Jewish education, when done by the book, is not quite what you would have expected.

Keep in mind that we’re talking about Judaism’s most vital institution. Jews make major decisions in their lives (like where they are going to live and how much they need to make) centered around their kids’ education. They also dish out hefty sums on tuition—quite often more than they spend on housing.

Yet, despite the costs, as of 2014, Jewish full-time day schools were on an upswing, with a 37% increase in enrollment since 1998.1 Chabad hasLet’s say you’re given the task of creating a curriculum for Jewish education. What would you teach? been a major force, growing from 44 to 80 schools in the same period, with a 50% increase in enrollment since just 2003.2 Even stronger trends have been noted in Canada, the U.K., France, Russia, Brazil, Argentina and other large diaspora Jewish communities.

Because, for a Jew, your kids’ Jewish education is what life is about.

So let’s say you’ve been given the task of creating a system of Jewish education. You want to turn out educated Jews, dedicated to the Jewish people and to their values who will never stop learning for their entire lives.

What do you teach them?

Now that you’ve had time to ponder that, let’s look at the curriculum set for the original Jewish public educational system.

(Benams Photo)
(Benams Photo)

Hold on! How Did Jewish Education Get This Way?

Before we start, let’s put some historical/sociological context to this educational system.

Jewish society has always been an outlier, mostly because its principal religious and social activity is education. In traditional Jewish culture the most impressive thing you can say about a guy is not that he’s rich, handsome or powerful, or even that he’s a doctor. The biggest thing you can say about a person is that “he knows how to learn.”

That’s an attitude about education that starts during childhood—at home and in school. And it has deep and ancient roots.

What did G‑d find so special about Abraham? Fearless? Faithful? Visionary? Brilliant orator? None of the above. G‑d says Himself: “He is dear to me, because I know that he will command his children and his household after him to follow in the ways of G‑d, to do charity and justice.”3 Abraham, granddaddy of the Jewish people, was first and foremost an educator of his family—as well as to the world.

Same with Moses. Ten plagues and splitting the Red Sea were impressive, but his principal task in life was teaching the people. Effectively, he created a society that could only work through education. And over and over, he insists, “People! Teach your children!”4

You’ve probably heard this before—and often—that the Jewish people’s unique take on education is what set ancient IsraelIn the ancient world, nobody else made educating your children a religious requirement. apart from its neighbors and enemies, and later enabled its people to survive and even prosper in exile.

In the ancient world, nobody else made educating your children a religious requirement. Sure, if you were a Greek, Roman or Zoroastrian pagan, you had to learn how to make offerings to your favorite deities. Or maybe you got initiated into mysteries and magic, because Dad was into one of those Orphic, Dionysian of Mithraic cults. If you lucked out with a Manichean dad (ancient Star-Wars-themed religion), you learned to fast and pray and fast.5

But in Judaism, education wasn’t so much about “This is how we do things around here,” as it was “Read these books, know them well, learn the commentary, and get in on the discussion.”

Surprisingly, even the monotheistic religions that branched out of Judaism, like Christianity and Samarianism, didn’t insist that parents teach their kids.6

That somewhat explains why, in the century before the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 CE, the leading sages of Israel established the world’s first public school system. They could feel a diaspora coming, and they bunkered down for it by formalizing the process of Jewish education.

The schools teach Jewish values and life lessons, and the atmosphere “felt like family,” according to students. (Benams Photo)
The schools teach Jewish values and life lessons, and the atmosphere “felt like family,” according to students. (Benams Photo)

The World’s First Public Education System

Here’s how that happened—as recorded by the people who led it:

Truly, that man is remembered for the good, and his name is Yehoshua ben Gamla. If not for him the Torah would have been forgotten from the Jewish people.

Initially, whoever had a father would have his father teach him Torah, and whoever did not have a father would not learn Torah at all …

When the sages saw that not everyone was capable of teaching their children, they instituted that teachers of children should be established in Jerusalem

But still, those who had fathers came to Jerusalem and were taught, but those who did not have a father, did not come.

So the sages instituted that teachers of children should be established in one city in each and every region. And they brought the students in at the age of sixteen and at the age of seventeen.

But at that age, a student whose teacher grew angry at him would rebel against him and leave.

Until Yehoshua ben Gamla came (65 CE) and instituted that teachers of young children should be established in each and every province and in each and every town, and they would bring the children in to learn at the age of six and at the age of seven.7

These same sages then went about compiling a curriculum. It’s basically an easily memorizable compendium of all Jewish law that might otherwise be forgotten—because the Jews were now spread over the Roman and Persian empires, and no one had any idea when they would have their land back again.. That curriculum took several generations to consolidate, and it’s called the Mishnah.

They also determined the age levels for each of the stages of education: Reading, understanding and reasoning (well, more like arguing). (Writing wasn’t an emphasis in the ancient world. Scribal arts were a specialized craft due to the resources required.)

So here’s how the system is laid out:

Young girls learn to recite their prayers as part of their comprehensive education. (Benams Photo)
Young girls learn to recite their prayers as part of their comprehensive education. (Benams Photo)

Jewish Education From Birth to Ten: The Literate Jew

The early years aren’t so surprising. You’re fed the basic stories as soon as you start to understand what the adults are talking about and learn the basic prayers as soon as you too can talk.8 Once a year, you get up there and ask all the adults, “What’s different about this night than all other nights?”—and they give you a whole story, food included.

At five, your dad is supposed to start teaching you the fundamentals of reading Hebrew.9

At age six or seven—depending on your maturity—you’re packed off to school.

There they load you with more stories, only that now you have to learn to read them yourself, out loud, with the prescribed melodies, from “In the beginning …” through all Five Books of Moses, the Prophets, Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Ruth, Esther …the entire Hebrew Bible—all by the time you’re ten years of age.

Still not so surprising—other than that there’s some really juicy stuff in there that you wouldn’t think a child of such a tender age should be exposed to. But look, it’s all G‑d’s Torah, and all your heritage. So let the teacher figure out some way to explain real-life adult affairs to the naive and innocent child.

Where it starts getting real interesting is at age ten. That’s when Mishnah begins.

Read: Jewish Education

Jewish Education From Ten to Fifteen: The Knowledgeable Jew

At age ten, the founders of our educational system determined, you need to know what to do if your ox gores someone else’s ox. Or walks through the market and smashes someone’s pottery with its tail.

You need to know what to do if you find a lost object—how to determine whether it was placed there purposely or just dropped carelessly, whether the owner will be able to identify it, whether the owner might still be looking for it or has already given up on it (in which case, it may well be yours), and how to tell whether the guy claiming it is telling the truth.

They also determinedThey also determined that a ten-year-old needs to know how to write an ironclad contract that will stand up in court, and how to make sure you’re not ripping anyone off with this contract. that a ten-year-old needs to know how to write an ironclad contract that will stand up in court, how to be a witness on a contract, how to make sure you’re not ripping anyone off with this contract, and what conditions might apply that you may otherwise not be aware of.

Then there’s how to get married. How to get divorced. How much you’re going to have to shell out if you opt for divorce, and why that’s not a good idea.

There’s laws of collateral, of liens on property, of leases, loans and the responsibilities of both parties in all these cases.

You’ll need to know who can sit on a tribunal court to judge a monetary case, who can sit on a court of 23 judges to judge a capital case, how they judge a case, what evidence is considered credible and what is not, and what happens if they can’t come to a conclusion.

Somewhere between the ages of ten and fifteen, you’ll also have learned how to construct a mikvah—a pool for ritual immersion. You’ll learn about female menstruation cycles and how that affects marital life. You will learn what relationships are forbidden and what are permissible. You’ll get a map of familial relationships of hyper-complexity extending to first, second and third cousins—so that you’ll know how that affects marriage, testimony in court and inheritance.

Of course, there’s also the ritualistic stuff, like how to do a kosher slaughter of an animal or fowl, how to check its inner organs to ensure it’s not treif, and how to salt it to remove its blood. There’s the laws of circumcision, of offerings in the Temple, of tithes to the kohanim and levites. Lots of rules about ritual impurity, so that when you provide those tithes, those who receive it will actually be able to eat it.

You’ll memorize and grasp some basic matrices and paradigms, such as 39 forms of work on Shabbat, four kinds of damages, four categories of liquids that might fall into a mikvah.

Basically, the entire gamut of Jewish law in five years. Memorized until it’s all on the tip of your tongue, with as much understanding as can be expected from a fifteen-year-old.

As Josephus, who lived through the destruction of Jerusalem, put it, if any Jewish child were asked about the laws of Judaism, “he will more readily tell them all than he will tell his own name.”10

Along, of course, with dissident opinions. Because there’s very little in Jewish law on which there aren’t at least two opinions. And the sages who compiled the Mishnah determined it fit to preserve a lot of those opinions—even though they lost the vote—and make sure you teenagers would get them as well.11

And with that, you are now officially an ignoramus.

The first page of Talmud as it appears in standard editions, the text surrounded by the commentaries of Rashi,Tosafot, and others.
The first page of Talmud as it appears in standard editions, the text surrounded by the commentaries of Rashi,Tosafot, and others.

Jewish Education: From Ignoramus to the Educated Jew

You see, the opposite of an educated Jew is what the sages called an am ha’aretz. Literally, that means, “people of the earth,” but it became a colloquial term for “ignoramus.”

What is a Jewish ignoramus? What is a Jewish ignoramus? Someone who hasn’t learned the kind of reasoning that makes you part of the discussion.Many descriptions are provided, but the one considered most authoritative is “Even if he reads and can recite the Mishnah, if he has not attended to the students of the sages, he is an am ha’aretz.”12

“Attended to the students of the sages” does not mean pouring their drinks. It means that when the students of the sages gathered to discuss the reasoning of the Mishnah and engaged in debate, you were there. Even if you did not contribute, but you followed along, you learned how they reasoned, how they argued a point, how they took it apart and put it back together again so they could come to a consensus—by being part of that experience you were no longer an ignoramus. You had Torah.13

That discussion part was later captured in ink—as much as such a thing is possible, and actually beyond any degree we might have imagined—in the form of the Gemara, a running hyper-conversation of sages of five generations plus ripping apart the Mishnah from every angle in their efforts to make sense of it and apply it to their world.

And that combination of the Mishnah and the Gemara—known as the Talmud—became the basic bread and butter of higher Jewish education. So that we won’t all be ignoramuses.

Read: Eternalize Your Mind

(Photo: Elie Haouzi)
(Photo: Elie Haouzi)

Three Take-Aways on Jewish Education

Whatever your conclusions, here are three things I personally take away from all this:

  1. Jewish education is about life on earth—all of it.

    Some think a religious education is about G‑d, heaven and getting to heaven. Sure, we need to provide soul food for our kids. There’s got to be something transcendent and mysterious in your life. But the meat and potatoes of Jewish education is not about getting to heaven. It’s about getting heaven down to earth.

    So the Jewish education we provide our kids today should do the same. We want every Jewish kid to learn to be a mentsch, to do business with integrity, and find G‑d in all his daily affairs.

  2. Jewish education is time-transcendent.

    Time is to Jewish education what geography is to others. It’s all there, all at once, and you have to know the roadways that connect the dots. When you learn Torah, Abraham, Sarah, Moses, Deborah, David, the Temple in Jerusalem, Esther, Hillel, Akiva, Maimonides, the Arizal, the Baal Shem Tov and you are all alive in the same space together.

    So we want our kids to have that same sense—not of history, but of my-story. Of where I fit in this grand story, and where I am supposed to take it. Because it’s all moving in one direction—towards a world as its Creator meant it to be.

  3. Jewish education is about being part of the discussion.

    Even if you know every halachah in the Code of Jewish Law, all of Jewish history, and are fluent in Hebrew, Aramaic, Ladino, Yiddish and Judeo-Arabic, you’re an ignoramus. Until you can become part of the discussion. Sure, you need knowledge to join the discussion. But, more than that, you need to sit in a place where that knowledge is being slammed back and forth in a hi-speed hockey game.

    That’s a place we call Yeshivah. And every Jew, no matter what age, should have an opportunity to spend at least a few months in a yeshivah.

    Because every Jew needs to be an educated Jew.