[Avodah] Secular Studies in Lithuanian Yeahivas

Prof. L. Levine llevine at stevens.edu
Sun Jul 11 06:27:19 PDT 2021

There are those who claim that secular studies were never taught in any
Lithuanian yeshivas during the 19th century. This is simply not true.

The many of students in the Volozhin Yeshiva studied secular
subjects. From

The Muqata: The Closing of Volozhin; Jewish Urban Legend?

It's impossible to traverse Chareidi circles without hearing that the
famous Volozhin Yeshiva was closed by its Rosh Yeshiva, the "Netziv"
(Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin (נפתלי צבי יהודה ברלין) -- because he would
rather close the Yeshiva than for his students go to University and study
secular subjects.This mantra is often repeated as a primary reason to
avoid Yeshiva University ... muqata.blogspot.com

Concerning "worldliness" of the students of Volozhin, and the value of
secular education at Volozhin, R' Epstein writes:

    Anyone with eyes in his head could see that the students of Volozhin
    were quite knowledgeable in secular studies: they took an interest
    in science, history and geography and knew many languages. In fact,
    those students who desired to pursue these disciplines succeeded
    in learning twice as much as any student at a state institution. In
    Volohzin, Torah and derech eretz walked hand in hand, neither one held
    captive by the other. It was the special achievement of the Volozhin
    student that when he left the yeshiva, he was able to converse with
    any man in any social setting on the highest intellectual plane. The
    Volohzin student was able to conquer both worlds -- the world of
    Torah and the world at large. A well-known adage among parents who
    were trying to best educate their children was, "Do you want your
    child to develop into a complete Jew, dedicated to Torah and derech
    eretz? Do you want him to be able to mingle with people and get
    along in the world? Send him to Volozhin! (page 204)

R' Epstein debunks the story that college and Volozhin could not mix, by
stating -- in direct contradiction to the chareidi myth -- that the Netziv
explicitly agreed to the introduction of secular studies to Volozhin at
the 1887 Petersburg Congress, by incorporating the study of mathematics
and the Russian language within the framework of the yeshiva program. The
amount of time and part of day when these 2 subjects were to be taught
was left entirely to the discretion of the Rosh Yeshiva. This continued
for 5 full years prior to the yeshiva's closing in 1892. (pages 207, 208)

Let me add that he yeshiva in Kelm founded by Rabbi Simcha Zissel Ziv
in the 1860s did teach secular subjects.

>From https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kelm_Talmud_Torah
Kelm Talmud Torah - Wikipedia

Under the Leadership of Simcha Zissel Ziv. The Talmud Torah was founded
in the 1860s by Rabbi Simcha Zissel Ziv, known as the Alter of Kelm (the
Elder of Kelm), to strengthen the study of Musar in Lithuania.. In 1872,
Rabbi Ziv purchased a plot of land and erected a building for the Talmud
Torah, which began as a primary school and soon became a secondary school.

The curriculum of the original Talmud Torah under Rabbi Ziv's leadership
was fairly unusual for a nineteenth-century Lithuanian yeshiva in two

1. Significant time was devoted to Musar, work on the improvement of
character traits. In most Lithuanian yeshivas, nearly the entire day
was spent studying Talmud. By contrast, at the Talmud Torah, according
to Menahem Glenn, "Musar was the chief study, while the study of Talmud
was only of minor importance and little time was devoted to it."[1]

2. In addition to Jewish subjects, students studied general subjects such
as geography, mathematics, and Russian language and literature for three
hours a day. The Kelm Talmud Torah was the first traditional yeshiva in
the Russian empire to give such a focus to general studies.[2]

[Email #2. -micha]

 From https://www.jewishgen.org/yizkor/kelme/kel023.html#Page24
Kelme, Lithuania (Pages 23-37)
Kelem's Jews as a Torah and spiritual People Alongside the many and varied business pursuits of the Jews in Kelem, there was their Torah and spiritual lives, which were very rich.

Between the two world wars, there were not only Torah schools; additionally, there were kindergartens and schools for general education. The children in these schools studied the same subjects as did all school children in Lithuania and the rest of the world; such as, mathematics, nature study, geography, history, and others. Beside these general secular subjects, the children studied Hebrew (grammar and literature) and the heritage of Israel (Jewish studies).

The Shulamit School
One of the oldest schools for girls was the Shulamit school of the Yavneh movement. It was located in the house of Lieb Gershovitz. This school was for girls whose parents wanted them to study secular and religious subjects.

The day at this school started with the morning prayers. Prayers were said before and after meals. The girls dressed very modestly. Besides the general subjects, emphasis was put on Torah, Bible, and Mishnah. In addition, the girls learned about the commandments that are especially demanded of Jewish women, the laws of Kashrut, candle lighting on Shabbat and on holidays, and other commandments that Jewish women must know

The Yavneh School
The school was for boys only. As at the Shulamit school, this school taught secular studies and Jewish subjects. The Yavneh school was located in a small Bet Midrash in a small street that was called Shul Gas by the Jews. In back of the school was a yard that bordered on the well known Stam family.

R. Stam was one of the founders of the Yavneh school. People from all walks of life had their children study here, rich and poor, religious and not religious. Some of the names of children who studied here are: Stern, Meyerovitz, Yankelov, Broide, Yankelvitz, Koifman, Rose, Morgenstern, Yanver, Chaluzin, and many others.

This school had four grades, from first to fourth. At the end of four years, there were government examinations. In order to monitor the examinations, a government overseer would arrive from Resain. Graduates received a certificate to continue their studies in the Gymnasia.

In Yavneh, there were about one hundred students. Torah and secular studies were taught, as we said before; i:e, Chumash and Ta'anach with Rashi commentary, Hebrew grammar and literature. Hebrew and Yiddish authors were studied, such as Shalom Aleichim, Mendel Mocher Seforim, Bialik, Tchernikovsky, Fichman, Peretz, Gordon, and others. They studied geography, general history, geography of Lithuania, nature study, mathematics, history of the Jewish people, and others. These subjects were taught in Hebrew with the Ashkenazi pronunciation.


The level of learning at Yavneh was known to be very high. The boys acquired a variety of knowledge in those four years, in an optimal way.


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