(commonly bet midrash; Yid., besmedresh; lit., “study house”), a voluntary, public institute for Torah learning, functioning for generations within Jewish communities alongside the synagogue and, from certain halakhic standpoints, even surpassing it in preference and importance. Functioning mainly as a place of study, the bet midrash (universally referred to by East European Jews in its Yiddish form, besmedresh) has also served as an alternative place of worship due to the many hours students spend there. In fact, students in Eastern Europe often took meals there and slept on the premises—so that, unlike the synagogue, the bet midrash required a mezuzah. Yet as a community of learners whose daily routine is dictated by the requirements of study, the bet midrash has been an institution that is in essence the reverse of the synagogue, challenging it and offering a certain alternative to the fixed models of communal life.
The bet midrash differed from the synagogue also in form. In the service of its main function, which was study, the furnishings of a bet midrash were simple and functional—chairs and tables. The accoutrements of prayer, such as the ark for the Torah, were simpler and smaller than those of the synagogue. The orientation of seating in the bet midrash, unlike the synagogue, was not necessarily to the east, but was determined by the way people sat for study. While, in the case of the synagogue, an effort was customarily made to beautify it so that it stood out from its surroundings, the bet midrash had no architectural distinctiveness. In certain communities where the synagogue and the bet midrash shared the same building, this distinction was particularly obvious.
Men studying in the bet midrash, Orla, Poland, 1930s. Photograph by D. Duksin. (YIVO)
The bet midrash was among the most important communal institutions in Eastern Europe. Its open character meant that various avant-garde religious phenomena, such as those connected to the infiltration of kabbalistic customs into religious life, or the emergence of the first Hasidic groups, began in the bet midrash, not the synagogue. The bet midrash was a locus for the promulgation of the teachings of Sabbatianism. The staging ground for the activities of the Ba‘al Shem Tov (Besht) and his followers in Medzhibizh was the bet midrash.
Just as the bet midrash generally stood as an alternative to the synagogue, it likewise stood as an alternative to the yeshiva. Unlike the yeshiva, administrated by a rector (rosh ha-yeshivah) and funded by the entire community, the East European bet midrash was financed most often by weekly donations collected by representatives of the communal leadership (kahal) from wealthy community members. The kahal was, accordingly, responsible for the bet midrash achieving its goals—and in particular, for ensuring that those benefiting from the financial aid satisfactorily met the demands made of them.
The rise of the bet midrash among Jewish communities in Central and Eastern Europe in the sixteenth century, at the same time as the status of the yeshiva changed, was directly connected to the shift in the social status of the lomdim (lit., “learners”), the elite students of the bet midrash. These were adult Torah scholars, possessing varying levels of rabbinic erudition, whose knowledge and training were conveyed by the title ḥaver, designating a senior Torah scholar; a small number of learners also held the higher-ranking title morenu (lit., “our teacher”). Interaction between these scholars and the yeshiva was minimal: lomdim participated in the Torah lessons delivered by the rector of the yeshiva, while the more prominent among them were sometimes invited to teach in the yeshiva or deliver certain scholarly Talmudic lessons, known as ḥilukim (“differentiations”; a 1705 regulation from Poznań, for example, stated, “And permission is granted to the most prominent scholars of the yeshiva to honor as well the lomdim to deliver ḥilukim and novel Torah interpretations at the yeshiva”). With the exception of these encounters, yeshiva students remained within the yeshiva and lomdim in the bet midrash. The distinction between lomdim and yeshiva students was not necessarily class-based but rather age-based: lomdim were older and usually married, and most were residents of the community.
Bet ha-Midrash, Sędziszów, Poland, 1935. The tall man walking toward the camera is Sidney Herbst. (Film commissioned by the town's landsmanshaft organization in America, produced by member Sidney Herbst during a visit to his hometown.) (YIVO)
From the second half of the seventeenth century, the bet midrash occupied an even more important role in the East European Jewish community. Its rise was linked to the simultaneous decline of the yeshiva in Eastern Europe, which was the result of the economic decline of the major Jewish communities and their consequent difficulties in sustaining yeshivas. The bet midrash, which gradually filled the vacuum left vacant by the waning yeshiva, was an entirely different institution: open, not dependent upon a charismatic leader, and mainly made up of community members themselves, it increasingly became the center of Torah learning and religious life in the community and its environs. The livelihood of the lomdim was dependent either partially or wholly on their income from the bet midrash; they were subject to the authorities of the bet midrash and were obligated to abide by its schedule, but they enjoyed economic privileges as well as the particular social status that Jewish society imparted to Torah scholars.
With the decline of yeshivas, the bet midrash became, particularly in the eighteenth century, the main institution where the youngest Jewish males mastered their scholarly abilities. Most of the learning was done individually, with instruction carried out in the form of tutoring; the lomdim would tutor the less accomplished pupils. The bet midrash was not a formalized institution of learning, however, and there was no formal curriculum. Unlike his counterparts in the golden age of the Polish yeshivas, each student in the bet midrash chose the Talmudic tractate he wished to learn, in addition to other topics that he wished to study in depth. From time to time, lessons were given in the bet midrash by the head of the yeshiva or the head of the local rabbinical court, but these were not standard or routine. There was also no formal system in place to monitor the students’ progress. A student’s status was determined by his ability to deal with a particular Talmudic or rabbinic casuistry; his solutions to problems as well as his innovative interpretations would be revealed in oral discussions or during occasional lessons in the bet midrash.
The Tif’eret Baḥurim bet midrash, Skaudvilė, Lithuania, 1936. Tif’eret Baḥurim (from Prv. 20:29: “The glory of young men is their strength”) was a common name for Jewish institutions in Eastern Europe. (YIVO)
The bet midrash was open to all, at all hours of the day. The lomdim were a constant presence, but another important group was made up of well-to-do residents of the community who scheduled set times for Torah study—in the morning or the evening, alone or in a group—where they would study on various levels, each group according to its abilities. There were also occasional learners from the community and its environs as well as itinerant Torah scholars who resided for a period of time in the bet midrash, where they would find shelter and receive alms. Some of these itinerants were young Torah scholars committed to a period of self-imposed wandering and self-mortification (sometimes referred to as goles [exile, wandering]). These students were generally recently married young men who had taken upon themselves a period of wandering as a form of developing their spiritual and intellectual abilities until they returned to their wives and set up their own families.
Certain communities established study shifts throughout the day and night, ostensibly so that the study of Torah would be occurring somewhere in the community at all times, but in fact this custom was a means for providing financial support to needy lomdim. As the lomdim were usually older heads of families, the main days of activity in the bet midrash were Sunday through Friday; activity in the bet midrash lessened considerably on the Sabbath, when most participants were with their families. This schedule was quite different from that of the yeshiva, where the pupils, typically coming from far away, returned home only during long vacations.
If the establishment of the bet midrash was a result of the improving fortunes of well-off community members in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, then the rise of another class—that of wealthy Jewish urban patricians—can be associated with the establishment of the kloyz, an institution related to the bet midrash, yet very different. This was a selective, elitist institution with clear social class differentiation. The status of these two institutions, the bet midrash and the kloyz, reached its apex at the end of the eighteenth century. In subsequent years, the increasingly secular lifestyle that took hold among wealthy Jews brought marked changes with regard to their philanthropic objectives; institutions such as the bet midrash and the kloyz were no longer the focus of their interests. Consequently, the public role of the bet midrash began to diminish. Many of those who in earlier years would have studied at a bet midrash were dispersed among Hasidic communities and Lithuanian yeshivas.
Haim Gertner, “Bet ha-midrash be-Galitsyah ba-me’ah ha-tesha‘-‘esreh ke-mosad le-tipuaḥ talmide ḥakhamim,” in Yeshivot u-vate midrashot, ed. Immanuel Etkes, pp. 163–186 (Jerusalem, 2007); Jacob Katz, Tradition and Crisis: Jewish Society at the End of the Middle Ages, trans. Bernard D. Cooperman (New York, 1993), pp. 148–151; Elchanan Reiner, “Hon, ma‘amad ḥevrati ve-talmud torah: Ha-Kloiz ba-ḥevrah ha-yehudit be-Mizraḥ Eropah ba-me’ot ha-yod-zayin–ha-yod-ḥet,” Tsiyon 58.3 (1993): 287–328; Azriel Shochat, “Ḥavurot limud ba-me’ot ha-tet-zayin–ha-yod-ḥet be-Erets Yisra’el, be-Polin-Lita’ uve-Germanyah,” Ha-Ḥinukh (1957): 404–418; Shaul Stampfer, “Heder Study, Knowledge of Torah, and the Maintenance of Social Stratification in Traditional East European Jewish Society,” Studies in Jewish Education 3 (1988): 271–289; Shaul Stampfer, Ha-Yeshivah ha-lita’it be-hithavutah (Jerusalem, 2005), pp. 16–19.
Translated from Hebrew by Sharon Makover-Assaf