Teachers and Their Students
There is a strong logical connection between teaching and learning. We cannot
teach without learning and the best teachers are those who are lifelong students. Also, we can learn a new subject better if we also simultaneously teach someone else what we are learning. Both learning and teaching have always been very important Hebraic concepts and literacy and education are hallmarks of the Jewish people.
However, there is also a Hebrew etymological connection between teaching and learning because both ideas are derived from the same Hebrew root: lamed, mem, dalet: ( למד ). If you look up this root in the book, “501 Hebrew Verbs”, you will find that two important verbs come from this same root with the only difference being the vowels. You do not see the connection between ‘teach’ and ‘study’ in English, but in Hebrew it is crystal clear:
לָמַד – (la-mad) – meaning ‘he studied’ in the past tense, masculine, singluar, 3rd person and in the P’al binyan, the most common.
לִימֵד – (li-med) – meaning ‘he taught’ in the past tense, masculine, singular, 3rd person and in the Piel binyan, the 2nd most common.
תָלמִיד – (tal-mid) – a noun meaning ‘student’ or ‘disciple’
When reading the Biblical Hebrew text, you will soon come across a very tall letter, the only one that extends above the line; the letter lamed ( ל ). In order to analyze the significance of lamed in both biblical and post-biblical contexts, we must first understand some important concepts concerning the history of the Hebrew alphabet.
The original Hebrew letters looked very different from the block script of
today. [Modern Hebrew letters take their look from the Aramaic alphabet.] The original Hebrew letters, often called paleo-Hebrew, were all pictographs meaning they represented a picture of a concrete object. In order to understand the meaning of pictographs, we will look at the example of the letter lamed (ל) that Dr. Jeff Benner gives in the appendix of his book, “The Ancient Hebrew Language and Alphabet”, (which I highly recommend). The original pictograph for lamed looked like a shepherd’s staff. A shepherd’s staff had a curved end so that the shepherd could use it to capture or direct individual sheep who may be straying, etc. From this you can see how the pictograph of the shepherd’s staff eventually became the letter lamed. The shape of the letter evolved from the shape of a shepherd’s crooked staff, to the shape of the letter lamed. Going back to our root for both teaching and studying, למד, we note that lamed (ל ) is the first letter of the root. As the shepherd used his staff to direct the sheep, so our teachers direct our thinking so that we may learn the subject at hand.
Finally we will look at the noun, talmid ( תלמיד ) which means ‘student’ or ‘disciple’. It first appears in the Hebrew Bible in 1 Chronicles 25:8 and is translated in this verse as ‘scholar’ (from the Latin scola which means ‘school’ or ‘student’). In the New Testament the word ‘disciple’ occurs 270 times and Jesus’ followers are always referred to as disciples. It is important to note that in the New Testament era, discipleship was expressed by the teacher-student relationship. The learning process was not a matter of the disciple gaining knowledge, but it was more like an apprenticeship where the disciple learned how to “do” as the teacher “did”.
The Mishnah has a quote from Yose ben Yoezer, one of the earliest members of the rabbinic movement, who lived about two centuries before Jesus. The English translation roughly reads:
“Let thy house be a meeting-house for the wise;
and powder thyself in the dust of their feet;
and drink their words with thirstiness.”
Yose ben Yoezer was teaching people to make their homes places of Bible study, and to welcome itinerant teachers to learn from them. Before 70 AD, these teachers were called “sages” and afterwards, the title “rabbi” was used. The middle line of the quote above is sometimes translated as “sit amid the dust of their feet,” which referred to the custom of students honoring their teacher by sitting on the floor (at his feet) while he taught seated in a chair. From this custom arose the popular idiom used by students who studied under a teacher, of saying you “sat at his feet”. Paul used this idiom in Acts 22:3, “I am verily a man which am a Jew, born in Tarsus, a city in Cilicia, yet brought up in this city at the feet of Gamaliel, and taught according to the perfect manner of the law of the fathers, and was zealous toward God, as ye all are this day.”
And of course, it is used to describe Mary in Luke 10:39, “
And she had a sister called Mary, which also sat at Jesus’ feet, and heard his word.”
Dr. Howard had a sermon that he often preached from Luke 10 titled, “Sitting at the feet of Jesus”. He taught us that ultimately, Christians are to be like Mary and to be a disciple of Jesus Himself rather than of other believers regardless of how learned they are or what position they hold. We are to learn from Christ’s example, and then we are to teach others through our example and our words. The greatest teacher is the one who teaches us to be a disciple of Jesus Christ and I am so thankful that Dr. Howard did just that. May his memory be a blessing!