DP13178 | Child Care and Human Development: Insights from Jewish History in Central and Eastern Europe, 1500–1930

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Economists growingly highlight the fundamental role that human capital formation, institutions, cultural transmission, and religious norms may each distinctively play in shaping health, knowledge, and wealth. We contribute to this debate by studying one of the most remarkable instances in which religious norms and child care practices had a major impact on demographic and economic patterns: the history of the Jews in central and eastern Europe from 1500 to 1930. After documenting that the Jewish population in Poland Lithuania increased at a strikingly high annual rate of 1.37 percent during this period, we investigate the engines of this exceptional growth. We show that while Jewish and non-Jewish birth rates were about the same, infant and child mortality among Jews was much lower and account for the main difference (70 percent) in Jewish versus non-Jewish natural population growth. Our contribution stems from documenting that Jewish families routinely adopted childcare practices that recent medical research has shown as enhancing infants’ and children’s well-being. These practices, deeply rooted in Talmudic rulings, account for the lower infant and child mortality among Jews, and in turn, for the higher Jewish population growth rate in eastern and central Europe between 1500 and 1930. The key insight of our work is that once Judaism became a “literate religion,” infant and child care, as well as enhancing offspring’s’ cognitive skills, became focal activities of Jewish households.