Hilchot Talmud Torah, Ch. 2: Complications of Public Education

We speak about “observing halachah,” when, in reality, we privilege some halachot over others.  When Rambam and Shulchan Aruch agree on some ritual rule of taking a lulav or blowing a shofar or keeping kosher, we understand we have to enact it exactly that way.  But when those same authors write about issues that hit closer to ordinary, non-ritual life, we are less sure.

Rambam’s second chapter of the Laws of Torah Study provides a perfect example; his views of education, which he derives fairly directly from the Gemara, will nonetheless appear foreign and even problematic to many readers. Rather than just presenting his views, therefore, I will use those views to hold up a mirror to our practices today, to see if we are even aware of the goals of Jewish education, let alone the mechanisms by which to reach those goals.

Hope for a Better Future

In the first paragraph, Rambam relies on two Talmudic discussions to articulate the importance of establishing what we today call day schools (or yeshivot ketanot, however you pronounce that term).  Shabbat 119b presents a list of reasons Yerushalayimwas destroyed, phrased as לא חרבה ירושלים אלא בשביל ש…, Yerushalayim was only destroyed because…

The multiple options might indicate a dispute about what led to the destruction, but it seems to me equally plausible that each opinion was presenting a sufficient cause of the destruction.  Rav Hamnuna’s reason was שביטלו בה תינוקות של בית רבן, they stopped elementary school students’ learning (while that might mean they actively interfered with their learning, it might mean only that they didn’t ensure that the children were learning). Once the topic was brought up, Resh Lakish quotes R. Yehudah Nesiah to the effect that the world is kept going only by the breath of school children’s learning.  (This, too, might mean only that this is a necessary element in the world’s continuity, not the only element).

R. Pappa says to Abaye, what about our breath, and Abbaye says their breath has no sin mixed in.  Note that the Gemara doesn’t say the world is kept going by the existence of innocent schoolchildren, so we need to know the connection between innocence, learning, and sustaining the world if we are to fully understand the point.

I suggest, in line with last week’s claim that Talmud Torah is about the passing along of a chain of tradition, that passing it along to the innocent holds out the hope that that generation might do a better job of shepherding Torah than we’ve done. Abbaye and R. Pappa, great as they were, knew their failings. Elementary school children, still being formed, still possibly closer to perfection than those teaching them, are our hope that Torah will find the home it deserves. Hope keeps the world going.

A Communal Responsibility

In that same Gemara, Resh Lakish tells R. Yehudah Nesiah of a tradition that any city that does not hire a teacher (or set up a school, with enough children), should be first excommunicated and, if they still refuse, destroyed.  That’s a value statement, not a practical directive, and reminds us that having such schools is a parental responsibility—since they have a direct obligation to teach Torah to their children—but also a communal need, a part of building a properly working Jewish community.

That’s emphasized also on Baba Batra 20b-21a. The Mishnah says (and we rule this way) that a resident of a courtyard cannot complain if a neighbor starts a school in that courtyard. (Rambam in Halachah 7 notes that that’s true even if the neighbor has his own school; here we value competition, despite the usual strictures on impinging on someone’s livelihood). Towns and cities need schools.

Yehoshua b. Gamla and the Evolution of Universal Education

On 21a, Rav Yehudah recalls, in the name of Rav, how the system of every town having a teacher developed.  Originally, education was a parental obligation, which came with the downside that those whose parents didn’t do the job generally didn’t end up knowing any Torah. A first solution was a yeshivah in Yerushalayim (since the verse says Torah should go out from Tziyon, the word of Hashem from Yerushalayim), but that didn’t help that much, since students could only get there if they had a parent to bring them.

Next, people set up schools in every district (or county), and young men would go there around the ages of 16 or 17, when they were old enough to make the trip (and dorm). That too failed, because by then, students were less ready to accept their teacher’s words, and would leave if they didn’t like something (an important lesson about starting education young; the more formed we are, the harder it is to accept instruction and guidance that runs counter to what we expect).

Then came Yehoshua b. Gamla, whom Rashi identifies as a High Priest of the Second Temple period. He instituted the requirement for every community to have a teacher, which paved the way for education to start from a young age.

The Complications of Good and Evil

Ritva is bothered by Rashi’s identification, since Yoma 18a reports that Marta bat Beitus (a famously wealthy Yerushalmit of the time of the Destruction) gave the Romans a great deal of money for him to be High Priest. Ritva doesn’t see how a corrupt High Priest would do this.

His two answers retain that assumption. He suggests either that there were two Yehoshua b. Gamlas, or that his time in the High Priesthood changed him for the better.

I am struck by Ritva’s not acknowledging the possibility that Yehoshua b. Gamla was a complex individual, with pluses and minuses. He may have been corrupt enough to buy the High Priesthood, and still also interested in promoting a better national education system.

Introducing a Child to Torah Study

When we move to the details of the system, we get to the thorny questions of how best to apply it in our times. Rav tells R. Shmuel bar Shailat not to accept students before the age of six, seven for a sickly child.  Rabbenu Gershom says that that’s because the child cannot yet take the hard work of study. Note already the assumption that Torah study is work, requires effort.

Tosafot pointed out the seeming contradiction with Avot, which said we start learning Written Torah at five. Tosafot suggests there are levels of health among children, some ready to learn at five, some at six, some at seven. Another option, in Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah, 248;8, is that Avot meant five full years, starting the sixth.  Rema adds, citing Abarbanel to Avot, that after the child is three full years old, the father should start teaching him letters, so he’s ready to read Torah when the time comes.

An overall attitude, in Ketubbot 50a, is that we start off stuffing Torah like an ox, and, by age twelve, get more serious about it.  Stuffing isn’t force feeding, but it is an attempt to get as much Torah into the child as can be done effectively. If that doesn’t work, by age twelve the parent (and teacher) is supposed to make clear that this is a life’s necessity, not just a nice addition to life. We can make allowances for students who absolutely cannot learn the minima we saw last week (all of the Written Torah, for Rashi), but other than that, we are supposed to be communicating to our children that mastering as much material as they can is an absolute necessity.

That’s a productive first question for us today: have we maintained a sense of the necessity of minimal knowledge in Torah? Do our children know we expect them, barring serious learning disabilities, to accomplish at least this much and more, each according to his talents? Do we in fact expect that of them?

Here’s one way in which we do not, and might want to rethink the messages we send. We today allow many high school students to take AP courses who have not yet come close to knowing all of Chumash. We let them move on to college work in their general studies, when they haven’t finished the elementary school job of learning Torah.  That imbalance sends a message of what we value, and I think it’s a message that is in tension with what tradition tells us—with no obvious justification.

Here’s another way we do not. Imagine if a child of six or twelve engaged in behavior that was physically dangerous, even life-threatening. Would we encourage him gently to avoid that behavior, try to show him the value in acting other ways? Or would we make damn sure the child stopped acting that way, to be sure he lived? Do we translate that, in any way, to Torah?

The Length of the School Day and Year

A related issue, since it depends on our sense of the importance of mastering certain material, is how we construct our school days and years. Rambam’s model is that students should be learning all day and some of the night, to communicate the lifelong necessity of fulfilling the verse of והגית בו יומם ולילה, you shall talk about them day and night (that reminds us, as we’ll see next time, that Rambam held there was a general obligation to study Torah in the day and in the night).

Rambam also assumes students should be studying every day other than Erev Shabbat and Erev Yom Tov in the afternoon (it’s not fully clear whether Erev Shabbat is also just in the afternoon or the whole day), and Yom Tov itself. For Shabbat, while students aren’t to do the hard work of studying new material, they would gather to review what they had previously learned.

That is a challenging model, especially since many Jewish schools follow the public school model of 180 days a year. Some will claim that it’s not number of hours or days that’s important (since some countries, like Finland, have high-performing students with fewer hours), but in terms of Torah study, there’s little evidence that that’s true.

One way to ask the question would be to say, why don’t we do what Rambam recommends. A more realistic way to ask it is: if Rambam thought this was necessary to master one curriculum, what are doing to ensure we have enough time to allow our students to master the two curricula we expect of them?

It brings us back, again, to remembering that Torah study isn’t about involvement, it’s about accomplishing certain goals, with a minimum and a higher aspiration. If we are generally falling short of the minimum, it would seem to obligate us, as a community, to confront that failure and ask what we can do to rectify it. Rambam is offering one simple answer: more time.

Class Sizes

The last issue for which I have space is class size. Rambam, Halachah 5, says that up to twenty-five children learn with one teacher, 25-40 children with a teacher and an assistant, and up to fifty with two teachers. (Vilna Gaon to Yoreah Deah 248;23, notes that Rabbenu Yonah agreed, but that Rosh held that one teacher could handle up to forty students).

One possibility is that Rambam et al. were assuming a frontal style of teaching, which makes classroom management easier, and that educational philosophies in that time did not account as well for individual needs as we do today. There’s truth to that.

At the same time, some parts of classroom management also depend on the sense of seriousness that has been inculcated in students. For example, Rambam speaks about corporal punishment, not to hurt the child or vent the teacher’s anger, but to instill a sense that this is not to be taken lightly. We can reject corporal punishment as too prone to abuse (or for other reasons), but we are left still needing to wonder how to replace that in terms of teaching students their need to behave.

One reason to ask this question is that class size is a significant element in school budgets (and that was the context in which the Gemara brought it up—at what point does a community have to pay for an assistant teacher, and at what point do community members have to pay for a full second teacher).  If schools today strive for classes of twenty or fewer (in the lower grades, with an assistant teacher), that raises tuition.

Some part of that, it seems to me, is that children are allowed to behave in ways that necessitate that much supervision.  Are there ways we could teach students that it is their job to act such that a teacher can effectively handle up to twenty-five students on his/her own? I bet there are.

The second chapter of the Laws of Torah Study thus throws out several challenges. First, do we see education as a communal responsibility, vital to the health of our communities, not just the families that happen to have school-age children? Second, do we introduce children to Torah study early enough that it is as much a part of their basic makeup as other cultural inputs? Third, do we give them the seriousness about Torah study that will make clear to them (and us) the required minimum? Fourth, do we allow them enough time to accomplish that?

And, last, do we structure our schools—and train our students—so that we can have the kinds of class sizes and school experience that makes it financially sustainable as well as educationally productive? Hard but important questions, courtesy of Rambam’s Laws of Torah Study, Chapter Two.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Gidon Rothstein has served in the community rabbinate and in educational roles at the high school and adult level. He is an author of Jewish fiction and non-fiction, most recently "We're Missing the Point: What's Wrong with the Orthodox Jewish Community and How to Fix It." He lives in Bronx, NY with his wife and three children.