Evolution Of Jewish Education

By Rabbi Dovid Abenson. Are our children being rushed through crucial basic learning skills before being propelled into learning Chumash, Nach and Talmud? Or – are they seeing Torah as a fog of confusion and illiteracy.

As an educational consultant for Shaar HaTalmud, an online yeshiva based service, which works with children and adults all over the world, I teach language and learning skills which haven’t been mastered in school. From my experiences with students, I see it is simply not enough to learn Torah with a translation, memorized or not, that teaches students the basic meaning of the posukim in English. From my visits to many Jewish communities, I have learned that children who do not have a firm and clear grasp of the actual hebrew text and cannot appreciate the significance of every letter, will grow up with foggy understanding of fundamental Torah concepts – with potentially disastrous consequences.” 

Often, the fog sets in early, when little children are taught kriah (Hebrew reading). Statistics show that roughly 30 percent of children are learning to read well in school, and 40 percent require tutoring to bring their reading up to par. The remaining 30 percent are managing to get by, but their reading skills aren’t what they should be. There are people whom I have found to be going through life without ever having really mastered the alef-beis. By using all sorts of desperate tactics, they manage to cover up for it well enough to reach high school or beyond without anyone discovering their deficiency – until a crisis hits.

I am not talking about students who haven’t had the privilege of a Jewish education. The above statistics refer to Talmidim in mainstream frum Jewish schools. Of course, the system being practiced in schools today is effective for many students who can read fluently by the time they start learning Chumash and Gemara. But it seems that a sizable minority aren’t keeping up, and some are slipping through the cracks unnoticed. I would like to raise awareness of this situation and offer an approach to detection and remediation that promises to put these students back on track with their learning.

We should be able to make it simple and clear. Every Talmud should have the clarity to teach others. How is such clarity achieved?

Take Shlomo HaMelech’s advice, “Teach the child according to his way.” Give the child basic learning tools, give him time to master them at his own thinking abilities. Then let him develop his own relationship with the Torah. Do all this without excessive pushing, make sure the child has enough downtime and adequate nutrition, and with Hashem’s help he will blossom.

We are not allowing students to develop as children anymore. Are we giving them adequate time to be able to play ball, and jump rope – or is the day made up mostly of learning time? Are our children under unnecessary pressure to advance quickly? The answer is yes. Pushing children to run before they can walk comes from non-Jewish sources, and it is mostly counter-productive. Many children aren’t getting the chance to grasp the basics with full clarity before they’re pushed on to the next phase. This generates anxiety, and children will naturally seek relief from anxiety in pursuits that engage the mind effortlessly and don’t confuse them, such as computer games and internet.

For basic kriah training, the Shaar HaTalmud program employs the Zobin Method, Rather than addressing “problems,”it aims to give students what they may have never had – a chance to learn kriah at their own pace. Usually, if the child hasn’t lost their motivation or been crushed, clarity can be achieved in about eight sessions.

Using this effective program, each student is given an in-depth evaluation, in which underdeveloped skills are pinpointed that may be hampering his academic learning, with remediation following quickly and efficiently. If tangible problems do exist – for example, vision problems or poor motor coordination, which can interfere with reading – they must be diagnosed and treated by the appropriate professional before attempting to teach reading.

There is no replacement for traditional kamatz alef ah, kamatz beis bah, etc, but the nekudos, ( the vowels ), must not be introduced until the child is completely fluent in the letters themselves, meaning he or she can rattle them off effortlessly, with no need to stop and think, no hesitation over any of the letters.

Although it is necessary to reach a certain minimal speed before moving on to the vowels, the training must be done in a relaxed fashion, with love and patience, never with relentless drilling. This is more than a matter of effective teaching. If children are thoroughly taught the letters, vowels, syllables, and Hebrew roots step by step, they will be on the right path to learning Torah with clarity. Instead of just memorizing the translation of the posukim, which gives them the general idea of what each posuk says, they will really understand the Hebrew, taking in every letter with its nuances and learning how to translate for themselves word by word.

When a child isn’t succeeding in learning Chumash, the first test should be his recognition of the letters. If his recognition is a little slow, the student will have difficulty with translation too. But really its just simple logic. At that speed of recognition, the child is still at the stage where he has to work to sound out the syllables. He cant possibly have built a vocabulary bank of his own; whatever vocabulary he has comes from memorization.

In fact, fluency in Hebrew reading needs to be at an even higher level than in English. You may have seen sentences in English where the middle letters of the words are all mixed up? (For example,“I cdluon’t dirve to wrok yseertady bcesuae of the sonw.”) As long as the first and last letters are in place, your brain can usually still formulate the word, getting the point of an English text without reading every word, or even if you miss a whole sentence or a paragraph. But in lashon hakodesh, every letter has vast significance. A missing vav, for instance, can distort the whole meaning.

I was once asked by a school principle to help a group of four-year-old’s who were having trouble learning vowels. The principle assured me that the boys knew alef-beis. It was true that they had learned the letters, but it took them two or three minutes to read them all off. They hadn’t yet reached fluency. If you start with vowels whilst the student is still working at recognizing the shapes and recalling the sounds of the letters, you’re overloading him.

The key to effective kriah teaching, is to start each new step only when the child is ready. Easy does it, and the tortoise wins the race.

But when is a child ready to start?

In England and America, as in Eretz Yisrael- they try to start at three. Unfortunately there is nowhere documented in the Torah where we are advised to do this, and sometimes it just doesn’t work. If you’re trying to teach a small child alef-beis and he starts fighting you, that’s a dangerous situation and it could cripple him for life. If the child is not ready to read, you simply cant teach him to read. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t put him down a class.

If you have thirty children in a class, you need thirty tracks for teaching alef-beis. I know this sounds radical and extreme. But the main problem with our chinuch today it that we are too quick to push the students ahead, and it results in children burning out at age twelve or thirteen. We need to move more gently. If reading were to begin around age six, students would pick it up in a few weeks. And they wouldn’t be having anxiety attacks about it, either, so you could still start Chumash around Chanukah time in first grade.

A crucial piece of advice given by my rebbi, Rav Matisyahu Salamon, shlita, is regarding homework. He paskens that school should be a place to learn and home should be a place of refuge and time with family. When young children have to review alef-beis sheets at six or seven o’clock in the evening, it can cause tension in the home a pressure for the child.

Sometimes reading becomes unnecessarily complicated and a whole chain of anxiety occurs, with terrible consequences, because the child doesn’t know how to read. Yet reading can be very rewarding if you just give the child a fair chance to work at his or her natural pace.

Mrs. Gold, an educator in a school in the US, approached me and told me that her daughter, who’s now fifteen, has always had reading difficulties “She managed to learn to read English, but for some reason she could never get the Hebrew reading straight. From pre-1A through tenth grade she was tutored by phenomenal, top-notch tutors, yet she never really caught on”.

When Mrs Gold heard about the program, they decided to give it a try. Since their location was distant from my home base in Montreal, I coached her via Skype video-conferencing. Her daughter had been labeled dyslexic, yet after five sessions, she was reading Hebrew fluently. Mrs. Gold tells me on a scale from one to ten, her daughter went from two to ten. They thought it was a miracle.

Reading, wonderful as it is, is only a preliminary skill. Reading is not enough. We have to teach the child to think, But when you ask a student to think, they protest that they cant. I’ve worked with boys aged fourteen, fifteen, eighteen twenty, forty- I even had a sixty-year-old man come to me- saying ‘I cant learn, I cant read and translate the pasuk for myself. I tell them ‘You can learn! Look!’ And I show them the way. Many of them are learning for the first time how to think. How to consider the posukim and the meforshim with their own mind. Learning doesn’t mean regurgitation what the teacher has fed them- but rather, can I, twelve-year-old Naftali or Rochel, understand it?

When I first met 18 year old “Shloime”,his hebrew reading, chumash/rashi and gemara skills were very poor. He was not able to learn with a chavrusa. He lacked the basic vocabulary and techniques in learning. We started right from the beginning and slowly made our way through he vital skills needed to learn posukim, mishnayos and gemara. After learning daily for an hour each session, after 6 weeks Shloime started learning with a chavrusa like the rest of the bochurim and shiurim became enjoyable for the first time in his life. Once he understood what he was learning, a new world was opened up for him.

I believe the last thing we have to accomplish before Mashiach comes is that our Torah and avodah should be b’simchah. So many things have been blamed for holding back the geulah. But what does the Torah say about it? ‘Because you did not serve Hashem, your G-d, with joy.’

If we would work on this aspect- put the tools in the student’s hands, engage their minds, help them with the development of their own learning skills- rather than stuffing them with information, we’d see the simchas hachayim that is missing. Then they’d experience the joy of learning and the joy of Yiddishkeit.

Otherwise, they’d rather play a video game.

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  1. Thanks for this wonderful insightful article!! You are so right!! We should all take a look at our beautiful children. Wouldn’t it be great if we would wait a bit and be certain they are all on the same page before we go pushing everyone ahead. Reading is a serious foundation for our children’s life. I bet this would make a big dent in our children at risk too!

  2. yes, agreed this artical is so true.

    I believe a lot of times teachers go on so they could finish what they must in the school set up, but a lot of times dont evan realize that there are so many kids strugling to read properly. i think they need to and must take there time in teaching slowly and make sure every child has got it right before going on!

  3. I understand your email but question why we are spending so much Federal funds on supplemental programs for such little time per week of education.

  4. The problem is that tutoring in the Zobin method can run about $70 an hour.

    The permanent solution to the tuition crises is the public option.

    School districts have surprising discretion in what the Court has called the “play in the joints” between the Free Exercise Clause and the Establishment Clause (Locke v. Davey, 2004). They may include sectarian credit in awarding diplomas. (Lanner v. Wimmer, D. Utah 1978). Some states codes even have expressive requirements for the offering of Biblical Hebrew (Texas Administrative Code §74.36). We can help our kids and stay within the Constitution.

    One day, the district will offer instruction in Hebrew and Aramaic so that all our children will have the benefit of free tutoring in kriah.

    One day, the district will offer nonpublic educators free training in professional practices, so that all our children will have the benefit of differentiated instruction, teaching tailored to the needs of the individual student.

    The current political climate encourages alternate methods of delivering education. There has been no more propitious time to permanently solve the tuition crises that is breaking the backs of our families and depriving our children of the opportunities that all Americans enjoy.

    Disclaimer-I do not speak for the district. Just for its future.

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