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  • 1. Jewish Studies, DWEC, NCCA, DES 1 SECTION 4 Holy Places Topic 4.3 Bet Midrash The development and continuation of the Bet Midrash Description of Topic The history and development of Bet Midrash after the Roman destruction of the Second Temple The meaning of Bet Midrash and its role as an educational institution in Judaism The contemporary importance of Bet Midrash Learning Outcomes trace the history and development of Bet Midrash; explain the meaning of Bet Midrash and its role in Judaism; assess the contemporary importance of Bet Midrash in promoting life-long learning in Judaism BET MIDRASH (Adapted from The Yivo Encyclopaedia of Eastern European Jews) Bet Midrash(commonly bet midrash; Yid., besmedresh; lit., “study house”), a voluntary, public institute for Torah learning, functioning for generations within Jewish communities alongside the synagogue and, from certain halakhic standpoints, even surpassing it in preference and importance. Functioning mainly as a place of study, the bet midrash (universally referred to by East European Jews in its Yiddish form, besmedresh) has also served as an alternative place of worship due to the many hours students spend there. In fact, students in Eastern Europe often took meals there and slept on the premises—so that, unlike the synagogue, the bet midrash required a mezuzah. Yet as a community of learners whose daily routine is dictated by the requirements of study, the bet midrash has been an institution that is in essence the reverse of the synagogue, challenging it and offering a certain alternative to the fixed models of communal life. The bet midrash differed from the synagogue also in form. In the service of its main function, which was study, the furnishings of a bet midrash were simple and functional—chairs and tables. The accoutrements of prayer, such as the ark for the Torah, were simpler and smaller than those of the synagogue. The orientation of seating in the bet midrash, unlike the synagogue, was not necessarily to the east, but was determined by the way people sat for study. While, in the case of the synagogue, an effort was customarily made to beautify it so that it stood out from its surroundings, the bet midrash had no architectural distinctiveness. In certain communities where the synagogue and the bet midrash shared the same building, this distinction was particularly obvious. Generally, there are either benches or chairs and tables, on which books are placed. In Lithuanian Yeshivos the Beth Midrash will have shtenders (standing desks resembling lecterns). A characteristic bet midrash has many hundreds of books, including at least several copies of the entire Talmud, Torah, siddurim (prayer books), Shulchan
  • 2. Jewish Studies, DWEC, NCCA, DES 2 Aruch (Code of Jewish Law), Mishneh Torah1, Arbaah Turim2 and other frequently consulted works. In modern times, "batei midrash" are typically found as the central study halls of yeshivas or independent kollels3, both institutions of Torah study. The location and institution of study are often interchanged, so in popular parlance, yeshivot are sometimes referred to as batei midrash. A bet midrash may also be housed in a synagogue, or vice versa. In antiquity, this is a matter of debate. Many batei midrash originally serve the community but attract a yeshiva in the course of their existence. A bet wa’ad, meeting place of scholars, existed as early as the Maccabean times: ‘let thy house be a bet wa’ad for the wise’ (Jose ben Joezer of Zereda, martyr of the Maccabean time). The bet wa’ad is also mentioned in Sotah ix. 15. The hearers or disciples were seated on the ground at the feet of their teachers. In the first century, schools existed everywhere at the side of the synagogues. The primary school, bet hasefer, was a later development by 100 BCE in Jerusalem. The Hagaddah speaks of a bet ha-midrash of Shem and Eber which was attended by Isaac, occasionally by Rebekah, and regularly by Jacob; of that of Jacob at Sukkot, which Joseph frequented; of that which Judah was sent to build for Jacob in Egypt; or that of Moses, where Moses and Aaron and his sons taught the Law. The prophet Samuel had his bet ha midrash in Ramah. Solomon built synagogues and schoolhouses. King Hezekiah furnished the oil for lamps to burn in the synagogues and schools and threated to have killed by the sword anyone who would not study the Law. The tribe of Issachar devoted their time to the study of the Law in the bet ha-midrash, Zebulin the merchant supporting it. Early rabbinic literature, including the Mishnah makes mention of the bet midrash as an institution distinct from the bet din (House of Judgement/Rabbinical Court) and Sandhedrin (central rabbinical court of ancient Israel, consisted of 71 sages and was a crucial source of leadership after the destruction of the Second Temple). It was meant as a place of Torah study and interpretation, as well as the development of halakhah (the practical application of the Jewish Law). 1 Sefer Yad HaHazaka ("Book of the Strong Hand,") is a code of Jewish religious law (Halakha) authored by Maimonides (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, also known as RaMBaM or "Rambam"), one of history's foremost rabbis. The Mishneh Torah was compiled between 1170 and 1180 (4930- 4940), while Maimonides was living in Egypt, and is regarded as Maimonides' magnum opus. Accordingly, later sources simply refer to the work as "Maimon", "Maimonides" or "RaMBaM", although Maimonides composed other works. 2 Tur, is an important Halakhic code, composed by Yaakov ben Asher (Cologne, 1270 - Toledo c.1340, also referred to as "Ba'al ha-Turim", "Author of the Tur"). The four-part structure of the Tur and its division into chapters (simanim) were adopted by the later code Shulchan Aruch. 3 A kollel (a "gathering" or "collection" [of scholars]) is an institute for full-time, advanced study of the Talmud and rabbinic literature. Like a yeshiva, a kollel features shiurim (lectures) and learning sedarim (learning sessions); unlike a yeshiva, the student body of a kollel are all married men. Kollels generally pay a regular monthly stipend to their members.
  • 3. Jewish Studies, DWEC, NCCA, DES 3 Bet Midrash: After the Destruction of the Second Temple and the Fall of Jerusalem 70 CE The origin of the bet midrash, or house of study can be traced to the early rabbinic period, following the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE. The earliest known rabbinical school was established by Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai at Yavneh (20km south of Jaffa on the eastern Mediterranean). He was the youngest and most distinguished disciple of Rabbi Hillel.4 He has been called the "father of wisdom and the father of generations (of scholars)" because he ensured the continuation of Jewish scholarship after Jerusalem fell to Rome in 70 CE. Vespasian's troops brutally conquered the north of Israel, eradicating all resistance.5 Meanwhile, the Jewish factions – now increasingly concentrated in Jerusalem – moved beyond power struggles into open civil war. While Vespasian merely watched from a distance, various factions of Zealots (political opponents of Roman rule) and Sicarii (more militant and violent Zealots known as ‘daggermen’) fought each other bitterly, even those that had common goals. They killed those advocating surrender. Thousands of Jews died at the hands of other Jews in just a few years. Long before, the residents of Jerusalem had stored provisions in case of a Roman siege. Three wealthy men had donated huge storehouses of flour, oil, and wood—enough supplies to survive a siege of 21 years. The Zealots, however, wanted all-out war. They were unhappy with the attitude of the Sages, who proposed sending a peace delegation to the Romans. In order to brings things to a head and force their fellow Jews to fight, groups of militia set fire to the city's food stores, condemning its population to starvation. They also imposed an internal siege on Jerusalem, not letting their fellow Jews in or out. The greatest Jewish sage of the time was Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai. He wisely foresaw that Jerusalem was doomed and understood the need to transplant the center of Torah scholarship to another location, to ensure the survival of Torah study after Jerusalem's destruction. He devised a plan that would allow him to leave Jerusalem, despite the Zealots' blockade. He feigned death so that he could be carried out of the city. His disciples carried the coffin out of the city's walls, and Rabbi Yochanan proceeded directly to Vespasian's tent. He entered the tent and addressed Vespasian as "Your Majesty." "You are deserving of death on two accounts," said Vespasian. "First of all, I am not the emperor, only his general. Secondly, if I am indeed emperor, why did you not come to me until now?" Rabbi Yochanan answered: "You are an emperor, because otherwise the Holy Temple would not be delivered in your hands.… And 4 Hillel and his descendants established academies of learning and were the leaders of the Jewish community in the Land of Israel for several centuries. Shammai was concerned that if Jews had too much contact with the Romans, the Jewish community would be weakened, and this attitude was reflected in his strict interpretation of Jewish law. Hillel did not share Shammai's fear and therefore was more liberal in his view of law. 5 Roman Emperor 69-79 CE
  • 4. Jewish Studies, DWEC, NCCA, DES 4 as for your second question, the reckless Zealots would not allow me to leave the city." While they were speaking, a messenger came and told Vespasian that Nero was dead and he had been appointed the new Roman emperor. Vespasian was so impressed with Rabbi Yochanan's wisdom that he offered to grant Rabbi Yochanan anything he wanted as a reward. Rabbi Yochanan made three requests. The primary request was that Vespasian spare Yavne – which would become the new home of the Sanhedrin – and its Torah sages. Rabbi Yochanan thus ensured the continuation of Jewish scholarship after the fall of Jerusalem. Even though they would no longer have a Temple or a homeland, the Jews would always have a spiritual center in the Torah. In 69 CE, Vespasian returned to Rome to serve as emperor, but first he appointed his son, Titus, to carry on in his stead. In 70 CE, Titus came towards Jerusalem with an army of 80,000 soldiers. Other official schools were soon established under different rabbis. These men traced their ideological roots back to the Pharisees of the late Second Temple Period, specifically the Houses of Hillel and Shammai, two "schools" of thought. By late antiquity, the "bet midrash" had developed along with the synagogue into a distinct though somewhat related institution. The main difference between the "bet midrash" and "bet hakeneset" (synagogue) is that the "bet hakeneset" is sanctified for prayer only and that even the study of Torah would violate its sanctity while in the "bet midrash" both Torah study and prayer are allowed. For this reason most synagogues designate their sanctuary as a "bet midrash" so that in addition to prayer the study of the Torah would also be permitted. Exercise: 1. Explain the term ‘Bet Midrash’. 2. Outline the key moments in the development of bet midrash. 3. Why was Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai considered to be a very important figure in the development of the Bet Midrash? 4. Why did the Bet Midrash assume greater importance after the destruction of the Second Temple? 5. What is the main difference between a bet midrash and a synagogue? 6. Describe what a bet midrash of eastern European origin might look like. 7. What is the distinction between bet wa’ad and bet midrash? 8. Why is the bet midrash important in Jewish learning? 9. Would you like to have a bet midrash near where you live where you could go and study? Explain.
  • 5. Jewish Studies, DWEC, NCCA, DES 5

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