Friday 9 October 2015

061) The Emergence of the New Yeshiva and Kollel Systems

A father teaching his son Torah
Historically, two great innovations took place within about a hundred years of each other, and about two thousand years ago, that changed the face of Torah learning forever:



Until about the year 65 CE. the obligation to teach children Torah rested squarely on the shoulders of the fathers of those children. The Torah verse “You shall teach them to your son” was taken quite literally. So much so that the Talmud says that if a child lost his father, he simply wouldn’t have learned Torah.[1]  

Then came Rabbi Yehoshua Ben Gamla, who ironically was not a scholar himself, and instituted a brand new innovation. There would now be teachers tasked with the responsibility to teach Torah to children from the age of six and older. These teachers would be stationed in every province and in every city and this was the beginning of the Torah elementary school system.

Were it not for him, the Talmud says that the Torah would have been forgotten by the Jewish people.[2]


About a hundred years later, Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi[3] also broke with convention by writing down what was supposed to remain an Oral Tradition, when he redacted the Mishna in 189 CE. His innovation was truly revolutionary because according to the Talmud[4] the sages deduced from a verse in the Torah that it was forbidden to commit the Oral Tradition to writing (for public teaching). 

Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi saw that there was a real and present danger that the Oral Tradition might be lost forever if it relied solely on oral transmission, and took the bold step of committing it to writing. He too is credited with having saved the Torah from being forgotten.


Schools for older boys began with Ezra and the Men of the Great Assembly at around the time of the Second Temple, when the bei rav or ‘house of the teacher’ was instituted for boys above the age of sixteen. This was the beginning of the ‘high school’ system.

During Talmudic times schools for adults also began to emerge with particular emphasis on the Yarchei Kalah (or Months of the Bride[5]), established by Rav, where adults would take off two months from work (Elul and Adar), in order to study.


During the post-Talmudic period, also known as the Gaonic period, there were a number of great academies in Nehardea (which began earlier during the Amoraic period), Jerusalem, Sura and Pumpedita (modern Fallujah) respectively.[6]


As a result of the forced exile of the Jerusalem Yeshiva to Cairo in 1127, and the Mongol invasions during the 13th C, all these yeshivas were disbanded, and Torah education became the responsibility of the various synagogues scattered throughout North Africa and Europe.



The first modern yeshivah. (Volozhin 1803)
It was only around the early 1800’s that the yeshiva system as we know it today began to emerge. This was due particularly to another great innovation in Torah education this time by Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin[7]

He started his Yeshiva in 1803 with just ten students and personally took care of their financial needs. The Volozhin Yeshiva remained in operation for almost 90 years and eventually had its own building and housed over one hundred students. 

It was around this time that many other yeshivas began to sprout up with different approaches to the study of Torah (such as Ponovitch, Slabodka, Mir, Brisk and Telz), and the modern yeshiva movement started to gain momentum.


The relatively new Chassidic movement saw the success of the Lithuanian Yeshivas and began establishing yeshivas of their own with an emphasis in some cases on the study of Chassidus or Jewish mysticism. Chabad Yeshivas, for example, were established around 1879.

The Sefardim of medieval Spain had academies of learning which combined Torah study with science and astronomy. In more recent times, it took a little longer for the modern yeshiva system to become popular among the Sefardim of North Africa and the Middle East.[8] The Porat Yosef Yeshiva, for example, was established in Jerusalem in 1914.


A yeshiva is usually where a young man studies until he gets married. After that, if he chooses to remain in the world of Torah learning, he graduates to a kollel.

The first kollel was established in 1879 by Rabbi Yisrael Salanter[9], almost eighty years after the emergence of the modern yeshiva system.[10]

Its founding principles were very different from the contemporary model of kollel today. Primarily the original focus was on practical halacha, as opposed to theoretical Talmudic exegesis. There was an emphasis on smicha (rabbinical ordination) so that the student would go out and practice rabbinical leadership. 

Most importantly, the original kollelim had very specific time limits (of three to five years), as opposed to the contemporary model of limitless years of study with no culmination in rabbinical ordination.

Today, in Israel alone, there are well over 70 000 men studying in kollelim, in what has been called a chevrat halomdim[11] (a community of learners).[12] The perpetual adult students, known as avreichim, generally do not work, nor do they generally obtain ordination so that they do not even work in the rabbinical field, and there is generally no limitation in terms of time spent in the learning institution.

As a result of this new kollel system, in 2009 over 62 percent of ultra-Orthodox men were out of the Israeli labour force, as opposed to 25 percent of other Israeli men. This is a primary cause of the extraordinary high incidence of self imposed poverty in that community.

This new kollel system was founded within the Lithuanian sector of Israeli society around the 1950’s, by the Chazon Ish[13] in an attempt to (according to some, temporarily) rebuild the numbers of religious Jews killed off during the Holocaust, and with time this system was adopted and adapted by the Chassidic and Sefardic communities.[14]

The justification of the Chazon Ish was that modern Israel was different from pre-war Europe in that many Israeli towns were completely irreligious and did not appreciate the value of supporting Torah scholars. Therefore Kollelim had to be actively established separate from the irreligious communities, to create and support scholars, since it would not happen organically as it did in the past.[15]

Also the Chazon Ish maintained, historically, a teenager’s yeshiva education alone was sufficient to keep him on the path throughout his life. After the war, however, it became necessary to create an extra safeguard, the kollel for married men, to keep adults on the path.[16]

Daniel Schiffman brings another rationale, by Rabbi Yaakov Yisrael Kanievsky[17], for the need to establish the new kollel system: Traditionally in Europe, a father-in-law would support his son-in-law so that he could devote his time to Torah study. After the war, due to secularization, this no longer took place, so official institutions now had to be created to support full-time learning.[18]

At around the same time, Rabbi Aharon Kotler[19] was establishing the kollel system in America, based on a similar rationale of total immersion in Torah to counter influences from the modern world, and the famous Lakewood kollel community was born.

Another explanation for the new kollel system was offered by Rabbi Aharon Leib Shteinman[20] who strongly maintained that poverty is a prerequisite for Torah transmission. He maintained that Torah can only flourish in a state of poverty. 

In 2003, Rabbi Shteinman was offered $100 million to establish training programmes to prepare kollel men for basic work in order to support themselves (and still be able to continue their Torah study). He rejected the offer.

A further founding principle for the new kollel system was to create a constituency for Daas Torah[21], where the advice and edicts of the gedolim (Torah leaders) are held to be sacrosanct and immutable. This model works well as the kollel community is generally more inclined to be a community of followers as opposed to leaders. Rabbi Aharon Kotler expressed this principle clearly when he referred to the new kollel system as ‘sustaining a constituency that wholeheartedly embraces Daas Torah.’[22]


As opposed to the Lithuanian model, the Chasidic kollel does encourage smicha (rabbinical ordination), so that rabbis can continue to work within the sect. This is known as ‘inreach’ as opposed to ‘outreach’. Some groups even hold formal graduation ceremonies.

Another difference between Chassidim and Lithuanians is that there usually is a very clear limitation to the amount of time spent learning in a kollel. Instead of an indefinite time period of study, Chassidim usually stipulate a maximum number of years for kollel study. This varies from between two to about five years. After this time exceptional students may remain in the institution, while most of the others are encouraged to seek some basic type of work to support themselves.[23]

Chabad has a strict two year time limit, and certainly encourages ordination so that the young man can embark on a career in outreach work that Chabad is so well known for.

In 2009 it was estimated that 71 percent of Chassidim were interested in seeking gainful employment, as opposed to only 19 percent of Lithuanian men.[24]


The Sefardim have to a large extent followed the Chabad model of outreach. This was openly acknowledged by Rabbi David Yosef[25] in 2005.[26] To this end, the Sefardim have been extremely successful in reaching out to their fellow irreligious Israelis. Like the Chassidim they too generally encourage rabbinical ordination, and discourage limitless study time.

An example of outreach work.

According to Rabbi Adam S. Ferziger[27], the emergence and growth of the ‘community kollel’ is now a powerful player in the Torah outreach world. It grew out of the 1950’s model of kollel described above, but with a strong emphasis on outreach work as well. 

He writes that the first community kollel was actually established in South Africa (by alumni of Gateshead Yeshiva in England), yet became popular throughout the West, with about seventy such institutions in America today.

[Personally, being a native of South Africa, I remember that particular kollel in the 1970's very fondly, as uncle attended it. I remember the wonderful rabbis who although very serious learners, would have literally hundreds of totally non-religious students attend classes and talks. One particular rabbi wore a shtreimal and davened an ordinary mincha for almost an hour, crying like it was Yom Kippur, yet a short while later would sit and talk to a long haired hippy. I remember thinking that the set up was amazingly incongruous, but I had no idea I was witnessing the birth of a new model of community kollel.]

In a way similar to Chabad, young yeshiva families exchange their environments for a pioneering experience in a new place that has not yet fallen under the influence of Torah. Ideologically this new community kollel is rooted in Novaredok philosophy[28] which emphasized a practical as opposed to theoretical approach to learning, and their aim was to specifically train rabbis to spread Torah to the masses. They endeavoured to establish yeshivas in place where no yeshivas had existed before.

As opposed to the 1950's model of kollel, where there generally was no real practical intention to create rabbis who would take up positions of leadership, and where students spend much time on theoretical study material – the community kollel encouraged outreach work and community participation with their ‘open Beis Medrah’ approach.

Once a community kollel exists, an environment is created that is now attractive for other committed Jews to join. And the community grows and upgrades. In fact these community kollelim are so successful, that Samuel Heilman[29] argues that ‘one of the key factors in the move to the right of children who grew up in Modern Orthodox homes is the influence of the many day-school teachers who promote their own rightwing approach.’ This is because many of these teachers stem from such community kollelim.

These outreach programmes were so well structured that one even ended up encroaching on a Reform Temple, and some openly target reform and conservative communities.[30]


The journey the kollel has taken from its classical inception around 1879 by Rabbi Salanter  -  to the Israeli model of the 1950’s by the Chazon Ish as (temporary) compensation for the Holocaust losses - to its development into the modern Lithuanian closed and sectarian model - and its offshoots into the Chabad and general Chassidic (inreach) and Sefardic (outreach) kollel systems which departed dramatically from the Lithuanian standard – to the popular but insular Lakewood model - to the community kollel that appeals to many non-religious and even reform Jews, yet may also be responsible for the shift to the right –   is indeed a most fascinating journey.

We also traced the inception of the basic elementary school system in 65 CE - to the Talmudic ‘high schools’ - to the great academies of the post-Talmudic period - to the individual community based houses of study up to the late 1700's - to the establishment of the modern yeshivas in the early 1800’s.

What emerges is that Torah education, from the original biblical model of Torah transmission from father to son, to all the different models we have today, has never been a monolithic immutable structure, as some would like us to believe. 

On the contrary, Torah education has almost by definition been characterized by change, and has changed further and evolved over time, and even as we speak it is still undergoing change. Perhaps it is this very ability to change and adapt to varying circumstances that has made it the most amazing Literature the world has ever known. Only a Literature that can adapt like this, can ensure its survival and relevance for all Jews at all times.


Rabbi Yehoshua Ben Gamla and Rabbi Yehudah Hanasi made extraordinary innovations, going against the stated tenor of the Torah, and radically departed from the face of the classical biblical model of Torah transmission. And yet they are credited by the Talmud with saving the Torah for future generations.

I don’t believe that the same argument can be promulgated by protagonists of the modern (particularly the Israeli) kollel system, which espouse the notion of no work, poverty, living off charity, and limitless years in an institution.

The Rambam writes; ‘If you think that you should involve yourself with Torah study without doing work and living off charity, you desecrate G-d’s name and dishonour the Torah...’[31]

The Peninei Halacha says; “In Talmudic times a student would study up to the age of twenty, and then he would marry and go to work, while continuing his Torah studies part time. This is how we should conduct ourselves today.”[32]

To equate the albeit outlandish but necessary innovations of Rabbi Yehoshua Ben Gamla and Rabbi Yehudah Hanasi two thousand years ago, to the innovation of the modern 1950’s kollel system, is in my view just too disingenuous. 

The first two innovations saved Judaism from extinction and created a strong culture of Torah study, as for the it it ethical...and just what kind of Judaism are we perpetuating for the future?




Yeshivas have always existed throughout Jewish history.

The first traditionally recorded yeshiva was that of Shem VeEver, which existed in early biblical times.  Centuries later, Yaakov Avinu studied there for 14 years, after he left Beer Sheva and before he went to live with the deceitful Lavan.

The question is; What was studied in this yeshiva?

Some say they studied exactly the same materiel we study today in all modern yeshivas, including gemara and halacha etc, as the patriarchs studied the Torah before it was given.

Others say they studied the seven laws of Noah, which include the establishing of civil legal systems and basic ethics.

According to one Rosh Yeshiva I spoke to, the yeshiva of Shem and his son Ever did not have any connection to Judaism, and the study material would have been completely secular, probably including the science, medicine and astronomy of that early period. It was an early type of pre-Jewish university system. And since Shem VeEver did not become Jewish, in the sense that Avraham was to become Jewish, there is no need to try read any Jewish connection into their study material.

A fourth view, as espoused by Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetsky, is that each of the patriarchs had their own yeshivas which taught different approaches and philosophies consistent with their different personalities. Each yeshiva prepared the student for different life situations.
For example, Shem, a veteran of the Flood, understood how to live within a hostile society which was filled with corruption, theft and immorality. Ever, on the other hand had withstood the great heresy prevalent during the time of the Tower of Babel.
The reason why Yaakov went to learn in the yeshiva of Shem VeEver was to learn a 'different Torah' from that which he had already learned from his father (Isaac) and grandfather (Avraham). He needed to now learn how to live with Lavan, and deal with issues of exile as only Shem and Ever could teach him.

According to some of these views the subject matter of this early yeshiva may have been somewhat different to the curriculum studied in yeshivas today.

The term 'yeshiva' in this context may thus be confusing.

Furthermore, a direct comparison between the yeshivas of the Gaonic period and modern yeshivas may also be inaccurate, not so much in terms of study material but in terms of numbers and admissions policy. According to Dr Henry Abramson (in his lecture; Anan ben David and Karaism Jewish History Lecture) the number of scholars studying in these yeshivas around the 8th C was estimated to be between 1 200 and 2 400 (and he believed those numbers to be 'considerably exaggerated').

They were elitist institutions which certainly did not have an open admissions policy. Even the benches were arranged such a manner that the greater scholars sat closer to the lecturer, and the less scholarly sat towards the back. It was these 'backbenches' who were tasked with leading the Yarchei Kallah program mentioned earlier.

Thus, according to Dr Abramson, the vast majority of the masses could never have a yeshiva education, and were quite illiterate, barely being able to read the prayer book, and with a very limited knowledge of halacha. So much so, he says, that a sense of disenfranchisement took hold of the masses by the scholarly vacuum that was created, and climate was right for other influences to take hold, such as the anti-Rabbinic Karaism movement which by some accounts may have affected up to half of the Jewish population of that time.

In a similar vein, the yeshivas or the Rishonim differed from the yeshivas of the Acharonim, in that according to the Peninei Halacha, the former studied 'kelalim' (principles), whereas the latter, as a result of the proliferation of Torah literature and books produced at that time, studied 'peratim' (details).

The new yeshivas of the 1800's opened up the world of Torah study to the 'man in the street', instead of just the scholars of previous generations. The growth and popularity of the new yeshivah system also marked the preeminence and elevation of the Rosh Yeshiva over the Rov who traditionally was held in the highest esteem.

There was also much more Torah literature that had developed over the ages, and a formal and open system of study had to be developed to facilitate the study of what was now a very large body of learning.

Also, according to some, since this was about the same time as the modern Hebrew language was being developed and popularized, many more people now were able to understand the Hebrew texts.

It is this context that the term 'new yeshiva system' is used.

[1] Bava Basra 21a.
[2] Rabbi Shimon ben Shetach is also credited with establishing schools for children as early as 75 BCE.
[3] Also known in the Talmud as REBBI, or in the writings of the Rishonin (such as the Rambam) as RABEINU HAKADOSH. (135 – 217 CE.)
[4] Gittin 60b.
[5] The Torah is referred to as a ‘bride’.
[6] The Jerusalem Yeshiva would later move to Cairo, while Sura and Pumpedita would relocate to Baghdad.
[7] 1749 – 1821. Rabbi Chaim Volozhin was a student of the famed Vilna Gaon.
[8] Although in Iraq, a yeshiva was established based on the new European model at about the same time, around the 1870’s.
[9] 1810 – 1883.
[10] The term ‘kollel’  was used as early as the 16th C, relating to Jews who settled in Safed, who divided themselves into groups based on their places of origin, and formed a ‘kollel’ or ‘collective’. The term, however, had political, as opposed to the scholarly connotations it has today. See Adam S. Ferziger, The Emergence of the Community Kollel; A New Model for Addressing Assimilation.
[11] A term coined by Menachem Friedman. It needs to be pointed out that the term does not mean a ‘community of scholars’, rather a ‘community of learners’.
[12] See The Ideology of Full-Time Religious Study by Married Men in Israeli Ultra-Orthodox Judaism. By Daniel Schiffman. This paper was published in 2011, so the numbers will certainly have swelled since then.
[13] Rabbi Yeshaya Karelitz (1878 – 1953).
[14] Schiffman points out that in 2006, the ultra-Orthodox community was divided as follows; 33% Chassidic, 29% Lithuanian, 21% Sefardic, 7% Nationalist ultra- orthodox and 10% unidentified. Today, however, the numbers of the Lithuanian sector have over taken that of the Chassidic sector. It is evident that the numbers are growing very rapidly. Numbers of Jews growing is never a bad thing, but numbers of people refusing to support their families or contribute to general society is, at least in the view of this writer, a worrying phenomenon.
[15] Karelitz 1955, Letter 86.
[16] Ibid.
[17] 1899 – 1985.
[18] See Dirshu 2002, 68-69.
[19] 1892-1962.
[20] Born 1912.
[21] See Kotzk Blog 48) Contemporary Daas Torah.
[22] See Dirshu 2002,17.
[23] The Belzer Rebbe, Rabbi Yissachar Rokeach, actually encourages some students to ‘learn a profession that earns a living’.  Schiffman quoting Ettinger 2005.
[24] Schiffman quoting Levin 2009.
[25] Rabbi Ovadia Yosef’s son.
[26] See Sichat Hashavua 2005.
[27] See The Emergence of the Community Kollel; A New Model for Addressing Asimilation. Rabbi Ferziger is a graduate of Yeshiva University.
[28] Championed by its founder, Rabbi Yosef Yoizl Horowitz (1848-1919). These yeshivas were so successful, having over 3000 students and seventy branches.
[29] See Samuel C. Heilman, Sliding to the right, The Contest for the Future of American Orthodoxy. 2006.
[30] In one glossy promotional brochure it states; “Whether you are Reform, Conservative Orthodox, unaffiliated or somewhere in-between, Atlanta Scholars Kollel is your most vibrant source of Jewish learning...”
[31] Rambam, Hilchot Talmud Torah 3, 10.
[32] Peninei Halacha, Mitzvat Yediyat HaTor
ah, 3.

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