Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Eqev

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity.
Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible, gottlii@mail.biu.ac.il


Parashat Eqev 5759/1999

"And teach them to your children" (Deut. 11:19):

The Talmud Torah in the Ashkenazi Old Yishuv in Jerusalem

Dr. Margalit Shilo

Martin Süss Department of Land of Israel Studies

The verse from our Parasha cited in the title is the Talmudic source for the commandment to study the Torah. This provides us with the opportunity to look at the educational system of the Old Yishuv in Jerusalem. "A factory for spiritual works"[1] [bet haroshet maase haruhani] was what the benefactors of the Talmud Torah (religious school) Etz Hayyim called the educational system which they founded[2] in Jerusalem in the mid-nineteenth century. Paradoxically, the first Jewish community in the world to direct most of the men living in its midst to devote themselves entirely to Torah and to view that as their craft, called its basic religious educational institution a "factory" for spirituality.

The Ashkenazi community in Jerusalem, which began to develop rapidly in the 1820s, became in several decades the largest Jewish community in the land of Israel. Among its most magnificent institutions was the religious school Etz Hayyim, the first public educational system in the land of Israel. In 1841, with Rabbi Samuel Salant's immigration to Jerusalem, the leadership of the Ashkenazi Jewish community undertook to care for the educational needs of its children and founded the first heders of the school system. The institution was innovative and unique. According to Joseph Salmon, "It is doubtful there was any other Jewish society in the world that put such great emphasis on educating its offspring as the Ashkenazi society in the land of Israel during the period under discussion."[3]

In the early years after its founding the wardens (gabba'im) requested all members of the community, not only parents of children in the school, to help support the Talmud Torah. The bylaws of the Talmud Torah stated that, "Aside from the fixed revenues from members, a levy shall be collected from every wedding, from the groom's side and the bride's side; from circumcisions, from the father's side; from Mi she-berakh blessings recited in the synagogue; and from banquets."[4] As the community grew, this arrangement proved insufficient to support the increasing financial needs of the school, and special delegates set out to raise funds throughout the Diaspora to finance their institution. With the growth of the community the heders developed into the first educational system of its kind, encompassing Jewish education on all levels, from heder for small children to kolel for grown men. The school system had hundreds of pupils, although not all the children of the Ashkenazi community studied in Etz Hayyim. About one third of the boys attended private heders. Girls were not admitted to Etz Hayyim at all, but a small fraction of them attended private heders.

The educational system that took shape in Jerusalem was a public school, open equally to rich and poor alike. The poor students even received aid in the form of food and clothing. This concern for physical welfare was not only due to the great hardship of many Jews in the city, but was also in response to the activity of Christian missionary institutions that sought to lure the poor of the city into their ranks. The wardens not only took charge of finance but also supervised the academic level. They paid weekly visits to the Talmud Torah academies and examined the pupils. The curriculum was conservative, with only a little writing and arithmetic being taught in addition to religious studies. When young boys reached the age of Bar Mitzvah they were examined to determine who would continue higher studies in the yeshiva and who would learn a craft. Those who were less successful in their studies were referred to various craftsmen who helped them acquire a trade. Nevertheless, the wardens continued to see to their education, financing a teacher for them in Bible, Jewish life and morality.[5]

Looking at the by-laws and pamphlets published by the wardens of the Talmud Torah shows the deep interest the leaders of the Yishuv took in the educational institutions they set up. Their primary objective was to motivate children to learn. As was the practice in the eastern European heder, each child progressed at his own rate. To reward excellence, each year on Hanukkah a festive meal was held, attended by important leaders of the community, "and the youngster who excels in his studies shall receive from the funds of the society a present of a new garment, so that the others listening will be envious."[6] According to the sponsors of the Talmud Torah, not only the envy of scribes increases wisdom, but also the envy of pupils. Study was a supreme objective of Jewish society in the Old Yishuv, and any means of enhancing it was favorably received. Paying respect to teachers was insignificant in comparison with encouraging excellence among pupils, which was the main objective. A teacher who did not do well at his job was given warning three times, and if he did not improve, "the teacher shall be removed from his post even in the middle of the term, without any appeal or discussion."[7] Close tabs were kept on the teachers: "Teachers are obliged to be present at school at the times stated, without any tardiness, and a teacher may not leave his place even for necessary matters without the supervisor knowing and granting permission."[8]

Students and teachers alike were required to devote "full time to the institution." School hours were strictly set. In the summer, classes began at eight in the morning (1st period) and continued until one-thirty. Students then had a one-hour break to go home and eat, and at two-thirty were to be back in school to study another three and a half hours. In the winter the school day was shortened one hour. The school week was seven days. On Fridays classes were held until the afternoon, and on Saturdays students studied in the afternoon. This full week, of course, was also the work-week for the teachers. This routine was disrupted only four times a year, on the eve of the months of Nisan, Sivan, Elul, and Kislev, during which time the children and their teachers headed for the Western Wall and Rachel's tomb to pray for the well-being of the benefactors of their institution.

Not every youngster had the emotional or intellectual ability to withstand this regimen of study. It appears that the notion of a class for the "educationally challenged" also existed among the traditional society of Jerusalem. "One instructor shall teach the children who dissemble that they cannot manage to learn Torah."[9] This class, however, was hardly ever mentioned. The leaders took pride in the way they encouraged excellent students, not in the understanding they showed those who found the commandment to study Torah beyond their ability.

In a pamphlet advertising the Talmud Torah[10] a comparison was drawn between the virtue of studying Torah and that of offering sacrifices, the former being considered of greater value on the basis of the gemara in Tractate Eruvin (63b): "Studying Torah is greater than sacrificing regular burnt offerings." This had special significance in a community which perceived itself as the "guardians of the walls" [shomere hahomot] and the "harbingers of Redemption" [meqaddeme hageula ]. The educational system developed by the Ashkenazi community of Jerusalem lent expression to its most sublime objectives.

[1] So in a pamphlet entitled "Zeh ha-Sefer asher le-Veit Talmud Torah ha-Kelali letinoqot shel beit rabban vi-Yeshivat Etz Hayyim ha-Gedolah", Jerusalem 1902.

[2] Joseph Salmon, "Ha-Hinukh ha-Ashkenazi be-Eretz Yisrael bein 'Yashan' le-'Hadash'" (1840-1906), in Shalem 10 (Jerusalem 1992), pp. 281-301.

[3] Salmon, ibid., p. 287.

[4] Y. M. Tokachinsky, Batei ha-Hesed be-Yerushalayim, in Luah Eretz Yisrael le-Shnat 5664, Jerusalem 1903, p. 131.

[5] Takkanot ve-Seder Hanhagot ha-Talmud Torah ve-Yeshivat Etz Hayyim, undated.

[6] Tokachinsky, ibid., pp. 131-132.

[7] Sefer ha-Takkanot le-Hevrat Talmud Torah ve-Yeshivat Hayyei Olam, Jerusalem 1902, p. 29.

[8] Ibid., p. 30.

[9] Yaakov Goldman, Hashkafa Kelalit, ha-Talmud Torah le-Adat ha-Ashkenazim be-Yerushalayim, in He-Asif, Vol. 4, Warsaw 1887, p. 86.

[10] Ibid., n.1, p. 6.

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