Jewish Studies, DWEC, NCCA, DES 1
SECTION 4 Holy Places
Topic 4.3 Bet Midrash
The development and continuation of the Bet Midrash
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
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
(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
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
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
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.
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
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
Jewish Studies, DWEC, NCCA, DES 4
as for your second question, the reckless Zealots would not allow me to leave the
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.
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.