Life-Long Learning Among the Jews

I learned a lot about the Bible by reading Jewish authors. Thank you, Bill Bjoraker, for suggesting Israel Goldman’s superb book, Life-Long Learning Among the Jews. I learned that Jews have developed two kinds of organizations, the synagogue, with which we are familiar, and a smaller, focused kind of association called a hevrah. The synagogue is mentioned 56 times in the New Testament; the hevrah not even once. But as we will see, Jews point to Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, and Zealots as kinds of havurot (plural of hevrah) in Bible times. The hevrah, as one Jew said, “is hidden in plain sight in the Bible.” Goldman writes,

In every Jewish community, from Bible times to the 20th century, the hevrah—a duly constituted society for the promotion of certain specific occupational, charitable, religious, or educational purposes—was the most significant unit of voluntary association. Havurot were founded wherever there were Jews.[1]

Jewish men formed themselves into associations or guilds to achieve certain outcomes— “sacred obligations” —that are important to them. The Hebrew word for these guilds is hevrah. A hevrah was a special-purpose association. Members of a hevrah say they are on a mission from God to change the world.

There have been Jewish havurot in every age. Goldman records these examples:

The Holy Brotherhood of Tailors, the Holy Brotherhood of Woodchoppers, the Holy Brotherhood for the Study of Torah, the Holy Brotherhood for Visiting the Sick and the Holy Brotherhood for Lovingkindness, and the Holy Brotherhood for Dowering the Bride.[2]

There are hundreds more. Throughout the 14th and 15th centuries there appeared in that country a series of societies, havurot, that busied themselves with the burial of the dead, education of the poor, dowering of the orphan brides, support of the poor, and visiting and providing for the sick.[3] The Benevolent Society of Pursuers of Righteousness, located in Frankfurt, in 1786, derived its name from Proverbs 21:21—“He that followeth after righteousness and mercy findeth life, prosperity, and honor.” Their major charitable activity was the distribution of firewood in the winter.[4]

Records have come down to us of Jewish guilds (havurot) in Prague: The Barbers’ Guild (1688), the Tailors’ Guild (1690), and the Shoemakers’ Guild (1730). In Vienna in the year 1763 a group of young people founded a society called the Hevrah Kaddisha shel Bahurei Hemed ve-Vina (“Holy Society of Choice Young Men of Vienna”). Its purposes were as follows:

  1. To conduct lectures on halakah and aggadah every Saturday instead of spending the day in amusement.
  2. To support the poor in a manner not humiliating to them.
  3. To provide for poor brides.
  4. To clothe the needy.
  5. To visit the sick, provide them with medical treatment, pray for their restoration to health, and in case of death, to arrange for the recital of the Kaddish by a relative or an orphan from a neighboring community.[5]

In March 1336 King Pedro IV of Aragon issued a charter to the Jewish Shoemakers Guild.[6] In Barcelona there existed special guilds for Jewish butchers, dyers, and sailors. These guilds enjoyed autonomy, that is, self-governance. Rabbi Solomon ibn Adret (1235-1310) was asked his opinion of the legality of the guild regulations. He declared:

The members of the guild are as autonomous in their own affairs as are the citizens of the city. Each group is permiited to conduct its affairs and to prescribe fines and punishments which may not be found in the laws of the Torah. This is the practical of all the holy congregations and no one has ever questioned their legality.[7]

In Amsterdam in 1776 the Hevrah Kaddisha Gemilut Hassadim (“Holy Brotherhood for Deeds of Lovingkindness,” that is a burial society) printed its statutes, the first three of which deal with the obligations and manner of study incumbent upon members:

Every weekday (with the exception of the day preceding the Sabbath, the holidays, and Rosh Hodesh) all members must assemble half an hour after the Minhah and Maariv service in the new synagogue of the society in order to study under the tutorship of the rabbi for at least three-quarters of an hour. Failure to attend shall be subject to a fine of one-quarter of a bank schilling. During all times of study it shall be forbidden to eat or drink in the place of study. It is especially forbidden to smoke or to conduct oneself in a spirit of levity either by word or deed.[8]

In 1804 the Hevrah Kaddisha Talmud Torah (“Holy Brotherhood for Talmud Torah”) revised its by-laws and printed them with the approval of the Ashkenazic community. Those eligibal for membershp in the society were “married men, single men, married women, and widows, whether they live in our community or are temporary residents.” The minimum weekly dues was two bank schillings for men and one and one-half bank schillings for women). The society conducted a number of schools for the children of the community, with a staff of teachers and an elected official who supervised the educational program. The curriculum consisted of Hebrew reading, Prayer book and Humash.[9]

In 1790, in Amsterdam, seven young men organized the Hebra Kedoshah Agudat Bahurim (“Holy Brotherhood of the Fraternity of Young Men”). Every member was required to come to learn every Sabbath at 1:30 in the afternoon. If he was late he had to pay a fine.[10]

In Lithuania we find the following ordinance in 1628, “Everyone who belongs to a hevrah must set aside fixed times for daily study.” There was in Minsk, Russia a Hebrah Kaddisha Shivah Keruim (“Holy Brotherhood of the Seven Summoned Men”). Each Sabbath seven of the men would be honored by being called to read the Torah in any of several synagogues. The number of members at one time was fifty-one and at a later date rose to sixty-six. One feature of this hevrah was its library. The books were catalogued in the minutes of society.[11] In 1802 there was a “Hevrah of the Chanters of the Psalms.”

We know that in Kiev in 1895 the “Chanters of Psalms and Doers of Deeds of Lovingkindess” was founded. There were sixty-seven members. “When the Holy Sabbath comes we shall assemble in the bet ha-midrash in the winter before sunrise and in the summer at the noon hour, to recite the whole book of Psalms in congregation assembled, from beginning to and, and to conduct ourselves in accordance with the ordinances of our brotherhood. They form a statute which shall not be violated, and each man shall help his neighbor to say: “Be strong, be strong, and we shall be strong!”[12]

There was “The Psalm Readers Association of Belostok.” The members took this pledge:

We, the undersigned, are not learned. We do not understand the Torah ourselves nor can we afford to support students of the Torah. We therefore take upon ourselves, under oath, the responsibility of gathering as a body in the synagogue at least on Saturdays, Holidays, on the Eve of the New Month and public fasts, for the purpose of completing the reading of the Book of Psalms from beginning to end. It shall be chanted quietly and slowly. One shall chant a verse, and everybody shall repeat after him.

Minutes from “The Psalm Society of Brest” exist for the years 1850-1912. Its first requirement: “Every morning before dawn to recite 18 chapters of Psalms and to complete the remaining chapters on Sabbath afternoon.”[13] Requirement 24 reads, “Because of the widespread sinful practice of card-playing which in addition to being condemned by our Sages also leads to quarrels between the players, often between husband and wife, we have therefore decided to keep away from this evil.”[14]

“The Psalm Society of Liubranets,” whose pinkasim cover a period of sixty-six years (1843-1909), consisted entirely of tailors. New members had to pay an entrance fee and serve as an apprentice for three years.[15] “The Psalms and Perpetual Light Society of Lodz,” founded in 1820, had the twofold purpose of reciting Psalms and tending to the lights in the synagogue.[16]

“The Society for the Study of the Bible” was founded in 1792 in Gombin, Poland. The last entry of the minutes are dated 1892. The forty-four charter members included in the preamble the many reasons  impelling them to bring the new society into existence: “The Torah is like water, and it is impossible to live without water.”[17]

Members of “The Zohar Study Society of Padua” in Italy pledged themselves:

to perform their service before God in truth, with humility and perfect love, with no expectation of reward for themselves, but only for the sake of the “restoration” of the Divine Presence, and the “restoration” of all Israel. Any reward due them for their fulfillment of the commandments and their good deeds they offer up as a gift to all Israel, to show their love of the holy Presence, and to bring joy to their Creator.[18]

Twenty-six men organized the “Talmud Society of Helishau” in Moravia in 1759. Their mission:

In order that the Torah should not be forgotten from our mouths and from the mouths of our children, and in order that God should create in us a clean heart and a new spirit, we, whose name are signed below, have banded ourselves together, and we have determined to set aside fixed times for the study of the Torah so that our souls may be nourished as we have been commanded by our sages.[19]

Similar to this is the nature of the “Hevrah Shas of Bialystok.” The Preamble states that “these ordinances shall serve to bind the membership into an enduring bond and to bend shoulders of each of us to the yoke of the Torah day by day.”[20] Their first regulation:

Imposed on us is the duty to study every single day one page of the Talmud with the commentary of Rashi following. When, God willing, we shall complete the study of the Talmud, we begin again and continue till we finish again, and so one we always complete and begin over again the study of the Talmud.[21]

The Hevrah Mefitsei Haskalah Society” (Society for the Promotion of Culture Among the Jews of Russia) was founded in St. Petersburg in 1863 with the financial support of wealthy Jews such as the Barons Gunzburg and Leon Rosenthal. Its original purpose was to disseminate Russian language and culture among the Jews in order to encourage assimilation and to remove the cultural and religious barriers between Jews and Russians. The founders believed that this would hasten the granting of civic equality to Jews. The society’s practical objectives were to teach Russian language and culture, to promote secular education, and to publish books and periodicals in Russian and Hebrew. Eventually, branches were opened in Moscow, Riga, Kiev, Grodno, Vilna, and other cities. The society was dissolved by Soviet authorities in 1930. The Vilna branch was founded in 1909. It maintained schools, encouraged the formation of cultural centers, organized cultural activities such as lectures and conferences. The Vilna branch continued to exist until 1938.

In America a hevrah could be easily registered with the US Government as a non-profit corporation. The are thousands of them. However, the name hevrah has largely disappeared; In its place are English names such as “organization” or “association.”

Summary. There are two structures in the Jewish religion, the synagogue and the hevrah. In the same way, there are two structures in the Christian religion: the church, which is like a synagogue, and the mission agency, which is like a hevrah. The two Jewish structures existed prior to Christianity. Christianity borrowed the two kinds of structures from the Jewish religion.

References Cited

[1] Israel M. Goldman, Lifelong Learning among Jews: Adult Education in Judaism from Biblical Times to the Twentieth Century (New York: Ktav Pub. House, 1975).

[2] Ibid. 173

[3] Ibid. 174 Goldman is quoting Dr. Jacob R. Marcus, Communal Sick Care, p. 61

[4] Goldman, Lifelong Learning among Jews: Adult Education in Judaism from Biblical Times to the Twentieth Century. 177

[5] Ibid. 181-182

[6] Ibid. 184

[7] Ibid. 185

[8] Ibid. 186

[9] Ibid. 187

[10] Ibid. 190

[11] Ibid. 192

[12] 210

[13] Goldman, Lifelong Learning among Jews: Adult Education in Judaism from Biblical Times to the Twentieth Century. 217

[14] Ibid. 218

[15] Ibid. 219

[16] Ibid. 221

[17] Ibid. 223

[18] Ibid. 233

[19] Ibid. 240

[20] Ibid. 244

[21] Ibid. 244