Sunday 30 August 2020


From the cover of Jewish Education and Society in the High Middle Ages, by Ephraim Kanarfogel.


I recall vividly, as a youngster just out of school and about to study in yeshiva, how it was made very clear by my rabbis that as bochurim (yeshiva students) we had to get, not just away from our families, not just out of town, but out of the country in order to immerse ourselves in study. Many children were sent overseas even earlier, as thirteen and fourteen-year-olds, just after barmitzvah. I know some who never saw their parents, brothers and sisters again, for years. 

One of the yeshivot I attended in Israel was great fun but rather ascetic in that we were  given  a  certain elitist designation, not allowed mirrors in the washrooms, and hardly allowed out on Shabbat, not even to go to other yeshivot, never mind visiting family. If one chose, instead, to study in a yeshiva in one’s hometown, no matter how good it was, one lost a perceived status that was difficult to regain.

Where did these unwritten laws and perceptions come from? Certainly, they have become part of the cultural authority of various modern groups and sects, but their roots may have had their origins in earlier times.

This article, based extensively on the research of Rabbi Professor Ephraim Kanarfogel[1] of Yeshiva University, deals with guidelines for early yeshiva schools going back perhaps to the eleventh and twelfth centuries, and is based on the work Sefer Chukei haTorah.


There is only one extant version of Sefer Chukei haTorah and it has three sections. The text is found in the Bodleian Library[2]. It reads like a manual or guideline for a strict pietist school system.
It’s an interesting work as it has many unknowns. For some reason, it is not cited by later rabbinic literature although two later texts are fairly similar to it.

Sefer Chukei haTorah was eventually only published in 1880, by Moritz Guedermann. Since then, over twenty-five scholars have argued and debated over its date of origin and general provenance. The work makes mention of Gaonim (rabbis from the Gaonic period 589-1038) and some believe it may have been written during that time. 

On the other hand, it shows resemblance to the midrash hagadol or great academy which was prevalent in southern France in the twelfth century.

The historian Salo Baron (1895-1989) writes that Sefer Chukei haTorah originated:

“ one of the northern communities under the impact of Provençal[3] mysticism or of German-Jewish Pietism [i.e., the mystical movement known as Chassidei Ashkenaz][4] of the school of Yehudah the Pious and Eleazar of Worms.”

This indicates that Sefer Chukei haTorah had intense mystical origins. 


Rabbi Professor Isadore Twersky (1930-1997) sums up the essence of  Sefer Chukei haTorah as being most progressive:

“It strives, by way of stipulations and suggestions, to achieve maximum learning on the part of the student and maximum dedication on the part of the teacher. It operates with such progressive notions as determining the occupational aptitude of students, arranging small groups in order to enable individual attention, grading the classes in order not to stifle individual progress.

The teacher is urged to encourage free debate and discussion among students, arrange periodic review...utilize the vernacular in order to facilitate comprehension. Above all, he is warned against insincerity and is exhorted to be wholly committed to his noble profession.”[5]

Sefer Chukei haTorah also stresses that teachers be completely committed to their teaching while in class and not allow anything to distract them. Even the Dean may not interrupt the teacher while he is engaged in his work with the students.

These are, as R. Twersky describes, very progressive pedagogic measures particularly for a school system some eight centuries ago.


However, one can argue that Sefer Chukei haTorah also encouraged strict ascetic practices as well. It tells how the sons of the Cohanim and Leviyim were ‘consecrated’ and expected to study in these schools full time, although this was not enforced. Designated scholars would also study full time – and, importantly, the communal responsibility to study Torah was considered to be vicariously discharged through these students. The students are not just called students, but perushim, or separatists who have been ‘consecrated’ to distance themselves from not just the outside world, but even from their own families.

Kanarfogel writes:

“The most novel position of this document calls for the establishment of quasi-monastic study halls for perushim (lit., those who are separate), dedicated students who would remain totally immersed in their Torah studies for a period of seven years. Elementary-level students would be taught in separate structures for a period of up to seven years, in preparation for their initiation into the ranks of the perushim. The formal initiation took place when the student was thirteen, although it could be postponed (or perhaps renounced) until age sixteen.”

This makes a total of fourteen years of study within these institutions.

The fact that Kanarfogal, who is most articulate in his use of words, refers to ‘quasi-monastic study halls for perushim’ is significant because he suggests a possible non-Jewish ascetic influence.

Elsewhere, Kanarfogel writes about the Tosafist’s (also active during the same period - around the twelfth and thirteenth centuries) whose analytical style of dialectics is referred to by the Sefer Chassidim as ‘dialectica shel goyim’ or dialectics of the non-Jews. He shows how the signature analytical style of the Tosafists may have been adopted by Jews influenced by the culture of dialectics popular in Christian France.

Rabbi Professor Yaakov Elman shows many earlier examples of influences from the surrounding outside culture which were prevalent during the times of the Babylonian Talmud. A significant example is that of Jewish women who opted for stricter observances when it came to the laws of family purity, so as not to be spiritually upstaged by their more ascetic Zoroastrian neighbours.

If Kanarfogel is correct, it is possible that both the dialectic style of the Tosafists and the ascetic approach to education that we see in Sefer Chukei haTorah, may both have been influenced by the prevailing religious milieu as found within cathedral and monastic schools in Europe at that time.

Sefer Chukei haTorah discourages the classes taking place in the house of the academy head lest he is distracted by his wife. The classes must take place in the school of the perushim (the students who have separated). The academy head must remain with the students and not return home for the entire week. He may only return home for Shabbat.


Sefer Chukei haTorah reflects many ideas that are mentioned in Sefer Chassidim of the German Pietists (Chassidei Ashkenaz).

Sefer Chassidim also expects the children of Cohanim and Leviyim to be sent away from home for long periods of time, in order to study Torah, or until they no longer have doubts. This is based on its unusual interpretation of a verse in Devarim recording Moshe’s blessing before he died:

“Who said of his father and mother, “I consider them not.” His brothers he disregarded, ignored his own children. Your precepts alone they observed and kept your covenant.”[6]

Kanarfogel says that he knows of no other text that interprets this verse the way Sefer Chassidim does, other than what appears to be its sister work, Sefer Chukei haTorah.

He writes:

“...the sons of kohanim and leviyyim are to be consecrated as youngsters to study Torah and to become perushim [separatists][7]. They are to remain separated from everyone including their families for seven years, while they study.”

Thus Sefer Chukei haTorah seems to follow a similar educational approach to that of Sefer Chassidim.


Based on this and other similarities[8] between Sefer Chukei haTorah and Sefer Chassidim, it is possible that the pietistic teachings of the former were influenced by the latter.

However, Kanarfogel suggests that some influences may also have been absorbed from the surrounding religious culture of Christian piety which was reflected in its educational system.

He writes:

“Another possible key to the origin of [Sefer Chukei haTorah] that has not been probed sufficiently lies in the practices and phrases that appear to be similar to Christian monastic ideals. The perushim, who are chosen originally through some form of parental consecration, ensconce themselves in their fortresses of study away from all worldly temptations.

They devote all their time in the holy work of God (melekhet shamayim), and serve as representatives of the rest of the community in this endeavour. It is possible that the [Sefer Chukei haTorah] represents an attempt to recast the discipline and devotion of Christian monastic education, which was certainly known to, and perhaps admired by, Jews, in a form compatible with Jewish practices and values.”


The following are some selected extracts from Sefer Chukei haTorah:


“Statute six. Melammedim [teachers][9] should not accept more than ten students in one class...”.


“Statute seven. It is incumbent upon the melammedim not to teach the children by heart, but from the written text....”


The heads of the academies should not linger in the synagogue for morning prayer until the prayer [service] ends, but only until...qedushah rabbah...”


“Statute five.....And if the supervisor sees amongst the youths a young man who is difficult and dense, he should bring him to his father and say to him: ‘The Lord should privilege your son to [do] good deeds, because he is too difficult for Torah study,’ lest the brighter students fall behind because of him.”


"Statute four. To collect from all Israel twelve deniers a year for the service of the study hall....”

“And it was ordained regarding the melammedim, that a head melamed can gather up to one hundred young men to teach them Torah, and take in for this one hundred litrin. He then hires for them ten melammedim for eighty litrin, and the remaining litrin will be his share. He does not teach any child but is the officer and supervisor over the [other] melammedim....”

“[The father of a five year old][10] informs the melammed...’I am telling you that you will teach my son during this month the structure of the letters, during the second month their vocalization, during the third month the combination of letters into words....If not, you will be paid as a furloughed [temporary][11]worker.’”


“The first statute. It is incumbent on the priests and Levites to separate one of their sons and consecrate him to Torah study, even while he is still in his mother’s womb. For they were commanded this at Mount Sinai as it is written, “they shall teach your statutes to Jacob. [Deut.33:10]....”

“[The father] accepts upon himself and says: ‘If my wife gives birth to a male, he shall be consecrated unto the Lord, and he will study His Torah day and night.’ On the eighth day, after the child has entered the covenant of circumcision....[t]he academy head shall place his hands on him and on the Pentateuch and say, ‘this one shall learn what is written in this,’ three times....”


“Similarly, all the children of Israel shall separate [one] from among their sons, because Jacob made such a separation, as it is written, “all that You shall give to me I will surely give the tenth [double verb] to You” [Gen. 28:22]. The verse speaks of two tithings, a tithe of money and a tithe of sons....”


“Statute two. To establish a study hall for the separated students [perushim]...near the synagogue. This house would be called the great study hall. 

For just as cantors are appointed to discharge for the many their obligation in prayer, full-time students are appointed to study Torah without end, to discharge for the many their obligation in Torah study, and the work of heaven will thereby not fall behind....”


“Statute three. The perushim may not leave the house for seven years. There they will eat and drink, and there they will sleep, and they should not speak in the study hall.
Wisdom will not reside in the student who comes and goes...

If the perushim leave the study hall before seven years, they must pay a set fine...which teaches that they imprison themselves in order to know the statutes of the Almighty....”


The first five extracts are indeed quite ‘progressive’ as per R. Twersky - but the last four appear extremely ascetic and do seem to reflect a monastic approach as per R. Kanarfogel, making his hypothesis rather convincing.


Jewish Education and Society in the High Middle Ages, by Ephraim Kanarfogel. Detroit. Wayne State University Press.

Michal Bar-Asher Siegal. Shared Worlds: Rabbinic and Monastic Literature. Ben Gurion University.

[1] Ephraim Kanarfogel,  A Monastic-like Setting for the Study of Torah: Sefer Huqqei ha-Torah.
[2] Opp. 342, fols. 196-199 (Neubauer 873).
[3] Pronounced ‘provensal’ Provence is part of southern France, and is usually associated with the bastion of Maimonidean rationalism. It did, however, also contain circles of mysticism. See Between Provence and Barcelona.
[4] Parenthesis mine.
[5] Isadore Twersky, Rabad of Posquiéres, 2nd ed. (Philidelphia: Jewish Publication Society 1980, p. 25.
[6] Deuteronomy 33:9. It is interesting to note that the next verse,  verse 10 reads:  “They shall teach Your ordinances to Jacob, and Your Torah to Israel” and verse 11 reads: “May the Lord bless his army”. It is possible that this interpretation of Sefer Chassidim may be the originator of the notion that the students of Torah represent the mystical army that protects the Jewish people. (Interpretation mine.)
[7] Parenthesis mine.
[8] Kanarfogel adds that similar sentiments were also expressed in the Sefer Chassidim of Chassidei Ashkenaz, that students of different levels should not be included together in one combined class as both the bright and the weaker students would suffer.
[9] Parenthesis mine.
[10] Parenthesis mine.
[11] Parenthesis mine.

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