Southern Africa Jewish Genealogy SA-SIG
The Talmud Torah - A Brief Explanation
by Rev. David Crook
Editor: Dr Saul Issroff
Copyright © 2001 Saul Issroff, Mike Getz, SAfrica SIG
and Jewishgen Inc.
Date: 2 April 2001
As someone who grew up in South Africa, a mainly Litvak community, I remember well the constant discussion of my elders when I was a child concerning the "Talmud Torah." I myself attended the Joseph Miller Talmud Torah in Johannesburg's Southern Suburbs from age four [!] until my barmitzvah, moving on to the King David Jewish Day School in Linksfield. My grandfather was on the Board of this Talmud Torah. Local references in Jewish newspapers over the years to Talmud Torahs were of similar meaning.
The "Talmud Torah" was the Hebrew School attached to the synagogue, generally attended each afternoon by the local community's children. We referred to it as "Cheder," the Hebrew word for "room," and both "Cheder" and "Talmud Torah" had their origins in the shtetl. Jewish children did not go to state or other schools in "Der Heim" - they went to Jewish-administered educational establishments.
Originally barred from attending any other school, this was the only place of education for a Jewish child, and the move to the newer, Western worlds with minor changes to accommodate daily/compulsory, state-required morning school, was the educational establishment that had worked for us for centuries - the Hebrew School, or "Cheder" which taught us how to read and write Hebrew, and in earlier years, Yiddish as well, with the corresponding Judaic studies, biblical and festival, literature and history.
Since a Jewish child in the shtetl had nowhere else to go, the Cheder became his [because it was usually, but not always, confined to boys] place of overall learning, literacy and guide to a way of life within the community. It has evolved into today's Hebrew and Religious School, but this differs from the original like chalk from cheese.
To study Torah, literally "Law", is to study a genealogical history of our ancestors and the theocratic lifestyle commanded therein. But Judaism is to the Torah as America to its Constitution - one cannot exist without the other, but can do little unless expanded upon and applied to daily life situations, upgraded by the powers-that-be [Rabbis and Beth Dins, Supreme Court and Senate and Congress], in order to be the "tree of life to those who embrace it."
The explanations, discussions, opinions and generally accepted results of the "ongoing" talks on the subject were written down and passed from generation to generation and became Jewish Law - the word "go" in Hebrew = "Holaych", gives rise to the word "Halachah" - the ongoing, updated Jewish Law. And so, it is not the Torah that is Jewish Law, but rather the interpretation based upon the Torah that scholars have determined to protect the Torah throughout history, that has become Jewish Law; The Hebrew word for "Learn" = "Lomed" changes with the distinctive "ooo" sound of the passive voice to "Talmud," meaning "that which is learned or studied".
So, the Talmud Torah is nothing more nor less than the gathering place where the Torah is studied, which, according to Jewish Law, is the first place that needs to be erected by any Jewish community, since all other Jewish activities can take place there, and the chief activity of Jews is to study the Torah and Talmud. The Oral Law, or "Mishnah" is supplemented by the discussions that become law, the completion or "Gemarah," which together comprise the Talmud.
The whole emphasis of Judaism is Study, to understand that which the Divine wants us to accomplish and how to behave in this life. Hence the importance of the "Talmud Torah," its import into the New World, and the reverence for anyone who was entrusted with its execution as being a Board Member - implying knowledge, scholastic and leadership qualities and one's standing within the community - for the future of that community's Jewish population and what it studied and the facilities available to it, the emphasis of its core studies, the books chosen for the studies, and the teachers chosen to supervise the young minds - is awesome in its scope and responsibility.
The Talmud Torah was the body that governed the Jewish learning process.
It raised the funds, chose the "melamdim" or teachers and ensured the
passing of Jewish knowledge "Midor ledor," from generation to
generation. Its natural progression lead to the schools of higher
learning - the Yeshivot, the Rabbinic schools and seminaries and even the
establishment of the Beth Din therefrom, since the credibility of the
rabbis that form a Beth Din cements its reputation within a community;
there is a difference between a Yale or Harvard and that of the local
Community College, and its graduates generally deserve the corresponding
respect accorded them.
From humble beginnings the great emerge. The
Talmud Torah, a concept of teaching our little ones, is the foundation
for Judaic learning throughout the world.