Hebrew In Israel | Education In Ancient Israel and Judaism – Learn Torah

The following is based on papers I wrote for my degree in History and Biblical Studies at Open University of Israel.

israeli culture, ancient history, ancient israel,

Hebrew In Israel | Education In Ancient Israel and Judaism – Learn Torah

Yoel Halevi No Comments

Education (i.e, the passing of any form of information) is not limited only to the field of writing but also to the oral transmission of information.  Hence, when one wants to understand education in biblical Israel, and later on in the Jewish world, one must create a divide between literacy and the overall principle of information.  Therefore, in this article we will have to create a theoretical but necessary division between “traditional” education and its latter development, canonical/written education.  I say canonical because our focus here is on the education of literacy and the study of the bible.

EDUCATION IN AN ILLITERATE SOCIETY

Very little is known to us about education in ancient Israel.  However, there are a few verses in the Torah that give us a little bit of insight about the subject.  There is no Torah commandment to actually know how to read and write, and the only social groups that are commanded to have any written literature were the Levites and Priests (Deuteronomy 17:18).  As it says:


וְהָיָה כְשִׁבְתּוֹ, עַל כִּסֵּא מַמְלַכְתּוֹוְכָתַב לוֹ אֶתמִשְׁנֵה הַתּוֹרָה הַזֹּאת, עַלסֵפֶר, מִלִּפְנֵי, הַכֹּהֲנִים הַלְוִיִּם

And it shall be, when he sits upon the throne of his kingdom, that he shall write him a copy of this law in a book, out of that which is before the priests the Levites.


It seems that most of the knowledge that people would have at this period (i.e. 1550-700BCE, Late Bronze Age to Iron Age) would have been mostly acquired through oral traditions, or from hearing in temples or any form of gathering, the written word as recited in ritual liturgy and epic.

An example of oral transmission can be found in the theoretical question,


 וְהָיָה כִּייִשְׁאָלְךָ בִנְךָ, מָחָרלֵאמֹר מַהזֹּאתוְאָמַרְתָּ אֵלָיובְּחֹזֶק יָד הוֹצִיאָנוּ יְהוָה מִמִּצְרַיִם, מִבֵּית עֲבָדִים

When, at some future time, your son asks you, ‘What is this?’ then say to him, ‘With a strong hand Adonai brought us out of Egypt, out of the abode of slavery.


Exodus 13:14, regarding the practice of the Passover.  This question clearly indicates a two-part principle of education.  The first one being physically seeing the proper manner in which something should be done, and the second, the oral inquiry of information. 

This demonstrates that the first and most central part of education came from home.  In contrast to this form of education we also find the public reading of information.  This form of knowledge by most seems to be ceremonial, and therefore has a limited scope in actual practical education and is more intended to indicate the historical presence and covenant of Israel.


 וַיְצַו מֹשֶׁה, אוֹתָם לֵאמֹרמִקֵּץ שֶׁבַע שָׁנִים, בְּמֹעֵד שְׁנַת הַשְּׁמִטָּהבְּחַג הַסֻּכּוֹת

בְּבוֹא כָליִשְׂרָאֵל, לֵרָאוֹת אֶתפְּנֵי יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, בַּמָּקוֹם, אֲשֶׁר יִבְחָרתִּקְרָא אֶתהַתּוֹרָה הַזֹּאת, נֶגֶד כָּליִשְׂרָאֵלבְּאָזְנֵיהֶם

 הַקְהֵל אֶתהָעָם, הָאֲנָשִׁים וְהַנָּשִׁים וְהַטַּף, וְגֵרְךָ, אֲשֶׁר בִּשְׁעָרֶיךָלְמַעַן יִשְׁמְעוּ וּלְמַעַן יִלְמְדוּ, וְיָרְאוּ אֶתיְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם, וְשָׁמְרוּ לַעֲשׂוֹת, אֶתכָּלדִּבְרֵי הַתּוֹרָה הַזֹּאת

 וּבְנֵיהֶם אֲשֶׁר לֹאיָדְעוּ, יִשְׁמְעוּ וְלָמְדוּלְיִרְאָה, אֶתיְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶםכָּלהַיָּמִים, אֲשֶׁר אַתֶּם חַיִּים עַלהָאֲדָמָה, אֲשֶׁר אַתֶּם עֹבְרִים אֶתהַיַּרְדֵּן שָׁמָּה, לְרִשְׁתָּהּ

Moshe gave them these orders: “At the end of every seven years, during the festival of Sukkot in the year of sh’mittah, when all Isra’el have come to appear in the presence of Adonai at the place he will choose, you are to read this Torah before all Isra’el, so that they can hear it. Assemble the people — the men, the women, the little ones and the foreigners you have in your towns — so that they can hear, learn, fear Adonai your God and take care to obey all the words of this Torah; and so that their children, who have not known, can hear and learn to fear Adonai your God, for as long as you live in the land you are crossing the Yarden to possess.”  Deut 31:10-13


Reading something once every seven years is a very impractical way to remember material.  Therefore, it is my opinion that every seven years the Torah was read in great ceremony and assembly as a reenactment of covenant. 

It is possible that the Levitical cities functioned as cultic centers and as places of education for the general public, which might explain why they were scattered amongst the tribes.  Though, in truth, many were located in the south.  One would arrive at one of these places and inquire on a certain law or torah regulation. It is important to note at this point that education in the ancient world was very different than ours.  And even what we call sciences, back then, were always related to religious aspects.  Very little is actually known on the level of literacy amongst ancient Israelites and we only start seeing epigraphic findings much later in the Iron Age. 

WHEN DID LITERACY BEGIN?

In the torah we find a commandment to write “These words” in several places (Deut 6:9; 11:18-20), and we even find a great commandment to write the torah on stone at Mt. Eval (Deut 27:8).  The ten commandments were written on stone and Moses writes a book of covenant (Exodus 31:18; 34:27)  However, none of these examples demonstrate literacy in the Israelite society.  Moreover, all these examples have a more ritualistic aspect to them and were probably not even used for reciting the words.

We need to remember that writing down words in covenantal systems never required that EVERYONE knew how to read and write. Only that at least SOMEONE would be able to read this out for the different sides so they could understand what the different terms are.  This would limit literacy to an elect group of people known as sofrim (scribes).

Even kings did not know how to read and write and had to have in their employ scribes who would read to them.  It is a well known historical fact that Ashurbanipal (668-627 BCE) of the Assyrian Empire bragged about the fact that he could read and write, which would also explain why he had such a big library. (Cylinder A, Column I, Lines 31–33, in Smith, George. History of Assurbanipal, Translated from the Cuneiform Inscriptions. London: Harrison and Sons, 1871: pg.6)

One of the earliest known Hebrew inscriptions is an ostracon found at Khirbet Qeiyafa, which seems to have been an administrative letter.  However, the influx of epigraphic material in the Israelite culture, both in Judea and Israel, only start emerging somewhere around the 8th century BCE.  This has led many scholars to conclude that the level of literacy amongst Israelites only started increasing later on after the establishment of the kingdoms.  We find that King David, for the first time, employee a scribe (2 Samuel 20:25) and this only happens around the 10th century, but is enough time that in about 200 years (meaning 5-6 generations) that more people will be employed as scribes and more people will be exposed to the idea of literacy.  With the expansion of the kingdom there would a growth in the number of people who could read and write.

Unfortunately, most of the material that we have still falls in the category of government/official letters.  To the best of my knowledge, very little has been found outside of that scope.  Later in time around the 8th century BCE, we find some graffiti in a burial cave at Miqadah (Khirbet El Qum) that would indicate that writing became more common. (Achituv S., Handbook Of Ancient Hebrew Inscriptions, Bialik Institute, 1992, pp. 111-115)

As can be seen, we are not yet at a stage where literacy was a common phenomenon.  Some interesting epigraphic findings that one should note are the Hezekiah tunnel inscription held this day in Istanbul, the Priestly blessing silver scroll, the findings of Kunthilat ‘Ajrud, the Moabite inscription of King Mesha (written in Moabite, which is a very close dialect of Hebrew).  I would like to note here that inscriptions such as the Moabite stele are part of royal propaganda, mostly presented before the deity (in this case, Chemosh) and is not really intended for the public to read.

Therefore, we must eliminate inscriptions like this from being evidence of widespread literacy.  It is my opinion that the rise of literacy to a critical mass, where it became a priority to the followers of the God of Israel, only happened during the time of the return to Zion, and specifically the time of Ezra the scribe.  The torah plays a central part in the worldview of early second temple Judaism (we can call it from this point Judaism) with a great emphasis on the written word.  Several times in the book of Ezra/Nehemiah we find an interest in the book of the Law of Moses.  And Ezra’s position as a scribe, a sofer, which was an official Persian position of one who is responsible for religious knowledge, would have enabled him to enforce new rules and regulations. (Rappaport, U.; From Cyrus to Alexander:  The Jews Under Persian Rule, Open U Publications, p. 72)

In the letter of authority give to Ezra in chapter 7, Ezra is given a lot of power making it possible for him to enforce the actual education of the written word (Ezra 7:11-26). 

“And you, ‘Ezra, making use of the wisdom you have from your God, are to appoint magistrates and judges to judge all the people in the territory beyond the River, that is, all who know the laws of your God; and you are to teach those who don’t know them. Whoever refuses to obey the law of your God and the law of the king, let judgment be executed on him swiftly, whether it be death, banishment, confiscation of goods or imprisonment.”  (v. 25,26)

Though there is no actual evidence in the biblical text for such a thing, one may theorize that due to the great emphasis of the reinforcement of Torah and torah practices, there was an increase of interest in torah knowledge.  It is interesting to point out as well, that around this time, several cultures in the Near East were developing their scriptures of sorts, giving us an historical framework to social developments in overall.  (Presented to me in a classroom lecture with one of my professors)

By the middle of the Second Temple we find a large quantity of writings known as the Dead Sea Scrolls, which clearly indicate that by this point literacy had become a very common phenomenon.  I will point out that in an article from 2016, published by PNAS, that scholars have concluded (based on the epigraphic findings of the First Temple) that the level of literacy amongst Israelites in both kingdoms was probably one of the highest in the region. (http://www.pnas.org/content/113/17/4664.full)  But this still leaves the society in still a relatively illiterate stage.  And that literacy became a common  state only somewhere around the first half of the Second Temple.  In truth, high levels of literacy are considered to be a modern phenomenon.  And even in modern-day societies there are people who are partly or completely illiterate.

THE RISE OF SCRIPTURE

As stated above, the creation of canonical writings, or what became canonical writings several centuries later, seems to have been an overall pan-cultural phenomenon affecting the entire Near East.  However, we are yet to have solid information on what education would have looked like in Second Temple Judea.  It is the assumption that with the contact with the Aegean culture, the principle of pedagogy became a more common way of education.  It seems that the majority of children would have been taught mostly at home, and unless the parents were actually wealthy, most people would have had a very limited schooling and were expected to go to work at a very early age.

Only the wealthy could have hired teachers or sent their children to establishments.  However, these establishments probably imitated Greek methods and taught their students the 7 Wisdoms (music, rhetoric, mathematics, etc.)  Teaching, reading and writing, or mostly reading, was probably something that was required to read from the scrolls in the synagogue.  I say this because the practice during this early period was that you were only allowed to be one of the seven readers in the Sabbath services if you could read.  Nowadays, most synagogues have a “ba’al qoreh” who is an expert in reading Torah directly from a scroll with no punctuation or vowel points.  However, it is very clear from mishnaic and talmudic sources, though they are late sources, that this must have been the practice earlier on as well.

JEWISH EDUCATION IN SECOND TEMPLE

It seems that somewhere around the second century one of the pharisaic leaders known as Shimon, son of Shetach, established the principle of requiring education for children.  (Jerusalem Tamud; Ketubot ch 8, p.32, col 3)  We also find that another person known as Yehoshua son of Gamla, who was the High Priest in the year 63-64 BCE, made sure that Jewish children in Jerusalem would receive an education. (Babylonian Talmud; Baba Batra 21a) 

Ben Sira, in his famous wisdom writing of the second century, indicates that he ran a free school for adults.  (Book of Ben Sira; ch 51, lines 43-51) 

Assuming that Jewish education changed very little throughout the centuries, it is safe to say that the educational principle was based on the memorization and recitation of holy texts.  The majority of children would have studied the bible (i.e. Torah, Prophets, and Writings) and based on the child’s ability would advance to the memorization of oral torah principles, which later became the Mishna and the Talmud.  (Mishna Avot ch 5, mishna 21)

In other groups, such as the sectarians, the requirement of education probably included some of the known Dead Sea Scrolls such as the Pesher books, Book of Enoch, Book of Jubilees and so on.  It is actually very possible that Enoch and Jubilees were part of the general Jewish library regardless of the sects.  From this point onwards, Jewish education remained more or less the same for over 1800 years until the advent of modern education. 

JEWISH EDUCATION THROUGHOUT THE AGES (EUROPE, NORTH AFRICA AND THE EAST)

With the dispersion of Jews around the world, each group of Jews developed their own communities, their own teachers and their own traditions.  However, one thing did not change: How you educated your children.  Children, from a young age, would learn many of the Jewish traditions, scripture, and prayer from their parents.  Around the age of five, children would be sent to a community school where they would be taught the bible, Hebrew, and the customary synagogue practices but never any of the most basic educational subjects that we would have in schools today.

Around the age of thirteen, most children would go and study a profession, which in many cases was passed down by the father.  Only a small, select group of students would continue to study under a rabbi and become talmudic scholars.  Some young adults would learn even advanced professions such as being a doctor or a jeweler, but many Jews, due to church intervention, were forced to become merchants, which limited their ability to stay in one place.  This, de facto, caused them to not be able to study. 

In Moslem countries, it was easier for Jews to work in more professions which enabled them to attend conventions such as the famous Yerchey Kalah (Letter of Rav Sherira Gaon, written in 987 CE; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sherira_Gaon) which happened twice a year and enabled Jews in the East to attend the great study halls of Iraq.  Unfortunately, in Europe, there was no such thing.  Most people had to depend on the weekly Sabbath teaching of the local rabbi who would mix into his midrash elements of Jewish law and so on. (Cohen, Mark R.; Under Crescent and Cross: The Jews In The Middle Ages, Princeton University Press, 2008)

With the movement away from church-based education, and with the rise of the humanities, the general Christian population of Europe, in a very slow and painful process, became exposed to studies which were limited to the church clergy; and universities were being built around Europe.

In time, Jewish adults showed some interest in the fields of classic adult education, which brought forth the opening of Jewish thought in Europe to the study of other subjects.  It is well known that many Jewish figures knew some, at least, of the seven wisdoms, but this was not yet a widespread phenomenon.  In Moslem countries, where Jews were a little bit more free, the knowledge of mathematics, astronomy and things of that nature were a lot more common. 

Jumping ahead in time, with the rise of nationalistic ideas in Europe, governments such as that of Catherine the Great, Czar Nicolai the First and the republic of France, brought forth government intervention forcing traditional Jewish education to open up to criticism.  In a survey done by the Russian government in Eastern Europe, it was discovered that only some of the teachers were actually proficient even in the fields of Jewish education. (Polin: The Jews Of Eastern Europe, History And Culture, Open U Publications, 1990)  What this means is that when the “teacher” (i.e. melamed) would teach the meaning of a verse in the torah, in several occasions they would mistranslate or misinterpret due to lack of knowledge.  This caused the government to require actual training for teachers. However, it was the ultimate goal of these national governments to cause Jewish communities to integrate into the local culture, forcing them to learn Russian, French or German, even to a point where you could not receive a marriage license if you could not speak the local language.  (Jews In Times of Change, collected articles, Open U Publications, not yet published)

From this point on, Jewish education started changing, reaching a point that by the mid 19th century, Jews in France, Germany and Russia became more susceptible to the idea of studying secular subjects.  This historically was known as the rise of the Maskilim of Eastern Europe [link to Oral torah 20-21], and the rise of the reform movement in Germany.  The abandonment of traditional practices with all its faults, became a fundamental part in the overall change of Jewish society, but is also a representation of the overall change in the modern world and the rise of modern secularism.

I will end this with a personal note that I do not find a contradiction between keeping the traditional ways and allowing yourself to be educated.  However, I find a fallacy in the idea that we in the last 200 years have figured everything out.  The ideology standing behind humanism and modern education is not necessarily derived from pure ideas.  Elements of biased ideas, pretext, and politics can be found even in our age of knowledge.  It is in the hands of the people of faith not to allow someone’s opinion to overtake traditions of thousands of years.  If the motto of modern day education is that “Knowledge is Power” then we must not allow the abuse of this power.

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