It is a well-known fact that Judaism places tremendous emphasis on education. Thousands of years ago Rabbi Simon ben Shetach (75 B.C.E.) instituted compulsory school attendance. The earliest “public school system” was established less than a century later, in the era of the Talmud, when the great sage Joshua ben Gamala “came and ordained that teachers of young children should be appointed in each district and each town” (Talmud Baba Batra 21a). “Resh Lakish also said to Rabbi Judah the Prince: I have this tradition from my fathers — others state, from your fathers: Every town in which there are no school children shall be destroyed” (Talmud Shabbat 119b).
For centuries, Jewish boys were sent to master basic Hebrew literacy.
Familiarity with all of Jewish tradition was expected from a young age
and continuing advanced education was seen as ideal. It should be noted
that female education was mostly home-based, as was customary at that
time in most of the world. Although there were always educated Jewish
women, women’s education was not standardized until the early 20th
century when Sarah Schenirer founded the Beth Jacob girls school
In the last century, while Jews have continued to greatly revere
education, the emphasis has shifted from Torah education to secular
studies. For many Jews, learning Hebrew, if it was learned at all, was
relegated to an after-school activity. Therefore, the ancient mission
stated by Joshua ben Gamala has had to shift from children to adults.
Obviously, true education must extend beyond learning the aleph-bet. For
some in the modern world, it means mastery of the rituals of Shabbat
and Jewish holidays, as well as the fundamentals of Jewish law and
community customs. For others, Jewish education needs to begin with
simple Jewish pride. The onus to fulfill the obligation of teaching
those Jews now falls upon every Jew who cares enough to share their
knowledge with those who never had the opportunity to learn.