Pedagogical Museum of J. A. Comenius, Valdštejnská 20, Prague 1
From the history of Jewish Education
The tradition of Jewish education stretches back to biblical times. One of the basic duties of the father is to provide for the instruction of his children, guiding their first steps towards a religious life and later enabling their sons’ education in Jewish schools. The father’s obligation to teach his children is set forth in the first paragraph of Shema Yisrael: “Take to heart these instructions with which I charge you this day. Impress them upon your children. Recite them when you stay at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you get up. Bind them as sign on your hand and let them serve as a symbol on your forehead; inscribe them on the doorposts of your house and your gates.” (Deut 6:6-9). Deuteronomy contains several references to the duty to provide education: “Remember the days of old, consider the years of agens past; ask your father, he will inform you, your elders, they will tell you.” (Deut 32:7). The Book of Proverbs also has many verses that call for obedience and education within the family: “My son, do not forget my teaching, but let your mind retin my commandments; For they will bestow on you length of days, years of life and well-being.“ (Prov 3:1-2). The educational principles of the Hebrew Bible were later also applied within the context of Christian and Moslem society.
In recent years, pedagogues have acknowledged that the methods of instruction in Ancient Israel indirectly anticipated many of the tenets of modern education. Compulsory attendance of elementary schools was required by Simeon ben Shetah as early as 75 B.C.E. and by Joshua ben Gamla in 64 C.E. The education of older boys and adults in a bet ha-midrash has its origin in the Second Temple period. The importance of education is repeatedly stressed in the Talmud (Pirkei avot): children are to start school at the age of six – which is in accordance with present-day requirements throughout the world; they are not to be beaten with a stick or cane, but should receive only mild punishment; older students should help out in the education of those who are younger; and children should not be kept away from their lessons by other duties. The number of pupils in a class should not exceed 25; larger classes require the engagement of a relief teacher while two teachers have to be appointed if there are over 40 pupils. According to Judah ben Tema, “At five years the age is reached for studying the Bible, at ten for studying the Mishnah, at thirteen for fulfilling the mitzvoth, at fifteen for studying the Talmud.” (Avot 5:21). Following this tradition – which has been partly maintained to this day – Jews taught their children in their own schools and with the help of private tutors until the end of the 18th century.
Talmud Torah, heder and yeshivah
Every Jewish community has always had an important duty to support religious education, which is why schools were usually established before the community built its synagogue. Even small Jewish communities sought to keep their teacher: “Every community is required to appoint teachers; A city without a teacher should be put under a ban until the inhabitants thereof appoint one. If they persist in not appointing a teacher, the city should be destroyed for the world exists only through the breath of school children.” (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 245:7). In earlier times, lessons were usually held in the synagogue, and schools were housed in annexes or separate buildings in close proximity to the synagogue.
Talmud Torah schools were established originally for the youngest children of parents who could not afford to pay for a private tutor. In smaller communities there were usually not many children at such schools; pupils of various ages were taught in the same class or in two classes, with older students helping younger ones. This form of learning was commonplace from the Middle Ages, particularly in the Ashkenazi area. The purpose of the heder was to provide older children with a basic knowledge of Hebrew, Torah, Mishnah, Jewish laws and customs. Heder (lit. “room”) got its name from the fact that children were usually taught by a private teacher (melammed) in a room of his home; the term is now used for extra-curricular religious schooling under the supervision of the synagogue or Jewish community.
After graduating from the heder, most children at around 15 went on to a yeshivah. Yeshivah (lit. “sitting”) is a school of higher education primarily for the study of the Talmud. The prototype of the yeshivah was the bet ha-midrash (“house of study”), as it was termed by ancient academies in Israel and Babylon, where the two main versions of the Talmud were written between the 2nd and 5th century C.E. In the age of antiquity, scholars considered the bet midrash to be more holy even than the synagogue, as the “house of learning” usually served also as a “house of prayer” (bet tefilah) or “house of assembly” (bet ha-kneset), i.e., a synagogue. In the Middle Ages, yeshivot were established throughout the Diaspora and students came from afar to hear the lectures of famous scholars and academic heads of schools (rosh yeshivah). The Jewish community, various foundations and charity associations were responsible for the running of yeshivot and for looking after the students. This system of higher education was later developed across Jewish communities in Eastern Europe. After the First World War, many Eastern European yeshivot moved to other countries, such as England, North America and Israel, where they remain active to this day. The most illustrious yeshivot of the Czech lands were in Prague (Academia Judaeorum), Kolín, Tachov, Kroměříž, Prostějov, Holešov, Boskovice, Mikulov, Uherský Brod and Lipník nad Bečvou. Most of the Czech yeshivot were closed down during the 19th century; Rabbi Aaron Kornfeld’s yeshivah in Golčův Jeníkov was the last to be dissolved in 1881.
Secular Jewish schools
It was not until Josef II’s decree of 1781 that Jewish children were allowed to attend all public schools, including universities. This decree also supported the establishment of secular Jewish schools in larger Jewish communities with state supervision and lessons in German, mathematics, geography and ethics. In addition, it required that the German language was to be compulsory within two years for all Jewish contracts, accounts and business registers. The role model for all secular Jewish schools in the Czech lands was the First Secular Jewish School in Josefov–Prague, which opened on May 2, 1782. As school attendance was still insufficient, the emperor in 1786 decreed that graduation from a secular school and knowledge of German were to be preconditions for permitting a marriage – this had the immediate effect of increasing pupil numbers by more than a half. In 1811 Peter Beer (1758-1839), a radical promoter of school reform, became the main teacher of ethics at the school. In 1812, the religion and ethics textbook Bne Zion (“Sons of Zion”), written by the Libeň-born Herz Homberg (1749-1841), was introduced as part of the curriculum. With 144 pupils in 1809 and almost 400 in 1814, the school soon had average pupil numbers of 700-800 per year. In total, some 17,836 children (10,420 boys and 7,416 girls) went through the school between 1790 and 1831. Despite initial resistance, Jewish educational reform succeeded in Bohemia and Moravia and had an impact on the main trend of Jewish assimilation until the end of the 19th century. In 1886 there were 113 Jewish secular schools in Bohemia, which were attended by a total of 4,073 Jewish, 192 catholic and 17 Protestant children. Most of the other German Jewish schools in Bohemia were closed down at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries and replaced by separate religion classes in public schools.
Jewish schools in the 20th century
In pre-war Czechoslovakia, there were a number of independent Jewish schools, such as the Jewish Realschule in Brno (headed by Dr. Oskar Epstein), the Hebrew Gymnasium in Mukačevo (headed by Dr. Chaim Kugel) and the Jewish Elementary School in Jáchymova Street in Prague; founded in 1920. The latter became the main centre of education for Jewish youth in Prague following the expulsion of Jewish children from schools during the Nazi occupation. The clandestine teaching of children in the Terezín ghetto and other concentration camps is another important chapter in the history of Jewish education in the Czech lands. Among those who had the greatest impact in this area were young pedagogues such as Otto Klein, Walter Eisinger, Egon Redlich and Friedl Dicker-Brandeis.
Due to the huge losses of life, Jewish schools were not reopened after the war. Furthermore, the traditional teaching of religion was swept away by the Communists after 1948 and Hebrew lessons in language schools were also later discontinued. It was not until after November 1989 that religious education was restored by the Prague Jewish Community. Later, the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation helped to found a kindergarten (1994), the Gur Arieh Elementary School (1997) and the Ohr Hadash High School (1999). These schools follow standard curricula, as well as offering Jewish education and Hebrew lessons. In addition to compulsory subjects, they also provide various extracurricular activities, such as group projects on Hebrew and Jewish traditions, thematic seminars and discussion meetings. Private afternoon classes in Jewish education are provided by Bejt Elend in Prague, and purely religious lessons are held by the Prague Jewish Community.
Curated by Arno Pařík.
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