torah scroll 88.
(photo credit: )
The holiday of Shavuot did not receive much attention in rabbinic literature. There is no tractate about it in the Mishna or Talmud and all of its laws are contained in one paragraph in the Shulhan Aruch (Orah Haim 494). Even so, a number of beautiful customs are associated with Shavuot and here we shall discuss one of them.
Around the 12th century, a custom developed in Germany of bringing a child to school for the first time on Shavuot. Here is the description found in Sefer Harokeah (parag. 296) written by Rabbi Eleazar of Worms (1160-1230): "It is the custom of our ancestors that they bring children to learn [for the first time] on Shavuot since the Torah was given thenâ€¦ At sunrise on Shavuot, they bring the children, in keeping with the verse 'as morning dawned [on Mount Sinai], there was thunder and lightning' (Exodus 19:16). And one covers the children with a cloak from their house to the synagogue or to the rabbi's house, in keeping with the verse 'and they stood underneath the mountain' (ibid., v. 17). And they put him on the lap of the rabbi who teaches them, in keeping with the verse 'as a nurse carries an infant' (Numbers 11:12).
"And they bring the slate upon which is written alef, bet, gimel, dalet, tav, shin, resh, kuf [the alef-bet both forwards and backwards], 'Moses commanded us the Torah' (Deut. 33:4), 'may the Torah be my occupation,' and 'The Lord called to Moses' (Lev. 1:1). And the rabbi reads every letter of the alef-bet and the child repeats after him, and [the rabbi reads all of the above and the child repeats after him].
"And the rabbi puts a little honey on the slate and the child licks the honey from the letters with his tongue. And then they bring the honey cake upon which is inscribed 'The Lord God gave me a skilled tongue to knowâ€¦' (Isaiah 50: 4-5), and the rabbi reads every word of these verses and the child repeats after him. And then they bring a peeled hard-boiled egg upon which is written 'Mortal, feed your stomach and fill your belly with this scrollâ€¦ and I ate it and it tasted as sweet as honey to me' (Ezekiel 3:3). And the rabbi reads every word and the child repeats after him. And they feed the child the cake and the egg, for they open the mindâ€¦"
Prof. Ivan Marcus devoted an entire volume entitled Rituals of Childhood (New Haven 1996) to the explanation of this beautiful ceremony. Here we shall only stress that this ceremony includes three of the basic principles of Jewish education: First of all, one must commence Jewish education at a very young age. In a 14th-century illustration of this ceremony in the Leipzig Mahzor, one can see that the children are three, four or five years old. Indeed, this was also the custom among Oriental Jews in modern times. A song by Yehoshua Sobol and Shlomo Bar relates that "in the town of Tudra in the Atlas mountains they would take a child who had reached the age of fiveâ€¦ into the synagogue, and write in honey on a wooden slate from alef to tav."
From this we learn that we too must begin the Jewish education of children at a very young age when their minds can absorb much information.
Secondly, we learn from here about the importance of ceremonies in the learning process. Our ancestors could have brought the child into the heder and simply begun to teach, but that would not have left a lasting impression upon the child. The intricate ceremony described above transforms the first day of school into a special experience that will remain with the child for the rest of his or her life.
Thirdly, there is an attempt to make learning enjoyable. A child who licks honey from a slate and who eats honey cake and a hard-boiled egg on the first day of school will immediately understand that the Torah is "as sweet as honey." From this we learn that we must teach children in a gentle fashion and make learning enjoyable in order that they learn Torah with love.
In the State of Israel, Jewish education was ignored for decades in the secular public school system. In recent years, more and more so-called secular parents are demanding that their children receive a Jewish education. This is especially true of the TALI school system which now includes 30,000 children and will celebrate its 30th anniversary in June.
May this beautiful Shavuot custom become a paradigm for the TALI schools as well as for all Jewish schools throughout the world.
The writer, a rabbi, is the president of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem.