Jewish Education in Muslim Lands

In Muslim countries, Jewish boys learned the whole range of Jewish and secular subjects.

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Reprinted with permission from the author.

Subjects Secular and Sacred

Education in Muslim countries, where the majority of Jews lived in the medieval period, included not only Hebrew, Bible, and Talmud but also the whole range of secular learning and even religious subjects (the Koran, at least) studied by Muslim pupils. Jewish children learned either in a school attached to, or part of, the synagogue or in a private schoolwhich was often the house or rented room of a teacher. Parents paid tuition, which was a major ex­pense, and the community paid for the education of orphans and poor children. 

With regard to customs previously mentioned as to the beginning of biblical instruction, age of instruction, and so on, these gen­erally applied also in Jewish communities in Muslim countries. Private letters from the Cairo Genizah show that most common people in Egypt and North Africa had their sons educated at least until the age of thirteen, and Arabic as well as Hebrew reading and writing ability was a standard part of that education. [A genizah is a place where unusable sacred writings were stored in order to preserve them from desecration.] One father wrote to his wife: "We are not honored by the peoples [Gentiles] except by rea­son of knowledge and what has been established in our memories from childhood ... except for knowl­edge, a man is not worth a penny, even if he comes from a distinguished family or from heads of the academies ... let no one belittle the merit of the teacher for he works very hard".

Reading, Writing and Arithmetic

Hebrew writing was also an important part of the educational process, and in fact students wrote “collections”  (mahberot) containing the weekly biblical ­readings that they learned, rather than learning from complete texts of the Bible. Children were

taught first the "alef‑bet” [alphabet] and then reading and writing combinations of letters with vowels. One document [from the genizah] has a writing game for children, in which the letters were given different colors and the teacher wrote the outlines of the letters that the child was to fill in with the correct color (the first coloring book in history?). Another had drawings of snakes with an­imal heads, the Star of David, and other symbols. Later, students in yeshivot [academies] also wrote summaries of what they studied and novellae of their own, just as was the custom in the French and German yeshivot.

Mathematics was learned often even before the student began lessons in writing. Of course, this study was in Arabic, since the first mathematics and astronomy in Hebrew were those of Abraham b. Hayya (ca. 1065‑ca. 1136) in northern Spain. [Abraham bar Hayya was among the first and most important of the medieval Jewish mathematicians and scientists. He lived and wrote in Barcelona.]

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