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In many ways, Jewish history is the story of the education of a people. From the beginning, many great Jewish leaders were also great teachers who spoke to the world through the Jewish people. When the world’s mystery and wonder were fresh in the human mind, the patriarch Abraham thought about its mystery and wondered about its Creator. He discarded his father’s idols and began to teach his tribe to believe in one God. Thus, the founder of the Jewish people was also the first teacher in Jewish history. Moses, the Lawgiver who led the people to freedom, was called rabbenu, our teacher. He taught the children of Israel during their years of wandering, and he designated times when the people should come together and study. When the Children of Israel settled in the Promised Land and were ruled by judges, there were no schools, so knowledge was handed down by word of mouth from father to son, mother to daughter. The Judges, priests, and Levites taught the people to reject the idols of their Canaanite neighbors and follow the laws of Moses. Then the greatest teachers of all time, the prophets of Israel, brought to the people a lofty vision of God and taught that to serve Him people must love peace and justice and act rightly toward one another.

A knowledge of reading and writing was common in Israel’s earliest days. When he wanted some information during one of his military expeditions, Gideon, the fifth of the Judges, found a simple boy who knew enough to “write down for him the princes of Sukkot, and the elders thereof, seventy and seven men.” Perhaps the earliest formal schools in ancient Israel were those that trained the priests and Levites in the complicated laws and rituals of bringing sacrifices and conducting Temple services. By the 6th century B.C.E., after the return from the Babylonian exile, scribes or soferim had become the teachers of the people, who were required to come regularly to the Temple courts for instruction. Synagogues, or houses of prayer, then sprang up all over Judea and served dually as schools. Around 75 B.C.E., Simeon ben Shetah, the head of the Sanhedrin, a judicial and legislative body, established a system of high schools in all large towns for boys older than 15. Fewer than 100 years later, the high priest, Joshua ben Gamala, set up a system of elementary schools in every town for boys at least age five. The historian Josephus Flavius boasted that in Jerusalem alone there were more than 300 schools for children.

Education came to be of utmost importance in the life of the people. After the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans, the rabbis taught that study, like prayer, was a form of worship and a substitute for sacrifices. During the Talmudic period in Babylonia, the rabbis set up a complete, lifelong system of education that began at the age of five or six. Few details were overlooked, and there was even a place for athletics. In the 6th century, one rabbi stressed that 25 pupils were the ideal number for a class. If there were 40 children, he urged that an assistant teacher be added, and for 50 he advised two teachers. The Bet Ha-Sefer, or House of the Book, was the Bible school for the youngest children. At age 10 they were expected to enter the Bet Talmud or Bet Ha-Knesset, or House of Assembly, for the study of the Talmud. These schools taught languages and mathematics; such subjects as astronomy, botany, and zoology were required for certain Talmudic studies.

The highest schools of this system were the great academies of Babylonia, where the scholars studied and created the Talmud. One great teacher, Abba Arikha, founded an academy at Sura that lasted, with brief interruptions, for eight centuries. The academy at Sura was never idle or empty. Scholars who had to work all day studied there in the early morning and late evening. In March and September, when there was little work in the fields, the Sura academy held Kallot, or seminars, for farmers and businessmen. There were even scholarships for worthy students who could not afford to take two months off from work and travel to attend the Kallot in Sura.

The education system begun in Palestine and developed in Babylonia moved with the people wherever they went. By the 11th century, persecution and intolerance had driven the Jews out of Babylonia. The great centers dwindled and almost disappeared, and Jews set up new communities in Spain, Italy, France, and Germany. New subjects of study were added to the system, others were subtracted, without changing its core. In 12th century Arab Spain, philosophy and Arabic were added to the studies in the higher schools. In Italy the new subjects were Latin, Italian, and logic. To escape the bloody path of the Crusades, Jews began to migrate from Germany to Poland in the 12th century. The Kahal, or community organization, in Poland was a strong one. Education was made compulsory for children from six to thirteen years of age, and the system was controlled by a board of study called the Hevra Talmud Torah. This hevra prescribed the studies for the heder, or elementary private school, as well as for the Talmud Torah, the community free school. The yeshiva, or Talmudic academy, was also supervised by the hevra. The head, or Rosh Yeshiva, was selected by them. During the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries, when Jewish life became constricted and was limited to the ghetto, education also narrowed, and languages and sciences were no longer studied. These subjects were reintroduced during the Haskalah, or enlightenment period. Education for girls was not required at any period. Yet the woman of outstanding abilities usually managed to get an education. Ordinary women shared deeply the general reverence for learning and often made great sacrifices that their sons might become scholars.

During the 20th century, Orthodoxy began providing formal Jewish education for girls and women. One of the outstanding movements working to this end is the Beth Jacob movement, which since its founding by Sara Schenirer in Cracow in the early 1920’s has spread around the world.

The average male Jew could always read and write, since even the poorest child could get an elementary education. For bright young students who had no means of support, the community provided food and shelter, so that they could devote themselves completely to study at the yeshiva. As a result, ignorance was rare among Jews. During the Middle Ages, when even princes and nobles were illiterate, the Jewish community had many scholars and honored them above other men. Until recent times, Jewish education was considered a lifetime process: the young studied all day, while the adults studied during their leisure hours, evenings, Sabbaths, and holidays. When Jews dreamed of Paradise, study held a place in their vision. (See also Jewish Education in the United States.)

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