The education of the Jewish people in ancient times

The education of the Jewish people in ancient times

Capturing the historical context of Jewish culture and education is a delicate and complex issue for the many vicissitudes and circumstances that influence them. Yet with a didactic zeal, many authors divide the history of the Jewish people in a historical process that begins in the year 2000 b.C. with the emergence of Israel as a people and it extends until the first century of the Christian era with the Romans ruling in Palestine.

In the anthropological level three important points should be noted for education: First, that man is essentially a creature and creation of God in his image and likeness. This condition allows his personal relationship with a spiritual and one God who intrudes into the lives of men. Secondly, it is the reality of original sin that has caused in the condition of man, in nature and status, very serious and important effects: the breaking of his friendship with God, the appearance of evil in the world, the fall or degradation of human nature that has been violated and subjected to various constraints: ignorance, lust, pain, death. But God gives us a hope of restoration, the reconquest of lost goodness. Thirdly, the issue of freedom appears, because although the original sin weakened human nature, it has not nullified the freedom of man, for he is still free, and he can choose.

The anthropological dimension is completed with the distinction between “flesh” and “spirit”. The God – Man relationship is presented as a dialogue between two freedoms, God’s and man’s. It is not a body-soul dualism but a confrontation between carnal man and spiritual man, the whole man. With this dialectic, man pursues perfection, including the divine element that is the spirit which is not comparable to any Western philosophical reality; is an extra-psychic dimension original of the Jewish people, a supernatural one, involving a participation in the divine order; and the human element is the meat, which is the contingent, mutable and crumbly dimension of man in his sinfulness. Biblical anthropology is marked with the word pilgrimage. For man has no permanent abode in the world, because the Lord has promised a land for his people, a heavenly land, the definitive homeland. This situation created in the Hebrew people and more acutely in the Christians, a lively awareness of their unearthly destination.

In Jewish religion and culture, education appears characterized as an essentially religious phenomenon that is performed under a number specific mechanisms, quite different from those that operate in the field of human formation. It is possible to distinguish two essential aspects in Jewish education, which are reflected in the Hebrew terms Yasar (punish, correct, admonish) a term frequently used to designate instructional efforts by the father with his son or sage and teacher with his disciples; and Musar (punishment, correction, discipline) concerning the teachings they transmit. The process consists in God showing the way God, but as someone deviates from the path as told by the Law or God’s instructions (Torah), He shall punish them (Yasar); and as the offender suffers and takes the pain that stems from punishment (Musar) they must learn to know and fulfill the divine plan.

The so-called "Dead Sea Scrolls" are a set of ancient Jewish/Biblical documents discovered on the northwest shore of the Dead Sea between 1946 and 1956.  Most are in Israel today, but this (and others) are in Jordan since borders have shifted over the years.  Written in Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek, mostly on parchment, but with some written on papyrus and even copper, these manuscripts generally date between 150 BC and 70 AD.  Many scholars believe therw were buried just before the Romans put down the "Jewish rebellion" that ran from about 67 to 73 AD.  The scrolls are traditionally identified with the ancient Jewish sect called the Essenes, but scholars debate that.  In fact, many of the scrolls were declared "state secrets" when they were found.  It is sort of strange to think that something written over 2,000 years ago could still represent a national security risk today.
Image courtesy of Ken and Nyetta at

Thus the purpose and objectives of education result in the fulfillment of God’s will expressed in the “promise” made by him in the law of the prophets. In pursuit of this objective, it is God himself who takes the initiative: He chooses, calls, gives all necessary help, enlightens and teaches. But God also has the collaboration of man, because it is a being endowed with freedom, so it can respond to the initiative of accepting Yahweh, doing his will or rejecting it or resisting and prevaricating.

The figure and role of the educator arises from the predilection that God has for the people of Israel. God chose them to be the people of his own possession among all the face of the earth, for the love He feels for them. This special request of God for his people includes their instruction and education: all the children of Israel shall be taught by him. That is, it is God himself who takes on the task of guiding, instructing and educating His people; and He does so in different ways and through different instruments: parents, prophets, priests, teachers, wise men, angels, among others, this is how the figure of the human educator is diversified in different ways.

Education is in the early years, a moral education entrusted to the mother or nurse. Then the father intervenes to transmit the religious heritage of the national past: a basic catechesis which comprises the essential elements of the divine law, also in the instruction of basic skills, customs and moral behavior and transmit national traditions, such as memorable facts in homeland history, essentially religious traditions, such as the rite of Passover. In the adolescence, professional training begins. The education of girls is in charge of the mothers, who teach them everything they need to perform as wives and mistresses of the house, as it is common in ancient cultures. The priest also plays an important role in the Hebrew education because besides the anointings of sacrifice and worship, they had the responsibility of educating the people on the precepts of the law and the history of God’s plan.

Educational institutions, apart from the family, are the synagogue and school.