In the traditional Jewish community, an extraordinary value was placed on the religious education of one's children, that they might serve as secure links in the transmission of the Jewish heritage. The first attempt at creating a school system was apparently made by Simeon b. Chetah in the early half of the first century BCE. A comprehensive scheme carried out by Joshua b. Gamala a few years before the destruction of the Temple in the first century CE was recorded in the Talmud, in what was probably the earliest record of the adoption of universal education in any country,[1] an effort revived in the third century.

Learning to read the Hebrew letters became a symbolic act in many a Jewish elementary school throughout the Jewish world — an introduction of the child into the world of religious learning. During the Middle Ages, one of the ceremonies marking this initiation included the custom of writing the letters of the alphabet on a slate and covering them with honey; the child then licked the slate with his tongue so that the words of the Scriptures might be as sweet as honey.[2]The following noteworthy Talmudic passage,[3] however, informs us how young Jewish children were taught the Hebrew alphabet in a much earlier period, during rabbinic times.

To assist the memory and to make the task of learning more attractive, words were associated with the letters; but most important of all, the alphabet was employed as a medium of religious and ethical instruction. The following lesson deserves to be given in its entirety.

It is related that children now come into the House of Study who recite things the like of which was not even said even the days of Joshua the son of Nun.

Aleph and bet () are the initials of elaph binah (), meaning "Gain understanding."

Gimmel and daled () are the initials of gemol dalim, meaning: "Be benevolent to the poor."

Why is the foot of gimmel turned towards daled? Because it is the way of the benevolent to run after the poor.
Why is the foot of daled turned towards gimmel? To indicate that the poor person reaches out to his helper.
Why is the face of daled turned away from gimmel? To teach that charity should be performed in secret so as not to shame the recipient.

Heh and vav () signify the name of the Holy One, blessed be He.
Zayin, khet, tet, yod, kof, lamed (): "If you act in this manner (toward the poor), the Holy One blessed be He (zan otha, han otha, meitiv leha, v'noten leha yerusha, v'kosher otha keter l'olam haba) will sustain you and be gracious to you, benefit you, give you an inheritance, and bind a crown upon you in the World to come.


There is an open mem and a closed mem (), ma'amar patuah, ma'amar satum () denoting that certain doctrines are open to reason and others closed. There is a curved nun and a straight nun (), hinting that if one is faithful to God when bent (by adversity), he will be faithful in normal times: ne'eman kafuf, ne'eman pashut (). Sameh and ayin () provide two words, semoh aniyim () meaning "support the poor." There is a curved peh and a straight peh () peh patuah, peh satum () pointing to an open mouth and a closed mouth.

There is a curved zadi and a straight zadi (), meaning that if one is righteous when bent (by adversity), he will be righteous in normal times: . Kof () is the first letter of kadosh (), holy, and resh () is the first letter of rasha' (), wicked. Why does kof () turn its face away from resh () ? The Holy One, blessed be He, says, "I cannot look upon the wicked." Why is the foot of kof () turned towards resh ()? The Holy One, blessed be He, says, "If the wicked repent, I will place a crown upon him like My own." Why does the leg of kof () hang detached? If the wicked repent he can enter through the opening, and so find himself within (Hakadosh Baruh Hu'), the Holy One.

Shin () is the initial of sheker (), falsehood, and tav () the final letter of emet (), truth. Why does the word for "falsehood" — sheker (), consist of three consecutive letters of the alphabet, while the word for "truth," emet (), consists of letters taken from the beginning, middle and end of the alphabet? Because falsehood is common, truth uncommon. And why does the word for falsehood rest on one point while the word for truth has a firm foundation? To teach that truth stands but falsehood cannot.



[1] Baba Batra 21a [back]
[2] Maaseh Roke'ah; Mahzor Vitry, ed. S. Hurwitz, 1923 [back]
[3] BT Shabbat 104a [back]
From: Everyman's Talmud: The Major Teachings of the Rabbinic Sages, by Abraham Cohen. New York: Schocken Books, 1975.



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