Elisheva Baumgarten

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterpeer-review

4 Scopus citations


Procreation, the commandment to bear offspring, is frequently noted as one of the central obligations in Judaism. Both because of the centrality of the commandment to procreate in the book of Genesis and because of the contrast between Jewish culture in antiquity and its sister religion, Christianity, the obligation to marry and have children is identifi ed with one of the core obligations of the Jewish people. As such, children and childhood, which follow from the duty of procreation, can be expected to be central to the social organization of the Jewish people. Yet, while in practice Jews throughout history lived their lives as part of a family framework, and these families all aspired to raise children and educate them, there is little literature until the early modern period that discusses how these goals are to be attained. The Jewish religion is organized around a body of Jewish teaching often called the Torah but which in fact consists of the Bible (Old Testament), the Oral Law (Mishnah and Talmud), and expansions on these literatures that vary in shape and form expanding and reinterpreting the basic texts. Historically considered, one can say that Judaism is a combination of three central ideas-belief in God, God's revelation of the Torah to Israel, and Israel as the people who obey the Torah as part of their obedience of God. Although the interpretation of these ideas has changed over time, the ideas themselves have remained constant.1 Judaism as a religion is organized around precepts that dictate the way every man and woman should conduct their everyday lives and contains many directives regarding all areas of life, including procreation, childrearing, education, and fi nancial support of children. As such, traditional Jewish sources abound with discussions of various aspects of childhood and childrearing, and when examining sources on these issues over a long period of time, one can see both the change and the continuity that characterizes discussions of this topic. Since Jews have lived under the rule of other nations and religions from antiquity until modern times, one can also discern the divergences in Jewish tradition and examine these changes in light of the cultures within which the Jews lived. Throughout history, whether in antiquity when Jews were sovereign over themselves, or after the destruction of the Second Temple (70 CE) when Jews lived among other nations, Jewish culture always existed alongside other cultures. Whether among Egyptians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Christians, or Muslims, Jews were part of their surrounding cultures, absorbing and transforming ideas they learned from their neighbors and reinterpreting and explaining their traditions in light of the values they discerned around them. The Jewish tradition in its turn also helped shape neighboring religions and cultures, and constant dialogue between Jews and their surrounding cultures existed. Jewish communities were scattered throughout the Mediterranean basin and all over Europe, Asia, and parts of Africa until the late Middle Ages. With the discovery of the Americas, Jews migrated to the new world as well, bringing their traditions and methods of education with them. The texts in this chapter will provide a look at many of these different areas. Although some texts refer to Near Eastern biblical and Hellenic cultures, the two religions with which the Jewish tradition is in dialogue for the longest time are Christianity and Islam. Since Christians and Muslims recognized the Hebrew Bible as part of their traditions as well, and reinterpreted these texts for their own purposes, these are the religions with whom Jews argued and agreed over scripture and its practical implications. This chapter will focus on childhood in premodern Judaism from biblical times until the early modern era. After the onset of the Enlightenment in early modern Europe and with the secularization of Jewish culture fi rst in Western Europe then in Eastern Europe and in the Ottoman Empire, Jewish conceptions of childhood and especially Jewish education underwent additional changes. The emancipation of Jews in European countries in the nineteenth century further challenged traditional frameworks. Modern Jewish education has differed from country to country on the basis of educational trends and fads in each country. Moreover, the branching out of different religious movements within Judaism, and especially the growth of the Reform and Conservative movements since the nineteenth century, make it diffi cult to discuss the tremendous variety of ideas and practices. The wide variety of scholarship in these directions is suffi cient to demonstrate the different trajectories in which attitudes toward children, childhood, and education have blossomed. As a result, these developments deserve separate treatment and the challenges the modern period present are only hinted at in this chapter.2 Since Judaism is a religion of precepts, many discussions of children and childhood can be found in connection with religious obligations. Thus, for example, procreation, childhood rituals, religious education, and observance of Jewish ritual precepts are all discussed and debated at length in traditional sources, with explanations of what should and should not be done. These sources are evidence of both practice and belief concerning children and childhood. In this chapter, the sources presented seek to display the richness of the different genres in which these topics were discussed-Bible, Mishnah, Talmud, biblical and Talmudic commentaries, Midrash, legal rulings, moral advice, tractates on education, poetry, and stories. Although not all these genres discuss childhood during all of the periods covered here, I have sought to bring together a representation of the various kinds of texts. As noted, textual discussions are organized around precepts. Two examples will serve as a means of illustrating the methods employed in the sources. A fi rst example is that mentioned above, reproduction, or the importance of reproducing a community of believers. When examining the commandment to "be fruitful and multiply" (pru urvu) one must begin with the book of Genesis, where it is outlined twice. God commands Adam and Eve to "Be fertile and increase, fi ll the earth and master it; and rule the fi sh of the sea, the birds of the sky and all the living things that creep on earth" (Doc. 1-4).3 This command is reiterated after the fl ood, when God commands Noah and his sons: "Be fertile and increase and fi ll the earth" (Doc. 1-5). This directive continues and outlines a new relationship with nature that is not part of our subject at hand, ordering that the fear of man will be upon all beasts of the earth. Jewish authorities in later generations not only understood this command as an order to procreate and to abstain from celibacy but also saw procreation as a fundamental component of the Jewish religion.4 This obligation raises many questions both practical and theoretical. How many children must a person have to fulfi ll this requirement, and whose obligation is it to procreate-men, women, or both? If one's children die, can one still claim he or she has fulfi lled this obligation? As we shall see, religious authorities argued over whether men and women had the same obligation to procreate, since men were commanded twice while woman was instructed to do so only once, and women were then excluded from the directive to Noah and his sons (Doc. 1-13). If a couple cannot have children and procreation is the central purpose of marriage, must a childless couple divorce (Doc. 1-10)? And when a child is born what must parents do for him or her and what must the Jewish community do if a parent is not present?5 All these obligations are interpreted in Jewish sources from the Bible through the codifi cation of the oral law in the Mishnah and Talmud and then expanded in commentaries on these classic texts.6 Midrashic texts, organized around biblical verses but incorporating pieces of the Oral Law, developed at the same time as the Oral Law itself and then continued to be written and recompiled throughout medieval times. Exegesis on the Bible, the Talmud, legal (halakhic response), and other literature led Jewish authorities to discuss conceptions of sex, the nature of childhood, education and rearing (both religious and commercial), and legal obligations of children toward their parents as well as those of parents toward their children.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationChildren and Childhood in World Religions
Subtitle of host publicationPrimary Sources and Texts
PublisherRutgers University Press
Number of pages67
ISBN (Print)9780813545172
StatePublished - 2009


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