Word of the Day / Beit Midrash: From School to School of Thought

In modern Hebrew, beit midrash has expanded to refer to the followers of a particular person or to that person’s school of thought.

Ilene Prusher

Anna Freud, Aharon Barak and Zahava Gal-On may be known for a lot of things (founding child psychoanalysis and having Sigmund as a dad, serving as the chief justice of Israel’s Supreme Court, and being the outspoken chairwoman of Meretz, respectively,) but running a center for Torah study is not one of them.

All the same, various Hebrew articles refer to the beit midrash – the Torah study hall – of each of them. What gives?

First, let’s take a look at what a beit midrash is.

Click here to get 'Word of the Day' sent directly to your inbox.

Beit means “house of.” Midrash can refer to a non-literal explanation of something in the Torah or a story with a built-in moral that typically attempts to fill in some of the background details that are left out of the biblical text.

In the term beit midrash, though, the word means “study,” such that the term literally means “house of study.” It is often a book-filled room in a yeshiva or synagogue that is dedicated to the study of the Talmud, the Bible and other religious texts. Don’t expect a full beit midrash to have a quiet, library-like ambience, though; this kind of study is often quite vocal and conducted in pairs, creating a far more raucous atmosphere than your average librarian would ever tolerate.

In a religious context, you can have a beit midrash of a particular yeshiva or a particular rabbi, like the beit midrash of Shem and Ever, where various midrashim say the patriarchs studied.

In modern Hebrew, the terminology has expanded to refer to the followers of a particular person or to that person’s school of thought, regardless of its religious content. Not only can you talk about beit midrasha shel Anna Freud to refer to her school of thought, you can also use the term to refer to a general concept.

There are references to the beit midrash of the left, of the right, of Russian literature, psychology and conceptual art. (“According to the beit midrash of conceptual art... the value of an artist isn’t measured by his artistic skill, but by his original thought.”)

Beit midrash may have started life as a religious term, but who says it has to stay that way? That would be so old-school.

To contact Shoshana Kordova with column suggestions or other word-related comments, email her at shoshanakordova@gmail.com. For previous Word of the Day columns, go to: www.haaretz.com/news/features/word-of-the-day