The 18th World Congress of Jewish Studies

The Economic and Social Status of the Melamed as Reflected in the Responsa of Shimon and Shlomo Duran

In 1391, Shimon ben Tzemach Duran (Rashbatz) fled from Spain to Algiers where he served as chief rabbi and posek (halachic arbiter). His son Shlomo Duran (Rashbash) also wrote important legal rulings. The responsa of both rabbis include answers given to teachers (melamdim) concerning the terms and conditions of their employment. These responsa reflect the realities of the Jewish educational system as well as the image of the teacher, his status, function, rights, and obligations, in the eyes of parents, communal leaders, and the responders themselves. The responsa also reveal a network of overlapping responsibilities shared between the parents, teacher, and community (kahal). The teachers were employed by the community to perform multiple tasks including leading the prayers and ritual slaughter. However, although the community assumed responsibility for their employment and remuneration, the teachers were paid by the parents, who bore ultimate responsibility for their children’s education. The teachers attempted to safeguard their rights by drawing up written contracts. Economic constraints negatively impacted the teachers’ working conditions and the educational material culture. The authors of the responsa reveal a nuanced attitude toward the teacher’s status as a salaried worker, a low social and economic position, who was nonetheless engaged in holy work and entitled to the tax exemption awarded to Torah scholars. The responsa reflect the application of the Sephardi halachic tradition (especially as formulated in the responsa of Shlomo ibn Aderet in the thirteenth century) within the social and economic context of fifteenth-century North Africa. This paper will contribute to our understanding of the history of Jewish educational systems and halachic approaches to education and educators.