08/23/2012 11:16 am ET Updated Oct 23, 2012

For Jews, It's Always Back to School

September looms, and children all over have either just begun school or will be starting shortly. Judaism has always been a culture focussed on learning. The Torah commands parents to teach their children, but since many parents are not capable of fulfilling the role of teacher, schools have become a necessity.

Local schools are important. The Sages even discuss whether a child may be forced by circumstances to go from one town to another to receive a proper education: "Joshua ben Gamala came and ordained that teachers of young children should be appointed in each district and each town (Baba Batra 21a)." Thus was established in the first century C.E., the first edict requiring available education for any child over 5 years of age.

While kindergarten, is, technically, the beginning of "school" in western society. It is, however, viewed by most educators as a transition year, which supports the Talmudic dictum "that children should enter school at the age of six or seven. Rav said to Rabbi Samuel ben Shilath: 'Before the age of six do not accept pupils; from that age you can accept them and stuff them with Torah like an ox (Baba Batra 21a).'" In Western society, children are generally 6 years old when they begin first grade.

Sending a child to school does not absolve a parent of responsibility to ensure that the child is being educated. The important role of a parent in education is reflected in Kiddushin 30a, where the Talmud described how Rabbi Chiya ben Abba did not taste meat [eat breakfast] before revising [the previous day's lesson] with the child and adding [another verse]." He enacted this family policy after confronting Rabbi Joshua ben Levi about wearing a plain cloth upon his head (in other words, not being properly dressed) when taking his child to synagogue for his lessons. Rabbi Joshua explained that his haste was to fulfill the Torah commandment: "and you shall make them known to your sons and your sons' sons" (Deuteronomy 4:9). It is similarly noted on this same page of the Talmud that "Rabbah son of Rabbi Huna did not taste meat [eat breakfast] until he took the child to school" (Kiddushin 30a).

The actions of Rabbi Joshua, Rabbi Chiya and Rabbah are cited because they reflect a fact that has been important throughout the history of education, one that is agreed upon by educators around the world: few factors are as important in education as parental participation.

Because of the focus Judaism places on learning, it is not surprising that the Sages had many other thoughts on education, such as:

The Sages' opinions even reflect the modern discussion regarding homogenous or heterogenous classes: "The attentive one will read, and, if one is inattentive, put him next to a diligent one" (Baba Batra 21a).

Class size, no matter where or what century, has always been a contentious issue: "Raba further said: The number of pupils to be assigned to each teacher is 25. If there are 50, we appoint two teachers. If there are 40, we appoint an assistant, at the expense of the town" (Baba Batra 21a).

Rabbi Eliezer, one of the great sages of the Talmud, believed that a teacher is obligated to teach a student the same lesson four times. Rabbi Akiva, on the other hand, insisted that a teacher must teach the same material to a student many times until the student masters the material! (Eruvin 54b). Whether education is oral, as in the past, or written, as in the present, there is a great lesson to be learned. Each student must be taught according to his/her ability and needs. Some students pick up information as soon as it is taught, but others need it repeated, two, four, 10 or even 100 times. And that's OK too.

Education is not, of course, limited to children. As Rosh Hashana approaches along with the new school year, there are plenty of educational opportunities. Fora light fare of Jewish education daily, please visit