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The Stabilization of Rabbinic Culture, 100 C.E.–350 C.E.Texts on Education and Their Late Antique Context$

Marc Hirshman

Print publication date: 2009

Print ISBN-13: 9780195387742

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: September 2011

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195387742.001.0001

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(p.121) Appendix 1 A Survey of Secondary Literature on Education and Literacy in Rabbinic Literature

(p.121) Appendix 1 A Survey of Secondary Literature on Education and Literacy in Rabbinic Literature

The Stabilization of Rabbinic Culture, 100 C.E.–350 C.E.
Oxford University Press

This appendix will briefly survey the major secondary works on education in late antique rabbinic Judaism. This is a scholarly topic that enjoyed popularity midway through the twentieth century. Numerous monographs, containing general surveys of ancient Jewish education, were written in various languages through midcentury. In the latter part of the century, scholarly attention turned to higher education in the yeshivot, academies or disciple circles of Palestine and Babylonia. Finally, the beginning of the twenty-first century saw a renewed interest in the issue of literacy. I will briefly canvass this secondary literature.

One of the most prolific and incisive of the late nineteenth-century scholars was Wilhelm Bacher, whose prodigious works include a multivolume annotated collection of the Aggada of the sages and a very important survey of the vocabulary and process of the transmission of the Tradition (Tradition und Tradenten). His essay “Das altjüdische Schulwesen”1 appeared at the beginning of the twentieth century and, like all his work, is marked by thoroughness and a firm mastery of the sources. He opens elegantly with the Jewish sages' own contrasting of the Greco-Roman theater and circus with the rabbinic beit midrash (house of study) and beit kenesset (house of assembly). These, respectively, are the cultural icons of the two societies in the post-Temple era of the second century C.E. Bacher rightly points out that these institutions, the theater and the circus on the one hand and the synagogue and academy on the (p.122) other hand, actually existed in physical proximity in some of the more hellenized cities of Palestine. As an addendum to his opening, I would like to note that the rabbis chose to pit the two against each other specifically on the level of popular culture. It would have been possible to contrast the philosophical academies of late antiquity with the rabbinic yeshivot (academies) or disciple circles. But the contrast is made of places frequented by “the masses.”2 This point will be raised in a different section by Bacher as he tries to argue for the wide dissemination of scriptural knowledge among the Jews Bacher moves on to a historical reconstruction of the growth of Jewish education, drawing on late biblical sources and rabbinic accounts. He sees Ezra's reading of the Torah before the people (Nehemiah 8, 1–8) on 1 Tishre 445 as “the birthday of ancient Jewish education.”3 It is in the late biblical books, of the Persian period, that the word talmid (student) first appears (1 Chronicles 25, 8). The author of 2 Chronicles 17, 7 attributes to King Jehosaphat a royal commission that was charged with circulating through the cities of Judea and teaching Torah. Bacher sees this as a confirmation of Ezra's accomplishment attributed anachronistically to an earlier time.4 Bacher goes on to intertwine mishnaic and Talmudic evidence regarding Second Temple education with that of the late biblical sources. The well-worn phrase of the “People of the Great Assembly”—“raise up many students” (mAvot 1, 1)—takes on new meaning when seen in the light of the 2 Chronicles passage and becomes, according to Bacher, “the primary or foundational idea” (Grundgedanken) of ancient Jewish education. Bacher attempts to harmonize two famous Talmudic passages, amending one of them, and thus locates the proliferation of primary education in the Hasmonean period, rather than the 60s of the first century C.E. as the Babylonian Talmud (Bava Batra 21a) would have it. We analyzed this source in chapter 6. The rest of the essay treats, with greater brevity, issues of educational organization (p. 61), ages of the students (p. 64), techniques of teaching and learning (p. 66), the paedagogus—the one who is responsible for bringing the child to school (usually mothers but sometimes grandparents; p. 68), private tutors (p. 69), salary (pp. 70–71), discipline (p. 72), the school day, recesses, and other details. He ends the essay by returning to the Bible and a reading of Psalms 119 and its celebration of learning. Ancient Jewish education, he claims, was instrumental in shaping the Jewish people's soul (Volkseele) (p. 80) and in instilling it with a propensity for learning (den Trieb zu lernen). Bacher's own passion for learning informs his essay, and though one can, and many did, dispute some of the historical or philological points, the essay remains a sensible and learned survey of the basic sources and features of ancient Jewish education. Towa Perlow, in her L'éducation et l'enseignment chez les Juifs a l'époque talmudique (Paris, 1931), characterizes Bacher's contribution (p.123) as “suggestif mais incomplet” (p. 11). Since Perlow dismisses most of her predecessors as apologetically motivated and uncritical, her reserved approval of Bacher is noteworthy. Her own contribution, in a well-defined study of the Talmudic sources of the third and fourth centuries of the common era, attempts to be historically critical. She offers a reasoned and measured assessment of the historical growth of elementary Jewish education, affirming the existence of elementary schools in the large cities by Mishnaic times (second through third centuries C.E.; p. 28). She notes an explosion of Talmudic sayings on the importance of elementary education from the third century and notes the correlation also in Babylonia with an edict by Ardashir-Babegan that permitted establishing a synagogue and a school in every city (pp. 31–32). Her adducing a New Testament apocryphal parallel to the descriptions of the ancient Jewish systematic teaching of letters is enlightening. In another chapter she cites from a secondary source an epitaph of an eight-year-old child who was the chef, the leader of the synagogue (p. 78). Perlow's compelling usage of nonrabbinic material is illuminating, though these examples fairly well exhaust their usage in the monograph. Perlow is acutely aware of the limits the sources place on her topic, not always treating in detail important subjects, such as methods of instruction (p. 50). On the whole this is a responsible collection of the more important sources that treat education in the third and fourth centuries. Her emphasis on cultivation of memory (p.54 ff.) and the ultimate goal of shaping the learner's religious character (p. 19 ff., 73 ff.) is surely on the mark. There is a short section devoted to the teaching of a profession or a craft, another on the lack of physical education, and, strikingly, a section on women's education in rabbinic literature. Appended to the work is a list of some twenty-five diverse and significant terms that relate to education. The appendix is interesting in and of itself but serves also to highlight the fact that the author's own approach does not do justice to the philological aspects of the study. This work remains, seventy years later, a stimulating and thought-provoking effort to characterize the goals and thrusts of third- and fourth-century Talmudic education.

Nathan Morris's book The Jewish School is an ambitious attempt to fully describe the origins, organization, and theories of the Jewish school of late antiquity. The author deftly collects widely scattered material and compares it liberally with both “modern” educational theory and educational practices and theories of Greek and Roman literature. It is a highly readable and instructive account and is balanced in its judgments. Morris divided his work into six large topics, covering the beginnings of education, organization, curriculum, theory and methods, education to labor, and the world of the child. He sees the rabbinic endeavor as “past oriented,” a people reeling from the political (p.124) devastations of the first two centuries and furtively trying to turn education into the centerpiece of survival. One need not accept this overarching theory, though many do actually agree with it, to mine the book for an enormous amount of material, well presented and compared cursorily to Greco-Roman material. The book is marred somewhat by the author's zealousness to show how progressive or effective the rabbinic methods of instruction were. This tendency is mitigated by an appeal to historical context, especially when dealing with a topic like discipline.5 It remains the best overview, though two similar works followed it in the next two decades.6 T. Morgan's insight, in terms of classical education in antiquity, certainly holds true in the ancient Jewish sphere also: “The infrequency, the vagueness and the inconsistency of our references to places of education, numbers and ages of pupils, methods of teaching and the structure of the “school day,” if any, are in sharp contrast with the wealth of relatively precise and consistent information we have about the content of education.”7

Shmuel Safrai's essay “Education and the Study of Torah” (1976)8 presents a vivid picture of education in Palestine during the first few centuries of the common era. He deftly weaves disparate sources into a clear and concise picture. This is certainly the richest, most succinct presentation of the issue in English. It covers many of the standard sources adduced by Bacher in his German essay seventy years earlier but adds others as well. Safrai relies on traditions of the Babylonian Talmud and tannaitic sources quoted there to build his reconstruction, a classical approach, though not popular today among contemporary historians. Safrai notes there the dearth of studies on higher education of the period. This lacuna was quickly filled by excellent studies by D. Goodblatt,9 and I. Gafni10 regarding the Babylonian Yeshivot and H. Shapira's recent Hebrew University dissertation (2001) on the beit midrash. Safrai himself focuses almost exclusively on the sources themselves, only occasionally engaging earlier studies.

In that same year, H. Z. Dimitrovsky edited Exploring the Talmud, a volume devoted to the topic of education that was the first in a projected series of anthologies of classic articles on Talmudic subjects.11 As Dimitrovsky points out in his learned introduction to the volume, the essays reflect more than a hundred years of scholarship employing different methods and standards. The collection is a valuable contribution to the study of education in the rabbinic period and provides an evocative overview of some of the more important subjects, such as conceptions of education, the roles of rabbis and teachers, the nature of the teaching process, and depictions of the schools and academies.

The most exhaustive, somewhat critical collection and analysis of the many and diverse sources regarding education in the Talmudic age is definitely (p.125) M. Aberbach's Hebrew collection of essays entitled Jewish Education in the Period of the Mishna and the Talmud (Jerusalem, 1982). These are discrete essays written over fifteen years and published in an American Hebrew journal, Shivilei Hahinuch. The main sections of the book cover the following topics: “The Development of Jewish Education (from the Babylonian exile through the third century of the Christian era),” “The ‘Hebrew’ Teacher in the Talmudic Period,” “Master-Disciple Relations” (the longest section, pp. 93–212), “The Paedaegogus in the Midrash,” “Discipline and Punishment in the Biblical and Talmudic Period,” “Bad Traits of the Students in the Talmudic Era,” “Educating to the Love of Israel,” and “Teaching Values through Torah Education.” The 300-page volume is an excellent collection of the disparate material on these subjects, only occasionally consulting modern critical assessments of these sources. It is by far the most detailed view of these aspects of antique education. Two of these sections have appeared in shorter, less detailed versions in English, but through them one can get a sense of how the author approached his subject.12 Aberbach has made a substantial contribution by assembling the material, subjecting it to a close reading and drawing intermittently on previous studies and comparative material.

Important contributions to the study of medieval Jewish education include those of S. Assaf,13 S. Goitein's early studies culminating in his magisterial book A Mediterranean Society,14 and more recently I. Marcus15 and E. Karnafogel.16 The Second Temple period that precedes the Talmudic age still awaits a comprehensive work, but in the meantime, suggestive work has been done by E. Bickerman17 and M. Hengel18 on the Greco-Roman context of Second Temple Judaism. Most noteworthy is A. Mendelson's work on Philo and secular education.19 Excellent comparative work can be found in H. Gregory Snyder's Teachers and Texts in the Ancient World,20 bringing together material from the philosophical schools, Qumran, Christians, and more. His findings concerning the role of the text in the various schools and traditions are illuminating and shed light on the rabbinic materials treated here. Moreover, recent attention has put a spotlight on the orality of rabbinic culture. Significant contributions have been made by M. Jaffee21 and Y. Elman;22 most recently, the noted Talmudic scholar Y. Sussman23 authored a definitive 175-page article proving, once and for all, the orality of rabbinic literature. This trend was anticipated forty-five years ago by B. Gerhardsson's important volume, Memory and Manuscript: Oral and Written Transmission in Rabbinic Judaism.24

The final important contribution to the study of Jewish education in late antiquity is C. Hezser's study Jewish Literacy in Late Antiquity.25 Hezser devotes a long chapter to education, reviewing some of the prominent sources and literature. Her most significant contribution has been a complete (p.126) integration of the most recent studies in Greco-Roman education and literacy, and most of all sharp attention to the scant physical evidence and archaeological remains available for Jewish schooling. She has also appended an exhaustive bibliography.

This small but rich library of scholarly attention to the topic of Jewish education in late antiquity has served us well in the previous pages. Two aspects of our study distinguish it from our predecessors. First are the great strides made in the critical study of rabbinic sources. Second is the focus of our research on the ideals of education as the sources present them in those passages where a concerted effort was made to consider the ideals of learning and education. What were the salient features and goals of ancient learning as they are expressed in these mini-tractates on learning? It is to that task that we devoted this volume.


(1.) Wilhelm Bacher, “Das altjüdische Schulwesen.” The essay appeared in Jahrbuch für Jüdische Geschichte und Literatur 6 (1903): 48–81.

(2.) M. D. Herr, “Synagogues and Theatres (Sermons and Satiric Plays)” [in Hebrew], in S. Elizur et al., eds., Knesset Ezra: Literature and Life in the Synagogue (Jerusalem: Yad Izhak Ben-Zvi, 1994), 118, rightly concludes his essay with the prayer of R. Nechuniah ben Hakaneh as explained in pBerachot 4, 2, 7d, where the sage gives thanks that his portion is among those who sit in the beit midrash and beit knesset and is not among those who sit in theaters and circuses. Herr's interpretation of the parallel phenomenon of political satire in theater and midrash alike is thought- provoking, though I am not in agreement with his interpretation of the key source of Yosi Meonaya. Recent trends in historical scholarship are skeptical of the extent to which the rabbis had impact on the masses. See, for example, Seth (p.165) Schwartz, Imperialism and Jewish Society 200 B.C.E–640 C.E. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001), 238–239.

(3.) Bacher, “Das altjüdische Schulwesen,” 54: “der Geburtstag des altjüdischen Schulweis betrachtet warden.”

(4.) Ibid., 56.

(5.) N. Morris, The Jewish School (London: Eyre and Spotteswoode, 1937), 170.

(6.) N. Drazin, History of Education from 515 B.C.E. to 220 C.E. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1940). Drazin is a bit more expansive in detailing some of the contents of Jewish learning and is highly critical of Morris's view that writing was not taught in the elementary school (p. 85); E. Ebner, Elementary Education in Ancient Israel during the Tannaitic Period 10–220 C.E. (New York: Bloch, 1956), presents what he says is “a greater array of source material than has hitherto been presented. This is of particular importance, since the information we possess is altogether scant and of a fragmentary nature” (p. 5).

(7.) T. Morgan, Literate Education in the Hellenistic and Roman Worlds (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 32.

(8.) In S. Safrai and M. Stern, eds., Compendia Rearum Iudaicarum ad Novum Testamentum: The Jewish People in the First Century (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1974), 945–970.

(9.) D. Goodblatt, Rabbinic Instruction in Sasanian Babylonia (Leiden: Brill, 1975).

(10.) I. Gafni, The Jews of Babylonia in the Talmudic Era: A Social and Cultural History [in Hebrew] (Jerusalem: Merkaz Zalman Shazar, 1990), 177–236.

(11.) H. Z. Dimtrovsky, ed., Exploring the Talmud (New York: Ktav, 1976.

(12.) Three essays were reprinted in Dimitrovsky, Exploring the Talmud: “Educational Institutions and Problems during the Talmudic Age,” 343–356 (originally printed in Hebrew Union College Annual 37 [1966]: 107–120); “The Relationship between Master and Disciple,” 202–225; and “The Change from a Standing Position to a Sitting Posture by Students after the Death of Rabban Gamliel,” 277–289. See also “The Development of the Jewish Elementary and Secondary School System during the Talmudic Age,” in Studies in Jewish Education 3 (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1988), 290–301. The first essay mentioned in this note has a more detailed philological analysis of the word ulpana; the second and fourth essays are shorter versions of his Hebrew book.

(13.) S. Assaf, Meqorot Letoledot Hachinuch BeYisrael, republished and updated by S. Glick (Jerusalem: JTS Press, 2006).

(14.) S. Goitein, A Mediterranean Society, vol. 2 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1972).

(15.) I. Marcus, Rituals of Childhood: Jewish Culture and Acculturation in Medieval Europe (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1996).

(16.) E. Karnafogel, Jewish Education and Society in the High Middle Ages (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1992).

(17.) E. Bickerman, Jews in the Greek Age (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1988).

(18.) M. Hengel, Judaism and Hellenism (London: SCM Press, 1974).

(p.166) (19.) A. Mendelson, Secular Education in Philo of Alexandria, Monographs of the Hebrew Union College 7 (Cincinnati: Hebrew Union College Press, 1982).

(20.) H. Gregory Snyder, Teachers and Texts in the Ancient World (London: Routledge, 2000).

(21.) M. Jaffee, Torah in the Mouth: Writing and Oral Tradition in Palestinian Judaism 200 BCE–400 CE (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001).

(22.) Y. Elman, ed., Transmitting Jewish Traditions: Orality, Textuality, and Cultural Diffusion (New York: Yale University Press, 2000).

(23.) Y. Sussman, “Torah Shebeal Peh: Peshuta Kemashmaa…,” in Y. Sussman and D. Rosenthal, eds., Mehqerei Talmud III: Talmudic Studies Dedicated to the Memory of Professor Ephraim E. Urbach (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 2005), 209–384.

(24.) Reprinted with a foreword by J. Neusner along with another work of B. Gerhardsson's, Tradition and Transmission in Early Christianity (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998).

(25.) C. Hezser, Jewish Literacy in Late Antiquity (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2001).