The House of Worship Was Also a House of Learning

Adult education is a modern term and carries with it the connotation of something exceptional: normally, we adults are satisfied with sending our children to school, while we regard ourselves free from the obligation of pursuing formal studies, except for professional purposes. The attitude of the society described in this book was approximately the opposite of our own. The elementary school was considered merely as a preparatory stage, and certainly was so in practice. Study, that is, the regular, habitual reading and expounding of the Bible and other sacred texts, was a duty incumbent on everyone and therefore could never be regarded as completed. The house of worship was also a house of learning, and the weekly and seasonal days of rest and prayer were devoted in the main to study. Particular care was taken to keep the synagogue illuminated during the night so that everyone who cared could study as long as he liked. In the introduction to an epistle of the Jewish community of Alexandria to that of Fustat the members of the latter are praised for studying throughout the night until daybreak…

The attainments of laymen must sometimes have been impressive. We are able to recognize their achievements in several business letters that have been preserved, on the reverse side of which the recipients- merchants whose handwriting is well known to us- discuss theoretical problems or actual cases to be decided according to the sacred law. Their discussions are on a high level and do not differ in character from legal opinions written by a scholar. These instances should not be regarded as exceptional. Many letters contain quotations from the Bible, and sometimes also from postbiblical literature, which are by no means mundane, and the poetical proems frequently preceding letters are seldom confined to conventional phrases. Thus, the general standard of adult education, or rather of the regular study by middle-class adults, cannot have been low. It seems that the studies of laymen and of professionals differed in quantity rather than in essence.

S. D. Goitein, A Mediterranean Society: The Jewish Communities of the World as Portrayed in the Documents of the Cairo Geniza, 192, 195.

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