Jewish Education in Christian Countries

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

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Similarly, prayers were translated into the vernacular by the father at home, and the entire Passover Haggadah was translated into French, ac­cording to the custom of Rashi and other rabbis. [Rashi (1040-1105) was the foremost French commentator of his time.] These customs have continued in Ashkenazic com­munities until the present time, except that Yiddish, of course, has been substituted for other languages (in modern Israel some extremely  orthodox Jews still translate the Haggadah sentence for sentence into Yiddish).

No Time for the “Wisdom of the Nations”

Hebrew grammar, even after some rudimentary knowledge of it had penetrated the Franco‑German communities, was not a subject of formal study. We have no knowledge of the study of anything that might be termed "secular" studies, such as even fun­damental arithmetic. Rashi(Lev. 18.4) expressed the typical hostility to secular knowledge, warning that one should not say that since he has learned Torah he may now also learn the wisdom of the na­tions. Apparently the learning of the vernacular was itself accomplished through the aforementioned rote translation of biblical passages, and whatever knowledge of calculation or measurements and the like would have been necessary for business purposes seems to have been acquired by "practical" learning.

The Educational Ideal, the Economic Reality

As soon as the boy had adequately "mastered" biblical study he progressed, also at an early age (which varied in theory, according to various scholars; sometimes thirteen but often earlier), directly to the study of the Talmud. This was learned, of course, from manuscript copies, which often contained erroneous or incomplete texts. Part of the study was therefore, endeavoring to arrive at a correct reading of the text being studied.

Not every rabbi was competent to make such corrections, and one of the scholars, Jacob b. Meir ( "Rabbenu Tam"),became incensed more than once with rabbis who presumed to make corrections that in fact were in error (he wrote that some rabbis should be prohibited from teaching in a yeshivah altogether). Students themselves ­often wrote booklets of corrected texts, with notes from­ their teacher's lectures.

The ideal was for a student to continue his studies, advancing to ever-higher levels, in a yeshivah with more reputable and reliable teachers. The realities of life, of course, often precluded this. In the early medieval period, the economy of the Jewish communities was largely agricultural, and even in later centuries this was only gradually replaced by crafts and small businesses. In any case, boys were often needed by their families to work. There is simply insufficient evidence on which to base any conclusions about percentage of boys who actually were able to pursue such advanced talmudic studies. Nevertheless, some form of study was expected of a Jew throughout his life.

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