In this week’s parasha we find these verses about teaching our children:

“Fix these words of mine in your hearts and minds; tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Teach them to your children, talking about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates” (Devarim 11:18-20).

This is one of several places where the Torah instructs us to teach our children the Torah. Earlier in the book of Devarim we find: “…make them known to your children and your children’s children” (Devarim 4:9) and, “teach them to your children and your children’s children” (4:10). Similar verses are found later in Devarim (11:19; 32:46).

The Torah gives a concrete commandment to the parent: It is the obligation of each parent to teach his child Torah.

In the present article we will discuss the parameters of this obligation.

The Obligation to Teach Torah

A parent is obligated to teach Torah to his children and even a grandparent is obligated to teach his grandchildren. The Rambam (and others) include this obligation as one of the 613 mitzvos (see Sefer HaMitzvos, Asei 11; see also Yereim 256; Semag, Asin 12; Semak 106; Chinuch 418).

The Sifri (9) extends this obligation to include even disciples who are not a person’s children: “You shall teach your children – these are you disciples. We find everywhere that disciples are termed children, as the verse writes: The children of the prophets came forth (Melachim II 2:3).”

Every able person is thus charged with teaching Torah to those in need of this teaching – even if they are not his children. This principle is ruled by the Rambam (Talmud Torah 1:2):

“Just as a person is obligated to teach his son, so too is he obligated to teach his grandson…. [Furthermore, this charge is not confined] to one’s children and grandchildren alone. Rather, it is a mitzvah for each and every wise man to teach all students, even though they are not his children, as it states: And you shall teach them to your sons. The oral tradition explains: ‘Your sons,’ these are your students, for students are also called sons, as it states: And the sons of the prophets went forth.”

The Rambam concludes: “If so, why do the commandments explicitly mention one’s son and grandson? To grant precedence to one’s son over one’s grandson, and one’s grandson over the son of a colleague.”

 

According to the Rambam, the Chinuch and others, the Torah obligation to teach Torah applies to others just as to one’s own children. Yet the Torah instruction remains a personal charge: Each person (who is able to do so) must teach children Torah, passing on the tradition from one generation to the next.

Enactments of Public Education

In the Second Temple era, the Sages took several important steps to ensure that Torah would be passed on to everyone. The first such enactment is attributed to Shimon ben Shetach, as we find in the Yerushalmi: “He [Shimon ben Shetach] enacted three things…. And that children should go to school” (Kesubos 8:11).

We do not know many details concerning the enactment of Shimon ben Shetach. The enactment of Chazal considered binding in matters of education is that of Yehoshua ben Gamla. The Gemara (Bava Batra 21a) narrates as follows:

“Rav Yehudah taught in the name of Rav: Remember that man – Yehoshua ben Gamla – in a favorable way, for if not for him the Torah would have been forgotten from Israel. At first if a child had a father, his father taught him, and if he had no father he did not learn at all. By what verse did they guide themselves? By the verse, And you shall teach them to your children (osam, “them,” is read atem, “you”).

They then made an ordinance that teachers of children should be appointed in Jerusalem. By what verse did they guide themselves? By the verse, From Zion shall the Torah go forth. Even so, if a child had a father, the father would take him up to Jerusalem and have him taught there, and if not, he would not go up to learn there. They, therefore, ordained that teachers should be appointed In each province, and that boys should enter school at the age of sixteen or seventeen. They did so, and if the teacher punished them they used to rebel and leave the school.

Finally, Yehoshua ben Gamla came and ordained that teachers of young children should be appointed in each district and each town, and that children should enter school at the age of six or seven.”

The first two enactments that Rav Yehudah notes are not attributed to anyone specific. One was that Torah teachers should educate children in Jerusalem, and the second that public school teachers should be established in every province and teach youths from the age of seventeen and up. The Maharsha explains that because there were only few schools, and travel distances were great, only older children could be included in the system.

Finally, when the original enactments proved insufficient to reach all strata of Jewish society, we reach the enactment of Yehoshua ben Gamla, who declared that teachers should staff schools in each and every city, and that the public education system should begin from the age of six or seven. For this enactment, the memory of Yehoshua ben Gamla is blessed, for without him Torah would have been forgotten from Israel.

Government Responsibility for Education

According to the Korban HaEidah, one of the leading commentaries on the Yerushalmi, the enactments of Shimon ben Shetach and of Yehoshua ben Gamla are one and the same. The enactment was first made by Shimon ben Shetach. For some reason, it did not spread sufficiently, and the enactment was therefore remade by Yehoshua ben Gamla.

Rabbi Ben-Tzion Uziel suggests that the two enactments place the responsibility on different shoulders. The original enactment of Shimon ben Shetach left the responsibility for education as a personal obligation of parents. The father has to send his son to school. Yehoshua ben Gamla, however, made the responsibility central – on the community rather than on individuals.

Rabbi Uziel thus sees governmental responsibility for education as being a direct continuation of Yehoshua ben Gamla’s enactments: “The government is responsible for establishing schools and teachers and for bringing the students to study in the schools” (“Shimon ben Shetach and his Torah,” Sinai 32 (5712), p. 348).

Schooling for Everyone: Halachic Rulings

The way in which Poskim cite Yehoshua ben Gamla’s enactment demonstrates the universal and public nature of the ordinance. Rather than mentioning orphans – for whom the enactment was primarily intended – authorities note that each town must establish (moshivin) a school for its youth (see Rif, Bava Basra 21a; Rambam, Talmud Torah 1:1-7; Rosh, Bava Basra 2:6-7; Tur, Yoreh De’ah 245; Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De’ah 245:7-22).

Since the schools were established for everyone, it follows that both the financing and the running of the schools are the responsibility of the community. The Ramah (Bava Basra 21a) makes this point explicitly, explaining that the enactmentrequires the community to set upelementary schools and to pay the teachers from communal funds. These schools are for both the rich and the poor.

Later authorities follow similar principles. The Tashbatz, for instance, cites the Talmudic dictum whereby, “Any town in which there are no schoolchildren studying Torah is eventually destroyed” (Shabbos 119b) and writes that the responsibility for the community to appoint a melammed tinokos (Torah teacher for children) is more fundamental than their duty to appoint a cantor. The Tashbatz ruled that the melammed tinokos is exempt from paying government taxes: Since a cantor is exempt, it follows that a Torah teacher is also exempt (Shut Tashbatz 3:153).

The Shulchan Aruch ha-Rav likewise writes that the enactment of Yehoshua ben Gamla mandates that the community set up elementary-level Torah schools for all the youth of the town, both rich and poor. The tax that supports the school is proportional to wealth. All the townspeople are required to participate in the school tax, even families with no children in the school system. Moreover, since the tax goes to support the Torah education of the poor, it takes on the character of a charity levy. Accordingly, Torah scholars, who are usually exempt from participating in communal levies, are required to participate in the school tax levy, as they too must support the Torah education of the poor (Yoreh De’ah 245:3).

What Constitutes a City?

The enactment of Yehoshua ben Gamla refers to the establishment of an elementary school in each and every city. What constitutes a city for purposes of this enactment?

Rav Moshe Feinstein addressed this question with regard to whether Monsey, New York, should be regarded as a separate city. Rav Moshe notes that the definition of “city” (ir)has many practical ramifications, for instance concerning the appointment of judges or setting up a synagogue.

He explains that in determining which geographic area should be called an ir, it stands to reason that the name alone cannot be the criterion. Instead, an ir acquires its designation if people consider the residents of a given area as being more connected to each other than to some other town.

On the basis of this criterion, Rav Moshe ruled that Monsey is considered a city for purposes of this enactment (Shut Iggros Moshe, Choshen Mishpat 1:40).

Class Size

The Gemara (Bava Basra 21a) notes a further education-related ruling concerning the size of classes:

“Rava said: the number of students that teachers have in their classes is twenty-five children. If there are fifty students we install two teachers. If there are forty students we appoint an assistant, and the teacher is given financial support from the town [to pay the cost of hiring the assistant].”

The exact meaning of this dictum is a matter of dispute among authorities. According to the Rambam (Talmud Torah 2:5) one melammed suffices until the pupil population reaches twenty-five. If the class numbers between twenty-five and forty students, the melammed must be given an assistant. If the class is more than forty, the class is split into two and two teachers must be hired.

The Rosh (Bava Basra 2:7) however, interprets Rava to say that below forty, one melammed suffices. For a class size between forty and forty-nine, an assistant must be provided for the melammed. Once the class size reaches fifty, the class must be split and two melammdim appointed.

The Shulchan Aruch (245:16) follows the Rambam’s position, whereas the Tur rules in accordance with the Rosh. The Shach (245:10) writes that the standard for class size in practice depends on the melammed and on the particular pupils under his tutelage. This flexibility is echoed in Shut Emunas Shmuel (no. 26), who writes that the maximum class size prescribed by the Gemara was no longer operative in his time, and that giving individual attention to students demands a maximum of no more than ten or twelve.

Today, the flexible approach certainly appears to have taken hold, and standards vary in different regions and towns, and in different schools.

Transferring Children Out of Town

A query was put to Rav Moshe Feinstein concerning whether boys attending a day school in Sunderland, England, could be taken out of that school and bused to a day school in Gateshead.

The motive for doing so was both to give their children a better Torah education, and to put them into a more religious atmosphere. The downside, however, was that withdrawal of the children from the Sunderland institution would leave the Sunderland school with so few pupils that it might be forced to close. If it did, Yehoshua ben Gamla’s ordinance that each town should have its own school would be undermined.

In his ruling, R. Feinstein drew a distinction between boys aged seven and those below this age. For boys below age seven, the additional gain in their Torah education by switching schools is not anticipated to be very significant. This factor, combined with the recognition that long daily travel is burdensome for children below age seven, led Rav Moshe to recommend that these children remain in the local school.

For boys aged seven and older, Rav Moshe saw the anticipated gains from the switch as being far more significant. In addition, at this age children are able to handle long daily travel better. Thus, for this age Rav Moshe ruled that the switch should be made, even at the expense of possibly causing the local Sunderland school to close (Iggros Moshe, Yoreh De’ah 3:75).

Conclusion

We have seen that there is a communal obligation to teach children Torah. This obligation is directed first and foremost at community leaders – those in a position to ensure that the local school system is efficient and effective. However, it also places matters of education everywhere into perspective. Chazal saw Jewish education as being of paramount importance and carrying significant halachic weight. This should bear on issues of education wherever they arise.

Thus, in a separate article we noted that although halachah might recognize the general right of a worker to take strike action under certain circumstances, it becomes far more delicate when it comes to Torah teachers. Ensuring that salaries are respectable and paid on time is another imperative mentioned by Poskim.

Having said this, it should be noted that the communal system was never meant to supplant every parent’s – primarily, every father’s – duty to teach his son Torah (see Shulchan Aruch 245:6). Whenever a child is not under the tutelage of the melammed, or whenever the school system is insufficient to provide the maximal education for his son, it is the father’s duty to fill the gap. Even when the school system is effective it is important for the parents to take an interest in their child’s education and to do anything needed to complement the school’s efforts.

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