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Families, Rabbis and EducationEssays on Traditional Jewish Society in Eastern Europe$
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Shaul Stampfer

Print publication date: 2010

Print ISBN-13: 9781874774853

Published to Liverpool Scholarship Online: February 2021

DOI: 10.3828/liverpool/9781874774853.001.0001

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Ḥeder Study, Knowledge of Torah, and the Maintenance of Social Stratification

Ḥeder Study, Knowledge of Torah, and the Maintenance of Social Stratification

(p.145) Seven Ḥeder Study, Knowledge of Torah, and the Maintenance of Social Stratification
Families, Rabbis and Education

Shaul Stampfer

Liverpool University Press

This chapter focuses on education in east European Jewish society. On one hand, education was highly regarded by all Jews; learnedness was one of the critical qualities for membership in the elite and lifelong study was one of the most visible features of that society. However, while in many societies education is a means for mobility, traditional east European Jewish society was highly stratified and stable, with little intergenerational social mobility. The key to understanding this situation was the ḥeder, the traditional Jewish elementary school in eastern Europe. The first level of ḥeder study was devoted to learning the mechanics of reading Hebrew. The next level is ḥumash ḥeder, in which students studied each week the portion of the Torah which was to be read the coming sabbath in the synagogue. When a child was able to read the Torah, he was ready to move up to a Talmud ḥeder. For generations up until the late nineteenth century, the standard framework for advanced talmudic study had been study in the beit midrash, or communal study and prayer hall. Ultimately, the ḥeder system contributed to the balance and stability of Jewish society. It was a conservative tool, even though the popular image was that the educational system was open and every Jewish child could become a talmudic scholar.

Keywords:   Jewish education, east European Jewish society, elite Jews, social mobility, ḥeder, Jewish elementary school, Hebrew language, Torah, Talmud, beit midrash

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