Joshua (Yehoshua) Ben Gamla: The founder of the public education system

For almost 1,500 years, the Jewish people, were the only nation to have a public education system available to all males. Many believe that emphasis on education was a primary factor in the ability of the Jewish people to survive the Diaspora and for their continues success today.

The person responsible for instituting a mandatory education system on a large scale in ancient Judea, was Joshua (Yehoshua) Ben Gamla, who lived in Jerusalem in the late days of the Second Jewish temple in the 1st century CE.

Ben Gamla was married to a rich widow Martha of the high-priestly family Boethos in Jerusalem. He himself was not a scholar, but appointed as a high priest by King Agrippa II because of his wealth, and a generous contribution to the king by his wife. He was the high priest in 64 CE. He served in this position only one year and then was forced out of office to give way to Matthias ben Theophil.

Before Ben Gamla’s implemented changes in the way Torah education was administered, Jewish education was the privilege of the rich. Only children that had a living father were allowed to study Torah. Learning began at the age of 16-17.

Joshua Ben Gamla was concerned that the Torah will be forgotten if only a small portion of the community had access to learning it. He changed the system in a dramatic way:

  • The age for Torah study was change to 6-7.
  • Public school were opened in every city and town.
  • Learning Torah was open to every male child regardless if he had a father or not.
  • A public supervisory system to ensure equality was created; the teachers were not allowed to expel students as they wished.

His vision and the system he implemented survived the destruction of the temple and 2,000 years of harsh living conditions in the Diaspora. This system produced great Jewish scholars and preserved Judaism.

During the revolt against the Romans, in a speech he made from the Jerusalem walls, he attempted peaceably to prevent the Idumeans, who were invited by the Zealots, from entering Jerusalem. They were not convinced and after taking control of the city they executed him, Anan (also a former high priest), and other opponents as traitors.

It was almost 1,500 years later when other nations implemented compulsory education:

  • The next nation to institute compulsory education were the Aztec Triple Alliance, which ruled from 1428 to 1521 in what is now central Mexico.
  • The South German Duchy Wuerttemberg installed a compulsory education for boys in 1559.
  • The German Duchy Pfalz-Zweibrücken became the first territory of the world with compulsory education for girls and boys in 1592.
  • Scotland implemented compulsory education in 1633.
  • Prussia implemented a modern compulsory system in 1763
  • Mandatory primary education was introduced by Empress Maria Theresa in 1774 in Austria, Hungary and in the Lands of the Bohemian Crown (Czech lands).
  • France and the UK implemented a compulsory education in the 1880s.
  • In the US, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts was the first state to pass a compulsory education law in 1852. Mississippi was the last state to enact a compulsory attendance law 1918.


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