The Duty to Know: Nineteenth-Century Jewish Catechisms and Manuals and the Making of Jewish Religious Knowledge

In 1878 Moritz Daniel Oppenheim (1800–1882), probably the most famous nineteenth-century German-Jewish painter, created a work entitled The Heder, or Jewish Elementary School, which re-imagined his first school in Hanau near Frankfurt am Main in the early 1800s.

The Heder (1878) by Moritz Daniel Oppenheim, via the Jewish Museum, New York

In his memoirs, written only a few years later, he described this school as a

longish chamber with a low ceiling next to a small courtyard . . . Alongside the wall was a small bench not much higher than a pair of shoes; boys and girls, the children of the Jewish quarter, sitting there until called upon, one by one, to the teacher sitting in an old chair. On the desk in front of the teacher was a table with the Hebrew alphabet, which the children could only see if they climbed on a brick.1

This rather informal school setting was not unusual for early modern education. Similar one-room schools for younger children were as well common in the Christian society, especially for the children of the poor or in rural areas. What makes Oppenheim’s painting so fascinating is that by the time he had recreated his childhood memory, the organizational framework of Jewish education in Germany had changed entirely.

The heder (literally “chamber”), a private institution run by the teacher in his own home and employed by the children’s parents, had been replaced by Jewish elementary schools or supplementary religious schools run by the community. These last had gained relevance since the 1830s, as more and more Jewish children attended local public schools, which in the German lands remained Christian in character and included—down to this day—Christian religious instruction. Jewish children were exempted from these classes and either gained knowledge on Judaism at home or attended community-run religious schools on Wednesday afternoons and Sundays. Although some public schools opened their doors to local Jewish teachers or rabbis, Jewish religious instruction remained mainly outside the public school system.

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This kind of setting for Jewish education could be found in most nineteenth-century Central and West European states as well as in the Unites States. In the German-Jewish case, my focus here, three forces shaped this new educational setting: the Haskalah or Jewish enlightenment and its educational program; the process of emancipation and the significance that education and schooling assumed within it; and changing societal attitudes toward education in general and what children and young adults should learn and know.

The Haskalah challenged traditional notions of Jewish learning and teaching. Maskilim, or Jewish enlighteners, reinvented the Jewish school, broadened its curriculum by integrating non-Jewish knowledge, and promoted the education of girls and women. They established a new literary canon in Hebrew and German, a library of the Haskalah, and laid the foundation for a new kind of educational and instructional literature that would continue to flourish in the nineteenth century but be published mostly in German.

Until emancipation, all matters of Jewish education were governed by the community and the family. As a part of communal autonomy, Jewish education was outside the state’s reach. Emancipation legislation altered the official status of and legal framework for Jewish education. State supervision was imposed to ensure compulsory education; the establishment of community schools that served all school-age children was mandated; and formal religious and moral instruction was introduced. The interest of the state in the education of its subjects was part of a broader matrix of state reforms that extended the reach of the state in the field of education, leading to the establishment of public education, from elementary school to the modern university. In the Jewish case, the state’s interest also drew on the prejudice that Judaism was “morally inferior” and “unproductive,” that Jews had to be elevated through education.

Emerging in this context, modern Jewish religious instruction focused on Bible studies and Hebrew instruction, and it usually included a systematic introduction to the Jewish religion. Jewish catechisms and manuals served this new kind of instruction and became quite common in German-speaking Europe, with more than 100 such books appearing in the nineteenth century. These books not only taught what a Jew ought to know but embraced the duty to know, based on the presumption that knowing was a precondition of Jewish faith and practice.

Thus, modern Jewish religious instruction differed significantly from that in the heder. The latter had followed two cycles of Jewish life, the weekly Torah portion (Parashat ha-Shavua) and the Jewish calendar. The calendar introduced children to the holidays and religious practices. Some teachers also used the prayer book, or Siddur, and if available the Mahzor—a special prayer book for the high holidays. Yet the heder was shaped by oral practices, by recitation and repetition.2 The teacher recited the respective weekly portion together with the rabbinical interpretation. In fact, the Torah was studied through the lens of rabbinical thought, mostly in Yiddish, rather than directly. The major purpose of such efforts was to prepare the Jewish child, or rather the Jewish boy, to fulfill his obligation to study Torah,3 and perhaps to enable him to eventually become a Torah scholar. As Oppenheim’s painting suggests, girls were not necessarily excluded from the heder, but the scope of their education was limited and usually excluded Torah study.4

Oppenheim’s painting features a number of books, some of them used by students, although rather unenthusiastically. Among them might be a Siddur, a grammar book or a Chumash, an edition of the Torah, and some prophetic books. The last might have been in the form of a Tsene u-Reno or “Women’s Bible,” which included the biblical text with a commentary in lashon ashekenaz (Yiddish). It is even possible that one of the books in Oppenheim’s painting was a teaching aid associated with the Haskala.5

Jewish systematic textbooks employed many formats and ranged from 30 to 300 pages, with about a third using the catechetic structure most common in the first half the nineteenth-century. These books served school and home. They were mostly meant to be used by teachers and parents, but also by advanced students pursuing self-study. Some shorter publications addressed younger children directly, often to prepare them for new ceremonies such as public examinations at the end of the school year and confirmation ceremonies. Some educators and religious leaders introduced the later to replace the bar mitzva, while others promoted confirmation as its modern re-invention, which now included girls.6

Depending on the relevant emancipation laws and censorships rules, which began to loosen in the early nineteenth century, school books were often subject to state approval. Most significant was the Habsburg Monarchy, where Herz Homberg’s Bne Zion (Vienna, 1812) became the official textbook for Jewish religious instruction, although it remained controversial and did not prevent other authors from issuing their own.7

Nineteenth-century Jewish catechisms and manuals featured some common characteristics. Most first introduced the idea of religion in general and Judaism as a revealed religion in particular. They followed with a discussion of Revelation as such and Written and Oral Torah as the foundation of Judaism. Only a few reform-leaning authors questioned the validity of Oral Torah and thus of the Talmud and Halacha, Jewish law.8

In their efforts to present a systematic account of Judaism, most authors embraced those elements of Jewish tradition that embodied a systematic order, such as the Ten Commandments; principles of faith (ikkarim); and the doctrines of duty toward God, oneself, and the other. Ikkarim—such as those by Maimonides (1135/38–1204) and Joseph Albo (c. 1380–1444)—resembled a Christian creed but never gained a similar status in Jewish tradition. They had originated from the encounter with medieval Islamic philosophy and theology and always remained contested.9

Most authors did not envision their books as a single source of knowledge about Judaism and Jewish tradition but expected the reader to reach beyond the book, to study it alongside the Hebrew Bible and other works of Jewish literature. This expectation was evident not only in passages that instructed the reader and especially teachers and parents how to use the book but through references to the bible and, to a lesser extent, rabbinical literature. These references and commentaries included direct quotes in German or, less often, in both German and Hebrew.

One illuminating example is the catechism Dat Moshe ve-Yehudit oder Jüdisch-Mosaischer Religionsunterricht für die Israelitische Jugend (The Law of Moses and Jewish Customs or Jewish-Mosaic Religious Instruction for the Israelite Youth), published in 1838 by Salomon Plessner (1797–1883), an orthodox teacher and orator.

Title page of Salomon Plessner’s Dat Moshe ve-Yehudit (Berlin, 1838), courtesy of the National Library of Israel, Jerusalem

Plessner opened his books with an elaborative introduction, which presented his understanding of Jewish education and religious instruction. Here he committed himself to the educational principles established by the Haskalah and to Jewish tradition alike. The title of his book, a Mishnah quote, underscored his perspective. It referred to the Law of Moses, treasured by reform-oriented pedagogues and rabbis of the time as the foundation of Jewish morality and to Jewish customs, encompassing the entirety of Jewish law and local customs and thus the rabbinical tradition.

The Hebrew title of Plessner’s book referred to Jewish marital law and to the binding character of Jewish law for men and women, and it could be read as promoting the education of all Jewish children, boys and girls. Almost all the new books addressed both sexes and often included the phrase “for both sexes” in the title. Plessner devoted much of his introduction to the religious education of girls and women, which was supposed to include Torah and Bible study, although not necessarily in Hebrew. At the same time, he distinguished the scope and content of girl’s education from what Jewish boys should learn.

I will discuss Plessner’s book together with others examples of German-Jewish catechisms and manuals in more detail in my presentation at the conference, and consider the various modes of systematizing and classifying Jewish knowledge through these handbooks. I will discuss the role played by the catechetic format, the most dominant textual mode of Christian religious instruction. Finally, I will highlight how these books redefined access to Jewish knowledge while at the same time reshaping the very notion of Judaism and Jewish knowledge by imposing new orders of knowledge and describing Judaism in the terms of enlightenment, emancipation, and modern scholarship.

Kerstin von der Krone is a Research Fellow at the GHI in Washington, DC. Her Twitter handle is @kerstinvdkrone.

  1. Published decades later by his grandson, Alfred Oppenheim, as Moritz Oppenheim: Erinnerungen (Frankfurt am Main, 1924). ↩︎
  2. Robert Liberles, “Childhood and Education,” in Jewish daily life in Germany, 1618–1945, ed. Marion A Kaplan (Oxford, UK, 2005), 41–53. ↩︎
  3. “Let not this book of the Teaching cease from your lips, but recite it day and night, so that you may observe faithfully all that is written in it.” Josua 1:8. ↩︎
  4. Anne Sheffer, “Beyond Heder, Haskalah, and Honeybees: Genius and Gender in the Education of Seventeenth and Eighteenth-Century Judeo-German Women,” in Recovering the Role of Women: Power and Authority in Rabbinic Jewish Society, Peter J. Haas (Atlanta, GA, 1992), 85–109. ↩︎
  5. Readers such as David Friedländer, Lesebuch für jüdische Kinder (Berlin, 1779); biblical anthologies such as Aaron Wolfsohn, Avtalyon (Berlin, 1805); and elementary school textbooks like the trilingual Moses Hirsch Bock, Israelitischer Kinderfreund (Berlin 1811). ↩︎
  6. Benjamin Maria Baader, Gender, Judaism, and Bourgeois Culture in Germany, 1800–1870 (Bloomington, IN, 2006), 146–51. ↩︎
  7. Rachel Manekin, “The moral education of the Jewish youth: the case of Bne Zion“, in The Enlightenment in Bohemia: Religion, Morality and Multiculturalism, ed. Ivo Cerman, Rita Krueger, and Susan Reynolds (Oxford, UK, 2011), 273–93. ↩︎
  8. Kerstin von der Krone, “Old and New Orders of Knowledge in Modern Jewish History,” Bulletin of the German Historical Institute 59 (2016): 59–82. ↩︎
  9. Menachem Kellner, Dogma in Medieval Jewish Thought: From Maimonides to Abravanel (Oxford, UK, 2004). ↩︎
Suggested Citation: Kerstin von der Krone, “The Duty to Know: Nineteenth-Century Jewish Catechisms and Manuals and the Making of Jewish Religious Knowledge,” History of Knowledge, June 3, 2018,