthropist Baron de Hirsch provided land, tools, and training at one of the nation’s first agricultural colleges. But within a generation, the family had settled in Philadelphia where they became accountants, tailors, merchants, and eventually, lawyers and college professors.

De Hirsch had a vision of American Jews achieving economic liberation by working the land. If he’d had a better sense of history, he would have built not an agricultural college but a medical school, because for well over a millennium prior to the settlement of Woodbine, Jews had not been farmers—not in Palestine, not in the Muslim empire, not in Western Europe, not in Eastern Europe, not anywhere in the world.

You have to go back almost 2,000 years to find a time when Jews, like virtually every other identifiable group, were primarily an agricultural people. Around A.D. 200, Jews began to quit the land. By the seventh century, Jews had left their farms in large numbers to become craftsmen, artisans, merchants, and moneylenders—the only group to have given up on agriculture. Jewish participation in farming fell to about 10 percent through most of the world; even in Palestine it was only about 25 percent. Everyone else stayed on the farms.

(Even in the modern state of Israel, where agriculture has been an important component of the economy, it’s been a peculiarly capital-intensive form of agriculture, one that employed well under a quarter of the population at the height of the Kibbutz movement, and less than 3 percent of the population today.)

The obvious question is: Why? Why did Jews and only Jews take up urban occupations, and why did it happen so dramatically throughout the world? Two economic historians—Maristella Botticini (of Boston University and Universitá di Torino) and Zvi Eckstein (of Tel Aviv University and the University of Minnesota)—have recently been giving that question a lot of thought.

First, say Botticini and Eckstein, the exodus from farms to towns was probably not a response to discrimination. It’s true that in the Middle Ages, Jews were often prohibited from owning land. But the transition to urban occupations and urban living occurred long before anybody ever thought of those restrictions. In the Muslim world, Jews faced no limits on occupation, land ownership, or anything else that might have been relevant to the choice of whether to farm. Moreover, a prohibition on land ownership is not a prohibition on farming—other groups facing similar restrictions (such as Samaritans) went right on working other people’s land.

Nor, despite an influential thesis by the economic historian Simon Kuznets, can you explain the urbanization of the Jews as an internal attempt to forge and maintain a unique group identity. Samaritans and Christians maintained unique group identities without leaving the land. The Amish maintain a unique group identity to this day, and they’ve done it without giving up their farms.

So, what’s different about the Jews? First, Botticini and Eckstein explain why other groups didn’t leave the land. The temptation was certainly there: Skilled urban jobs have always paid better than farming, and that’s been true since the time of Christ. But those jobs require literacy, which requires education—and for hundreds of years, education was so expensive that it proved a poor investment despite those higher wages. (Botticini and Eckstein have data on ancient teachers’ salaries to back this up.) So, rational economic calculus dictated that pretty much everyone should have stayed on the farms.

But the Jews (like everyone else) were beholden not just to economic rationalism, but also to the dictates of their religion. And the Jewish religion, unique among religions of the early Middle Ages, imposed an obligation to be literate. To be a good Jew you had to read the Torah four times a week at services: twice on the Sabbath, and once every Monday and Thursday morning. And to be a good Jewish parent you had to educate your children so that they could do the same.

The literacy obligation had two effects. First, it meant that Jews were uniquely qualified to enter higher-paying urban occupations. Of course, anyone else who wanted to could have gone to school and become a moneylender, but school was so expensive that it made no sense. Jews, who had to go to school for religious reasons, naturally sought to earn at least some return on their investment. Only many centuries later did education start to make sense economically, and by then the Jews had become well established in banking, trade, and so forth.

The second effect of the literacy obligation was to drive a lot of Jews away from their religion. Botticini and Eckstein admit that they have little direct evidence for this conclusion, but there’s a lot of indirect evidence. First, it makes sense: People do tend to run away from expensive obligations. Second, we can look at population trends: While the world population increased from 50 million in the sixth century to 285 million in the 18th, the population of Jews remained almost fixed at just a little over a million. Why were the Jews not expanding when everyone else was? We don’t know for sure, but a reasonable guess is that a lot of Jews were becoming Christians and Muslims.

So—which Jews stuck with Judaism? Presumably those with a particularly strong attachment to their religion and/or a particularly strong attachment to education for education’s sake. (The burden of acquiring an education is, after all, less of a burden for those who enjoy being educated.) The result: Over time, you’re left with a population of people who enjoy education, are required by their religion to be educated, and are particularly attached to their religion. Naturally, these people tend to become educated. And once they’re educated, they leave the farms.

Of course there are always exceptions. My great-grandfather raised chickens. But he did it in the basement of his row house in north Philadelphia.

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29 Responses to “Why Jews Don’t Farm”


  1. 1 1 Thomas

    What about the Sabbath? From what I know about farming, you can’t just skip a day of feeding cattle and milking the cows.

  2. 2 2 Alan Wexelblat

    An interesting historical entry. I feel compelled to point out, though, that between the 6th and 18th centuries a lot of Jews were either killed or driven underground and lost. Hypothesizing that they left voluntarily seems disingenuous at best. Recent scholarship on refusados (marranos), for example, appears to indicate that there were about four times as many who went underground compared to those that publicly converted.

    Also, there’s a strong correlation between increased education and decreased family size. It’s more pronounced in the last couple of centuries and much more pronounced with education of women, but in general it’s still true that the more educated a population is the smaller their families tend to be.

  3. 3 3 iceman

    I’ve heard the Christian denigration of money-lending opened the door there as well

  4. 4 4 Ken B

    @Thomas: Christians amd Muslims farm. Jews farmed long ago and had a sabbath then.

  5. 5 5 Bob Murphy

    I realize I am probably violating at least 4 different rules of blogger etiquette by doing this, but I think since Steve has chosen fashion models over us, it’s appropriate.

    Over at my blog I am discussing Steve’s discussion of Godel’s work on consistency, and in the comments we could really use somebody who is a professional mathematician. I expect most commentators here will laugh at my overall position (which is fine), but if you click the link you’ll see a lot of people think, for example, that “obviously” mathematics is consistent because otherwise airplanes would crash.

    So we could clearly use some reputable person to explain what the issues are, and (like I say) feel free to then laugh at my own take on things.

  6. 6 6 Steve Landsburg

    Bob Murphy, As noted I am swamped. But I’ll try to look at this.

  7. 7 7 Roger Schlafly

    You are just scratching the surface about Jewish occupations, customs, and political beliefs.

  8. 8 8 Martin

    Roger Schlafly – Not to mention Jewish food, clothing, and mating habits. Are you trying to say something about “Why Jews Don’t Farm”?

  9. 9 9 Doc Merlin

    “What about the Sabbath? From what I know about farming, you can’t just skip a day of feeding cattle and milking the cows.”

    This is explicitly allowed on the sabbath.

  10. 10 10 Roger Schlafly

    Jews have dietary rules with obvious religious origin. It is more interesting to look at things like occupations that are not directly dictated by religious books.

  11. 11 11 Harold

    There are probably many reasons why Jews left the land – the above argument for education is probably at least part of it. I suspect it is not the whole story. The other arguments discussed above also cannot explain all of it, but they could contribute.

    The Jews have not had a “homeland” form much of this time – the diaspora will have broken traditional links to land that must have had a negative effect on farming rates, although it cannot be all of the reason.

  12. 12 12 melvin polatnick

    It takes quick thinkers to prosper in an urban environment. Jews are too bright to milk cows, so they planted themselves in the cities.

  13. 13 13 Chris

    I guess a title of “Why people in developed economies don’t farm” would have been too boring.

    You state that in Israel, agriculture makes up less than 3% of the workforce. In the U.S., it is less than 1%. Granted, the U.S. has wheat fields in the plains that are roughly the size of Israel, so that certainly helps productivity.

    But I don’t think gains in agricultural productivity and the associated re-allocation of workers is particularly specific to Jews. You could say the same for most of western Europe. The simple fact is, a single farmer feeds a helluva lot more people than just a few generations ago. Not so true in developing economies.

    I think Senator John Kerry made a (very unpopular) statement similar to your closing argument, but targeting people who joined the military.

  14. 14 14 Matt

    1) It’s true that urban environments and literacy go together, but correlation is not cause. I would think the social and cultural elements of a synagogue-based, common vernacular (Yiddish), relatively mobile culture that developed in the Diaspora would be more significant causal factors.

    2) Learning to read and pray in a dead language does not have an obvious utility. Again, social and historical factors associated with the existence of a widespread common vernacular culture strikes me as more important than any utility argument.

  15. 15 15 Dallas

    Too bad the article conflicts with modern agricultural reality. If we look at much of the modern methods of agriculture and aquaculture, especially in high salinity and low rain fall areas, we find a significant portion of the innovation and advancements have come from Israel. If adjusted for a population basis, the Jewish contributions to modern agriculture/aquaculture are disproportionately large.

    Modern agriculture and aquaculture has become a science where education is mandatory. To be a successful farmer today in any competitive country, you need a BS or better in Agricultural Engineering or Biology and a MBA.

  16. 16 16 Colorado

    I read a couple months back about the spread of early Christianity – the travels of Paul up into Turkey, letters to the Ephesians, etc. Turns out those disciples still thought of themselves as Jews and intended to tell Jews about their new deal (they later found other converts among the pagans). They followed the Jewish practice of conducting group meetings in houses. This was something the pagans didn’t do; they had temples. The Jews had the one main Temple but didn’t have synagogues as such at that time. These Christian meetings attracted those we would now call upper-middle class – craftsmen, gov’t workers, businessmen, some military, but not usually the rich or the lower class. The Jews were in the process of inventing the middle class by gathering them together in their Torah studies and the early Christians added to that. It obviously took a long time for this concept to grow but in the cities it did. The middle class was formed out of education, economic circumstance, an urban environment and religion. To some extent the farmers were too poor and left out. But aspiring to be middle class was there.
    A note on Joseph and Mary. “Joseph was a poor carpenter.” Well probably not. First off he had a donkey. If you had a donkey, you were middle class, if you were poor you ate the donkey. Joseph was from the house of David. Even if you are a long lost shirttail cousin, coming from that lineage gives you some connections. He lived just down the road from a very prosperous trading city. So you know how to build things, you’ve got connections and there is a rich town nearby – you can do OK. Now if they had only had Orbitz so he could have gotten a better room.

  17. 17 17 vikingvista

    If the New Testament had mandated literacy, would famines have been more common?

  18. 18 18 Doc Merlin

    @Dallas:
    My father was involved in importing Israeli hydroponic technology to Ecuador for growing flowers.

  19. 19 19 Today's Tom Sawyer

    So nothing about the core anti-farming bias in the Old Testament? If I recall correctly, Cain gave the best of his fields while Abel gave the best of his flock, and which one did God like better? Also, I believe in several passages, there is explicit reference to attempts by Lot to settle down and farm (before invasion or other bad thing happens) while Abraham maintains the nomadic lifestyle of his people through herding? If you look at the positive characters, especially in early Genesis, they are typically uniformly nomadic herdsmen. I think this would imply that it is “unjewish” to become a farmer, and that dispossession of lands and diaspora would make an even stronger pull to get back to the roots of judaic tradition and the necessity of a lifestyle not rooted to location…

  20. 20 20 Cos

    When I read the beginning of this post, my first though was “it’s going to be education, isn’t it?”

    However, my second thought was, might it be related to the Jews periodically being forced to leave lands, wholesale? How many other populations stuck to farming even when forced to move to a different land every few centuries?

  21. 21 21 Gus

    I think Cos has gotten the nub of it, although I would reverse the drivers.

    The Jewish population has not had a homeland since the Jewish-Roman wars. It is difficult to farm when you don’t have land. So the diaspora survived through non-agricultural jobs.

    Without a doubt, the literate and educational traditions of the Jews assisted in their survival and success in these non-agricultural jobs. With this success, the cycle became self-reinforcing.

    Later discrimination, such as being exiled from Spain in the 1400s only reinforced this position. But keep in mind, many Jewish communities did farm, particularly in Russia. I’m thinking of Fiddler on the Roof.

  22. 22 22 Blissex

    Interesting details about jewish history. I had assumed that Jews had only started going into professions when restricted to ghettos.

    After that let me address the offtopic post about Godel: I am not a professional logician, but I seem to be one of the few people who understands Godel’s theorems and their importance, and both are vastly misunderstood.

    Their importance is purely technical, as an investigation as to whether Hilbert’s aim of finitary proofs was achievable.

    Their main import is whether finitary induction can be used to prove both the consistency and completeness of arithmetic within the same theory, and the answer is “no”.

    Godel’s theorems have been superceded a few years later by the far more interesting Gentzen theorems, which clarify that completeness and consistency of a theory are provable together only in a theory that is more “powerful” than that theory, so the theory of arithmetic can be proven consistent and complete, if it is indeed consistent and complete, by using non-finitary induction, and indeed it has been proven so. Some people object to non-finitary induction, but Gentzen theorems prove that it is either that or nothing.

    There is no infinite regress because the theory used for the proof needs only to be proven consistent, and that can be done in itself, because what cannot be proven is both consistency and completeness.

    That’s all. Nothing to do with God or intuitive grasp of mathematical truth by human consciousness.

  23. 23 23 The Tall Thin Guy

    I was sure the answer was Comparative Advantage. Jews got educated and did so many higher value jobs. Trade is good.

  24. 24 24 Mark Levit

    My unfashionable family had a working chicken farm in Toms River New Jersey from 1946-1956. In the surrounding area there were many Jewish farmers.

  25. 25 25 lou

    Re: Cos:
    A better question that should be asked and never is” What do Jews do or what did Jews do that would cause them to be forced to move to a different land every few centuries?”

  26. 26 26 Fred Sanford

    Jews don’t farm because that is hard work. They have always preferred to be parasites, and to live off of the local population.

  27. 27 27 Bill Miller

    I spent my formative years working on a Jewish-owned dairy farm.

    I had the opportunity to return home after a 30 year hiatus. I was happy to see the farmer’s son working the farm and his son tending a small John Deere dealership.

    Every single farm in that area (now mostly corn) is jewish owened.

    Plenty of jew farmers out there.

  28. 28 28 sean

    no mention of KIBBUTZIM???

  29. 29 29 Steve Landsburg

    sean:

    no mention of KIBBUTZIM???

    No, not no mention of kibbutzim.

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