In Talmudic times, Jewish children began their Hebrew education with Vayikra, the third book of the Torah. Its subject-matter was meal, animal and bird sacrifices. What a choice of text-book for young children! But the sages said: “Small children are pure. The sacrifices are pure. Let those who are pure come and occupy themselves with things that are pure!” (Lev. R. 7).
Yet Nathan Morris, in his history of Jewish education (The Jewish School, 1937, ch. 9), remarks, “With a little ingenuity, of which the rabbis had no lack, no less cogent ‘reasons’ could be discovered why children should begin with almost any other part of the Bible”.
He quotes Wilhelm Bacher, who thought the custom arose in Jerusalem in the schools set up for the children of the kohanim, but says that even if such schools existed, how could the custom be relevant in post-Temple times to non-kohanic families?
When the custom was first recorded, in the 2nd century CE, there was no uniform practice, and various schools began with different Biblical books. Morris’ own view is that after the destruction of the Temple there was a fear that people might get used to the absence of the Temple, priesthood and sacrifices, and the hope of restoring Jewish independence and rebuilding the Temple had to be emphasised. This justified teaching Vayikra, reinforced by the reference to acquainting pure children with pure thoughts.
Hertz comments, “We may well judge this Book by its influence in the education of Israel. As a result of its stern legislation, Israel’s sons and daughters were freed from the ignoble and the vile – from all brutality and bestiality.”
Modern curriculum ideas might question Vayikra as a text-book, but the fact is that the one subject which is too difficult for today’s parents, teachers and society is morality. Because education is said to be about choice, pupils are taught to be open-minded. With what result? It has been said that “some people are so open-minded that their brains fall out”.
Of course we must be tolerant of other people and respect them despite the choices they make. But the rabbis’ choice of Vayikra tells us to stand up for what we believe in – truth, justice, peace, goodness, decency, modesty – and give unambiguous guidance.