views updated


YESHIVAH . In contemporary usage, the Hebrew term yeshivah refers to an academy for the advanced study of Jewish religious texts, primarily the Talmud. Since the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 ce, the yeshivah has been one of the most important institutions of Jewish communal life. Although many yeshivah students go on to become rabbis and although the texts taught in yeshivot are among those a rabbi is expected to master, it should be emphasized that a yeshivah, an all-male institution, is not a rabbinical seminary. Its function is not to train professional religious leaders but rather to provide a framework for study. In the Jewish religious tradition, study of the Torah is seen as a central and meritorious religious act in and of itself, regardless of its relevance to the student's career plans. While yeshivot have been a common feature of Jewish communities, they have not been equally prevalent in every location and time. In various communities and at various times, aspiring scholars would study individually under the guidance of more advanced scholars and rabbis without taking part in a formal educational framework. The batei midrash, or communal study halls, that were common in many communities facilitated this practice. However, for much of Jewish history, advanced study rarely occurred outside the framework of the yeshivot.

The term yeshivah appears in tannaitic sources, where it refers to a rabbinical court (beit din), not to an institution of learning. The Jews of Palestine in the first and second centuries ce made no distinction between higher education and judicial activity, and they had no tradition of academic career training. Study of Jewish law (halakhah) was not seen as something that could or should be isolated from its practical applications.

Little is known of the precursors of the yeshivot. Yeshivot became central institutions in Palestine after the destruction of the Second Temple and in the absence of other central institutions. The academy founded by Yoanan ben Zakkʾai at Yavneh in 68 ce and its successors, first in Judaea and later in the Galilee, functioned, according to rabbinic tradition, as the continuation of the Sanhedrin (the legislative body that convened in the Temple) and as the training ground for future scholars and leaders.

Yeshivot in Babylonia

After the death of Yehuda ha-Nasiʾ, the patriarch of Judaea (c. 220 ce), the yeshivot of Babylonia began to grow in importance and soon became the most highly esteemed authorities in the Jewish world. For a period of eight hundred years, Babylonian yeshivot functioned not only as the central religious-legal institutions of Babylonian Jewry, alongside the lay authority of the exilarchate, but also as the final arbiters of halakhic questions for most of the Jewish communities of the world.

Amoraic period

At any given time during the Talmudic period, there were usually two leading yeshivot that often competed for honor and prestige. The first of these was the yeshivah of Nehardea, which flourished in the first half of the third century under the leadership of the Babylonian sage Shemuʾel (d. 263?). Although the date of its foundation is unknown, it was already regarded in Shemuʾel's time as a venerable institution and as an important center for the transmission of Babylonian Jewish traditions. In 219 Abbaʾ bar Ayyvu (c. 155247), known as Rav, a Babylonian who had spent many years in Palestine and was familiar with Palestinian traditions, settled in Nehardea. Shortly after, he moved to the town of Sura and opened a yeshivah there. Both Rav and Shemuʾel had able successors, and even though the institutions they led sometimes changed location or were temporarily closed, they endured until perhaps the thirteenth century. The yeshivah of Nehardea moved to Pumbedita in the wake of the destruction of Nehardea in 259, and in the late ninth century it moved to Baghdad, followed soon after by the yeshivah of Sura.

The degree to which these Babylonian yeshivot (or metivtot, as they were known in Aramaic) can be classified as educational institutions is still a subject of debate. They certainly continued to function as courts, and the scholars who were clustered around them formed an equivalent to the Sanhedrin. It would appear, though, that from early on young students came to study with the eminent roʾshei yeshivah (masters of the yeshivah ) and that the pedagogic function of the yeshivah was seen as important.

According to later sources (which may not be completely reliable), the ro'shei yeshivot in Babylonia were often appointed by the exilarch (ro'sh ha-golah, lit., "head of the exile"). The veteran scholars of the yeshivah sat at assigned seats in the study hall in a seating order based on age and scholarly reputation, wherein the more advanced sat in the front rows (this seating plan was also characteristic of non-Jewish academies in Babylonia). The contact between the roʾsh yeshivah and the students was often indirect. It was apparently a common practice for the ro'sh yeshivah to deliver his lecture in a soft voice and to have his words declaimed by an amoraʾ (speaker) in a loud voice. Since many of the authoritative teachings of the Jewish tradition were transmitted orally, recourse was made to tannaʾim (repeaters) who had committed them to memory.

Twice a year, in the spring and the fall, this pattern of study changed radically, with Jewish laymen flocking to the yeshivot, apparently by the thousands, for a month of popular and intensive study. These months were known as yarei kallah ("months of assembly").

Geonic period

From roughly 550 to 1050 ce, Babylonian yeshivot continued to flourish as centers of both education and legal decision making. Students came not only from Babylonia but from Egypt, North Africa, Spain, Italy, and elsewhere to study and to prepare themselves for leadership roles in their home communities. Legal questions (accompanied by donations) were sent from many Jewish communities in the Mediterranean basin, and the responsa were copied down for the guidance of later generations. The Geonim, as the heads of the yeshivot were called in the post-Talmudic period, wrote legal treatises and other works that were widely distributed. The widespread respect and authority that the Geonim enjoyed no doubt contributed to the acceptance of the Babylonian Talmud as the authoritative source of Jewish legal and aggadic thought. Their institutions were funded not only by donations but by tax revenues from certain Babylonian Jewish communities. Much less is known about the yeshivot in the Land of Israel in this period.

The general decline of the Abbasid empire, long centered in Baghdad, anti-Jewish persecutions in the tenth and eleventh centuries in Iraq, and the rise of new Jewish centers elsewhere led to the decline of the Babylonian yeshivot and a corresponding rise in the importance of yeshivot in other locations. However, none of these newer yeshivot achieved the centrality and influence that the yeshivot of Babylonia had enjoyed. According to Avraham ibn Daud's account in Sefer ha-qabbalah (The book of tradition; c. 1161), around the year 990 a ship bringing four scholars to a kallah month was captured by pirates. Three of the scholars were sold as slaves in various portsone in Egypt, one in North Africa, and one in Spain (the fourth met an unknown fate)where each became the leader of an important yeshivah. While the legend is not a reliable historical source, it does illustrate the continuity between later yeshivot and their Babylonian predecessors as well as the weakening of the ties between other Jewish communities and Babylonia.

Yeshivot in the Medieval Diaspora

From the tenth century onward, yeshivot were to be found in most Jewish communities. In Spain, one of the first important yeshivot to develop was that of Cordova; others were located in Lucena, Toledo, Barcelona, and elsewhere. These yeshivot were often located in or near community structures such as synagogues. The curriculum of these yeshivot centered on the Babylonian Talmud and its legal application and at times included qabbalistic literature. The well-known interest of some Spanish Jews in secular subjects found no expression in the yeshivot; their study of languages and sciences was usually carried out with the help of tutors or, occasionally, through enrollment in a non-Jewish school. The size and importance of a yeshivah was directly related to the fame and prestige of its head, the roʾsh yeshivah. Most of the central rabbinical figures of Spanish Jewish history, including Nahmanides (Mosheh ben Naman, c. 11901270), Shalomoh ben Avraham Adret (c. 12351310), and Nissim Gerondi (d. 1380?), headed yeshivot. The notes taken by students were passed from hand to hand and formed the basis for many of the Spanish glosses on the Talmud.

In North Africa, yeshivot were often located close to Muslim academies, though the question of intellectual relations between Jewish and Muslim schools has yet to be explored. The first important yeshivah in North Africa was that of Kairouan, which had close ties with Babylonian yeshivot. The yeshivah of Kairouan rose to importance in the tenth century and upon its decline in the following century, the yeshivot of Fez and Tlemcen in Morocco became prominent. Fusā, near present-day Cairo, was also the site of an important yeshivah.

In the Ashkenazic communities of northern Europe, the great intellectual flowering that produced Gershom ben Yehudah (c. 9651028), Rashi (Shelomoh ben Yitsaq, 10401105), and the Tosafists was achieved to a large extent within the yeshivot. These yeshivot differed from their predecessors in that they were chiefly educational institutions and no longer functioned as courts or as facilities for scholarly assembly. They tended to be small institutions with just a few tens of students who often lived with the roʾsh yeshivah and studied in a separate room in his house. Many of these students were Talmudic scholars in their own right, and they were not so much disciples of the roʾsh yeshivah as his partners in study. Beginners would prepare for admission to the yeshivah by studying with special teachers. The course of study in the yeshivot centered on Talmud and led to the conferment of formal degrees. The lowest, corresponding roughly to the bachelor of arts degree granted by universities of the time, was that of aver ("fellow"), while more advanced students looked forward to receiving the title morenu ("our teacher"), which entitled them to open their own yeshivot. As in the medieval universities, the curriculum emphasized discussion and disputation rather than literary creativity; this phenomenon is reflected in the Jewish scholarly literature of the period, which was mainly in the form of commentaries and glosses and not extended expository works. Like their counterparts in the universities, yeshivah students were highly mobile and often studied in many schools in the course of their academic careers.

Both in Mediterranean countries and in northern Europe, yeshivot stressed creative study for their advanced students rather than rote learning. Often students were required to resolve logical problems and contradictions in a text, or between authoritative texts, in a manner that led to a deeper understanding of the issues. In a very real sense, this kind of intellectual development was an organic continuation of earlier patterns. The members of the medieval yeshivah related to the Talmud in very much the same way as the tannaim (the rabbis whose teachings are collected in the Mishnah) related to the Hebrew Bible and as the amoraim (the rabbis whose teachings are collected in the gemaraʾ) related to the Mishnah.

There was a significant flow of ideas between the yeshivot of various areas. Rashi, who lived in northern France, was accepted in Spain and North Africa as the authoritative commentator on the Talmud, and the work of his successors in northern Europe, the Tosafists, was eventually carried on in Spain. This tradition concentrated on reconciling texts and statements scattered through the rabbinic literature so that it would form a harmonious whole.

One of the distinctive characteristics of the curriculum of the late medieval Ashkenazic yeshivah (thirteenth to seventeenth century) was the development of pilpul, a type of argumentation that uses highly contorted, often hair-splitting reasoning to resolve hypothetical cases or to reconcile opposing views. Most pilpul took place in oral debates, and few texts from the period survive. Many scholars found pilpul a fascinating intellectual stimulus, but others criticized it for its artificiality. Pilpul was eventually abandoned in favor of the more logical approach of the Spanish scholars, whose works were widely disseminated in northern Europe after the development of the printing press. Another activity popular in yeshivah circles of the time was the collection and study of minhagim, or local customs.

Yeshivot in the Modern World

The continuity of the Ashkenazic yeshivah was broken in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in two different ways. In German-speaking lands, there was a gradual decline of interest in Talmudic and rabbinic literature, exacerbated by the Haskalah (Jewish Enlightenment movement) and the increasing assimilation of Jews into the general community. In Polish lands there was a sharper break that was associated with (but not totally explained by) the Cossack rebellion of 1648, which destroyed many communities and their yeshivot. The failure of the Polish Jewish community to reestablish the network of yeshivot immediately after the rebellion was due, in part, to the economic decline of the Jewish community and perhaps also to the spread of Hasidism, which encouraged the study of Talmud but placed less emphasis on formal education.

The nineteenth century saw important growth in the number and role of European yeshivot. In central Europe a key part was played by Mosheh Sofer (17621839), the rabbi of Pressburg, Hungary (now Bratislava, Slovakia). He was appointed to the position in 1806, and as his fame grew he became a major force in developing an active Orthodoxy in reaction to the Reform movement, which was gaining adherents in his native Germany and Hungary. One of the elements of his program was the development and expansion of the Pressburg yeshivah, whose student body soon numbered several hundred. Sofer's students went on to occupy many of the important rabbinical posts in the Habsburg Empire. The yeshivot they founded were a great influence on the lives of students who studied there during their formative adolescent years and were a major factor in the stability and cohesiveness of Hungarian Orthodoxy. In Germany, however, no major yeshivot developed. The rapid pace of acculturation, the need for a general education for economic advancement, and the lack of prestige for Talmudic knowledge among wide sectors of the Jewish community were largely responsible for this.

The revival of yeshivot of eastern Europe began in the early nineteenth century with the foundation in 1803 of a yeshivah in Volozhin, White Russia, by ayyim ben Yitsaq (17491821). It differed from earlier Ashkenazic yeshivot in that it was neither a private institution nor a communal one, but rather a regional institution supported by donations collected by fundraisers from Jews throughout Lithuania and later even farther afield. As such, the yeshivah of Volozhin was free from local pressures. This organizational model was not immediately imitated, and most Talmud students continued to study in batei midrash (local study halls). In the latter part of the nineteenth century there was a sharp rise in the number of yeshivot that were founded to counteract the appeal of secular education and Haskalah. Important yeshivot were founded in Telz, Slobodka, Ponevezh, Slutsk, Novorodok, and elsewhere. Many were founded to advance the aims of the Musar movement, founded by Yisraʾel Salanter (18101883), which called for the study and practice of ethical behavior. These yeshivot appointed special preceptors (mashgiim) to teach and supervise ethical behavior; they functioned alongside the standard Talmud teachers, not always without friction. Other yeshivot emphasized new methods of study that stressed analysis of texts rather than legal casuistry. At the same time, and because of the same stimulus of competition from secular education and nontraditional influences, the Hasidic communities also began to establish yeshivot.

In the period between the world wars, all yeshivot in areas controlled by the Soviet Union were closed. However, in Poland, Lithuania, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia, yeshivot continued to flourish. These yeshivot were funded largely by subventions from Jews in the United States. The Holocaust led to the destruction of all of these institutions.

Today the two main centers of yeshivot are Israel and the United States. Until after World War II, yeshivot in the United States were relatively unsuccessful in attracting students and had little influence on Jewish life. Most of the Jews who came to America from eastern Europe in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century were not well educated, and the conditions of immigrant life in America were not conducive to the perpetuation of traditional customs. Those yeshivot that did exist followed the established patterns of the Old World. One important exception was the Rabbi Isaac Elhanan Theological Seminary, which grew into Yeshiva University. This institution, founded in the late nineteenth century in New York City, successfully introduced a new curriculum that included traditional Talmudic studies in the morning and secular studies, leading to the bachelor of arts degree, in the afternoon. After World War II there was a major increase in the number of American yeshivot and in the size of their student populations, as well as an improvement in the quality of instruction. These changes were due in part to the arrival of refugees from eastern Europe, who brought with them a strong commitment to tradition and expertise in Talumdic learning, and in part to the emergence of a native-born and self-confident American Jewish Orthodox community.

A similar pattern is found in the Land of Israel. In the early modern period, Sefardic Jews and Jewish communities in North Africa and Asia continued their traditional practice of financially supporting yeshivot, many of which were in the Land of Israel. They tended to be academies of established scholars rather than educational institutions in the Ashkenazic mold. These yeshivot, with their mature student bodies, often emphasized the study of Qabbalah or of Jewish law, not Talmudic study exclusively. The scholars who constituted the membership of the yeshivot were given stipends. When the Ashkenazic immigration to the Land of Israel began in the late eighteenth century, Ashkenazic yeshivot began to appear. They were intended for younger students, and the program of study was devoted almost completely to Talmud.

As the Jewish community in Palestine grew, there was a corresponding growth in the number of yeshivot. In the interwar period there was even a case of a yeshivah that was transferred in toto student body and stafffrom Slobodka in Lithuania to Hebron in Palestine. After the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 this growth continued, now with the financial support of the Israeli government. As in America, the yeshivah high schools drew many of the sons of observant families. The special security problems of Israel led to the establishment of yeshivot for soldiers, who were permitted to interrupt their military service for periods of Talmud study.

Today almost all yeshivah students are unmarried. Another institution, the kolel (pl., kolelim ), provides married students with stipends to enable them to study full-time. Unlike yeshivah students, they usually study independently, without formal guidance or supervision. The yeshivot, with the kolelim, are now among the most important institutions of contemporary Orthodoxy. They play a major role in securing the loyalty of the younger generation to traditional patterns and values. It has become standard practice for groups within the Orthodox community to establish separate yeshivot for their youth. Now, for example, every Hasidic sect has its own yeshivah. Roʾshei yeshivah are among the most important leaders of Orthodox Jewry, and they often supplant the authority of communal rabbis.

There are probably more young men studying Torah (and especially the Talmud) full-time today than ever before. Only a small minority go on to serve as rabbis. While in traditional yeshivot the student body continues to be all male, similar institutions of study for women have been developed. Recently, the term yeshivah has often been applied to Jewish day schools, on both the elementary and high school level, that have a program that includes general studies as well as Jewish studies. But the Orthodox yeshivot have managed to adapt to new conditions without compromising their basic commitment to the perpetuation of tradition.

See Also

Amoraim; Hasidism, overview article; Holocaust, The, article on History; Judaism, overview article, articles on Judaism in the Middle East and North Africa to 1492, Judaism in Northern and Eastern Europe to 1500; Musar Movement; Rabbinate; Rabbinic Judaism in Late Antiquity; Schenirer, Sarah; Shemuʾel the Amora; Tosafot.


Relatively few works have been written that deal specifically with yeshivot. However, almost anything written on the history of Jewish education touches on yeshivot, and so do many studies of Jewish history or religion. The best starting point for bibliographies on particular yeshivot or on higher education in a given community or area is Shlomo Shunami's Bibliography of Jewish Bibliographies, 2d ed. (Jerusalem, 1965; suppl., Jerusalem, 1976), which directs the reader to bibliographies on almost any topic of Judaica. The most useful guides to current literature are Kiryat Sefer, a quarterly listing of recent books of Judaica and Hebraica, and the annual Index of Articles on Jewish Studies. Both are arranged topically and are published by the Jewish National and University Library in Jerusalem.

There are a number of valuable monographs on yeshivot. The most recent book on the Babylonian yeshivot is David M. Goodblatt's Rabbinic Instruction in Sasanian Babylonia (Leiden, 1975). For the other end of the time spectrum, William B. Helmreich's The World of the Yeshiva (New York, 1982) provides a useful description of modern American yeshivot. A number of unpublished Ph.D. dissertations are relevant: Armin Harry Friedman's "Major Aspects of Yeshiva Education in Hungary, 18481948" (Yeshiva University, 1971), M. Breuer's "The Ashkenazi Yeshiva toward the Close of the Middle Ages" (Hebrew University, 1967), I. Gafni's "The Babylonian Yeshiva" (Hebrew University, 1978), and my own "Three Lithuanian Yeshivot" (Hebrew University, 1982); the latter three are in Hebrew with detailed English summaries. The most valuable collection of primary sources on the history of Jewish education, which includes a great deal of material on yeshivot, is Simha Assaf's Megorot le-toledot ha-inukh be-Yisraʾel, 4 vols. in 2 (Tel Aviv, 19361954).

New Sources

Avital, Moshe. Yeshiva and Traditional Education in the Literature of the Hebrew Enlightenment Period (in Hebrew). Tel-Aviv, 1996.

Gil, Moshe. "The Babylonian Yeshivot and the Maghrib in the Early Middle Ages." PAAJR 57 (1991): 69120.

Kanarfogel, Ephraim. Jewish Education and Society in the High Middle Ages. Detroit, 1992.

Paretzky, Zev T. Reservoirs of Faith: The Yeshiva through the Ages. Jerusalem and New York, 1996.

Rodik, Yohai. Hayim shel yetsirah: Yeshivat "Merkaz ha-Rav" le-doroteha: hagut, hinukh u-maʾas. Jerusalem, 1998.

Schiffer, Varda. The Haredi Educational [system] in Israel: Allocation, Regulation and Control. Translated by David Hornick. Jerusalem, 1999.

Shaul Stampfer (1987)

Revised Bibliography

About this article


Updated About content Print Article