Modern Mishpocha: Talmud lessons on education, teaching, lifelong learning

By Rabbi Dara Lithwick

I have written before about how lifelong learning is a fundamental Jewish value. Indeed, we are obligated to study and to learn until we breathe our last breaths, says 12th century sage Maimonides in his code of Jewish law, Mishneh Torah. We are never too old to learn.

As I write, all four Ontario teachers’ unions are engaged in some form of job action, including rotating strikes. Sticking points exist between the unions and the province regarding support for students with special needs, wages for teachers, maintaining full-day kindergarten, class sizes, and hiring practices. Our children, who are both in public school and are impacted by what is going on, have asked what this all means. We have responded by reiterating how important and special and fundamental their teachers are (our kids know that!), and how they and the provincial government are trying to figure out important questions about work conditions and school, and how the current labour action is about trying to make sure that students are best able to succeed.

My kids got me thinking about what our tradition has to say about teachers and education.

The obligation to learn also incorporates the duty to teach, particularly our children. Not once, but twice in the Shema blessings we are commanded to teach Torah to our children (Deuteronomy 6:7 and 11:19). Proverbs 22:6 adds, “Train youth in the path s/he should follow. S/he will not swerve from it even in ripe age.” The Talmud obliges parents (I am interpreting it in a gender inclusive manner) to teach our children Torah, a craft, and how to swim (Kiddushin 29a).

The sages of the Talmud realized that not all parents were capable of providing their children with a formal education. So, the sages instituted a mandatory system of public education that looks quite similar to what we have today. The Talmud says this was based on the orders of first century Jewish high priest Joshua ben Gamla to institute public education for the masses, “that teachers of children should be established in each and every province and in each and every town, and they would bring the children in to learn at the age of six and at the age of seven.”

Class sizes and wages are also discussed in the Talmud. Classes are capped, and assistants are required if there are more students: “The maximum number of students for one teacher of children is 25 children. And if there are 50 children in a single place, one establishes two teachers, so that each one teaches 25 students. And if there are 40 children, one establishes an assistant, and the teacher receives help from the residents of the town to pay the salary of the assistant. (Bava Batra 21a).” We see here how local residents contribute to pay the relevant salaries.

Overall, the value and import of the teacher in the learning process is emphasized in the Mishnah, in Pirkei Avot, and throughout the Talmud. Further, as stated in the Jewish Virtual Library entry on “Education,” the Talmud repeatedly highlights “the significance of motivation in teaching and of vocational training principles, which are basic to effective instruction and a modern educational system.”

For example, in Pirkei Avot there is found the famous Jewish proverb, “Make for yourself a teacher, and acquire for yourself a friend (1:6).” Later, Rabbi Elazar ben Shammua says, “Let the honour of your student be as dear to you as your own, and the honour of your colleague as the reverence for your teacher, and the reverence for your teacher as the reverence of heaven (4:12).”

Rabbi Elazar ben Shammua’s statement speaks to the deep care and respect that my children’s teachers give to them and the other kids in their classes, in terms of how I see them teaching our children. It also speaks to the respect that we have, and that our children have, for our teachers. May the current labour action be resolved in a manner that expresses this fundamental respect for teachers, for children, and for public education.

Note: I wish to extend a special thank you to my teachers, past and present, and family, friends and community who have supported me through my lifelong learning and enabled me to obtain my rabbinic smicha on January 12, 2020. I promise to keep on learning and teaching through the rest of my days!