The cultural centrality of study is demonstrated in the home environment. Here books often enjoy a place of prominence.3 Ideally, children witness parents and siblings who engage in study on a daily basis, and the young are taught to value and emulate this. The written word and mimetic religious culture dictate every aspect of life.4
According to the ideals of this community, preoccupation with learning is almost an obsession, and time is an extremely valuable resource. Even social and religious events involve group learning. For example, a meal without a word of learning is considered as if one ate from “the sacrifices of the dead” (Avot 3.3).5 No individual is exempt from the obligation to study, each according to his level of skill. In many contemporary communities, the emphasis on learning now extends to women as well. Any activity that detracts from learning must be justified. Going to work, or even visiting the doctor, serves the principal objective and leads to continued, or even better, learning thereafter.
Mindfulness of learning is a constant state of consciousness, and reminders to pursue study at all times are everywhere. The central dogma of Judaism is recited twice daily as part of the prayer service. The Shema Yisrael (“Hear Israel” [Deut. 6.4]) prayer not only expresses complete devotion to a monotheistic God but formally commands that one teach the young morning and night, whether at home or on the road (6.7) (“ve-shinantam le-banecha” [you shall reiterate them to your offspring]). Not surprisingly, orthodox Jews often carry a book or other learning material wherever they go, and studying while waiting in line or travelling is common.6 Writings on parchment placed in a small capsule on every door and gate (6.9) (the so-called “mezuza” placed on the doorpost) reinforce this message.
On the Sabbath, exempt from routine materialistic preoccupations, one is expected to engage in study. Holy days are characterized by preparations that include the learning of related laws and customs, and education is an intrinsic component of the holy days. A detailed description of the pedagogic methods and principles used at the Passover Seder has been discussed by Glick.7
Children enter a more formal setting for learning at an early age. On their first day in “Cheder,” the Jewish toddlers’ classroom, children eat cookies shaped as Hebrew letters dipped in honey to form a connection in the mind of the young between sweetness and pleasure and study.8 The rabbinic leadership recognized the importance of continuing education and developed the notion of studying a page of the Talmud each day (“daf yomi”) which has become part of the routine for many laypeople.
This sort of environment in which every (male) member of the community is expected to devote each free waking moment to study stands in contrast to other cultures that have similar approaches but only for select scholars and religious devotees (monks, for example). Not surprisingly, literacy rates in Jewish communities have generally been higher than those among other groups among whom Jews lived.9
Current educational systems often utilize total immersion for short periods, such as crash courses for the purpose of acquisition of a new language, to enhance learning. Such experiences are costly and limited in time and scope. At the opposite extreme, the Jewish system strives to create environments that stimulate learning through all phases of growth and development from birth to death. This is an experience-based education, which for the most part is free of charge. Moreover, the classical study hall (“beit midrash”), which is generally endowed with a significant library, is open to the public 24/7, and there is continual formal and/or informal instruction there.