Today, September 8, is the United Nations Organizations of Education, Science and Culture (UNESCO) International Literacy Day. Established in 1965, International Literacy Day is meant to bring attention to the importance of literacy and education, and to the fact that there are still millions of adults around the world who lack basic literacy skills.
Literacy, education and a schedule of study have always been top priorities in Jewish life. Traditionally, the teaching of the aleph-bet, the Hebrew alphabet, begins at the age of three. The verses of the Torah are taught beginning at age five, Mishna (the oral Torah) at age ten (Pirkei Avot 5:21). Indeed, as far back as the days of the Talmud, the Jewish people established a system of formal education when Joshua ben Gamla (1st century B.C.E.) “came and ordained that teachers of young children should be appointed in each district and each town”(Talmud Baba Batra 21a).
Adult literacy is just as valued in Jewish life as basic education. While until recently only the best and brightest (who could afford it) went on to advanced Torah schools, known as yeshivas, today, everyone is encouraged to continue studying the Torah and the Talmud throughout their lives.
While the Torah’s directives for Jewish education are understood to be primarily focused on boys, as men have different obligations regarding studying Torah, Jewish women in most cultures had a considerably higher level of literacy than other women. In Europe, where they were not taught the “Holy Tongue” (Hebrew), Jewish women were often literate in Yiddish or the language of the country in which they resided. Today, many Jewish women study Torah on an advanced level.
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