Infant and Childhood Stimulation in Jewish Tradition

Raphael Patai, The Jewish Mind, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1977, 300-1

…there can be no doubt that the amount and kind of stimulation the infant and child receives is a factor in the development of his or her intelligence, learning capacity, and motivation…

On this count…Jewish tradition, which dominated Jewish life everywhere until the Enlightenment and in a modified form has continued to influence it subsequently, gave the Jews an advantage over their Gentile neighbors.  It has often been pointed out…that learning was upheld by jewish tradition as a supreme value.  In most places Jewish children at the tender age of three or four were sent into school, the Heder, where they began to be taught the Hebrew alphabet.  But long before that, in fact from the very moment of its birth, the child, and especially the boy, was surrounded by an atmosphere of great attention, even appreciation.  Children were considered a blessing, a source of joy and pride for the parents.  A couple with children was said to be “blessed with children”; childlessness was considered a shame and an affliction.  If a couple had no children within ten years of their marriage, they were supposed to divorce.  Children were much petted and pampered, and a great deal of affection and care was lavished on them.  Especially during the first months of the infant’s life, it was constantly surrounded with warmth and attention.  At first it slept with the mother, then in a cradle or swinging crib near her bed.  If the baby woke up and cried, it was picked up, carried about, and crooned to.  All its wants were attended to by the mother and the frequent female visitors, but the father would also play with it.  The baby was carried about a great deal, so that it got used to constant attention, rocking, swaying, singsong.  The mother used to talk to the baby constantly, sing to it, pet it, address it with endearments; the father, too, would sing to it and talk to it in baby language.  If the baby started crying, it was immediately attended to, given the mother’s breast, fussed over, cuddled, and comforted.  If the child learned to speak before it was weaned, it was taught to say the “before-meal blessing” before taking the breast.  Thus from its second year on, the stimulation of the infant was gradually transformed into teaching.  The child’s development, both physical and mental, would be watched eagerly and every sign of precocity observed with great satisfaction, commented upon with praise, and encouraged.  As soon as the child could walk, the father would pay more attention to him and sometimes let him sit in his lap to “study” the Talmud with him.  Before long, the boy-child would be sent to the Heder where he was expected, and forced, to study eight or nine hours a day.

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