Their Love For Tilling the Soil is Truly Great

Daily life in Palestine from the first through fifth centuries.

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As the official representatives of the local community, they were empowered to buy and sell public property, including the synagogue. Both literary sources and archaeological findings refer to the leader of the local community as archisynagogos. It is still unclear whether he [or she] was actually the leader of the entire community or simply one of the synagogue directors, or perhaps in certain places these two functions were one and the same.

Citizenship and Taxes

From the Talmud we also learn about the crystallization of a notion of "citizenship" among the Palestinian Jews: a distinction be­tween permanent and transient inhabitants. The concept has even received legal formulation: "How long should one be in a town to be as the townsmen? Twelve months. And he who buys a house to dwell in, immediately becomes as the townsmen" (Bava Batra, 1:5).

Even before com­pleting a period of one‑year's residence, the newcomer had to partake in certain obliga­tions. After three months he was required to contribute to the communal charity fund; after twelve months he became a tax‑paying citizen. Taxes were levied by the community in order to finance the construction of synagogues, buying Torah scrolls, maintaining public property, and paying the salaries of town officials. Among the latter were the agronomos (market inspector), the hazzan (in the Talmudic period designating a synagogue officer, not a cantor), "city guards" (in charge of security but also of observance of municipal regulations such as opening hours of shops), and, finally, school teachers.


There is very little information about formal education prior to the destruction of the Tem­ple, although later sources ascribe pedagogical programs to major figures of the Hasmonean years (Simeon ben Shetah) or of the close of the Second Temple period (Joshua ben Gam­la).

For the talmudic period, however, there is definite evidence of the existence of permanent institutions for elementary religious instruction--mostly for teaching children how to read the Scriptures. These were very different from the Greco‑Roman schools which primed adoles­cents for public careers. The young Jew, who in most cases would earn his living within the family circle, acquired the skill of reading (and sometimes, though not always, of writing), with the "teacher of infants." Only the very talented or affluent would advance to the study of the halakha [Jewish law]with a renowned master.

The entire educational system, needless to say, was designed only for boys. Although there are indications that some girls did receive a smattering of letters, public activity was re­served for men. Even if women went to the synagogue and heard the sermons, their role remained purely passive. Nonetheless, there was still no "women's gallery"; the segregation of the sexes in the synagogue was apparently not introduced until the early Middle Ages.

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Isaiah Gafni is a Professor of Jewish History at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He specializes in the history of the Jewish people during the Second Temple period.