"The forty years the Jews spent in the desert were forty years of solid Torah study a national Yeshiva."
And just what is a Yeshiva? It's a Torah school, or a Mesivta, or a Bais
Hamedrash, or a Cheder, or a Kollel. Whatever names it's been given, the goal of the Yeshiva has always been the same. The goal is to educate the Jews in the laws and thought of the Torah system for two reasons.
Aside from Yeshivos for those of school age, there have always been academies of higher Torah learning for the generation's sages. These academies were geared to providing definitive Halachic decisions as much as to producing scholars.
- So that they will be equipped to live full and proper Torah lives.
- So they will be prepared to educate the next generation.
Both of these types of Yeshiva have survived all the
hardship that history has thrown at the Jewish people, and they have kept us Jewish.
Nevertheless, while the basic goal has remained the same, there have been evolutionary changes to ensure that our timeless and borderless Torah will reach Jews in every time and place. For instance, throughout the first 500 years or so after Mt. Sinai (2448, which was 1312 BCE), the Torah was almost always transmitted from father to son. Over the centuries, there was a gradual increase of boys who had no fathers or whose fathers weren't capable of properly teaching them. The sages then opened a Yeshiva in Jerusalem for all those who couldn't learn
elsewhere. But the problem continued to grow and the absence of both local institutions and of any schools for boys under the age of 15 left an important gap.
This situation continued until about midway through the period of the Second Temple (approx. 3650 110 BCE) when
Yehoshua ben Gamla decreed that every Jewish community should have its own schools for all boys above the age of six. There were now specific rules governing how many students were allowed to be in a class with one teacher, how a subject was to be taught, who was responsible to cover the costs of teacher
salaries and so on.
In recent times there have been two small, but vital
additions to the Yeshiva movement.
The first concerned the education of girls, something that, throughout our history had never been institutionalized. Until this century, girls learned all the many Halachos (religious laws) and philosophy necessary for their roles in society from their mothers. Some of these mothers were so expert in, for instance, the laws of Kashrus that they might even have looked down on the town's rabbi as a "good with the theory, but he doesn't understand the practice." Many of these women were so thoroughly saturated with an intense fear of G-d and love for His Mitzvos that they were natural, sometimes even unconscious teachers for their children.
As the war against traditional Judaism grew stronger in the Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries, the values and practices of the Jewish home came under attack. A Jewish girl in Crakow was more likely to adopt the values of her secular public school than those of her mother. More and more, the mothers weren't able to understand or talk to their daughters, much less actually transmit the traditions. Even as the Yeshivos of Poland were inspiring the boys of those generations to uphold our ancient tradition, the girls were being blown away in the tens of thousands by the fierce winds of assimilation.
To protect what was left of the Jewish community, a young Polish woman named Sarah Schneirer, opened the first school for Jewish girls in the 1920's. She was backed by many of the greatest Chassidic, Lithuanian and German Torah leaders of the time. This school, called "Bais Yaakov", became the prototype for a large network of girls schools and seminaries. Many thousands of Jewish girls and young women were now given a full taste of the beauty and depth of Judaism.
While the Second World War interrupted the work of the Bais Yaakov movement, the system's real success came after having been transplanted to North America and Israel. Today there is hardly a Jewish community of any size that cannot boast a top quality girls' school dedicated to passing on Torah true values.
The second important addition to Torah education is more recent. The 1960's saw growing numbers of young Jews leaving their western, secular lives and returning to observant Judaism. Whether it was the emotional 1967 Six Day War in Israel, or disgust with the empty, spiritless American culture, thousands of men and women sought something more than the "three day a year" Judaism of their youth.
To aid these "pioneers" in their search, a number of
Yeshivos opened in Israel and America dedicated to "filling in the blanks" for late starters. The curriculum of these schools couldn't be quite the same as anywhere else. These people were intelligent, often university educated professionals, but many didn't even know the Hebrew alphabet. There had to be a way to help them make up for the lost years while at the same time challenging them as mature adults. This was the task of these new Yeshivos, and the techniques they developed are being used with great success until today.
Just a short note: There will be people out there who will scream, "but the observant community reached out to help returnees long before the 1960's!" And they're right. The real blossoming of this specialized branch of the Yeshiva movement, however, had to wait until more recently.