Jewish conceptions of childhood have undergone considerable transformation from the biblical era to the present. The practical challenges posed by child rearing have elicited a wide range of approaches to CHILD CARE, DISCIPLINE, and education, while also raising important questions concerning the role of gender, the scope of parental authority, and the nature of parent-child relations. The evolution of these issues reflects the impact of ethnic, cultural, and regional factors in Jewish history, and also bears unmistakable traces of the ever-changing role of religious ritual in Jewish life. No aspect of childhood has remained immune to these forces or indifferent to the dynamic influence of neighboring cultures.

Conceptions of Childhood

Research conducted by Jewish historians over the last thirty years, similar to most general studies devoted to childhood, stands largely in opposition to the theories advanced by French historian PHILIPPE ARIÈS. Ariès argued that childhood as we know it today did not exist in medieval society, owing to a lack of "awareness of the particular nature of childhood." Only with the approach of modernity was childhood "discovered." Countering these claims, Judaic scholars have assembled overwhelming evidence, culled from ancient and medieval Jewish sources, attesting to distinct develop-mental phases of childhood within Judaism and a clear appreciation of the child as such. As understood within Jewish society and culture, childhood refers broadly to all stages of life that precede adulthood, at which point an individual attains economic independence and assumes family or communal responsibilities. Abundant evidence in the Talmud indicates that the transitional stages, which include infancy, childhood, ADOLESCENCE, and youth (young adulthood), were widely acknowledged within ancient Judaism.

Several ritual ceremonies denote critical moments in the development of the child. CIRCUMCISION, a ceremony that takes place on the eighth day after birth, marks the entrance of the male child into the covenant of ISRAEL. In the Talmudic age it served additionally to set Jewish males apart from others in the Greco-Roman world. An intricate new ritual created in northern France and Germany during the twelfth century marked the initiation of boys at the age of five or six into Hebrew studies. Dressed in his best clothes, the boy was escorted to the synagogue and was fed eggs, fruit, and cakes of honey. The letters of the Hebrew alphabet were written on a slate and read to the boy. Then the letters were covered with honey, which the boy licked. Staged during the festival of Shavuot (Pentecost), the ceremony symbolically incorporated the child into the ranks of the Jewish people by reenacting the Torah covenant that was created at Mount Sinai. It was also intended as a rite against forgetfulness and as a means to open the heart. Some scholars have suggested that this initiation, insofar as it contains elements resembling the Christian Eucharist devotion, was designed as a counter-ritual to challenge the claims of the majority faith. Bread, wine, and honey likely were included in the Jewish ceremony simply because they represented knowledge and were commonly used to teach the alphabet. The initiation ceremony later found its way to distant Jewish communities in the Mediterranean basin and eastern Europe during the seventeenth century.

The BAR MITZVAH ceremony commemorates a boy's reaching the age of religious majority: thirteen years and one day. No comparable ritual marked a girl's attainment of her majority (twelve years and one day). The bar mitzvah first arose in Germany during the eleventh century, though it only became popular two centuries later. Thirteen had been established as the male age of religious obligation during the previous century; in the new ritual the boy's father was called to the Torah to declare that he was now relieved of responsibility for his son's misdeeds. Although minors had been technically permitted to participate in the full range of ritual commandments before their bar mitzvah, they were nonetheless dissuaded from performing certain rites until they attained their religious majority. Fourteenth-century sources describe a boy being called to the Torah for the first time on the Sabbath that coincided with or followed his thirteenth birthday; in sixteenth-century Poland, the ceremony developed into a bona fide RITE OF PASSAGE.

For all practical purposes, however, a young person did not become a full-fledged member of the community until he was much older than age thirteen. The precise age at which this occurred varied according to time and place. Furthermore, in many communities, unmarried men regardless of age were not eligible for certain synagogue honors; for example, religious authorities in eighteenth-century Metz refused to authorize unmarried men as ritual slaughterers. Marriage by itself could not definitively confer adult status, however, in part because child marriages were still prevalent in the early modern period. Seeking to harmonize the Talmudic tradition of "at eighteen to the marriage canopy" with the social and cultural desirability of marriage at a younger age, the authoritative Shulhan Arukh code of 1566 stated: "It is the duty of every Jewish man to marry a wife in his eighteenth year, but he who anticipates and marries earlier is following the more laudable course, but no one should marry before he is thirteen." The phenomenon of young men who married even at the age of ten was not unknown in early modern Europe. In some instances where the age at marriage was significantly higher, limitations were still imposed on relative newlyweds. According to an enactment of the Council of Lands in Poland in 1624, no note signed by a man within two years after his marriage had any validity; this period was subsequently extended to three years. Similarly, the council barred the extension of a loan to any person who was either under the age of twenty-five years or who had not been married for at least two years.

Care of Children

In sharp contrast to ancient Greece, where the practice of leaving newborns to die of exposure was not uncommon, Jews of antiquity emphatically rejected infanticide as murder. Philo of Alexandria, a leading Jewish philosopher of the first century, forcefully articulated the importance of caring for all infants. His revulsion against infanticide (he called it "a violation of the laws of nature") went hand-in-hand with the Judaic view of procreation as a divine command. Eventually this teaching would enter the mainstream of Christian thought as the Roman Catholic Church subsequently outlawed infanticide in the fourth century. Child ABANDONMENT would nonetheless persist as an acute social problem well into the modern age, tolerated by the Church so long as there was an economic argument for it.

The care given to young Jewish children reflected Judaism's overwhelmingly positive attitude toward childhood. According to ancient rabbinic law as recorded in the Talmud, a father was obligated to redeem his (first-born) son, circumcise him, teach him Torah, teach him a trade, obtain a wife for him, and according to one other opinion, to teach him to swim as well. No provision for child maintenance was mentioned explicitly in this list of parental obligations because the moral obligation to care for one's children was so elemental. Only after the Bar Kokhba Revolt (132–135 C.E.), in an era when Roman law developed in a parallel fashion, mishnaic law was recast so as to offer greater protection for children. The father's obligation to feed his children became a matter of law, and the prerogative to sell a son as security was abolished, though this legal advancement was not applied as fully to daughters. Even so, in times of severe economic hardship some parents felt compelled to offer their sons and daughters for sale.

Most sources describe the ideal medieval home as a gentle regime resting on mutual affection between parent and child. Ethical writings of the Middle Ages, such as the thirteenth-century German Sefer Hasidim, emphasized the obligations of mothers to keep their infants clean, well fed, and protected from the elements. Unlike other cultures that showed a clear preference for adult children, Judaism was partial to infants. This is evident in Jewish tomb inscriptions, where more attention was paid to the deaths of young children than was the case in ancient Egypt and Rome. Similarly, the anguish expressed upon the death of a child by Rabbi Judah Asheri of fourteenth-century Spain and others, consistent with the advice offered by Sefer Hasidim about showing sensitivity to parents who have lost a child, confirms the depth of attachment to children. Consistent with this is the imagery of Midrash Rabbah (on Psalm 92:13), which portrays playfulness between parents and their young children in the most positive terms.

Medieval sources also point to the growing involvement of Jewish fathers in their child's upbringing, as is evident in both the Ashkenazic and Sephardic cultural orbits. Fathers are depicted as becoming increasingly aware of intensity of love for an infant rather than an older child. Perhaps for this reason, the ethical literature was alert to the tensions between the competing demands of child care on the one hand and adult responsibilities on the other, and therefore under-scored the priority that fathers were expected to give to their own Torah learning. Parents were nonetheless cautioned against indulging the child in an overabundance of affection. Excessive indulgence, it was argued, would undermine the goal of training children to fear their parents. This oftrepeated concern, which can be traced to a fourteenth-century Spanish moralistic work, Menorat Ha-Ma'or, also confirms that such expressions of affection were commonplace.


In the biblical era corporal punishment was commonly viewed as the primary means of DISCIPLINE, as exemplified by Proverbs 13:24, "Spare the rod, despise the child." In the Talmudic age the strap replaced the rod, and by all accounts, strict punishment was meted out both in the home and at school. From the third century on, however, a reduction of physical punishment was favored; instead, alternative disciplinary measures were employed. For example, in response to the problem of the inattentive student, the specific recommendation of the Talmud was to "place him next to a diligent one" rather than to impose physical punishment. Parents and teachers were advised to exercise patience and sensitivity. Medieval sources point to a reality that was frequently at variance with the picture emerging from these Talmudic prescriptions. Although Sefer Hasidim was equivocal about corporal punishment, Rabbi Moses ben Maimon (Maimonides) (1135–1204) and Rabbi Solomon ben Aderet (1235–1310) acknowledged the right of the parent or teacher to strike a boy in the course of his studies. The fourteenth-century Sarajevo Passover Haggadah and the Coburg Pentateuch show teachers with whips, and a number of early modern sources, such as the Brantshpigl, advised teachers to gauge the severity of the punishment in accordance with the pupil's age.


Owing to the primacy of ritual in traditional Judaism, instruction of children focused on the attainment of ritual literacy as its central goal. In the Talmudic era, boys attended elementary school or studied with a tutor from the age of five, six, or seven until the age of twelve or thirteen. A network of schools operated in the Land of Israel by the second century. School children learned to read the Torah and to write; at age twelve they studied Mishnah. No formal instruction in secular courses such as mathematics, Greek, or GYMNASTICS, was included in the Jewish school curriculum in this period. Initially, the houses of study excluded children from the lower strata of society, but by the third century education was made available to children of all classes. Girls were, by and large, excluded from the elementary schools, however, though some Talmudic sources suggest that fathers taught their daughters informally.

In the medieval period there was no system of communally funded elementary schools in northern France or Germany. Schooling was a private arrangement between parents and teachers. By contrast, the Jews of Spain and Italy maintained a more formal educational structure; moreover, in southern France there are references to elementary schools, though it is unclear whether these were schools or synagogues. Conditions in Italy were likely exceptional. Women gave elementary lessons in reading and writing to girls and boys, often in the teacher's home; the most striking example was the establishment of a special elementary school ("Talmud Torah") for girls in Rome in 1475.

Quite apart from formal schooling, great emphasis was placed on ritual education within the home and the synagogue. Each of the Jewish festivals provides an opportunity for children to acquire an understanding of the religious ideals of Judaism within a national and historical perspective, while at the social level the holidays foster shared values and a strong collective identity. The Passover seder offers perhaps the most outstanding paradigm of informal education in the entire Jewish calendar. The narration of the exodus from Egypt follows a question-and-answer format and uses rituals and symbols specially created to hold the interest of the children and to deepen their experience. Talmudic in origin, these strategies stress the importance of adapting both the supporting materials and the level of discussion to the child's ability to understand.

The importance attached to ritual literacy was also emphasized in less formal settings. The seventeenth-century Polish mystical-ethical work Shnei Luhot Ha-Berit emphasized the importance of teaching the child from the age of two or three, as this was seen to be the critical period for acquiring proper moral virtues, such as fear of one's father. The author, like the author of the Brantshpigl, went so far as to assign great importance to the role of mothers in rebuking their children, "even more than the father." Although children were formally exempt from reciting the Shema (dailycredo) and from putting on tefillin (phylacteries), they were nonetheless obligated in prayer, mezuzah (scriptural verses attached to the door posts of the home), and grace after meals for training purposes. Nevertheless, at each successive stage in the child's development a new level of ritual involvement was added, and children were thus taught to observe certain commandments as soon as they were old enough to perform them. When a boy reached the age of three, he was given tzitzit (ritual fringes) to wear, and by the age of five, he was taught to recite the Shema. At the age of nine or ten the oaths that a child might take were considered valid. Girls and boys at this age were also encouraged to fast for several hours on Yom Kippur, with the time period increasing by one hour each year "so that they may be versed in the commandments" and so that when they reached the ages of twelve and thirteen, respectively, they would be ready to observe the full day of fasting.

Developments in the Early Modern and Modern Periods

The sixteenth century opened an era of escalating intergenerational tension. Challenges to parental authority in numerous Jewish communities became especially pronounced in the age of the PROTESTANT REFORMATION, and this trend would continue through the modern period. Numerous Jewish communities in the 1520s and 1530s prohibited marriages that were contracted without parental consent. Nevertheless, several distinguished rabbinic authorities at mid-century upheld the independence of young people to choose their marriage partners. Misgivings about the instability of youth and juvenile DELINQUENCY found expression in a variety of communal initiatives, including the creation of publicly funded schools and legislation establishing compulsory education. Other efforts sought to curb the freedom sought by adolescents from parental authority, especially in the realm of sexual conduct.

Revolutionary changes in society's attitude toward children were felt conspicuously within Jewish communities as well. Since the Renaissance era, thinkers had placed ever increasing emphasis on the power of nurture over nature. The European ENLIGHTENMENT, and its Jewish variant, the Haskalah movement, favored the image of a child's mind as a tabula rasa on which teachers could write suitable information. Modern Jewish schools, founded in Berlin and other centers of Haskalah in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, drew heavily on the new pedagogical theories advanced principally by J. B. BASEDOW and J. H. PESTALOZZI. Their emphasis on a systematic approach to education that was attuned to the individual needs and talents of each child exerted enormous influence on Jewish educational reformers such as Naphtali Herz Wessely (1725–1805). Ambitious efforts to provide vocational training to children of poor Jewish families were part of the same modernization project. In the traditional heder (Jewish elementary school) of Eastern Europe, however, the modern spirit was much less in evidence. Throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, corporal punishment continued to be severe.

Powerful currents of religious modernization in the nineteenth century not only dominated the ideology of religious reform, but also substantively influenced the leadership of traditional Judaism. Among the most pressing issues was the recasting of educational and religious opportunities to include girls. Early in the century, most modern Jewish schools in Germany and France had been designed to educate both girls and boys. At the 1856 Paris rabbinical conference, a new ceremony for the blessing of newborn girls was created and adopted. The most widely implemented innovation in France and Germany was the confirmation ceremony. Adopted by traditionalist rabbis, the ceremony was conducted for boys and girls who had passed examinations in Hebrew reading and in the catechism designed for Jewish students.

In the same spirit of egalitarianism, bat mitzvah ceremonies for girls proliferated in Conservative and Reform congregations in the United States in the twentieth century. In the second half of the century, such ritual celebrations also found acceptance, albeit in a more limited manner, in the Orthodox movement. There is also an increasing trend among vastly different Orthodox streams to provide Jewish elementary (and higher) education for girls that is virtually identical to that of boys. Dynamic forces at work in the State of Israel, as well as developments in the United States, are setting the pace for these trends.

See also: Catholicism; Christian Thought, Early; Holocaust; Holocaust, Jewish Ghetto Education and; Islam.


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