11

According to the Encyclopedia of Children and Childhood in History and Society's article on Judaism:

Owing to the primacy of ritual in traditional Judaism, instruction of children focused on the attainment of ritual literacy as its central goal. In the Talmudic era, boys attended elementary school or studied with a tutor from the age of five, six, or seven until the age of twelve or thirteen. A network of schools operated in the Land of Israel by the second century. School children learned to read the Torah and to write; at age twelve they studied Mishnah. No formal instruction in secular courses such as mathematics, Greek, or GYMNASTICS, was included in the Jewish school curriculum in this period. Initially, the houses of study excluded children from the lower strata of society, but by the third century education was made available to children of all classes. Girls were, by and large, excluded from the elementary schools, however, though some Talmudic sources suggest that fathers taught their daughters informally.

It's this final portion (emphasis supplied) that I'm most interested in learning about. What do the Talmudic sources say and under what conditions did girls learn the Torah? Would we expect certain types of learning to be more heavily emphasized than others?

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    I removed talmud-gemara which usually refers to the text not the time period in which it was written. Does anyone disagree? – Double AA Feb 27 '13 at 20:06
  • @Double AA: You know better than I. However, I would like to read the "Talmudic sources" the article mentions, if possible. (I'm not at all sure which tag might apply.) – Jon Ericson Feb 27 '13 at 20:07
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    @SethJ Presumably, any description of education from that time will include Talmudic or Midrashic references. – Double AA Feb 27 '13 at 20:16
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    @Seth J: Oh. My primary interest is in the historical angle by all means. I'll take any old sources that apply. ;-) – Jon Ericson Feb 27 '13 at 20:20
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    This book ("Jewish Life in the Time of the Talmud") may be of interest. – b a Feb 28 '13 at 1:43
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Women's Torah education in Judaism has been the subject of debate from Mishnaic times right down to the present day.

As the Mishnaic and Talmudic literature are primarily legal texts, they are more concerned with what the law is regarding women's education than discussing history.

There are a couple of primary sources that discuss the laws of women's education. The Mishnah (Kiddushin 1:7) discusses the general principles by which we determine whether a commandment applies to men or women (or both):

כל מצות הבן על האב אנשים חייבין ונשים פטורות וכל מצות האב על הבן אחד אנשים ואחד נשים חייבין וכל מצות עשה שהזמן גרמא אנשים חייבין ונשים פטורות וכל מצות עשה שלא הזמן גרמא אחד האנשים ואחד הנשים חייבין וכל מצות לא תעשה בין שהזמן גרמא בין שלא הזמן גרמא אחד האנשים ואחד הנשים חייבין חוץ מבל תקיף ובל תשחית ובל תטמא למתים

MISHNAH. ALL OBLIGATIONS OF THE SON UPON THE FATHER, MEN ARE BOUND, BUT WOMEN ARE EXEMPT. BUT ALL OBLIGATIONS OF THE FATHER UPON THE SON, BOTH MEN AND WOMEN ARE BOUND. ALL AFFIRMATIVE PRECEPTS LIMITED TO TIME, MEN ARE LIABLE AND WOMEN ARE EXEMPT. BUT ALL AFFIRMATIVE PRECEPTS NOT LIMITED TO TIME ARE BINDING UPON BOTH MEN AND WOMEN. AND ALL NEGATIVE PRECEPTS, WHETHER LIMITED TO TIME OR NOT LIMITED TO TIME, ARE BINDING UPON BOTH MEN AND WOMEN; EXCEPTING, YE SHALL NOT ROUND [THE CORNERS OF YOUR HEADS], NEITHER SHALT THOU MAR [THE CORNER OF THY BEARD], AND, HE SHALL NOT DEFILE HIMSELF TO THE DEAD. (Soncino translation; capitals in original)

The Talmudic commentary to this Mishnah (Kiddushin 29a) cites a Beraisa which states:

האב חייב בבנו למולו ולפדותו וללמדו תורה ולהשיאו אשה וללמדו אומנות וי"א אף להשיטו במים רבי יהודה אומר כל שאינו מלמד את בנו אומנות מלמדו ליסטות

The father is bound in respect of his son, to circumcise, redeem, teach him Torah, take a wife for him, and teach him a craft. Some say, to teach him to swim too, R. Judah said: He who does not teach his son a craft, teaches him brigandage (Soncino translation)

The Beraisa only makes note of an obligation to teach one's son, but says nothing about teaching one's daughter.

The Talmud on the next page (Kiddushin 29b) explains the Scriptural source, and demonstrates that women are not obligated to learn, teach, or be taught:

ללמדו תורה מנלן דכתיב ולמדתם אותם את בניכם והיכא דלא אגמריה אבוה מיחייב איהו למיגמר נפשיה דכתיב ולמדתם איהי מנלן דלא מיחייבא דכתיב ולימדתם ולמדתם כל שמצווה ללמוד מצווה ללמד וכל שאינו מצווה ללמוד אינו מצווה ללמד ואיהי מנלן דלא מיחייבה למילף נפשה דכתיב ולימדתם ולמדתם כל שאחרים מצווין ללמדו מצווה ללמד את עצמו וכל שאין אחרים מצווין ללמדו אין מצווה ללמד את עצמו ומנין שאין אחרים מצווין ללמדה דאמר קרא ולמדתם אותם את בניכם ולא בנותיכם

‘To teach him Torah.’ How do we know it? — Because it is written. And ye shall teach them your sons. And if his father did not teach him, he must teach himself, for it is written, and ye shall study. How do we know that she [the mother] has no duty [to teach her children]? — Because it is written, we-limaddetem [and ye shall teach], [which also reads] u-lemadetem [and ye shall study]: [hence] whoever is commanded to study, is commanded to teach; whoever is not commanded to study, is not commanded to teach. And how do we know that she is not bound to teach herself? — Because it is written, we-limaddetem [and ye shall teach] — u-lema — detem [and ye shall learn]: the one whom others are commanded to teach is commanded to teach oneself; and the one whom others are not commanded to teach, is not commanded to teach oneself. How then do we know that others are not commanded to teach her? — Because it is written: ‘And ye shall teach them your sons’ — but not your daughters. (Soncino translation)

The above establishes that on a Biblical level, women are exempt from education. However, the Sages debated whether women should be taught anyway because of other factors. A Mishnah (Sotah 3:4) states:

אם יש לה זכות היתה תולה לה יש זכות תולה שנה אחת יש זכות תולה ב' שנים יש זכות תולה ג' שנים מכאן אומר בן עזאי חייב אדם ללמד את בתו תורה שאם תשתה תדע שהזכות תולה לה ר"א אומר כל המלמד בתו תורה לומדה תפלות

IF SHE POSSESSED A MERIT, IT [CAUSES THE WATER] TO SUSPEND ITS EFFECT UPON HER. SOME MERIT SUSPENDS THE EFFECT FOR ONE YEAR, ANOTHER FOR TWO YEARS, AND ANOTHER FOR THREE YEARS. HENCE DECLARED BEN AZZAI, A MAN IS UNDER THE OBLIGATION TO TEACH HIS DAUGHTER TORAH, SO THAT IF SHE HAS TO DRINK [THE WATER OF BITTERNESS], SHE MAY KNOW THAT THE MERIT SUSPENDS ITS EFFECT. R. ELIEZER SAYS: WHOEVER TEACHES HIS DAUGHTER TORAH TEACHES HER OBSCENITY. (Soncino translation; capitals in original)

In this source we find on the one hand that some of the Sages recognized that due to certain exigencies teaching Torah to women should be a necessity, while the other Sages felt that teaching Torah to women would lead to disastrous consequences.

This latter sentiment is echoed in the Jerusalem Talmud (Sotah 3:4) in which some of the Sages state that women's wisdom is limited to the spindle, and the Torah should be burned rather than given over to women:

מטרונה שאלה את רבי לעזר מפני מה חט אחת במעשה העגל והן מתים בה שלש מיתות אמר לה אין חכמתה של אשה אלא בפילכה דכתיב וכל אשה חכמת לב בידיה טוו אמר לו הורקנוס בנו בשביל שלא להשיבה דבר אחד מן התורה איבדת ממני שלש מאות כור מעשר בכל שנה אמר ליה ישרפו דברי תורה ואל ימסרו לנשים וכשיצתה אמרו לו תלמידיו רבי לזו דחיתה לנו מה אתה משיב

These sources seem to indicate that teaching women was encouraged by some and frowned upon by others, which may mean that some women (during certain periods) were taught, while others were not.

Another Mishnaic source about women's education appears in Nedarim (4:3). The Mishnah states:

ותורם את תרומתו ומעשרותיו לדעתו ומקריב עליו קיני זבין קיני זבות קיני יולדות חטאות ואשמות ומלמדו מדרש הלכות ואגדות אבל לא ילמדנו מקרא אבל מלמד הוא את בניו ואת בנותיו מקרא

MISHNAH. AND HE MAY SEPARATE HIS TERUMAH AND HIS TITHES WITH HIS CONSENT. HE MAY OFFER UP FOR HIM THE BIRD SACRIFICES OF ZABIM AND ZABOTH AND THE BIRD SACRIFICES OF WOMEN AFTER CHILDBIRTH, SIN-OFFERINGS AND GUILT-OFFERINGS. HE MAY TEACH HIM MIDRASH, HALACHOTH AND AGGADOTH, BUT NOT SCRIPTURE. YET HE MAY TEACH SCRIPTURE TO HIS SONS AND DAUGHTERS. (Soncino translation; capitals in original)

This indicates that it was allowed, and perhaps even normal, to teach girls (at least Scripture if nothing else). However, the text of the Mishnah in Maimonides's version does not contain the words "ואת בנותיו" "and his daughters". The words are similarly absent in this early manuscript. Even if the words were not part of the Mishnah, though, the subsequent Talmudic analysis of this Mishnah assumes that girls were included.

Finally, there is a Talmudic source that explicitly mentions the education of a specific woman, and even holds her as a standard for male scholars. In Pesachim (62b) we find:

ר' שמלאי אתא לקמיה דרבי יוחנן א"ל ניתני לי מר ספר יוחסין א"ל מהיכן את א"ל מלוד והיכן מותבך בנהרדעא א"ל אין נידונין לא ללודים ולא לנהרדעים וכל שכן דאת מלוד ומותבך בנהרדעא כפייה וארצי א"ל ניתנייה בג' ירחי שקל קלא פתק ביה א"ל ומה ברוריה דביתהו דר"מ ברתיה דר"ח בן תרדיון דתניא תלת מאה שמעתתא ביומא מג' מאה רבוותא ואפ"ה לא יצתה ידי חובתה בתלת שנין ואת אמרת בתלתא ירחי

R. Simlai came before R. Johanan [and] requested him, Let the Master teach me the Book of Genealogies. Said he to him, Whence are you? — He replied, From Lod. And where is your dwelling? In Nehardea. Said he to him, We do not discuss it either with the Lodians or with the Nehardeans, and how much more so with you, who are from Lod and live in Nehardea! But he urged him, and he consented, Let us learn it in three months, he proposed. [Thereupon] he took a clod and threw it at him, saying, If Beruriah, wife of R. Meir [and] daughter of R. Hanina b. Teradion, who studied three hundred laws from three hundred teachers in [one] day, could nevertheless not do her duty in three years, yet you propose [to do it] in three months! (Soncino translation)

While it is certainly possible, even likely, that Beruriah was the exception rather than the rule, it does at least indicate that unique women could be given an education.

The debate about women's education is still ongoing, with some streams of Judaism offering girls almost no formal (textual) Torah education, others teaching girls the same way they teach boys, and many gradations in between. As the question here seems to be about education during the Talmudic Era, the post-Talmudic sources would seem to be largely irrelevant.


To summarize:

There is not a tremendous amount of historical material in the Talmudic Era literature. We do see that the consensus was that women are exempt from Torah education, with a dispute as to whether they should be taught anyway. It appears that some amount of Torah education was considered lawful, and perhaps even normal, and individual women may have been heavily educated.


I subsequently found that a footnote in the Soncino translation of one of the above cited sources (Nedarim 35b note 4) makes almost all the points in my answer with the same citations:

From this we see that it was usual to teach the Bible to girls, in spite of the Talmudic deduction that daughters need not be educated (Kid. 30a). The opposition of R. Eliezer to teaching Torah to one's daughter (Sot. 20a: He who teaches his daughter Torah is as though he taught her lewdness) was probably directed against the teaching of the Oral Law, and the higher branches of study. [V. Maim. Yad. Talmud Torah, I, 13.] Yet even in respect of this, his view was not universally accepted, and Ben ‘Azzai (a.l.) regarded it as a positive duty to teach Torah to one's daughters. The context shows that the reference is to the higher knowledge of Biblical law. In point of fact, there were learned women in Talmudic times e.g., Beruriah, wife of R. Meir (Pes. 62b).

5

One source that comes to mind is the Yerushalmi in Sotah 3:4 (folio 15b in most versions):

אמר בן עזאי חייב אדם ללמד את בתו תורה שאם תשתה תדע שהזכות תולה לה

ר' אליעזר אומר המלמד את בתו תורה מלמדה תפלות

Ben Azai said that one must teach one's daughter Torah [ שבעל פה ] so that if she drinks [Sotah waters - and doesn't die immediately even though she is guilty] - she will know that her merits are suspending [her punishment - and not that the waters don't work].

This opposed to his peers who argue that every 7 years everybody has to appear for הַקְהֵל in order for האנשים באין ללמוד והנשים לשמוע - men come to learn [the reason behind the Mitzvot] and women come to hear [what is forbidden and what is allowed - and not to "learn"], as per R' Eliezer quoted above - as per Chagiga 3a in the Bavli; IIRC Tosafot discusses something there.

See also Chagiga 1:1 in the Yerushalmi.

  • Thanks for the answer. I needed to look some things up, such as Sotah and I see there's a Hebrew/English parallel of the Torah text (Deuteronomy 31. I gather that daughters were taught the law, but only the Peshat meaning so that they would be able to practice it. Is that correct? – Jon Ericson Mar 5 '13 at 18:32
  • @JonEricson: correct. The daughters were taught all "pratical" issues. You may want to use dafyomi.co.il/section.php?gid=13&sid=6 to help with understanding the Talmud (Chagiga in this case) in English. – Danny Schoemann Mar 6 '13 at 7:02
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The Poskim say that woman have an obligation to say Birkat HaTorah since they must fulfil the mitzvot they are obligated in. Therefore it makes sense that fathers taught their daughters all the laws pertaining to those mitzvot.

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    That certainly makes logical sense. Do you happen to have any sources that show how far back this ruling goes? Further, which portions of the law would they have been taught? Would they have been exposed to the Writings of the Tanakh, which might be useful in ways not strictly tied to fulfilling the mitzvot? – Jon Ericson Mar 5 '13 at 18:42

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