ḤEDER (Heb. חֶדֶר; lit. "room"), the common name for the old-fashioned elementary school for the teaching of Judaism. The name first occurs in the 13th century. The ḥeder was distinct from the talmud torah. Whereas the latter was a communal institution maintained by the community for poor children whose parents could not afford tuition fees, the ḥeder was a privately run institution, the teacher receiving his fees from the parents. It was generally housed in a room in the private house of the teacher, called the rebbe (Yiddish form of "rabbi") or melammed. Usually three classes were held concurrently; while the teacher taught one the children in the others went over their lessons. The age groups were from 3–5, 6–7, and 8–13. The teacher ruled with an iron hand and freely wielded his cane (kanchik). No secular studies were taught, the subjects for the three classes being, respectively, reading in the prayer book, the Pentateuch with Rashi, and Talmud. To the rebbe was sometimes added an assistant, called the belfer ("behelfer"). The ḥeder came under the withering attacks of the maskilim, who criticized the primitive methods and the restricted nature of the curriculum (cf. P. Smolenskin, Ha-To'eh be-Darkhei ha-Ḥayyim, 1 (1868), 4; J.L. Gordon, Kol Kitvei… (1899), 112–3) and toward the end of the 19th century attempts were made to introduce a "reformed ḥeder" (ḥeder metukkan) but without solid results. From the ḥeder the pupil proceeded to the yeshivah.
E.M. Lipschitz, Ketavim, 1 (1947), 305–80.
[Louis Isaac Rabinowitz]