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The number of students taking the advanced matriculation Bible exam in recent years has dwindled drastically, a senior Education Ministry official said on Tuesday at a conference on Bible teaching in Tel Aviv.

Zvi Zameret, head of the Education Ministry's pedagogical council, also blasted the translation of the Bible into contemporary Hebrew used by many schools, as "a disaster."

"The Bible teaching situation is deteriorating alarmingly," said Zamaret at a Mofet Institute conference.

Only 481 students in the state education system took the advanced Bible matriculation exam last year, less than one percent of the students who take matriculation exams in Jewish state-run schools, Zameret said.

He said that 15 years ago "when we bemoaned the Bible's decline, students in the state education system had four weekly hours of Bible studies. Today they only study two hours a week. That is an elimination of the Bible and the Bible teachers," he said.

Zameret, who holds the third most important position in the ministry, said high school teachers are required to teach numerous classes to complete a full teaching position.

"Not many teachers can teach 400 children two hours a week. So sometimes they teach one semester and take the next one off, or teach one year and take a year off ... We're fighting a losing battle to increase Bible studies a little," he said.

He said the reason for the few hours allocated to Bible studies is that treasury officials determine the curriculum. "Fiscal issues are more important," he said.

Zameret said 10 years ago, 1,200 students took the advanced Bible matriculation exams and 600 students took them in 2004. In recent years the number dwindled to around 500. Some 5,000 students from state religious schools take the exam.

Zameret criticized Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar's decision to introduce a new subject - Culture and Jewish heritage - to the curriculum, implying that study hours earmarked for it came at Bible studies' expense.

"A decision has been made - not by me - to create this subject. It has a lot of positive things but also a price," he said.

Prof. Benjamin Ish-Shalom, who put together the new subject, said the study hours did not come at the expense of existing subjects. Zameret blasted the use of "Tanach Ram" - a translation of the Bible into modern Hebrew.

"This is a disaster of Biblical proportions," he said about the publication. "There's an unequivocal order [to schools] not to use those books. We see this rewriting of the Bible one of the greatest disasters to Bible studies," he said.

Zameret cited Education Ministry Director General Shimshon Shoshani as saying "bring me principals [whose schools use Tanach Ram] and we'll hang them in the city square."

So far 14 volumes of Tanach Ram have been published, in correspondence to Bible chapters taught in the curriculum.

"If Shoshani really said that, the path to burning books is very short," said Tanach Ram publisher Rafi Mozes.

"I don't understand why the ministry sees our project as a disaster. For every verse in the Bible we provide a paraphrase to contemporary Hebrew. We're trying to mediate between the Biblical text and today's Hebrew," he said.

Tanach Ram writer Avraham Ahuvia said "anyone can say whatever they want. According to the feedback I hear from the schools, the Education Ministry's claim is incorrect."

"The series is proving itself and is a lifeline to tens of thousands of students. Some schools bought the books for their library and of course the students buy them," a person involved with the Ram publication said.