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  • SKETCHES IN JEWISH SOCIAL LIFE - CH. 8 - C
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    Supposing, then, a child to be so far educated at home; suppose him, also, to be there continually taught the commandments and observances, and, as the Talmud expressly states, to be encouraged to repeat the prayers aloud, so as to accustom him to it. At six years of age he would be sent to school; not to an academy, or "beth hammedrash," which he would only attend if he proved apt and promising; far less to the class-room of a great Rabbi, or the discussions of the Sanhedrim, which marked a very advanced stage of study. We are here speaking only of primary or elementary schools, such as even in the time of our Lord were attached to every synagogue in the land. Passing over the supposed or real Biblical notices of schools, and confining our attention strictly to the period ending with the destruction of the Temple, we have first a notice in the Talmud (Bab. B. 21 b), ascribing to Ezra an ordinance, that as many schoolmasters as chose should be allowed to establish themselves in any place, and that those who had formerly been settled there might not interfere with them. In all likelihood this notice should not be taken in its literal sense, but as an indication that the encouragement of schools and of education engaged the attention of Ezra and of his successors. Of the Grecianised academies which the wicked high- priest Jason tried to introduce in Jerusalem (2 Macc iv. 12,13) we do not speak, because they were anti-Jewish in their spirit, and that to such extent, that the Rabbis, in order to "make a hedge," forbade all gymnastic exercises. The farther history and progress of Jewish schools are traced in the following passage of the Talmud (Bab. B. 21 a): "If any one has merit, and deserves that his name should be kept in remembrance, it is Joshua, the son of Gamaliel. Without him the law would have fallen into oblivion in Israel. For they used to rest on this saying of the law (Deu 11:19), 'Ye shall teach them.' Afterwards it was ordained that masters be appointed at Jerusalem for the instruction of youth, as it is written (Isa 2:3), 'Out of Zion shall go forth the law.' But even so the remedy was not effectual, only those who had fathers being sent to school, and the rest being neglected. Hence it was arranged that Rabbis should be appointed in every district, and that lads of sixteen or seventeen years should be sent to their academies. But this institution failed, since every lad ran away if he was chastised by his master. At last Joshua the son of Gamaliel arranged, that in every province and in every town schoolmasters be appointed, who should take charge of all boys from six or seven years of age." We may add at once, that the Joshua here spoken of was probably the high-priest of that name who flourished before the destruction of the Temple, and that unquestionably this farther organisation implied at least the existence of elementary schools at an earlier period.

    Every place, then, which numbered twenty-five boys of a suitable age, or, according to Maimonides, one hundred and twenty families, was bound to appoint a schoolmaster. More than twenty- five pupils or thereabouts he was not allowed to teach in a class. If there were forty, he had to employ an assistant; if fifty, the synagogue authorities appointed two teachers. This will enable us to understand the statement, no doubt greatly exaggerated, that at the destruction of Jerusalem there were no fewer than four hundred and eighty schools in the metropolis. From another passage, which ascribes the fall of the Jewish state to the neglect of the education of children, we may infer what importance popular opinion attached to it. But indeed, to the Jew, child-life was something peculiarly holy, and the duty of filling it with thoughts of God specially sacred. It almost seems as if the people generally had retained among them the echo of our Lord's saying, that their angels continually behold the face of our Father which is in heaven. Hence the religious care connected with education. The grand object of the teacher was moral as well as intellectual training. To keep children from all intercourse with the vicious; to suppress all feelings of bitterness, even though wrong had been done to one's parents; to punish all real wrong-doing; not to prefer one child to another; rather to show sin in its repulsiveness than to predict what punishment would follow, either in this or the next world, so as not to "discourage" the child--such are some of the rules laid down. A teacher was not even to promise a child anything which he did not mean to perform, lest its mind be familiarised with falsehood. Everything that might call up disagreeable or indelicate thoughts was to be carefully avoided. The teacher must not lose patience if his pupil understood not readily, but rather make the lesson more plain. He might, indeed, and he should, punish when necessary, and, as one of the Rabbis put it, treat the child like a young heifer whose burden was daily increased. But excessive severity was to be avoided; and we are told of one teacher who was actually dismissed from office for this reason. Where possible, try kindness; and if punishment was to be administered, let the child be beaten with a strap, but never with a rod. At ten the child began to study the Mishnah; at fifteen he must be ready for the Talmud, which would be explained to him in a more advanced academy. If after three, or at most five, years of tuition the child had not made decided progress, there was little hope of his attaining to eminence. In the study of the bible the pupil was to proceed from the book of Leviticus to the rest of the Pentateuch, thence to the Prophets, and lastly to the Hagiographa. This regulation was in accordance with the degree of value which the Rabbis attached to these divisions of the Bible. In the case of advanced pupils the day was portioned out--one part being devoted to the Bible, the other two to the Mishnah and the Talmud. Every parent was also advised to have his child taught swimming.

    It has already been stated that in general the school was held in the synagogue. Commonly its teacher was the "chazan," or "minister" (Luke 4:20); by which expression we are to understand not a spiritual office, but something like that of a beadle. This officer was salaried by the congregation; nor was he allowed to receive fees from his pupils, lest he should show favor to the rich. The expenses were met by voluntary and charitable contributions; and in case of deficiency the most distinguished Rabbis did not hesitate to go about and collect aid from the wealthy. The number of hours during which the junior classes were kept in school was limited. As the close air of the school- room might prove injurious during the heat of the day, lessons were intermitted between ten a.m. and three p.m. For similar reasons, only four hours were allowed for instruction between the seventeenth of Thamuz and the ninth of Ab (about July and August), and teachers were forbidden to chastise their pupils during these months. The highest honor and distinction attached to the office of a teacher, if worthily discharged. Want of knowledge or of method was regarded as sufficient cause for removing a teacher; but experience was always deemed a better qualification than mere acquirements. No teacher was employed who was not a married man. To discourage unwholesome rivalry, and to raise the general educational standard, parents were prohibited from sending their children to other than the schools of their own towns.

    A very beautiful trait was the care bestowed on the children of the poor and on orphans. In the Temple there was a special receptacle--that "of the secret"--for contributions, which were privately applied for the education of the children of the pious poor. To adopt and bring up an orphan was regarded as specially a "good work." This reminds us of the apostolic description of a "widow indeed," as one "well reported for good works"; who "had brought up children, lodged strangers, washed the saints' feet, relieved the afflicted, diligently followed every good work" (1 Tim 5:10). Indeed, orphans were the special charge of the whole congregation--not thrust into poor-houses,--and the parochial authorities were even bound to provide a fixed dowry for female orphans.

    Such were the surroundings, and such the atmosphere, in which Jesus of Nazareth moved while tabernacling among men.

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