An exciting discovery was announced in Jerusalem this week. A 2,000-year old chalkstone with seven rows of writing has been uncovered. The text appears to be a merchant’s accounting record, which indicates a high level of literacy among ordinary people in Second Temple times.
This week also saw the publication of PIRLS 21 – the international survey of reading and literacy skills. Surprisingly, Israel has slipped down many places in international rankings since the last survey in 2016, though England has managed to rise to fourth place!
Since biblical times, literacy for the Children of Israel was not just for the elite. Next week we will be celebrating the Giving of the Torah on Shavuot. In presenting the Torah to the people, G-d says:
“You will be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Shemot 19:6)
The late Rabbi Lord Sacks observed that the word “hieroglyphics” means “priestly script” because in the ancient world only the priests were taught to read and write. In commanding us to be a kingdom of priests, the Torah is saying we should be a nation of universal literacy.
There are many examples of how this was implemented.
In the book of Judges (8:14), we read how Gideon, on returning from battle, captured a boy from the town of Succot. When Gideon interrogated him, the boy was able to write down a list of the seventy-seven leaders and officials of Succot.
The Talmud (Sanhedrin 94b) states that in the time of King Hezekiah, Jewish education and literacy had progressed to a remarkable degree. When they performed the biblical equivalent of an OFSTED Inspection and tested the country from Givat to Antipatris, every adult or young person they examined was well versed in the complex laws of purity.
Rabbi Joshua ben Gamla, is credited with founding universal Jewish schooling as far back as the first century C.E. The Talmud (Bava Batra 21a) relates that he noticed that not every parent was capable of teaching their child. He therefore established a school system in every town and province for children aged six and upwards.
Today, access to Jewish knowledge has never been more straightforward. Thousands of books are available at the touch of a button. Practically every major Jewish classic is now accessible in translation. Podcasts and zoom shiurim abound, and your rabbis are willing and waiting to teach all comers!
The literate Jew has been a hallmark of our people for thousands of years. Let’s take the opportunity to upgrade our Torah ratings as we celebrate together this Shavuot.