Jewish Education in Christian Countries

Jewish boys in Christian countries studied Jewish texts from an early age.

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Reprinted with permission from the author.

Learning Started Out Sweet

As in other aspects of Jewish culture, there was a sig­nificant difference between education in Muslim lands and in Europe, particularly Germany and France. There, the concern was of course entirely with "sacred" learning. When a boy reached the age of five or six, he was prepared for a public celebration that traditionally took place on the holiday of Shavuot (commemorating the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai), at which time he was dressed in special clothes and brought to the synagogue, where he stood before the Torah while the Ten Commandments were read. 

Afterward, he was presented to the teacher, who was supposed to carry him in his arms, in reference to a biblical passage (Num. 11. 12) and then present the child with a tablet, on which were inscribed the first and last four letters of the Hebrew alphabet and the verse "Moses commanded us the Torah; inheri­tance of the congregation of Jacob" (Deut. 33.4) and other verses. The child (presumably more than one, since all boys who attained the proper age during the year participated in the same holiday ceremony) then repeated the letters of the alphabet and the verses after the teacher.

More than a little of a superstitious nature was involved in all this, such as the repetition backwards of the last four letters, and other things. The tablet on which the letters were written was adorned with honey, which the child tasted in order to associate “sweetness” with learning. Special cakes were also prepared, or sometimes loaves of holiday bread, on which yet other biblical verses were writ­ten. The child was also given an egg to eat, again in­scribed with verses (this appears to have been an imi­tation of a Gentile custom prevalent in Germany).

old leather books

Bilingual Immersion, Medieval Style

Actual learning began, usually, with rote repeti­tion of the opening chapter of Leviticus, dealing with “pure" matters that were deemed appropriate for “pure" children to read. Learning of the Bible was done aloud, to a special tune (whether or not the same as used in the reading of the Torah in the syna­gogue is not clear from the sources). Eventually not only the Torah but also the Prophets and Writings (Hagiographa) were learned, each with its own melody. (In most cases the entire Bible was not learned, merely segments of it.)

At least in the 13th cen­tury, possibly earlier, the text was learned along with translation in the vernacular of the land (German or French), to the extent that it was possible to correctly translate the sometimes enigmatic texts given the level of knowledge of Hebrew at the time (even today scholars debate the meaning of some biblical texts, of course).

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Norman Roth is a professor of Jewish History at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.