Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Unschooling and Limudei Kodesh (Judaic studies)

My son is 4, almost 5.  He is perfectly happily being creative with markers and scissors and has been for the last few weeks.  He's working on his English letters.  He had been interested in the aleph beis for a while, but his attention turned.  I began to think, what would happen if I let him unschool everything, completely?  (I've been wondering this for a while ;)

From the two unschooled yeshiva bachurim I've spoken to, as boys approach their bar mitzvas, they begin to show an interest in learning to read Hebrew.  So theoretically, he will eventually learn to read.  I feel fairly comfortable that my husband will be able to tantalize my boys with some learning, so they will probably pick up halacha and some mishna and eventually gemara.  (And I'm very excited about the Artscroll gemara app... My husband and I were discussing how we are planning to handle learning on Shabbos for the years they are reliant on the app until they [hopefully] gain skills.. but I'm getting ahead of myself, as I sometimes do when I think about homeschooling).

But I was thinking about how Chazal say that when a child learns to speak, you teach him Shema (or maybe I read that in the Mishna Berura?).  Or when he is 5, he starts chumash (or 6 or 7), or when he is 10 mishna (That's a mishna in Pirkei Avos, at the end of chapter 5).  This is not the unschooling spirit.  And although unschooling speaks to me as an educational philosophy, I also respect Chazal's understanding of human nature and when a person is capable of making certain cognitive steps, the kind required for each different type of learning.  While I feel comfortable that unschooling would not be in contradiction with my husband's obligation to teach his sons or make sure they are taught, I wonder about approaching chinuch differently than Chazal recommend.

I have been thinking a lot about this point.  My thoughts make me nervous.  I hesitate.

I just took a break before I write down my thoughts to do some more procrastination, because I'm afraid to flesh this out research.  I was looking for the statement that when the child learns to speak, you teach them to say shema and "Torah tziva lanu Moshe."  Ah, Rambam, Hil. Talmud Torah 1:6: From when is his father obligated to teach him Torah? When he begins to speak, he teaches him *Torah tziva lanu Moshe* (Moshe commanded us the Law, an inheritance of the congregation of Yaakov) and *Shma Yisrael* and then he teaches him a few verses until he is 6 or 7, all according to his ability. Then he brings him to a teacher. 

This is probably from the gemara, then.  Because I was perusing some of the Rambam's halachos (2:2-3)
ב  מכניסין את התינוקות להתלמד כבן שש כבן שבע, לפי כוח הבן ובניין גופו; ופחות מבן שש, אין מכניסין אותו.  ומכה אותן המלמד, להטיל עליהן אימה.  ואינו מכה אותן מכת אויב, מוסר אכזרי; לפיכך לא יכה אותן בשוטים ולא במקלות, אלא ברצועה קטנה.
ג  ויושב ומלמדן כל היום כולו, ומקצת מן הלילה--כדי לחנכן ללמוד ביום, ובלילה.  ולא ייבטלו התינוקות כלל, חוץ מערבי שבתות וערבי ימים טובים בסוף היום, ובימים טובים; אבל בשבת, אין קורין לכתחילה, אבל שונין לראשון.  ואין מבטלין התינוקות, ואפילו לבניין בית המקדש.

You bring the children (lit. "babies) to be taught at around age 6 or 7, according to the strength of the child and his physical constitution, and under age 6, you don't bring him.  (Then there is some advice as to what type of corporal punishment should and shouldn't be used.)
And he sits and they are taught all the entire day, and some of the night--in order to teach them to learn during the day and the night.  And they shouldn't take off (lit. "be mevatel" i.e., waste or make idle) except for erev Shabbos and erev yom tov at the end of the day, and on yom tov; but on Shabbos (*i'm not sure of the translation of exactly what the children learn on Shabbos--pls help).. and you don't give the children off, not even to build the Beis Hamikdash.

Strong words, and they seem to be seriously against unschooling.  The sheer number of hours for a 6 or 7 year old child is daunting.  When do they play?  When do they be children?  (Note, though, how old these children are when they start school!  Presumably they have been running around and playing until age 6 or 7, which is basically unheard of in today's school system.)

So this gave me some hesitation.  And then I found the gemara that this is based on (I took this from a fascinating article on Jewish Sudbury Valley School  (Democratic School) by Rachel Cohen Yeshurun):

Remember the name Yehoshua ben Gamla for praise. Were it not for him, the Torah would have been forgotten by Israel. It used to be that fathers would teach their children, and those children without fathers would not learn Torah. Schools were then set up in Jerusalem based on an interpretation of the verse: 'Torah comes from Zion and the word of G-d from Jerusalem'. But still, those with fathers would bring them up, and those without fathers would not go up. He enacted that local authorities should install teachers of children in every district and town and they should bring in children of ages six and seven to be taught by these teachers.

Rav said to Rav Shmuel Bar Shilat: Do not accept children until the age of six. Then stuff the child with Torah, as you would fatten an ox. If you hit a child for disciplinary purposes, hit him only with a shoelace. If he studies, he studies, if he does not, let him remain in the company of his friends. (Baba Batra 21a) To the words 'let him remain in the company of his friends" Rashi adds "and eventually he will pay attention to the lesson".

So it would seem that this method was enacted b'dieved, after father-to-son learning was no longer optimal.  Then there is the gemara in Avoda Zara 19a:  A person does not learn Torah except from the place his heart desires.  Rebbi finished teaching a Sefer to his son Shimon and to Levi. Levi wanted to learn Mishlei next, and Shimon wanted to learn Tehilim. They forced Levi to agree. As soon as Rebbi expounded "Ki Im b'Toras Hash-m Cheftzo" as above, Levi said 'you have given me permission to leave.'

So now that I have a few sources under my belt, let me attempt to formulate my opinion about unschooling from a Torah perspective.


There is the raging debate about how important skills are in a society that has google and wikipedia at its fingertips.  My personal opinion is that knowing facts is basically unnecessary, and if I were at a job interview and the interviewer asked me a fact question, I would whip out my smartphone (ok, I admit I don't have a smartphone) and look it up.  However, as a homeschooler, I have thus far made it a point to (pleasantly) drill the multiplication tables into my kids until they are fluent.  I feel similarly about skills (i.e., somewhat conflicted and contradictory ;).  I think, despite the plethora of translations, it is preferable for my kids if they are comfortable with the Hebrew (and Aramaic).  However, if I raise a generation of lamdanim who use a wide range of websites and translations while they excitedly look things up and think about and analyze chumash and gemara, I'm going to call that a win. (Stay tuned for my learning goals for the boys.)

Therefore, it is with hesitation, that I posit that maybe the recommendations of 5 for mikra, 10 for mishna, 15 for gemara refer to cognitive developmental phases (with some leeway, as the gemara says 6 or 7) and not to the age where they need to begin to acquire the skills necessary to read them (and I point out that gemara was written in the vernacular of the time).  So following those guidelines, we will plan to introduce those subjects at those ages.  However, it might be possible to not drill and not push the skills until the child is interested in acquiring those skills.  

(I fully respect that many people vociferously disagree and feel that imparting the skills is vital, and imparting them at a young age is vital.  This is a philosophical point of debate between unschoolers and other educators in general.  Remember, the beauty of homeschool is that YOU get to do what YOU want.)

Further, with the current technological availability of text and translation, it seems like more than ever we are not forced to spend hours focusing on that.  Just as before the printing press, MUCH focus and MANY hours were spent on memorization, and that has currently faded in importance (much to the dismay of those people who felt that memorization is good for the brain and that it is extremely useful to have large amounts of text memorized in the case of lack of availability, all of which I agree with in theory).  So, too, perhaps the hours and hours of drudgery that we spend learning to make a laining will become less in vogue as every school age child has the translation of torah and gemara at his or her fingertips.  And perhaps the skills that will be taught (as I maybe plan to teach my children) is to start with the sefer in pure original, and then use whatever resources at their disposal to understand it.

Again, translation is never as good as original.  And a person who is seriously involved in learning will need the skills.  I have noted before that the average yeshiva day school students spends 1st-12th grade banging his or her head against text, is frequently still unable to make a laining, and then goes to Israel for a year or two and learns skills there.  I say, unschool, have fun, skip the drudgery, and pick it up over the course of two years when you are older--IF you've been motivated to do so.  

Another issue that I wondered about is the Rambam's assertion that the children should learn the entire day and some of the night.  Maybe serious Torah study requires that many hours.  Is this really the standard for all children?  Even the less inclined??

He does give a reason: to teach them to learn in both day and night.  I think of the words of Shema, that certainly apply to unschooling: 

And you shall love Hashem your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. And these words, which I command you this day, shall be upon your heart.  And you shall teach them diligently to your children, and talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise up.


  1. I hope you don't mind, but I have "reviewed" this post and linked to it - with the strong exhortation that every one of my readers take a look at what you have to say here.
    Thank you... this is very well-said.

  2. Wow. Great post, Jessie! Here's the translation of that Rambam from Chabad.org:

    Children should be brought to study [under a teacher's instruction] at the age of six or seven, according to the child's health and build. Below the age of six, he should not be brought [to a teacher].

    A teacher may employ corporal punishment to cast fear upon [the students]. However, he should not beat them cruelly, like an enemy. Therefore, he should not beat them with a rod or a staff, but rather with a small strap.

    [The teacher] should sit and instruct them the entire day and for a portion of the night, to train them to study during the day and night. The children should not neglect [their studies] at all, except at the end of the day on the eve of the Sabbaths and festivals and on the festivals themselves. On the Sabbath, they should not begin new material. However, they should review what was learned already.

    The children should never be interrupted from their studies, even for the building of the Temple.

  3. i read this in mifgashim:

    "Owing to the magnitude of their illiteracy, American Jews have broken new ground in Jewish incompetence. Translation is an ancient Jewish activity, of course—the sanctity of the Hebrew language notwithstanding, the rabbis always insisted that Jews understand the sacred words that they read and hear and utter. Meaningfulness sometimes demands accommodations and adjustments, and we are the enemies of meaninglessness. But no Jewry has ever been as pathetically dependent upon translation as American Jewry.”

    I'd like to point out, though, that no Jewry has had access to such a wealth of translation, either. We are probably the generation that has memorized the least, too.