Rabbi Prof. David Golinkin
The holiday of Shavout, which we celebrate this week, did not receive much attention in rabbinic literature. There is no tractate about it in the Mishnah or Talmud and all of its laws are contained in one paragraph in the Shulhan Arukh (Orah Hayyim 494). Even so, a number of beautiful customs are associated with Shavout and here we shall discuss one of them.
Around the twelfth century a custom developed in Germany of bringing a child to school for the first time on Shavout. Here is the description found in Sefer Harokeah (parag. 296) written by R. Eleazar of Worms (1160-1230):
It is the custom of our ancestors that they bring children to learn [for the first time] on Shavout since the Torah was given then
At sunrise on Shavout, they bring the children, in keeping with the verse as morning dawned, there was thunder and lightning (Exodus 19:16). And one covers the children with a cloak from their house to the synagogue or to the rabbis house, in keeping with the verse and they stood underneath the mountain (ibid., v. 17). And they put him on the lap of the rabbi who teaches them, in keeping with the verse as a nurse carries an infant (Numbers 11:12).
And they bring the slate upon which is written Moses commanded us the Torah (Deut. 33:4), may the Torah be my occupation, and The Lord called to Moses (Lev. 1:1). And the rabbi reads every letter of the alef-bet and the child repeats after him, and [the rabbi reads all of the above and the child repeats after him].
And the rabbi puts a little honey on the slate and the child licks the honey from the letters with his tongue. And then they bring the honey cake upon which is inscribed The Lord God gave me a skilled tongue to know
(Isaiah 50: 4-5), and the rabbi reads every word of these verses and the child repeats after him. And then they bring a peeled hard-boiled egg upon which is written Mortal, feed your stomach and fill your belly with this scroll
and I ate it and it tasted as sweet as honey to me (Ezekiel 3:3). And the rabbi reads every word and the child repeats after him. And they feed the child the cake and the egg, for they open the mind
Prof. Ivan Marcus devoted an entire volume to the explanation of this ceremony (Rituals of Childhood, New Haven, 1996). Here we shall only stress that this beautiful ceremony includes three of the basic principles of Jewish education:
First of all, one must commence Jewish education at a very young age. In a fourteenth-century illustration of this ceremony in the Leipzig Mahzor, one can see that the children are three, four or five years old, and this was also the custom among oriental Jews in modern times. A song by Yehoshua Sobol and Shlomo Bar relates that in the town of Tudra in the Atlas mountains they would take a child who had reached the age of five
into the synagogue, and write in honey on a wooden slate from ?' to ?'. From this we learn that we too must begin the Jewish education of Israeli children at a very young age when their minds can absorb much information.
Secondly, we learn from here about the importance of ceremonies in the learning process. They could have brought the child into the heder and simply begun to teach, but that would not have left a lasting impression upon the child. The intricate ceremony transforms the first day of school into a special experience that will remain with him for the rest of his life.
Thirdly, there is an attempt to make learning enjoyable. A child who licks honey from a slate and who eats honey cake and a hard-boiled egg on the first day of class will immediately understand that the Torah is as sweet as honey. From this we learn that we must teach children in a gentle fashion and make learning enjoyable in order that they learn Torah with love.