This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

The Jewish School: Yesterday and Today*

Beneath the foreboding clouds of the reductions to Alberta's education budgets, some Jewish members of the University of Calgary community have been convening over the past academic year to learn about Jewish attitudes towards public education as they emerge from selected passages in the Talmud, its commentaries and codes. The participants in the seminar were frequently astonished to discover how aptly the ancient Jewish sources anticipated issues that we had hitherto presumed were unique to our own era. Some of the items that we discussed might be of interest to the larger body of Jewish Free Press readers, and might be read with profit by our representatives in Edmonton and the local Community Council.

The first remarkable fact that should be emphasized is that a system of universal elementary Jewish education has existed since the era of the Second Commonwealth. According to that ordinance, which remained revolutionary for centuries after its adoption among the Jews, schools must be established in every community to ensure that all Jewish children (at least, the males) have access to formal instruction.

The rabbis recommended six or seven as the age at which a child should begin attending classes, depending on his health and intellectual development. The sources delineate several stages for introducing the pupils to the world of formal learning: Initially the student is gently encouraged to learn, later he is "stuffed" with information in a non-coercive way; eventually he is compelled to apply himself to studies even where this conflicts with his own inclinations.

Although the Talmud is quite explicit in discouraging the admission of children below the age of six, later generations of rabbis strove to reinterpret the sources so as to sanction a lowering of the minimum age to five years or less. They were probably trying to justify the prevailing practices in their own communities.

The Talmud has very precise ideas about the optimal ratios of students to teachers that the community can be forced to support: A single instructor can effectively teach twenty-five students. For forty children an assistant must be hired (usually an advanced member of the class who can help his fellows with reviews and the like). For fifty pupils a second teacher must be appointed. There is disagreement among the commentators about whether these numbers represent minimums, maximums or averages. By all interpretations, they invite some instructive comparisons with the prevailing standards in both public and Jewish schools.

Some parents and educators will sympathize with the words of Rabbi Samuel Kidnover, writing in seventeenth-century Poland, when he laments that in his generation even ten students cannot be managed properly by one teacher, and that the Talmud's ratios must be adjusted in recognition of the spiritual decline that has occurred over the generations!

Closely related to the issue of teacher-student ratios are such questions as: What happens if a community has too few school-age children to warrant their own school? Under what circumstances should they be transported to an institution outside their town or neighbourhood? What consideration must be given in that decision to the children's comfort and safety?

Another associated problem retains its contemporary and local relevance: What happens if neighbours object to the establishing of a school in their vicinity on the grounds that it will create excessive noise, or otherwise impair the esthetic quality of the neighbourhood?

Here the Jewish position is unmistakable: Although such considerations would normally justify the inhabitants of a residential community in obstructing the establishment of businesses or other institutions, in this case the pivotal importance of Jewish education overrides all other objections, and the school must be permitted. Regrettably this principle has not always been appreciated by some elements in our own community.

For those whose curiosity has been aroused, the Talmud and its commentators deal with many other timely issues related to elementary education, including: the use of corporal punishment; tenure and grounds for the dismissal of teachers; the relative merits of memorization vs. critical analysis, and much more. Hopefully some of you are already scurrying to your libraries to learn more about the subject. For the others, I may return to the subject in a future column.

This article and many others are now included in the book

Why Didn's I Learn This in Hebrew School?Why Didn't I Learn This in Hebrew School

by Jason Aronson Publishers

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First Publication: Jewish Free Press, May 19 1994.