The Child's Introduction to Bible Study

by: Howard Deitcher

This article originally appeared in Ten Da’at, 6, 1, 1992, pp. 28-30. Reprinted here with permission.
DR. DEITCHER is a faculty member of the Melton Centre for Jewish Education at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He spent the 1990-91 academic year on sabbatical at Harvard University and concurrently taught Bible at Maimonides School in Boston.
There are several critical issues which confront reachers and principals in wrestling with the challenge of reaching Bible to young children. One of those issues is the question of which text should be used for the child’s first serious encounter with the Bible. This educational decision addresses several philosophical, psychological, and theological questions that face the Jewish educator and carries serious implications for a school’s overall Judaic syllabus.
>From various historical and halakhic sources,1 we know that it was an established custom to begin the child’s Bible study with the book of Leviticus.2 Explains the Midrash: “Rav Assi said: ‘Why do young children commence with [the Book of] The Law of the Priests, and not with the [Book of] Genesis? Surely it is because young children are pure, and the sacrifices are pure; so let the pure come and engage in the study of the pure.'” 3
There is evidence that even in earlier Tannaic times this practice was followed, as seen in Rabbi Judah’s permission to prepare scrolls, for use by children, in which the first five chapters of Bereishit and the first eight chapters of Vayikra were written. 4 In addition, the first piece of Bible that Rabbi Akiva studied after he had mastered the alef bet was from Vayikra. 5 Various sources suggest that this practice continued to retain its prominence at later stages in Jewish history, and that by the time students entered the Beit Midrash, they were already well versed in the book of Vayikra. 6 Finally, it is clear that this continued in the hadarim of Russia and Poland, in which the following ceremony marked the child’s introduction to the study of Torah.
On entrance to the heder a party was arranged, presents were given to the children, the parents were invited, and an interesting ceremony took place. One child was appointed ‘makshan’ (questioner), and the hero of the day, standing on the table, answered his questions which were somewhat as follows:
‘What is your name, child?’
‘I am no longer a child, but a young man who has begun the study of Humash in a propitious hour.’
‘What is Humash?’
Humash is five.’
‘What is five? Five cakes for a cent?’
‘No, the five books of the Torah that God gave to Moses.’
‘And what book will you study?’
‘I will study Vayikra which deals with sacrifices.’
‘Why do you want to study about sacrifices?’
‘Because sacrifices are clean and I am a clean Jewish child. Let therefore the clean come and busy themselves with the clean.’ 7
Rationales for the Custom
While the introduction of Humash study with a selection from Leviticus may not have been an exclusive practice, it did reflect a certain educational ideal which was quite widely accepted in the Jewish world. 8 An obvious and puzzling question is the rationale for such a practice and the underlying educational principles. “Educationally considered, one could hardly find a more unsuitable beginning for young children, especially when compared with such a book as Genesis with its natural appeal to the youthful imagination. It may therefore be taken for granted that there must have been a very strong reason for the introduction of such a practice.” 9
What, then, was the strong reason? As previously seen, the Midrash draws the analogy between the pureness of the children and the pureness of the sacrifices. Some understand this as a homiletic afterthought to explain this long established custom. 10 Others view the child’s pureness as a form of developmental naivete. 11 Thus, with the child’s limited inventory of life experiences and knowledge, this becomes the most natural and age appropriate time to teach him/her these laws. 12 This approach reflects the educational conception of the child’s mind as a tabula rasa, waiting to be “written upon” and molded by the teacher. 13 Learning involves the input by experience of simple ideas which are subsequently collected, analyzed, and categorized by the student’s mind. The most propitious time to engage in a study of the sacrifices occurs when the “pure child” matures to a certain sage of development – when life experiences are limited, and the mind is open and ripe to absorb the intricacies of these laws.
A second explanation for this convention was offered by Bacher and Finkelstein. 14 They argue that the custom originated before the destruction of the Temple and took hold in the schools of Jerusalem. The students in these schools were kohanim, and the teaching of Vayikra was intended as a means of initiating them into the priestly life. In those early days the priests had been the only ones who could afford the luxury of hiring professional teachers, and they selected this Biblical material to meet the needs of their children. Some researchers have raised doubts about this theory based on the assumption that even if one could imagine schools of that kind in Jerusalem, for which there is no evidence at all, it would still fail to explain the general acceptance of the custom and its remarkable hold on Jewry throughout the ages. 15
Nathan Morris rejects Bacher’s theory and submits an alternative. 16 First of all, Morris believes that the origin of this custom was in post-Temple times, probably after the defeat of Bar Kokhba. The attempt to recover political independence had ended in disaster and ruin. Hopes for the rebuilding of the Temple had disappeared, as a new danger emerged There Was a perceived fear that the chapters of the Bible that dealt with sacrificial ceremony, now fallen into disuse, might be lost. Thus the decision was made to enact an educational measure that would guarantee that this part of the halakha would not be forgotten. In educational terms, this was an attempt to introduce a pedagogic strategy that would secure the memory of that great part of Jewish life that had been destroyed by the Roman invaders.
Eliezer Ebner echoed Morns’ thoughts and argued the following:
The practice to begin the study of Bible with Leviticus is based upon nationalistic – religious sentiments that crystallized in the era following the destruction of Temple and state. The leaders of Jewish life were anxious to lead the people away from despair and resignation by holding out to them the promise of future glory. The Temple would be rebuilt and the priestly service reinstituted. In the meantime, the attachment to Israel’s past eminence had to be kept alive. 17
Drazin offers a similar social-historical rationale to underscore the need for this custom. 18 It becomes apparent that the hypotheses of Bacher, Morris, Drazin, and Ebner reflect a different understanding of this practice than that evident in the Midrash. In fact, each of these four theses attempts to introduce an historical, social, or religious circumstance that precipitated this custom. The Midrash, on the other hand, focuses its attention on the child as learner, and bases its claim on developmental or cognitive considerations. The contrast between these different educational approaches is most revealing and accentuates divergent educational philosophies.
The Primacy of the Halakhah
There is, however, an alternate rationale for this custom. Its hypothesis is based on the assumption that it is more important for a Jew to know how to behave and what to do, than to know the background and makeup of his/her universe. 19 Thus, for the religious Jew, the halakhah is the instrument which allows one to reach true spiritual redemption.
The ideal of halakhic man is the redemption of the world not via a higher world but via the world itself, via the adaptation of empirical reality to the ideal patterns of halakhah. A Jew who lives in accordance with the halakhah shall find redemption. A lowly world is elevated through the halakhah to the level of a divine world.20
Unlike other religious traditions, where key religious texts focus on the theological, doctrinal, or supernatural matters, traditional Jewish literature consists of legal treatises that blur the common distinction between the secular and holy. These texts are the Jew’s blueprint for living; they mold identity and direct behavior. Thus, it seems only natural that the child’s first exposure to a Biblical text should focus on a book of Jewish law, the book of Leviticus. In fact, the book of Leviticus is labeled “the one that is saturated with many halakhot,” 21 and which, according to the Maimonidean classification of the mitzvot, includes 247 of the commandments. In other words, almost half of the mitzvot are listed in this book, ranging from the sacrificial ceremonies of the Temple, to social interactions in the marketplace and relations with one’s non-Israelite neighbors. 22 These halakhot underlie the foundation of Jewish life, and therefore, these laws form the foundation of a Jewish education.
This theory maintains that the book of Leviticus was selected as the first piece of Bible to be studied because this book cultivates a sense of the primacy of the halakhah in Jewish life. By adopting this approach, the child clearly understands that Judaism “is the law which the Jewish nation …received from God’s hands at Mt. Sinai and ordains to its members.” 23
Hinukh L’Mitzvot
Upon closer examination, we note that the underlying principles of this educational approach bear a striking resemblance to a theological doctrine of the Israeli religious thinker, Isaiah Leibovitz: 24 “From all [that] we have discussed, it behooves us [to acknowledge] that religious education is nothing other than education [for the performance of] the mitzvot. If we are speaking [here] not of ‘religiosity’, but of the Jewish nation, we cannot evade the fact that the meaning of the original historical Hebrew concept of religiousness is observance of mitzvot.” 25
In a consistent and persuasive manner, Leibovitz adopts a deontological approach to Jewish education. In Judaism, the fulfillment of the mitzvot is an end in itself, not a means to a larger ideal. 26 A religious Jew is one who accepts the historical and classical norms of Judaism, namely, the halakhah. Therefore, the ultimate goal of Jewish education is to initiate the student into this cultural norm. “Religious education is only the imposition of the yoke of the mitzvot, even though it is obvious that study and observance of the mitzvot do not exhaust [the ends of] the Torah.” 27 Thus this approach would dictate that the child’s first exposure to the Biblical text focus on the centrality of the halakha via the study of Vayikra.
Further, Leibovitz argues that teaching about the observance of mitzvot has a certain educational appeal, unparalleled in its educational impact. Its goal is nothing less than a major transformation of human behavior – a daring and revolutionary objective. Halakhic norms and dictates are radically different from those prevalent in western society – herein lies the strength and motivating force of this approach.28
Finally, according to Leibovitz, the acceptance of the yoke of the mitzvot is an expression of freedom, which allows the person to develop a keener sense of inner religiosity. 29 When students struggle with the intricacies of the halakhah, they give expression to the way that the Jewish people lives out its existence and defines its place in the world.
By studying the laws included in the book of Leviticus, the child assumes a place in the larger Jewish community, and becomes a full member of the nation that defines its identity by the code of behavior it follows. Ultimately, the young child’s first exposure to the world of Torah is via the Biblical book that most directly reflects the world of the halakhah, the book of Vayikra.
1 Hagiga 11b; Meir Ish Shalom’s introduction to chapter 6 of Mekhilta, Jerusalem, 1948; Finkelstein, Louis. Akiba, Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1936, p. 24-25; Ginszberg, Louis. Students, Scholars and Saints, Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1928, p.23.
2 It is not our intention to discuss the practical feasibility of introducing this practice into Centrist Orthodox schools today, but rather, to conduct a more preliminary study of the underlying rationale which guided this thinking, and to explain why it became so firmly rooted in the educational system. As a point of clarification, even if we determine that beginning a child’s Bible study with the book of Leviticus is not an appropriate choice, nonetheless, we maintain that it is a valuable educational exercise to investigate the rationale for such a custom and the larger implications for Jewish education.
3 Leviticus Rabba 7.
4 Soferim 5:9
5 Abot d’Rabbi Nathan 6:2
6 Rashi on Hulin 66A; See Meir Ish Shalom’s introduction to Chapter 6 of Mekhilta, Jerusalem, 1948; Abrahams, Israel. Jewish Life in the Middle Ages, London: E. Goldstein Publishers, 1932, p.351.
7 Gamoran, Emanuel. Changing Conceptions of Jewish Education, New York: McMillan Company, 1924, p. 80-81.
8 Ebner, Eliezer. Elementary Education in Israel, New York: Bloch Publishers, 1956, p. 77 -80; Ginzberg, Louis. Students, Scholars and Saints; Morris, Nathan. The Jewish School, Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1928, p. 23; Finkelstein, Louis. Akiba, p. 24.
9 Morris, Nathan. The Jewish School, p. 89.
10 Drazin, Nathan. History of Jewish Education, Baltimore: John Hopkins Press, 1940, p. 82.
11 See Maharzu commentary of Zev Wolfe, son of Yisrael Isser Einhorn on Leviticus Rabbah 7.
12 Tanhuma 14.
13 For a more extensive description of this model, see Israel Schemer, “Philosophical Models of Teaching,” in Reason and Teaching, Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Co., 1981. See also, Locke, John. Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Book II, Chap. 1, Section 2.
14 Bacher, W. Jahrbuch, 1973, as quoted in Ebner, op. cit; Finkelstein, op. cit. p.24.
15 Morris, op. cit. p.90.
16 Ibid., p. 91
17 Ebner, op. cit. p.78
18 Drazin, op. cit. p.83
19 Hoffman, David Zvi. Sefer Vayikra Meforash, Jerusalem: Mossad Harav Kuk, 1939, poi; Ginzberg, op. cit., p.23.
20 Soloveitchik, Joseph B. Halachic Man, trans. Lawrence Kaplan, Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1983, p.37-38.
21 Genesis Rabba 3:5.
22 For a discussion of the many types of laws in the book of Leviticus, see Leibowitz, Nechama. Studies in Vayikra, Jerusalem: World Zionist Organization, 1980, p. 167-182.
23 Breuer, Issac. “Religion and Nation,” quoted in Rosenak, Michael, Commandments and Concerns, Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1987, p.136.
24 For a more extensive examination of Leibovitz’s educational and theological thinking, see Rosenak, op. cit. p. 133-136. Rosenak classifies Leibovitz’s approach as symbolizing a form of “explicit religious thought.” This classification has proven most helpful in our presentation.
25 Leibovitz, Isaiah. “Hinukh L’Mitzuot,” in Yahadut, Am Yehudi, U’Medinat Yzsrael, Jerusalem: Schocken Publishers, 1979, p. 58-59.
26 Ibid., p. 59.
27 Ibid.
28 Ibid., p. 60.
29 Ibid.