The rabbinic court in Usha was none other than the Sanhedrin, the high court of the Jewish people. When the Temple stood, the Sanhedrin convened within it, but the Talmud tells us that when Rome went to war with the Jews and it became apparent that the Temple would fall, Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai set up a stealth meeting with the Roman emperor Vespasian to ask for sanctuary in the town of Yavneh, where he and a small group of sages reconstituted the rabbinic court (Gittin 56b).
The new Sanhedrin operated out of Yavneh for decades, during which time Jewish tensions with Rome remained high, boiling over in the early 2nd century when a self-proclaimed messiah, Bar Kochba, led the Jews back into battle with Rome — again with disastrous results. In the wake of this second devastating war, the Sanhedrin moved once again, this time to Usha in the upper Galilee.
The court of Usha was therefore doubly displaced, first from Jerusalem and then from Yavneh. Its sages faced a grim possibility: that the Jewish people would not survive. Perhaps for this reason, they instituted a number of reforms, including the one we studied yesterday and several others that are recorded on today’s daf, like this one:
Rabbi Ile’a said: In Usha they instituted that one who dispenses (his money to charity) should not dispense more than one-fifth.
… lest he need the help of other people.
This may seem surprising to us, living in a time when many can comfortably afford to give far more than one fifth of their net worth. But among a population devastated by wars with Rome, likely with few truly wealthy members, the ruling seems appropriate and humane. One should give tzedakah, the sages say, but not so much as to impoverish oneself and become a burden on others. Such a ruling would have relieved people who had to make a terrible decision between watching their neighbors starve and starving themselves.
Another decision in Usha regards the education of children:
In Usha, the sages enacted that a person should treat his son gently, until he is 12 years old. From this point forward, he harasses him in all aspects of his life.
This is adapted from the Koren translation available on Sefaria. The Hebrew here actually admits several possible interpretations. The verb for treating the son gently is mitgalgel — literally to “roll himself” — and it often means something like prevail upon (the opposite of how this text has been translated). Nonetheless, in context it seems the preferred meaning is closer to “roll along” — implying that the son is not pushed into schooling. After the age of 12, however, the father yored (literally “comes down”) on him, for the sake of hayav, his life.
The Gemara understands this to mean that the child is not forced to study until he is 12, after which time he is obligated to do so. Perhaps the saying is intentionally ambiguous. Another possibility given in talmudic commentaries is that the son is allowed to pursue studies until age 12, after which he is required to learn a trade.
Needless to say, this is far from the Talmud’s final word on the ideal curriculum. Rav said that after age six, one should “stuff him like an ox” — that is, force feed Torah to elementary-aged children. And the Gemara concedes shortly thereafter that the curriculum and the energy with which it is applied will depend on the constitution of the child. Abaye, in turn, gives us a window into the curriculum of a future rabbi (himself): at six a child is old enough to study Bible, and at 10 he is ready to learn Mishnah.
So which is it? Does one require a rigorous curriculum from an early age? Or give children time to mature and save study for later years? Again, the rabbis disagree:
Rav Ketina said: Anyone who brings his son to school when he is younger than six years old will run after him and not catch him.
There are those who say that his friends will run after him and not catch him.
Rav Ketina says there is no point in trying to educate a child younger than six. Young children should play and mature. But others say the opposite: A child given a head-start before the age of six will run way ahead of his peers. In the end, it probably depends on the child, as the Gemara concedes.
Read all of Ketubot 50 on Sefaria.