Yehoshua ben Gamla: Founder of the Jewish Day School Movement
1א

The Jewish people have long been recognized as "people of the book," a testament to the value placed on education. Indeed, the Talmud goes so far as to suggest that "the world only continues to exist due to children's Torah study."

But historically speaking, when exactly did universal education begin in the Jewish community? Who was the founder of Jewish day schools?

The Talmud credits an obscure personality, Yehoshua ben Gamla, with this achievement. Read the story in Hebrew and/or English, and raise any questions you might have.

2ב

דאמר רב יהודה אמר רב ברם זכור אותו האיש לטוב ויהושע בן גמלא שמו שאלמלא הוא נשתכח תורה מישראל שבתחלה מי שיש לו אב מלמדו תורה מי שאין לו אב לא היה למד תורה מאי דרוש (דברים יא, יט) ולמדתם אותם ולמדתם אתם התקינו שיהו מושיבין מלמדי תינוקות בירושלים מאי דרוש (ישעיהו ב, ג) כי מציון תצא תורה ועדיין מי שיש לו אב היה מעלו ומלמדו מי שאין לו אב לא היה עולה ולמד התקינו שיהו מושיבין בכל פלך ופלך ומכניסין אותן כבן ט"ז כבן י"ז ומי שהיה רבו כועס עליו מבעיט בו ויצא עד שבא יהושע בן גמלא ותיקן שיהו מושיבין מלמדי תינוקות בכל מדינה ומדינה ובכל עיר ועיר ומכניסין אותן כבן שש כבן שבע.

What was this ordinance? As Rav Yehuda says that Rav says: Truly, that man is remembered for the good, and his name is Yehoshua ben Gamla. If not for him the Torah would have been forgotten from the Jewish people. Initially, whoever had a father would have his father teach him Torah, and whoever did not have a father would not learn Torah at all. The Gemara explains: What verse did they interpret homiletically that allowed them to conduct themselves in this manner? They interpreted the verse that states: “And you shall teach them [otam] to your sons” (Deuteronomy 11:19), to mean: And you yourselves [atem] shall teach, i.e., you fathers shall teach your sons. When the Sages saw that not everyone was capable of teaching their children and Torah study was declining, they instituted an ordinance that teachers of children should be established in Jerusalem. The Gemara explains: What verse did they interpret homiletically that enabled them to do this? They interpreted the verse: “For Torah emerges from Zion” (Isaiah 2:3). But still, whoever had a father, his father ascended with him to Jerusalem and had him taught, but whoever did not have a father, he did not ascend and learn. Therefore, the Sages instituted an ordinance that teachers of children should be established in one city in each and every region [pelekh]. And they brought the students in at the age of sixteen and at the age of seventeen. But as the students were old and had not yet had any formal education, a student whose teacher grew angry at him would rebel against him and leave. It was impossible to hold the youths there against their will. This state of affairs continued until Yehoshua ben Gamla came and instituted an ordinance that teachers of children should be established in each and every province and in each and every town, and they would bring the children in to learn at the age of six and at the age of seven. With regard to the matter at hand, since this system was established for the masses, the neighbors cannot prevent a scholar from teaching Torah in the courtyard.

3ג

The following two sources, taken together, imply that Ben Gamla served as high priest during the very end of the Second Temple period. How might this be relevant to the story regarding his founding of Jewish schools?

4ד

מעשה ביהושע בן גמלא שקדש את מרתא בת ביתוס ומנהו המלך להיות כה"ג.

There was an incident with Yehoshua ben Gamla, who betrothed Marta bat Baitos, and the king subsequently appointed him to be High Priest, and he married her.

5ה

מרתא בת בייתוס עתירתא דירושלים הויא שדרתה לשלוחה ואמרה ליה זיל אייתי לי סמידא אדאזל איזדבן אתא אמר לה סמידא ליכא חיורתא איכא אמרה ליה זיל אייתי לי אדאזל איזדבן אתא ואמר לה חיורתא ליכא גושקרא איכא א"ל זיל אייתי לי אדאזל אזדבן אתא ואמר לה גושקרא ליכא קימחא דשערי איכא אמרה ליה זיל אייתי לי אדאזל איזדבן.

With regard to this famine [at the time of the destruction of the Second Temple] it is related that Marta bat Baitos was one of the wealthy women of Jerusalem. She sent out her agent and said to him: Go bring me fine flour [semida]. By the time he went, the fine flour was already sold. He came and said to her: There is no fine flour, but there is ordinary flour. She said to him: Go then and bring me ordinary flour. By the time he went, the ordinary flour was also sold. He came and said to her: There is no ordinary flour, but there is coarse flour [gushkera]. She said to him: Go then and bring me coarse flour. By the time he went, the coarse flour was already sold. He came and said to her: There is no coarse flour, but there is barley flour. She said to him: Go then and bring me barley flour. But once again, by the time he went, the barley flour was also sold.

6ו

In the final source, the Talmud credits Ben Gamla with having given a gift to the Temple. What seems odd about the timing of the gift? Why is this considered an important contribution?

7ז

שֶׁל אֶשְׁכְּרוֹעַ הָיוּ, וַעֲשָׂאָן בֶּן גַּמְלָא שֶׁל זָהָב, וְהָיוּ מַזְכִּירִין אוֹתוֹ לְשָׁבַח:

[Two boxes used for the Temple's Yom Kippur service] were of boxwood and Ben Gamla made them of gold, and [the rabbis] would mention his name in praise.