Q. When did compulsory education commence among Jews?
A. There is a difference between knowledge and education.
According to the Torah, everyone must have knowledge, but the Shema ordains that this is to be imparted by the father. If, however, a child had a father who was unable to teach him, or if he was an orphan, there had to be community provision for education.
Possibly the people of Israel were the first to institute compulsory education for all. The system is attributed to Yehoshua ben Gamla, kohen gadol just before the revolt against the Romans. He is said to have prevented the Torah from being forgotten.
The Jerusalem Talmud on the other hand argues that Yehoshua was preceded by Shimon ben Shetach, who is said to have restored the Torah to its glory.
How can both men be credited with the same idea?
The answer could be that it began with Shimon ben Shetach and was consolidated by Yehoshua ben Gamla, who formulated a series of regulations governing teachers and pupils.
The subjects of study were both religious and secular – or rather, the overall theme was religious, which was a broad umbrella that covered all the things we today call secular like mathematics, anatomy, literature and language.
Religion was the overarching concern, since all wisdom and knowledge emanated from God and led a person to a feeling of awe at the grandeur of God’s Creation.
Q. Can a person be excommunicated from the Jewish people?
A. The short answer is no. The Talmud says that a Jew who has sinned is still a Jew.
There were various forms of ban imposed from the time of the Talmud onwards as communal punishments for offences of varying degrees of severity. The most serious effect was that a person was not allowed to participate in Jewish community or synagogue life. But though this brought hardship to the person concerned, they remained Jewish.
These days, if people bring Judaism and the Jewish people into grave disrepute, we may decide to deny them any official position or honour within the community, but they are still Jewish.
FINGERS & EARS.
Q. How can someone have the name “Ozni” (Num. 26:16), which means “my ear”?
A. To make your question more difficult, in Gen. 46:16 the same person, a son of Gad, is “Etzbon”, from “etzba”, a finger!
“Ozni” has a connotation of hearing; “Etzbon” is derived by some lexicographers from a root that means “handsome”. The two may originally have been nicknames.
In rabbinic thinking, the mention of ears and fingers teaches a moral lesson – the finger is long and thin and the ear has a convenient opening so that if something is said that you should not listen to, a finger in your ear prevents you from hearing.