April 2nd, the birthday of the famed Danish author of children’s books, Hans Christian Andersen, who was born on that date in 1805, is celebrated as International Children’s Book Day. The day encourages children to read. The benefits of youth literacy are fairly self-evident, especially in a culture where texting and emailing have become, for better or for worse, a primary form of communication.

As the “People of the Book,” Jews ensure their national literacy by nurturing Jewish children to become the “Children of the Book.” This process, of course, begins with a child learning the Hebrew alphabet. Although the Mishnah (Avot 5:21) claims that formal education begins at the age of five, there is a tradition that children begin to learn to read at the age of 3. Some even have the custom of taking a chart of the Hebrew alphabet, and placing honey on the letters for the children to lick, to stress the sweetness of the Hebrew letters and encourage further study. Some associate this practice with a verse in Psalms (119:103): “How sweet are Your [God’s] words to my palate, sweeter than honey to my mouth.”

Within the culture of an oral tradition, Torah was transmitted from one generation to the next, and children were educated by parents, or by a surrogate for the parents. In the 1st century BCE, Rabbi Joshua ben Gamla ordained, well before the notion of public education for all, that each locale provide formal education to its youth. Establishing and enforcing this tradition assured a literate youth.

The Talmud declares (Shabbat 119b) that the casual statements (literally, “vapors from the mouth”) of the schoolchildren have the power to sustain the world, and that even the opportunity to rebuild the Temple does not supersede the education of Jewish youngsters; their education takes precedence. In the Selichot (special penitential prayers for fast days and the days of repentance prior to Yom Kippur) recited on the Fast of Esther, the author relates a story based on the aforementioned Talmudic aphorism. When word spread that Haman, Persia’s Prime Minister, selected a day to annihilate the Jews of the Persian kingdom, Mordechai purposely knocked at the door of a school and, while wearing sackcloth, a traditional garb of mourning, he sat on the ground and prayed for salvation along with the Jewish children, whose prayers are more powerful. The poem continues relating that God Almighty asked “Moses, what is this praying I hear?” and Moses responded that it was the “little ones” praying for their lives. At that moment, God’s compassion was stirred, and salvation was assured.

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