Philologos Religious Online Books
Sketches of Jewish Social Life
by Alfred Edersheim
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"— 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"— "jeled," or, in the feminine, "jaldah"— 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'— 'babes'— strangers"— 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— it were, ranging itself by her— 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—, 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 vigour; 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— 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—, one might almost say, which he exclusively— had mingled with the first waking thoughts of his consciousness. Before the child could speak— it could almost understand what was taught, in however elementary language— it would even take in the domestic rites of the recurring weekly festival, or those of the annual feasts— 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.
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— 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— 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— more, of his taking any part in the services— 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— 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— 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— 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!
Nor would it have been easy to lose the impression of the first Paschal Supper which a child had attended. There was that about its symbols and services which appealed to every feeling, even had it not been that the law expressly enjoined full instruction to be given as to every part and rite of the service, as well as to the great event recorded in that supper. For in that night had Israel been born as a nation, and redeemed as the "congregation" of the Lord. Then also, as in a mould, had their future history been cast to all time; and there, as in type, had its eternal meaning and import for all men been outlined, and with it God's purpose of love and work of grace foreshadowed. Indeed, at a certain part of the service it was expressly ordained, that the youngest at the Paschal table should rise and formally ask what was the meaning of all this service, and how that night was distinguished from others; to which the father was to reply, by relating, in language suited to the child's capacity, the whole national history of Israel, from the calling of Abraham down to the deliverance from Egypt and the giving of the law; "and the more fully," it is added, "he explains it all, the better." In view of all this, Philo might indeed, without exaggeration, say that the Jews "were from their swaddling clothes, even before being taught either the sacred laws or the unwritten customs, trained by their parents, teachers, and instructors to recognise God as Father and as the Maker of the world" (Legat. ad. Cajum, sec. 16); and that, "having been taught the knowledge (of the laws) from earliest youth, they bore in their souls the image of the commandments" (Ibid. sec. 31). To the same effect is the testimony of Josephus, that "from their earliest consciousness" they had "learned the laws, so as to have them,as it were, engraven upon the soul" (Ag. Apion, ii, 18); although, of course, we do not believe it, when, with his usual boastful magniloquence, he declares that at the age of fourteen he had been "frequently" consulted by "the high priests and principal men of the city...about the accurate understanding of points of the law" (Life, 7-12; compare also Ant. iv, 31; Ag. Apion, i, 60-68, ii, 199-203).
But there is no need of such testimony. The Old Testament, the Apocrypha, and the New Testament, leading us progressively from century to century, indicate the same carefulness in the upbringing of children. One of the earliest narratives of Scripture records how God said to Abraham, "I know him, that he will command his children, and his household after him, and they shall keep the way of Jehovah to do justice and judgment" (Gen 18:19)— statement which, we may note by the way, implies the distinction between the seed of Abraham after the flesh and after the spirit. How thoroughly the spirit of this Divine utterance was carried out under the law, appears from a comparison of such passages as Exodus 12:26, 13:8, 14; Deuteronomy 4:9, 10, 6:7, 20, 11:19, 31:13; Psalm 78:5, 6. It is needless to pursue the subject farther, or to show how even God's dealings with His people were regarded as the basis and model of the parental relationship. But the book in the Old Testament which, if properly studied, would give us the deepest insight into social and family life under the old dispensation— mean the book of Proverbs— so full of admonitions about the upbringing of children, that it is sufficient to refer the reader generally to it. He will find there the value of such training, its object, in the acquisition of true wisdom in the fear and service of Jehovah, and the opposite dangers most vividly portrayed— practical bearing of all being summed up in this aphorism, true to all times: "Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it" (Prov 22:6); of which we have this New Testament application: "Bring up (your children) in the nurture and admonition of the Lord" (Eph 6:4).
The book of Proverbs brings before us yet another phase of deepest interest. It contains the fullest appreciation of woman in her true dignity, and of her position and influence in the family-life. It is quite true, as we shall presently show, that the obligation to train the child rested primarily upon the father, and that both by the law of God and by the ordinances of the Rabbis. But even the patriarchal story will prepare an attentive reader to find, especially in the early upbringing of children, that constant influence of woman, which, indeed, the nature of the maternal relationship implies, provided the family-life be framed on the model of the Word of God. Lovelier pictures of this than the mother of Samuel and the pious Shunammite hostess of Elisha can scarcely be conceived. But the book of Proverbs shows us, that even in the early times of the Jewish monarchy this characteristic of Old Testament life also appeared outside the bounds of the Holy Land, wherever pious Israelites had their settlements. The subject is so deeply interesting, historically and religiously, and perhaps so new to some readers, that a slight digression may be allowed us.
Beyond the limits of the Holy Land, close by Dumah, lay the land or district of Massa (Gen 25:14), one of the original seats of the Ishmaelites (1 Chron 1:30). From Isaiah 21:11 we gather that it must have been situate beyond Seir— is, to the south-east of Palestine, in Northern Arabia. Whether the Ishmaelites of Massa had come to the knowledge of Jehovah, the true God; whether Massa was occupied by a Jewish colony, which there established the service of the Lord; * or whether, through the influence of Hebrew immigrants, such a religious change had been brought about, certain it is, that the two last chapters of the book of Proverbs introduce the royal family of Massa as deeply imbued with the spiritual religion of the Old Testament, and the queen- mother as training the heir to the throne in the knowledge and fear of the Lord. **
Indeed, so much is this the case, that the instruction of the queen of Massa, and the words of her two royal sons, are inserted in the book of Proverbs as part of the inspired records of the Old Testament. According to the best criticism, Proverbs 30:1 should be thus rendered: "The words of Agur, the son of her whom Massa obeys. Spake the man to God-with-me— with me, and I was strong." *
Then Proverbs 31 embodies the words of Augur's royal brother, even "the words of Lemuel, king of Massa, with which his mother taught him." If the very names of these two princes—, "exile," and Lemuel, "for God," or "dedicated to God"— significant of her convictions, the teaching of that royal mother, as recorded in Proverbs 31:2-9, is worthy of a "mother in Israel." No wonder that the record of her teaching is followed by an enthusiastic description of a godly woman's worth and work (Prov 31:10-31), each verse beginning with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet (the Hebrew alphabet has 22 letters), like the various sections of Psalm 119— it were, to let her praises ring through every letter of speech.
As might have been expected, the spirit of the Apocryphal books is far different from that which breathes in the Old Testament. Still, such a composition as Ecclesiasticus shows that even in comparatively late and degenerate times the godly upbringing of children occupied a most prominent place in religious thinking. But it is when we approach the New Testament, that a fresh halo of glory seems to surround woman. And here our attention is directed to the spiritual influence of mothers rather than of fathers. Not to mention "the mother of Zebedee's children," nor the mother of John Mark, whose home at Jerusalem seems to have been the meeting-place and the shelter of the early disciples, and that in times of the most grievous persecution; nor yet "the elect lady and her children," whom not only St. John, "but also all they that know the truth," loved in truth (2 John 1), and her similarly elect sister with her children (v 13), two notable instances will occur to the reader. The first of these presents a most touching instance of a mother's faith, and prayers, and labour of love, to which the only parallel in later history is that of Monica, the mother of St. Augustine. How Eunice, the daughter of the pious Lois, had come to marry a heathen, * we know as little as the circumstances which may have originally led the family to settle at Lystra (Acts 16:1; compare 14:6, etc.), a place where there was not even a synagogue.
At most then two or three Jewish families lived in that heathen city. Perhaps Lois and Eunice were the only worshippers of Jehovah there; for we do not even read of a meeting-place for prayer, such as that by the river-side where Paul first met Lydia. Yet in such adverse circumstances, and as the wife of a Greek, Eunice proved one to whom royal Lemuel's praise applied in the fullest sense: "Her children arise up and call her blessed," and "Her works praise her in the gates"— of the new Jerusalem. Not a truer nor more touching portraiture of a pious Jewish home could have been drawn than in these words of St. Paul: "I call to remembrance the unfeigned faith that is in thee, which dwelt first in thy grandmother Lois, and thy mother Eunice"; and again, "From a child thou hast know the Holy Scriptures" (2 Tim 1:5, 3:15). There was, we repeat, no synagogue in Lystra where Timothy might have heard every Sabbath, and twice in the week, Moses and the Prophets read, and derived other religious knowledge; there was, so far as we can see, neither religious companionship nor means of instruction of any kind, nor religious example, not even from his father; but all around quite the contrary. But there was one influence for highest good—, unvarying, and most powerful. It was that of "mother of Israel." From the time that as a "taph" he clung to her— before that, when a "gamul," an "olel," and a "jonek"— Eunice trained Timothy in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. To quote again the forcible language of St. Paul, "From an infant" * (or baby) "thou hast known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make thee wise unto salvation, through faith which is in Christ Jesus."
From the Apocrypha, from Josephus, and from the Talmud we know what means of instruction in the Scriptures were within reach of a pious mother at that time. In a house like that of Timothy's father there would, of course, be no phylacteries, with the portions of Scripture which they contained, and probably no "Mesusah," although, according to the Mishnah (Ber. iii. 3), the latter duty was incumbent, not only upon men but upon women. the Babylon Talmud (Ber. 20 b) indeed gives a very unsatisfactory reason for the latter provision. But may it not be that the Jewish law had such cases in view as that of Eunice and her son, without expressly saying so, from fear of lending a sanction to mixed marriages? Be this as it may, we know that at the time of the Syrian persecutions, just before the rising of the Maccabees, the possession of portions or of the whole of the Old Testament by private families was common in Israel. For, part of those persecutions consisted in making search for these Scriptures and destroying them (1 Macc. i. 57), as well as punishing their possessors (Josephus, Ant. xii, 256). Of course, during the period of religious revival which followed the triumph of the Maccabees, such copies of the Bible would have greatly multiplied. It is by no means an exaggeration to say that, if perhaps only the wealthy possessed a complete copy of the Old Testament, written out on parchment or on Egyptian paper, there would scarcely be a pious home, however humble, which did not cherish as its richest treasure some portion of the Word of God— the five books of the Law, or the Psalter, or a roll of one or more of the Prophets. Besides, we know from the Talmud that at a later period, and probably at the time of Christ also, there were little parchment rolls specially for the use of children, containing such portions of Scripture as the "Shema" * (Deut 6:4-9, 11:13-21; Num 15:37-41), the "Hallel" (Psa 113-118), the history of the Creation to that of the Flood, and the first eight chapters of the book of Leviticus. Such means of instruction there would be at the disposal of Eunice in teaching her son.
And this leads us to mention, with due reverence, the other and far greater New Testament instance of maternal influence in Israel. It is none less than that of the mother of our blessed Lord Himself. While the fact that Jesus became subject to His parents, and grew in wisdom and in favour both with God and man, forms part of the unfathomable mystery of His self-humiliation, the influence exerted upon His early education, especially by His mother, seems implied throughout the gospel history. Of course, His was a pious Jewish home; and at Nazareth there was a synagogue, to which, as we shall by-and-by explain, a school was probably attached. In that synagogue Moses and the Prophets would be read, and, as afterwards by Himself (Luke 4:16), discourses or addresses be delivered from time to time. What was taught in these synagogue-schools, and how, will be shown in another chapter. But, whether or not Jesus had attended such a school, His mind was so thoroughly imbued with the Sacred Scriptures— was so familiar with them in their every detail— we cannot fail to infer that the home of Nazareth possessed a precious copy of its own of the entire Sacred Volume, which from earliest childhood formed, so to speak, the meat and drink of the God-Man. More than that, there is clear evidence that He was familiar with the art of writing, which was by no means so common in those days as reading. The words of our Lord, as reported both by St. Matthew (Matt 5:18) and by St. Luke (Luke 16:17), also prove that the copy of the Old Testament from which He had drawn was not only in the original Hebrew, but written, like our modern copies, in the so-called Assyrian, and not in the ancient Hebrew-Phoenician characters. This appears from the expression "one iota or one little hook"— rendered "tittle" in our Authorised Version— can only apply to the modern Hebrew characters. That our Lord taught in Aramaean, and that He used and quoted the Holy Scriptures in the Hebrew, perhaps sometimes rendering them for popular use into Aramaean, there can be little doubt on the part of careful and unprejudiced students, though some learned men have held the opposite. It is quite true that the Mishnah (Megill. i. 8) seems to allow the writing of Holy Scripture in any language; but even Simeon, the son of Gamaliel (the teacher of St. Paul), confined this concession to the Greek— doubt with a view to the LXX, which was so widely spread in his time. But we also know from the Talmud, how difficult it was for a Rabbi to defend the study or use of Greek, and how readily popular prejudice burst into a universal and sweeping condemnation of it. The same impression is conveyed not only from the immediate favourable change which the use of the Aramaean by St. Paul produced upon the infuriated people (Acts 21:40), but also from the fact that only an appeal to the Hebrew Scriptures could have been of authority in discussion with the Pharisees and Scribes, and that it alone gave point to the frequent expostulations of Christ: "Have ye not read?" (Matt 12:3, 19:4, 21:13, 16, 42, 22:31).
This familiarity from earliest childhood with the Scriptures in the Hebrew original also explains how at the age of twelve Jesus could be found "in the Temple; sitting in the midst of the doctors, both hearing them and asking them questions" (Luke 2:46). In explaining this seemingly strange circumstance, we may take the opportunity of correcting an almost universal mistake. It is generally thought that, on the occasion referred to, the Saviour had gone up, as being "of age," in the Jewish sense of the expression, or, to use their own terms, as a "Bar Mizvah," or "son of the commandment," by which the period was marked when religious obligations and privileges devolved upon a youth, and he became a member of the congregation. But the legal age for this was not twelve, but thirteen (Ab. v. 21). On the other hand, the Rabbinical law enjoined (Yoma, 82 a) that even before that— years, or at least one year— should be brought up to the Temple, and made to observe the festive rites. Unquestionably, it was in conformity with this universal custom that Jesus went on the occasion named to the Temple. Again, we know that it was the practice of the members of the various Sanhedrims— on ordinary days sat as judicatories, from the close of the morning to the time of the evening sacrifice (Sanh. 88 b)— come out upon the Sabbaths and feast-days on "the terrace of the Temple," and there publicly to teach and expound, the utmost liberty being given of asking questions, discussing, objecting, and otherwise taking intelligent part in these lectures. On the occasion of Christ's presence, these discussions would, as usual, be carried on during the "Moed Katon," or minor festive days, intervening between the second and the last day of the Paschal week. Joseph and Mary, on the other hand, had, as allowed by the law, returned towards Nazareth on the third day of the Paschal week, while Jesus remained behind. These circumstances also explain why His appearance in the midst of the doctors, although very remarkable considering His age, did not at once command universal attention. In point of fact, the only qualification requisite, so far as learning was concerned, would be a thorough knowledge of the Scriptures in the Hebrew, and a proper understanding of them.
What we have hitherto described will have conveyed to the reader that the one branch of instruction aimed after or desired by the Jews at the time of Christ was religious knowledge. What was understood by this, and how it was imparted— in the family or in the public schools— form the subject of special investigation.