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Wednesday, 21 May 2014

Solving the Jewish Illiteracy Epidemic

Rosh Hashanah 13

Today's Life Yomi has been dedicated by Luba & Clive Allen in honour of their son Joel's birthday.  Till 120 in good health!

Over the last couple of years, there has been a flurry of books and accounts by young adults who have left their Hasidic communities and are trying to begin life anew.   The problem faced by many is that not only have they lost their familial support system, but they were never equipped with the tools to survive in the ‘outside world.’  Many don’t know how to read and write English, let alone have any secular education or qualification.

When most people hear such stories, they are shocked to learn that such illiteracy exists amongst the Jewish people.   The leaders of these communities believe that their children should be immersed in the sea of Torah with as little influence from and connection with the outside world as possible. 

Is this what G-d wants?

The Torah states: “You shall tithe the entire crop of your planting the produce of the field year by year.”  The Mishnah elucidates the phrase ‘year by year’: for tithing purposes one may not mix the crop of one year with the next year’s crop.  The cut-off date for the year is the 1st Tishrei (our Rosh Hashanah). 

Rabbi Assi points out that the Torah refers to the festival of Sukkot as “the festival of gathering as the year departs,” explaining that any crop that was gathered at Sukkot belongs to the previous year’s crop.  Crops that reached one third of their full growth potential before Rosh Hashanah belong to the previous year and the rabbis determined that anything that was gatherable by Sukkot (fifteen days later) must have reached their requisite third before Rosh Hashanah.

Rabbi Jeremiah asks Rabbi Zeira, “How would the rabbis know the difference between a third, and less than a third [of crop growth potential]?”

Rabbi Zeira responds sharply, “Have I not told you not to remove yourself from the world of Halacha?  Every measurement of the Sages is precise!”  He then proceeds to list examples, such as when the Sages instructed that the measurement of a mikvah is forty seah, they determined the exact amount of water needed to immerse one’s entire body.  A minute amount less would be insufficient.

Rabbi Jeremiah humbly apologizes for his question.

To be an expert in the Torah, one needs to be well-versed in all areas of scientific enquiry.  One must know mathematics, physics, biology, agriculture, astronomy, and so on.  Otherwise, it is impossible to figure out halachic measurements.  A talmid chacham – Torah scholar – cannot just know the Five Books of Moses and the commentaries.  One must have a solid general education to master the Torah.

And so it is sad to see religious communities that shun secular education, failing to recognize the broad scope of Torah wisdom.  If these kids never learned math, they never truly learned Torah.  If they didn’t learn biology, there’s no way they could’ve mastered the Talmud.

Sadly, this ignorance is just as prevalent on the other side of the coin.  Most Jews today deny their children a proper Jewish education.  Many young adults who seek a greater connection to their heritage suddenly find that they are grossly ill-equipped for a relationship with the Torah.  In most cases, they are lucky if they can read Hebrew, let alone be able to translate a verse of the Chumash with Rashi’s commentary. 

Are you giving your children a fair chance at their Judaism?  Are you equipping them with the basic skills they need to survive as committed Jews?  Can they learn the Torah and commentators in the original?   Can they study and understand a piece of Talmud on their own?  Do they have a decent knowledge of Halacha and different minhagim (customs)? 

Or will they be starting their spiritual lives from scratch?

Life Yomi dedications don’t cost a penny!  To dedicate a day of learning in honour of a birthday, anniversary or yortzeit, all you need to do is commit to sending the Life Yomi of the day (or another Life Yomi teaching of your choice) to 18 (chai) people!  You needn’t provide us with the names of recipients; all we need is the honouree’s name and occasion.  Or you can just post it to your Facebook page!  For more details, please email

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