“Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” – Matthew 11:29
The three stages of education within Judaism during the time of Jesus were Bet Sefer, Bet Talmud, and Bet Midrash. Each stage included specific age groups of Jewish boys. Girls also participated in Bet Sefer.
Bet Sefer means “House of the Book.” Education usually took place in the synagogue where the focus was on reading, writing, and memorization of the Torah (Pentateuch): Bereshit/Genesis, Shemot/Exodus, Vayikra/Leviticus, Bamidbar/Numbers, Devarim/Deuteronomy. This is how many today use their devotional time. The individual reads a passage of Scripture, listens as specific words and phrases speak to them, and writes such verses into a journal. They then pray the verse.
Bet Talmud means “House of Learning.” Boys ten to twelve focused on studying the rest of the Jewish Scripture and the oral interpretations of the Torah. Students learned to answer a question with a question and to cite other passages to support their points. Today such study might involve examining Bible commentaries that examine the verse in its original language and review how certain words or phrases are used in other parts of Scripture.
Beth Midrash means “House of Study.” Boys studied under a famous rabbi. Rabbi’s selected their students and only those boys believed to show great potential were selected. The focus was on understanding and applying the Torah and oral tradition to daily life in a more intense way. The student, usually called a “talmid” (disciple), would attach himself to (be yoked with), and travel with, the rabbi as part of his education. His goal was to become like his rabbi and learn his “halakoth” (to walk, go) until he internalized it. This continued until he became a full-fledged rabbi or scribe at the age of thirty. Without training at the Beth Midrash, a man could not be recognized as formally educated. Though the first two stages (elementary schools) were probably affordable and accessible to the average Jewish boy, the third stage (higher schools/rabbinic academies) were probably for boys who were intelligent, talented and from well-to-do homes.
We can assume that Peter, James, John, and the rest of those Christ called to be his disciples failed to make the cut for Beth Midrash. No rabbi called them to be a talmid. So when Jesus says to those who failed to make the cut, “Take my yoke upon you,” he is offering all who will follow a chance to become a talmid disciple and learn his halakoth, his way of walking.
Imagine you were one of those young men who failed to make it past grade school and then one day, while you are mending your father’s fishing nets, you are called to follow a rabbi. Would you go? Would you abandon the family business? What would you tell your wife, your kids?
Imagine you were one of those young women who never had the chance to learn the finer points of Scripture, never learned to banter with a rabbi, never learned to walk in the way of a rabbi because you were sent back home to be trained as a wife, mother, and caretaker for a family. Would you walk away from your husband, children, and home in order to become a disciple?
“My coursework is only an hour or so a day,” says Jesus. “The study guides are easy. Learn from me. I am a gentle teacher. I am humble. I am here if you need help. My door is always open. When you study with me your soul will rest and be refreshed. Will you come and learn from me?”