Are you a Christian?
PREVIOUS CHAPTER - NEXT SECTION - HELP - FACEBOOK
The Upbringing of Jewish Children
The tenderness of the bond which united Jewish parents to their children appears even in the multiplicity and pictorialness of the expressions by which the various stages of child-life are designated in the Hebrew. Besides such general words as "ben" and "bath"-"son" and "daughter"--we find no fewer than nine different terms, each depicting a fresh stage of life. The first of these simply designates the babe as the newly-"born"--the "jeled," or, in the feminine, "jaldah"--as in Exodus 2:3, 6, 8. But the use of this term throws a fresh light on the meaning of some passages of Scripture. Thus we remember that it is applied to our Lord in the prophecy of His birth (Isa 9:6): "For a babe" ('jeled') is born unto us, a son ('ben') is given to us"; while in Isaiah 2:6 its employment adds a new meaning to the charge: "They please themselves (or strike hands) with the 'jalde'--the 'babes'--of strangers"--marking them, so to speak, as not only the children of strangers, but as unholy from their very birth. Compare also the pictorial, or else the poetical, use of the word "jeled" in such passages as Isaiah 29:23, 57:4; Jeremiah 31:20; Ecclesiastes 4:13; 1 Kings 12:8; 2 Kings 2:24; Genesis 42:22; and others. The next child-name, in point of time, is "jonek," which means, literally, "a suckling," being also sometimes used figuratively of plants, like our English "sucker," as in Isaiah 53:2: "He shall grow up before Him as a sucker"--"jonek." The word "jonek" occurs, for example, in Isaiah 11:8, and in Psalm 8:2. On the other hand, the expression in the latter passage, rendered "babes" in our Authorised Version, marks a yet third stage in the child's existence, and a farther advancement in the babe-life. This appears from many passages. As the word implies, the "olel" is still "sucking"; but it is no longer satisfied with only this nourishment, and is "asking bread," as in Lamentations 4:4: "The tongue of the 'jonek' cleaves to the roof of his mouth for thirst: the 'olalim' ask bread." A fourth designation represents the child as the "gamul," or "weaned one" (Psa 131:2; Isa 11:8, 28:9), from a verb which primarily means to complete, and secondarily to wean. As we know, the period of weaning among the Hebrews was generally at the end of two years (Chethub. 60), and was celebrated by a feast. After that the fond eye of the Hebrew parent seems to watch the child as it is clinging to its mother--as it were, ranging itself by her--whence the fifth designation, "taph" (Esth 3:13, "The 'taph' and the women in one day"; Jer 40:7; Eze 9:6). The sixth period is marked by the word "elem" (in the feminine, "almah," as in Isa 7:14, of the virgin-mother), which denotes becoming firm and strong. As one might expect, we have next the "naari," or youth--literally, he who shakes off, or shakes himself free. Lastly, we find the child designated as "bachur," or the "ripened one"; a young warrior, as in Isaiah 31:8; Jeremiah 18:21, 15:8, etc. Assuredly, those who so keenly watched child-life as to give a pictorial designation to each advancing stage of its existence, must have been fondly attached to their children.
There is a passage in the Mishnah (Aboth. v. 21), which quaintly maps out and, as it were, labels the different periods of life according to their characteristics. It is worth reproducing, if only to serve as introduction to what we shall have to say on the upbringing of children. Rabbi Jehudah, the son of Tema, says: "At five years of age, reading of the Bible; at ten years, learning the Mishnah; at thirteen years, bound to the commandments; at fifteen years, the study of the Talmud; at eighteen years, marriage; at twenty, the pursuit of trade or business (active life); at thirty years, full vigor; at forty, maturity of reason; at fifty, of counsel; at sixty, commencement of agedness; at seventy, grey age; at eighty, advanced old age; at ninety, bowed down; at a hundred, as if he were dead and gone, and taken from the world." In the passage just quoted the age of five is mentioned as that when a child is expected to commence reading the Bible--of course, in the original Hebrew. But different opinions also prevailed. Generally speaking, such early instruction was regarded as only safe in the case of very healthy and strong children; while those of average constitution were not to be set to regular work till six years old. There is both common sense and sound experience in this Talmudical saying (Cheth. 50), "If you set your child to regular study before it is six years old, you shall always have to run after, and yet never get hold of it." This chiefly has reference to the irreparable injury to health caused by such early strain upon the mind. If, on the other hand, we come upon an admonition to begin teaching a child when it is three years old, this must refer to such early instructions as the of certain passages of Scripture, or of small isolated portions and prayers, which a parent would make his child repeat from tenderest years. As we shall show in the sequel, six or seven was the age at which a parent in Palestine was legally bound to attend to the schooling of his son.
But, indeed, it would have been difficult to say when the instruction of the Hebrew child really commenced. Looking back, a man must have felt that the teaching which he most--indeed, one might almost say, which he exclusively--valued had mingled with the first waking thoughts of his consciousness. Before the child could speak--before it could almost understand what was taught, in however elementary language--before it would even take in the domestic rites of the recurring weekly festival, or those of the annual feasts--it must have been attracted by the so-called "Mesusah," which was fastened at the door-post of every "clean" apartment, * and at the entrance of such houses as were inhabited by Jews exclusively. The "Mesusah" was a kind of phylactery for the house, serving a purpose kindred to that of the phylactery for the person, both being derived from a misunderstanding and misapplication of the Divine direction (Deu 6:9, 11:20), taking in the letter what was meant for the spirit. But while we gladly concede that the earlier Jewish practice was free from some of the present almost semi-heathenish customs, ** and further, that many houses in Palestine were without it, there can be little doubt that, even at the time of Christ, this "Mesusah" would be found wherever a family was at all Pharisaically inclined.
* The "Mesusah" was not affixed to any that were not "diroth cavod"--dwellings of honor. Thus not to bath rooms, wash-houses, tanneries, dyeworks, etc. The "Mesusah" was only attached to dwelling-places, not to synagogues.
** The tractate Massecheth Mesusah cannot be regarded as an authority for early times. But even the "Sohar" contains much that is little better than heathen superstition on the supposed efficacy of the "Mesusah." Among later superstitions connected with it, are the writing of the name "Cuso bemuchsas cuso" (supposed to be that of Israel's watching angel), the etymology of that name, etc.
For, not to speak of what seems an allusion to it, so early as in Isaiah 57:8, we have the distinct testimony of Josephus (Ant. iv, 213) and of the Mishnah to their use (Ber. iii. 3; Megill. i. 8; Moed K. iii. 4; Men. iii.7--in the last-mentioned place, even with superstitious additions). Supposing the "Mesusah" to have been somewhat as at present, it would have consisted of a small, longitudinally-folded parchment square, on which, on twenty-two lines, these two passages were written: Deuteronomy 6:4-9, and 11:13-21. Inclosed in a shining metal case, and affixed to the door-post, the child, when carried in arms, would naturally put out its hand to it; the more so, that it would see the father and all others, on going out or in, reverently touch the case, and afterwards kiss the finger, speaking at the same time a benediction. For, from early times, the presence of the "Mesusah" was connected with the Divine protection, this verse being specially applied to it: "The Lord shall preserve thy going out and thy coming in from this time forth, and even for evermore" (Psa 121:8). Indeed, one of the most interesting ancient literary monuments in existence--"Mechilta," a Jewish commentary on the book of Exodus, the substance of which is older than the Mishnah itself, dating from the beginning of the second century of our era, if not earlier--argues the efficacy of the "Mesusah" from the fact that, since the destroying angel passed over the doors of Israel which bore the covenant-mark, a much higher value must attach to the "Mesusah," which embodied the name of the Lord no less than ten times, and was to be found in the dwellings of Israel day and night through all their generations. From this to the magical mysticism of the "Kabbalah," and even to such modern superstitions as that, if dust or dirt were kept within a cubit of the "Mesusah," no less a host than three hundred and sixty-five demons would come, there is a difference of degree rather than of kind.
But to return. As soon as the child had any knowledge, the private and the united prayers of the family, and the domestic rites, whether of the weekly Sabbath or of festive seasons, would indelibly impress themselves upon his mind. It would be difficult to say which of those feasts would have the most vivid effect upon a child's imagination. There was "Chanukah," the feast of the Dedication, with its illumination of each house, when (in most cases) the first evening one candle would be lit for each member of the household, the number increasing each night, till, on the eighth, it was eight times that of the first. Then there was "Purim," the feast of Esther, with the good cheer and boisterous merriment which it brought; the feast of Tabernacles, when the very youngest of the house had to live out in the booth; and, chiefest of feasts, the week of the Passover, when, all leaven being carefully purged out, every morsel of food, by its difference from that ordinarily used, would show the child that the season was a special one. From the moment a child was at all capable of being instructed--still more, of his taking any part in the services--the impression would deepen day by day. Surely no one who had ever worshipped within the courts of Jehovah's house at Jerusalem could ever have forgotten the scenes he had witnessed, or the words he had heard. Standing in that gorgeous, glorious building, and looking up its terraced vista, the child would watch with solemn awe, not unmingled with wonderment, as the great throng of white-robed priests busily moved about, while the smoke of the sacrifice rose from the altar of burnt-offering. Then, amid the hushed silence of that vast multitude, they had all fallen down to worship at the time of incense. Again, on those steps that led up to the innermost sanctuary the priests had lifted their hands and spoken over the people the words of blessing; and then, while the drink-offering was poured out, the Levites' chant of Psalms had risen and swelled into a mighty volume; the exquisite treble of the Levite children's voices being sustained by the rich round notes of the men, and accompanied by instrumental music. The Jewish child knew many of these words. They had been the earliest songs he had heard--almost his first lesson when clinging as a "taph" to his mother. But now, in those white-marbled, gold-adorned halls, under heaven's blue canopy, and with such surroundings, they would fall upon his ear like sounds from another world, to which the prolonged threefold blasts from the silver trumpets of the priests would seem to waken him. And they were sounds from another world; for, as his father would tell him, all that he saw was after the exact pattern of heavenly things which God had shown to Moses on Mount Sinai; all that he heard was God- uttered, spoken by Jehovah Himself through the mouth of His servant David, and of the other sweet singers of Israel. Nay, that place and that house were God-chosen; and in the thick darkness of the Most Holy Place--there afar off, where the high-priest himself entered on one day of the year only, and in simple pure white vesture, not in those splendid golden garments in which he was ordinarily arrayed--had once stood the ark, with the veritable tables of the law, hewn and graven by the very hand of God; and between the cherubim had then throned in the cloud the visible presence of Jehovah. Verily this Temple with its services was heaven upon earth!