Education and Memory in the Jewish School of Biblical Times


What was the role of memory in Jewish education and how did they memorize Scripture? For the Jew, memory was a means of education that focused on the Torah.

Formal education for the ancient Jew began between the ages of five and seven. The students would enter the school and sit at the teacher feet, “…To sit at the master’s feet was a sign of the scholar’s humility, and of his eagerness to learn.”

The Aleph-Bet and Pentateuch

After learning the ‘Aleph-Bet’, the boy would continue to study the Pentateuch. A students study of the Bible would begin with the reading of the Shema (Deut.6,4-9. 11, 13-21. Num. 15, 37-41), and the Hallel (Psalms 113-118). Ebner notes, “These two sections constituted important parts of the liturgy and were recited either publicly at the synagogue or privately at home. Learning to read them, he would learn to know them by heart and would thus be in the position to more fully participate in the services. With regard to the Shema he would sooner be able to recite it each morning and evening, as the law required the Jew to do.”

Textbook: Scripture

The textbook used in school, named, Beth Ha-Sepher, or ‘The House of the Book’ was Scripture, “And of the sacred writings the Law, the Pentateuch was all-important, and the rest of the writings were only commentary on it.” Quite differently from the educational system today, aside from the teachers having Scripture, books hardly existed as an educational tool for the student. “All was by word of mouth, and by patient repetition and receptive hearing.” Scrolls were expensive and took a trained Scribe nearly a year to copy the Torah by hand.

Memory and Repetition

There were two foundational aspects of the Jewish education and they both directly relate to memory. Foremost, the Jewish educational system was compromised of oral teaching, and as a consequence of this, there was much repetition. Secondly, and interrelated, was the fact that a good memory was essential for the student and a necessity for the scholar. Barclay notes that the ancient Jewish education:

“…was based entirely on oral teaching; and therefore it was conducted entirely by repetition. The word mishnah itself means both repetition and instruction, for they were one and the same thing…The second basic fact is the direct consequence of this. Education was to a very large extent memorising. Since the material could not be read, it had to be committed to the memory, and therefore the first essential of a good scholar was a trained and retentive memory.”

Learning Aloud

Learning (and reading for all ancients) always consisted of verbal recitation aloud. To emphasize the necessity of learning aloud, “The Talmud tells of a pupil who learned his tasks without repeating the words aloud, and who therefore had within three years forgotten all that he had learned.” The reason all learning and reading took place aloud was because it was believed to help in retention and comprehension, “…the student could thereby ascertain whether the ideas clear and well-arranged in his mind.”

Forgetfulness, as induced by quiet study is evidenced by a Rabbi’s wife rebuking a student for studying in silence. “Beruriah, the wife of R. Meir and scholarly in her own right, rebuked a student whom she had noticed studying quietly, telling him to utilize the vitality of his whole body when learning Torah. The fact, that one of the disciples of R. Eliezer forgot his learning, was explained to be the result of his habit of studying silently.”

Memorizing Scripture

The order of memorizing a text would be as follows: The teacher would recite a portion of Scripture and then make the class as a whole repeat it. When the class was able to recite the portion of Scripture together, the teacher would call on individual students, “ to lead in similar fashion the responsive reading of the group.”

Thus for the student to learn the Torah a long series of hearing and ordered repetitions were involved that were ingrained in the Jewish tradition of school, “The Sayings of the Fathers lists the forty-eight things which are necessary for learning the Torah, and the list begins: ‘By learning, by a listening ear, by ordered speech.’ Repetitio mater studiorum, repetition is the mother of studies, might well have been the motto of Jewish education.”

Quality over Quantity

In opposition to today, it was not so much the quantity of what was heard and superficially ‘learned’ but in the quality of retaining the information. It is because of the importance of Scripture that the Jewish school placed such an emphasis upon a verbatim recitation of Scripture. To hear the Torah without retaining it was like ‘sowing without reaping’.

Repetition is the Mother of Knowledge

Barclay notes the heavy emphasis on repetition, “In the Letters of Benammi certain sayings about this concentrated repetition and memorising are given. ‘If you have gathered much, you have really gathered nothing.’ ‘Repetition is the mother of knowledge.’ ‘Whosoever learns the Torah without repetition is like one who sows but does not reap.’ ‘Study not only with the eyes, but with the eyes and the mouth.’”

The importance of memory and life-time retention of Scripture for the Jews was so prominent that it was claimed that if the Talmud was forever destroyed or lost, it could be reclaimed, verbatim, by memory from twelve learned Rabbis. Morris comments, “…one may say that to the Jewish teacher of Talmudic times the one and the whole meaning of method was expressed in one word – ‘memory.’”
Mastery of Biblical Basics

Barclay notes that children were expected to master certain basic passages at school and at home: 1. the Shema 2. the Hallel (Psalms 113-18), 3. The creation story (Gen. 1-5), 4. the essential Levitical law (1-8).

Tell Me Your Verse

In addition to these texts, a child had to learn a ‘personal text’. “A personal text was a text which began with the first letter of his name and ended with the last letter of his name…a boy named Abner could have his personal text: A soft answer turneth away wrath: But greivous words stir up anger.” A common practice was for adults to ask children, ‘Tell me your verse’ which referred to what they had learned that day.