Education in Judaism

Posted by Yevgeni Kuritski on 3rd Aug 2014

Education plays a very important role in the advancement of a culture, and this is especially true with regard to Judaism, which had to deal with division and hardship throughout its existence, and thus putting even more emphasis on the need of education within the society. When analyzing education in Judaism one needs to focus on how education was performed in the ancient time, on how it is performed in contemporary days and on how education is different from children to adults (it is a fact that those seeking conversion to Judaism will have to undergo a certain educational process that would introduce them to the Judaic culture and its customs and traditions).

In the ancient days, education was based especially on written sources. Jewish tutors advised parents to provide religious education to their children, which meant that both boys and girls studied the Torah. This form of education was essential to one’s personal development as it would be transferred from one generation to another one. It was common to study the Torah at the synagogue. The word itself – “synagogue” means “house of gathering” and it was the place where Jews went to pray and study, just as Jesus did when He was a child.

Education began at the age of 6 or 7, when children had already learnt to read and write and continued all throughout their lifetime, although formal education would end at the age of 18 or before they married. Even though girls did not receive a formal education, they were often asked to know how to take care of the household and how to educate children. At the age of 10, boys began studying Judaic law which would be taught by the synagogue rabbi. Those wishing to continue their education became “scribes” and could study several domains that had been based on religious grounds. Reaching a higher level of education meant that they could later become disciples of scholars.

In those days, education placed a great emphasis on developing learning skills and understanding and practicing oral repetition. Thus, children could study six major fields of the Mishna (oral law) comprising the following: Zeraim – teachings on agriculture and prayers, Moed – dealing with the main holidays and the Shabbat, Nashim – referring to marriage and divorce, Nezikin – teachings on criminal and civil law, Kodashim – regarding ritual sacrifices, the Temple and fasting, and Tohorot – referring to purity and impurity (this needs to be understood as referring to the impurity of the deceased, religious purification rituals, family purity, etc.)

According to Jewish thinking, children’s education was extremely important, as it could have lifelong repercussions, should it not be performed accurately.

Until the age of 5, child rearing was the task of the mother. After this age, boys’ education would become the concern either of the father or of one of the community’s scholars. This was the situation before the exile. After the exile, education was concentrated in public schools. The Jerusalem school was set close to the Temple and it was customary to set these schools in the proximity of synagogues.

Education consisted especially of learning to read and write so that they would later be able to study the holy texts of the Law. They would also study mathematics, civil and public law, chemistry, physics, astronomy, geography, agriculture, biology, history and would have knowledge of cultural and social roles, medicine and pharmacy.

Nowadays, there are multiple possibilities for parents to choose their children’s school. They have to choose between public, private or day-school. The latter is very common especially in the North-American Jewish communities and has grown gradually, from just a few establishments, initially limited to the Orthodox communities, to several hundred all over the country. Such schools can be found in the larger Jewish communities, as well as in smaller communities and they come in several types: Jewish Monterssori-style schools, Solomon Schecter schools, Reform style-ones and Reconstructionist-style schools.

There is also the possibility to send one’s children to afternoon and Sunday-school to complete the education. However, these schools have a difficult mission: to teach Jewish values and traditions in a very small amount of time. Some have even taken to the experiencing path, attempting to teach traditional elements by resorting to more modern means, such as arts and crafts, exploring creativity and the shifting attention that children tend to demonstrate at an early age. In addition to this, it is common for children attending these schools to go on Shabbatons or Shabbat retreats, where they combine Jewish learning and social activities. There are also the projects chosen by schools, to be developed throughout the year, in which children are practically immersed and which give them assets on their very own Jewish culture and its mission in the world.

But Judaic education is not entirely reserved to children. Adults can also partake in it. The most common form of adult learning is to engage the whole family in a school project. Thus, schools have regular projects throughout the year, in which both the children and their parents need to involve, in order to complete it. Anyway, the parent participation in such projects ensures that both parents and children are immersed into a process of Jewish learning.

It is also possible for adults who do not have children to get involved into a scholastic Jewish learning programme, especially should it be the case for conversion to Judaism. Such efforts are very creative ones, attempting to create as many possibilities for adults to engage in effective learning and studying processes. Therefore, adults can take part in synagogue study groups, which are numerous in many Jewish communities, Jewish reading clubs, Torah study groups, film and book festivals created by Jewish associations in order to attract even more the interest of those searching to understand the Jewish culture and at the same time adhere to it.

Even though education plays a tremendously important role in the development of a community, in the case of education in Judaism, its role is greater than in usual cases, as its aim is not only to introduce the individual into the basic elements, such as reading, writing and arithmetic, but its concentration around the synagogue makes it a form of comprehensive education, referring also to the values, traditions and customs of the Jewish people.