Temple Beth Joseph of Herkimer, New York

A Conservative Synagogue in New York’s Mohawk Valley

If You Can Read This, Thank a Teacher.

January 2018

There is an old saying that I heard when I was younger: “Those who can, do & those who can’t teach.” I never much cared for that old saying, nor do I have much respect for those who believe it. It is certainly not in consonance with our rabbinic traditions, nor with our earlier biblical traditions either. Our Jewish sages taught that respecting a teacher is tantamount to respecting God.

The medieval sage (~1135–1204) Rambam, Rabbi Moses ben Maimon, in his seminal legal work, the Mishnah Torah, in the section entitled “Laws of Talmud Torah,” states: Just as a person is commanded to honor & revere his parent, so, too, one is obligated to honor & revere his rav – more so than his parent. For his parent brings him to life in this world, but his rav, who teaches him wisdom, brings him to life in the world to come. Clearly, Rambam uses the term rav in this context to mean teacher. Further on, he also states: You have no greater honor than the honor due a rav, & no greater reverence than the reverence due a rav. The sages declared: “Reverence for your teacher should be like reverence for Heaven.” Therefore, they said: Anyone who disagrees with his rav is like one who disagrees with the Divine Presence.

On what does Rambam base this analogy between teachers & Heaven? The respect & honor due a parent appears in both versions of the 10 Commandments & elsewhere in the Bible. But, where does Rambam find the impertinence to consider the honor due a teacher greater than that which is spelled out in the 10 Commandments? The truth is, Rambam is not making up law here, he is following the established rabbinic tradition. This precept provides some idea of just how important it is to respect & honor a teacher.

The rabbinic tradition of respecting teachers, to which we are heirs, is ancient. A millennium before Rambam, the men of the Great Assembly who predate the rabbinic period, teach: Be deliberate in judgment, raise up many disciples, & make a fence for the Torah. Raising up disciples is part of what a Jewish sage is supposed to do. However, it was not stipulated in these sources (Pirkey Avot) that sages had an obligation to motivate students. Disciples were expected to be self-motivated. For example, Hillel teaches us: One who does not study deserves to die. Yehoshua ben Perachya & Rabban Gamliel both say: Get yourself a teacher. Apparently, students have an obligation to seek out mentors, to study, & to learn.

Most of these traditions seem to address higher education; disciples who can seek out masters & sages who can seek out worthy students. We might ask if there is anything in the ancient literature that supports elementary education. To what extent did the rabbinic tradition demand that communities educate younger children? The answer to this question is found (Baba Batra, 20b–21a) in the Talmud. I do not know if this is the world’s 1st recorded example of compulsory elementary education or not, but around 64 CE, 2 years before the Great War with Rome, the High Priest, Joshua ben Gamla, issued a series of edicts that helped our ancestors evolve from home schooling to mandatory elementary education. Notice how each step is justified by a biblical verse:

…Rabba said the concluding words (of the previous discussion) refer to school children & go back to the time of the enactment of Joshua ben Gamla, of whom Rav Judah has said in the name of Rav: Surely, Joshua ben Gamla is to be blessed — but for him, the Torah would have been forgotten in Israel.

At 1st, if a child had a father, his father taught him but if he had no father, he did not learn at all. On what did they base this? It is the verse (Deu.11:19) “And you shall teach them - your children, to speak of them, when you sit in your home, & when you walk on the way, & when you lie down, & when you rise up.”

Then they enacted an ordinance that teachers for children would be appointed in Jerusalem. On what did they base this? It is the verse (Isa.2:3) And many peoples shall go & say: “Come, & let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob, & He will teach us of His ways & we will walk in His paths.” For from Zion shall go forth the law, & the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.

Even with this, however, if a child had a father, the father would take him up to Jerusalem & have the child taught there, but if not, the child would not be taken up & taught there. Therefore, they enacted an ordinance that teachers would be appointed in each province & that children should enter school at the age of 16 or 17. However, if the teacher punished them, they would rebel & leave the school. Eventually, Joshua ben Gamla came & ordained that teachers for young children should be appointed in each district & each town & that children should enter school at the age of 6 or 7.

Further on in the text it states: Rabba said that according to the edict of Joshua ben Gamla, children may not be sent from one town to another but they may be compelled to go from one synagogue to another. However, if there is a river between them, we cannot force them. Then again, if there is a bridge we may compel them unless, however, it is merely a plank.

Rabba said further: The number of pupils to be assigned to each teacher is 25. If there are 50, we appoint 2 teachers. If there are 40, we appoint an assistant at the town’s expense.

Rabba also said: If we have a teacher who gets along with the children but there is another who gets along better, we do not replace the 1st one with the 2nd for fear that the 2nd one may become lazy when appointed. Rav Dimi of Nehardea, however, maintained that he would exert himself ever more diligently if appointed: “The jealousy of scribes increases wisdom.”

Moreover, Rabba said: If there are two teachers, one of whom teaches more quickly but with mistakes & the other of whom teaches more slowly but without mistakes, we appoint the the one who teaches quickly since mistakes will correct themselves in the course of time. Rav Dimi of Nehardea, on the other hand, objects saying we should appoint the one who teaches slowly; for once a mistake is ingrained, it cannot be erased.

Then, as now, teaching children is a serious business. Those involved in education, on any level, either Jewish or secular, shoulder the burden of moving society into the next generation. Quality education is not a thing to take lightly. Those who teach have a tremendous responsibility. Those who teach deserve our utmost respect & reverence. That old quote should read: “Those who can, do & teach; those who can’t should not teach.”

It is my prayer that teachers everywhere get the respect, & the admiration of society that they so richly deserve. In my religious tradition, the respect we give to teachers should be the same as the respect we give to God.

שלום וברכה
-shalom uverakha-
(peace & blessing)
Rabbi Ronald B. Kopelman