The Mandate of Universal Jewish Education: Yehoshua Ben Gamla's Legacy

Given the prominence of the mitzvah of Torah study in the current parshiot, I'd like to share a perspective on the critical issue of universal Jewish education.

The Talmud (Bava Batra 21a) records the classic story of Yehoshua Ben Gamla, founder of universal formal Jewish education:

For Rav Yehuda said in the name of Rav:
However, remember this man for good, namely Yehoshua ben Gamla, for if not for him, Torah would have been forgotten from Israel.

For originally, whoever had a father, [the father] would teach him Torah; whoever had no father would not learn Torah. What was expounded? "And ye shall teach them." "And you yourselves shall teach."

They decreed that teachers of children should be set up in Jerusalem. What was expounded? "For out of Zion shall go forth the law."

But still, whoever had a father, [the father] would bring him up [to Jerusalem] and teach him; whoever didn't have a father would not go up and learn.
They decreed that [teachers] should be set up in each and every district. And they would bring them in at around age 16 or 17, and anyone whose teacher was angry at him, he would kick him out.

Until Yehoshua ben Gamla came and decreed that teachers of children should be set up in each and every province and in each and every city, and [that] they are brought in at around age 6 or 7.

The questions suggest themselves immediately. First, Yehoshua Ben Gamla is not exactly a household name. Who is he? And how might his biography be relevant to a fuller understanding of his legacy?

Second, the choice to situate the yeshivot in Yerushalayim is noteworthy. Why exactly was the city chosen, and what is the significance of the move to establish centers of learning in other locations?

Third, the Gemara's emphasis on creating a learning space for those who did not have parents seems superfluous. If the Gemara's goal is to establish Ben Gamla's long-term contribution of universal Torah education, why not simply state that Ben Gamla mandated universal Torah education? Why the backstory?

Finally, our sugya is not the only context in which Yehoshua Ben Gamla is remembered for good. The Mishnah (Yoma 3:9) records that he is also remembered positively for having crafted golden boxes to hold the lots of the two goats on Yom Kippur (the original boxes had been made of wood). Interestingly, the Mishnah uses similar phraseology to that of the Gemara in Bava Batra: "he is remembered for good." This is unusual. What are we to make of the fact that the rabbis twice recognized Ben Gamla for good?

A quick biographical sketch sheds new light on our protagonist. According to the Gemara (Yevamot 61a), he was married to the widow Marta bat Baytus, who was active in the time immediately following the hurban (Gittin 56a). According to the Gemara, his wife purchased the high priethood on his behalf from the king for two coins; indeed, the Gemara seems to indicate that he was truly unworthy of the position. In fact, elsewhere the Talmud (Yoma 18a) cites the case of Ban Gamla as evidence that that the criteria to serve as high priest during The First Temple period (strength, attractiveness, wisdom and wealth) were dropped during the second. According to Josephus (Wars 4:5:2), Ben Gamla served as Kohen Gadol within the last five to six years of the Second Temple. He went on to be killed in a bloody battle for control of the high priesthood and Temple roughly two years before the hurban in 68 C.E.

All this background raises additional questions. If he was unworthy for the position, why do two Talmudic sources emphasize that Yehoshua was remembered for good? The sugyot seem to contradict one another regarding the quality of his character. Moreover, given the chaos swirling around the Temple in the years prior to the hurban, Ben Gamla's decision to purchase a gold box for the Yom Kippur lottery seems a bit strange. As the Romans increasingly controlled the Temple and priesthood, was it really the right time to invest in enhancing the Temple service? What kind of long-term impact would it really have?

These difficulties led a group of rishonim and later commentaries (Tosafot Yeshanim Yevamot 61a, Ritva Bava Batra 21a s.v. Vihoshua, Aharon Hyman in Toldot Tanaim Va'Amoraim) to propose that in fact the sugyot are discussing two different personalities by the name of Yehoshua Ben Gamla, one who lived approximately 150 years before the hurban, and another who lived immediately prior. This fits nicely with the Gemara Yevamot, which records that Marta purchased the high priesthood from King Yanai, the second Hasmonean king, who ruled from 103-76 BCE.

This conjecture, however, faces some significant difficulties. What is the likelihood that there were two individuals by the name of Yehoshua ben Gamla who were married to different women by the name of Marta bat Baytus? Moreover, as Dikdukei Sofrim notes, not all recensions of the Gemara have Alexander Yanai listed as the king who sold the priesthood.

This leads to another possibility, adopted by Tosafot in Bava Batra (21a s.v. zahur) among others, which maintains that there was only one Yehoshua Ben Gamla. If so, how do we account for the discrepancy regarding his character? Tosafot opines that he was not a bad guy; there were simply other more qualified candidates around. Alternatively, Ritva (Bava Batra s.v. Vihoshua) suggests that although Ben Gamla was originally unqualified, he became righteous over the course of his tenure as Kohen Gadol.

I'd like to suggest a third possibility. Despite having occupied the role of Kohen Gadol, Yehoshua ben Gamla - note that he never receives the appellation rabbi in Gemara - was an unlikely candidate to be recalled positively. In many respects, his corrupt appointment exemplified the degradation of the high priesthood and the Temple service toward the end of the Second Temple period. And yet the Gemara goes out of its way to suggest that he was nonetheless remembered for good. Refusing to bow to the pressures of the age, he chose to enhance the boxes used for the Yom Kippur service. And instead of sitting by idly watching the Roman carnage, Ben Gamla put in place a sprawling educational network, enabling the Jewish people to survive the traumatic period that was sure to follow.

We can now understand the significance of Yerushalayim no longer serving as the sole Torah center. It wasn't merely a question of increasing the scope of places where children might learn. Due to the impending chaos, Ben Gamla understood that for practical purposes Yerushalayim could no longer serve as the primary Torah center. It was simply too dangerous. More than that, the Jewish community needed to transition to a model in which Torah study and Torah values did not emanate from a single, primary locus of Jewish life. Refusing to allow the rabbis' skepticism dissuade him from his sacred work, Ben Gamla proved resilient and made a transformative contribution to Jewish continuity.

Coming full circle, this message characterizes not just the life of Yehoshua ben Gamla but the fatherless children he helped to educate. Ben Gamla's mission was not just to provide Jewish education in every local community but, most important, for every single child. No child should be left behind, he insisted. It is our mandate to create Torah learning opportunities for everyone, including the underprivileged who might otherwise be excluded.

The legacies of Ben Gamla and the schools he founded are one and the same: everyone has the ability to make a lasting contribution to the Jewish learning and continuity. It is for good reason that the rabbis remembered Yehoshua ben Gamla, an unlikely hero, for good.