Jewish Education in Muslim Lands

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

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As noted elsewhere here in articles dealing with Muslim communities, Jews in these countries mas­tered Arabic very soon after the Muslim conquests; in many cases they knew Arabic better than the indige­nous converts to Islam. Jewish boys were allowed to study Arabic, and in many cases even Qu’ran, together with Muslim boys (In many Muslim cities the school was attached to the mosque, just as the Jewish school was to the synagogue; but in other places instruction was in the home of a teacher or even in the marketplace or street).

Syllabus: Physics, Optics, Philosophy, Music Theory, Astronomy and Medicine by Age 18 (or Younger)

Curiosity about the great body of scientific and philosophical knowledge avail­able in the Muslim world soon led to a desire among Jews to acquire this knowledge. To that end, Jewish boys also studied, again together with Muslims, the secular sciences. These included mathematics (alge­bra and geometry, Euclidean and non‑Euclidean, trigonometry, and later, rudimentary calculus), physics, optics, philosophy (ethics, theories of the soul, meta­physics; primarily Aristotelian philosophy and then increasingly the works of the great Muslim philoso­phers), music (theory), astronomy, and medicine. Following in the footsteps of Muslim philosophers, Jewish writers in the Muslim world… wrote on the “classification of sciences,” in reality an out­line of the education curriculum here described.

These secular subjects, many of which today would be considered "advanced" study (if learned at all), were mastered by the age of eighteen or even earlier. The young pupil would learn each subject from a scholar who was a specialist in that area, and this usu­ally necessitated travel to distant cities and even to other lands to learn with the greatest authorities. Maimonides himself, we know, as a youth learned as­tronomy with students of the greatest astronomer in Muslim Spain, Ibn Aflah of Seville. [Maimonides (1138-1204) is generally acknowledged to be the greatest Jewish thinker, Talmudist, and codifier in the Middle Ages.] The student would receive a kind of diploma at the conclusion of his studies with each scholar, listing the books he had mastered and attesting to his proficiency.

Just as in other lands, Jewish students, of course, were expected to learn the Bible, but also midrash and the Talmud, the growing literature of responsa of the geonim(written originally in Arabic and only gradually translated into Hebrew), and such legal compendia as the great work of Isaac al‑Fasi. [The geonim were heads of the yeshivot (academies) in the post-talmudic period.]

With the revival, or more correctly the invention, of He­brew grammar in the tenth century and later, first in Fez in North Africa and then definitively in Muslim Spain, students also applied themselves diligently to mastery of grammar and proper Hebrew composi­tion. At least in Muslim Spain, but probably also in Egypt and Yemen (where Hebrew poetry was highly regarded), young boys also were required to be expert in Hebrew as well as Arabic poetry. Indeed, we have Hebrew poetry composed by poets in adolescence, including Judah ha-Levy, Ibn Gabirol, and others.

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