A teacher known as “Binyomin Hersh the Beard,” Biała Bielec, Poland, 1920s. Photograph by Alter Kacyzne. The photographer’s inscription: “The longest beard in Biała, which students have more than once nailed to the table while he dozes off. That’s why he has such wonderful, sad eyes.” (Forward Association/YIVO)

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(Heb., ḥeder; Yid., kheyder; lit., “room”), the most widely accepted and widespread elementary educational framework among East European Jewry since the Middle Ages. Study in heder was considered an integral part of the process of raising and socializing a Jewish child, including the inculcation of Jewish religious and cultural values through imparting basic knowledge of the canonical sources—Torah, Mishnah, Talmud—and of the liturgy. Pupils spent the entire day in heder, beginning with morning prayers, followed by study of various subjects, and ending with evening prayers. (In certain areas it was customary to give pupils a midday break of one or two hours.) Both boys and girls studied in many heders (Heb., ḥadarim), either together or separately. There were no criteria for acceptance to heder, and no consideration was given to disparities in the intellectual and cognitive abilities of the students.

Children and teacher in a heder, Warsaw, ca. 1917. (YIVO)

Heders were generally divided into three levels, although other systems of division were also known—for example, in Galicia. At the first level, the beginners’ heder (ḥeder dardeke or ḥeder ‘irbuvya) was usually dedicated to the study of the Hebrew alphabet and to developing reading skills in the prayer book, the Pentateuch, and the Pentateuch’s Aramaic translation, Targum Onkelos. (Writing was not taught in most heders until the end of the nineteenth century.) At the second level, the ḥeder ḥumash, pupils studied the Pentateuch more intensively—with Rashi’s commentary, and with the aid of sections of the weekly Torah readings translated from Hebrew into Yiddish. In this heder, certain chapters from the Early Prophets were also studied, and pupils made their initial acquaintance with the Babylonian Talmud.

In the third level, the ḥeder gemara’, selected chapters of the Babylonian Talmud with Rashi’s commentary and the glosses of the Tosafists were studied in more depth. On Fridays, pupils were tested by their teacher, or melamed, and on the Sabbath they were expected to present what they had learned during the preceding week to the father of the household or to a learned member of the community who had been asked by the father to fill in for him. In this way it was possible to track a student’s progress and to determine when it was appropriate for him to move up to the next level. Nevertheless, not everyone who completed the first or second levels was integrated into a higher level—sometimes because of intellectual or cognitive limitations, sometimes on account of economic circumstances. That said, most students did acquire basic Hebrew reading skills and some familiarity with biblical narratives and the Talmud. In general, even those who reached the third level completed their studies at the age of 12 or 13, and relatively few—those with a high intellectual potential—went on to study in a yeshiva.

Students of the Talmud, Brod, Czechoslovakia, ca. 1935-1938. Photograph by Roman Vishniac. (© Mara Vishniac Kohn, courtesy The International Center of Photography)

Most heders were characterized by harsh physical conditions, disparities in the intellectual and cognitive abilities of the students, and, frequently, teachers of limited didactic abilities. Disciplinary problems were solved in various ways. Children who had difficulty learning or who had problems concentrating spent a relatively large amount of time in free play, or helping the teacher’s wife with her housework. In some cases, the teacher and his helper (behelfer) resorted to corporal punishment (the strap and the like), which became an inseparable part of both heder life and folk memory.

The heder also reflected—and even preserved, to a large extent—the socioeconomic structure of the community. Families of the local elite were wont to hire private teachers who taught in the family home rather than send their children to a heder. Orphans, or children of poor families who were unable to pay the normal tuition fees, studied in a Talmud Torah, and most communities had a Talmud Torah society that was responsible for raising funds to run this institution, to hire teachers, and even to test the students. From this we can conclude that the heders served mainly the middle class. Heders were privately owned by teachers and were located in their homes. Anyone who so desired could open his own heder and run it as he wished. Since heders were private institutions, communities did not usually establish clear criteria for their certification, for teachers’ qualifications, or for the schools’ operating procedures, the desired teaching methods to be employed, or the required level of knowledge to be attained. Nevertheless there were communities in which basic rules were set that dictated the maximum number of pupils allowed in each heder and provided for some degree of supervision by the local rabbi over the curriculum. These rules were often not enforced, however. The age of the students was also not uniform: in some heders pupils began at age three, while in others they started when they were older. Similarly, some pupils stopped studying after only a few years, while others continued until the age of bar mitzvah (13).

The Melamed

Heder teachers are consistently portrayed as men of little knowledge and severely limited pedagogic and didactic abilities. Exceptions were rare. Not only this, but melameds were usually part of the lowest socioeconomic stratum in Jewish society. The skilled and talented among the community’s members found employment in other areas, such as commerce, in which the income level and social prestige were relatively high. One who had high intellectual ability preferred instead to be a rabbi, in the local community or elsewhere; a judge in a rabbinical court; a magid (itinerant preacher); or a teacher in a yeshiva. For this reason and because working as a heder teacher did not require special training, the position of melamed became a last resort for some of those who did not find a niche in the general employment system.

Teacher and students in a heder, Lublin, Poland. Alter Kacyzne, 1920s. Gelatin silver print. YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, New York. (Forward Association/YIVO)

The melamed’s income was pitifully low, because of both the basically low tuition required and the large supply of teachers and heders, which was usually greater than the demand. This led to stiff competition between teachers, reductions in tuition prices, and a weak payment ethic among many parents. Consequently, teachers were forced to increase their numbers of students in order to maintain their income—which is why, in many heders, class size exceeded the maximum allowed by communal regulations. In the majority of cases, this tactic still did not enable teachers to achieve an acceptable income level, and many teachers sought other means of employment to supplement their income. In times of economic crisis, this situation was exacerbated because many of those who lost their sources of livelihood became teachers, at least temporarily. Against this background, one can understand why the level of knowledge and the pedagogic and didactic skill levels of many teachers were very low.


A heder for girls, Łaskarzew, Poland, 1920s. Photograph by Alter Kacyzne. (Forward Association/YIVO)

To a certain extent, the heder was perceived as the most authentic reflection, as well as the most effective guardian, of the traditional Jewish ethos and way of life. Any change in its curriculum or agenda was met with suspicion and usually could not take place without the approval of the local rabbinic authorities. Thus, until the end of the eighteenth century the heder preserved its traditional character. In the course of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, however, substantive changes occurred in the character of the heder, resulting both from the increased involvement of government authorities in the functioning of the traditional Jewish educational system and from cultural changes that occurred within East European Jewish society itself. State intervention took the form of attempts to raise the level of teachers’ qualifications by requiring them to obtain teaching certificates; to include study of the official language of the state in the curriculum; and to synchronize the calendar of the heder with that of the general school system.

The process of modernization and the movements of Enlightenment and nationalism, which were widespread, also had a decisive influence. The increase in the number of students whose parents, or who themselves, preferred study in either Jewish or public schools to a heder; the steadily increasing tendency among Jewish youth, both male and female, to pursue higher education; and the penetration of socialist and nationalist ideologies into Jewish circles caused a significant shrinkage in the number of heders, on the one hand, and the appearance of “progressive” and Zionist heders, on the other. Nevertheless, in conservative circles such as Hasidic society, the heder remained a central component in the Jewish educational system.

Suggested Reading

Simha Assaf, Mekorot le-toldot ha-ḥinukh be-Yisra’el, ed. Shmuel Glick (Jerusalem 2001/02); Yosef Goldstein, “‘Ha-Ḥeder ha-metukan’ be-Rusyah ke-vasis le-ma‘arekhet ha-ḥinukh ha-tsiyonit,” ‘Iyunim be-ḥinukh 45 (1986): 147–157; Avraham Greenbaum, “‘Ḥeder ha-banot’ u-vanot be-ḥeder ha banim be-mizraḥ eropah lifne milḥemet ha-‘olam ha-ri’shonah,” Ḥinukh ve-historyah n.v. (1999): 297–303; David Roskies, Heder: Primary Education among East European Jews; A Selected and Annotated Bibliography of Published Sources (New York, 1977); Zevi Scharfstein, Ha-Ḥeder be-ḥaye ‘amenu (Tel Aviv 1951); Shaul Stampfer, “Heder Study, Knowledge of Torah and the Maintenance of Social Stratification in Traditional East European Jewish Society,” Studies in Jewish Education 3 (1988): 271–289; Shaul Stampfer, “Gender Differentiation and Education of the Jewish Woman in Nineteenth-Century Eastern Europe,” Polin 7 (1992): 63–87; Steven J. Zipperstein, “‘Ḥeder’ mishelanu be-Rusyah be-re’shit ha-me’ah ha-‘esrim, in Mi-Vilnah li-Yerushalayim, ed. David Assaf et al., pp. 153–165 (Jerusalem 2002); Steven J. Zipperstein, “Transforming the Heder: Maskilic Politics in Imperial Russia,” in Jewish History, ed. Ada Rapoport-Albert and Steven Zipperstein, pp. 87–109 (London, 1988).



Translated from Hebrew by Barry Walfish