Vayigash -Goshen and the S&P

Jewish convention has it that when setting up a new Jewish community the first priority is to acquire a Jewish burial ground, then to establish a place of worship, and then everything else. However, when Ya’akob and his children descended to Egypt, he sent Yehuda ahead ‘lehorot lefanav Goshna,’ to show the way before him to Goshen (Genesis 46:28).’ Rashi invokes the Midrash that explains that Yehudah was tasked with establishing a place of ‘hora’ah’ (from lehorot), a place of teaching. In other words, to establish a Bet Talmud, a house of study. However, if Jewish law does not actually prioritise the establishment of a Bet HaMidrash over other institutions what then is the meaning of this Midrash?

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London’s Velho (old) Cemetery 

In his Sifte Hahamim, R. Shabbetai Bass writes that there is a further illusion to this Midrash in the verse. The word ‘horot’ usually includes the Hebrew letter ‘vav’ twice, however, in this instance only the first ‘val’ is used. That leaves us with the letters ‘vav’, ‘heh’, ‘resh’, and ‘tav’, which scrambled spell the word ‘TORaH’!

I mention this second allusion, because R. Shabbetai Bass actually visited Amsterdam’s Portuguese community in the 1670s. He was visiting from Poland as part of his attempt to catalog Europe’s Jewish libraries. What he discovered in Amsterdam, at Congregation Talmud Torah, inspired him. He visited the community’s Yeshiba, the Ets Haim Bet HaMidrash (which in London morphed into the Society of the Heshaim). He wrote the following about it in his book ‘Sifte Yishenim’:

“Some time ago I came here to the holy congregation of Amsterdam and I visited the schools of the Sephardim a number of times. There I saw children of the giants, small children as tiny as grasshoppers, and kids who have become he-goats, but all were in my eyes like giant because of their great expertise in Torah, grammar, poetry, and clear Hebrew speech. Happy is the eye which has seen all this!”

R. Bass was particularly impressed by the school’s successful progressive learning model. Students were divided into six levels, and as they progressed from level to level they were introduced to new subjects and skills. R. Bass even advocated that Ashkenazi yeshibot adopt the methodology of Amsterdam’s Sephardim.

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Ets Haim Yeshiba

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Ets Haim Library/Bet HaMidrash

I believe that the above Midrash about Goshen is conveying an idea. The idea is that the backbone of any Jewish community is its Yeshiba, and the Jewish education that it provides to its children and adults. If a community is only about burial grounds and prayer, but not also about pedagogy, then it is missing its soul and the key to its continuity. In fact, wherever the Spanish & Portuguese Jews went, they established schools and places of study. This was true in London and Livorno, Philadelphia and Pernambuco, Curacao and Charleston, and everywhere else.

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Standing at the spot of London’s first S&P Synagogue (1657) on Creechurch Lane

Indeed, the first minute book of New York’s Shearith Israel reports sthat in 1731 “On the 21st of Nisan, the 7th day of Pesach, [1731] the day of completing the first year of the opening of the synagogue, there was made codez [consecrated] the Yeshibat called Minhat Areb…for use of this Congregation Sheerit Israel and as a Beth Hamidras for the pupils.”

This is an important reminder. If Spanish & Portuguese communities the world over wish  to ensure their vitality, they must invest in Jewish education. That education can take on many different forms, but it needs to touch every child, regardless of whether they attend other Jewish schools or secular programs. If S&P synagogues stand for something Jewishly, then they need to find a way to communicate it directly to all of their children, and to their adults, through meaningful Jewish learning.

Toward that end, it is our intent at Bevis Marks Synagogue to reestablish a Judaica library and a Bet HaMidrash in our adjoining hall. Bevis Marks was once surrounded by community buildings. These included the community school Sha’are Tikva (of which I am the headmaster), though the school is now located at our Lauderdale Rd Synagogue in Maida Vale.

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Sha’are Tikva Today

Bevis Marks is renowned for its historic synagogue, and its authentic S&P services. It is time that it is also known as a place of Torah and Jewish continuity. We already offer a variety of shiurim and lectures, and we are now ready for a Bet HaMidrash.

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Please help us to establish the ‘Bevis Marks Bet HaMidrash’. Help Bevis Marks Synagogue become a centre for authentic Torah study in the heart of London. We already have the bookshelves, we now just need to fill them!

We are looking to raise £5000 to achieve this goal. Any donation toward our cause will be greatly appreciated and recognised. To contribute please donate through our website and indicate ‘Bevis Bet HaMidrash.’ Thank you!

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