“The custom was for young children to be initiated into Torah study with the Book of Vayikra. The children are pure, and the sacrifices are pure. Let the pure come and occupy themselves with the pure…” Vayikra Raba 7-3. (See Likutei Sichos of the Rebbe Volume 22 for an in depth and fascinating exposition on this verse).How was this done in the shtetl?
“I studied in the Cheder of Shlomo Hasofer. When I reached the age of four* the Rebbe began to prepare me for the awaited day when I would start to study Chumash. (the order for young children to begin their studies in Cheder is: a) alef bet b) siddur c) chumash, etc. *Customarily a boy begins chumash, the study of Torah, at the age of five.)
In addition to the first section of the book of Vayikra that I studied with all of its commentaries, I also had to prepare a discussion by heart and tell it over in my parent’s home on Shabbat, after the sweet afternoon nap. As was customary in those days, this was a “discourse” that was appropriate for a four year old boy who was starting to study Chumash.
I wish now to tell you about this “discourse”.
In the afternoon the students of Sholom Hasofer’s Cheder gathered in his home wearing their festive clothes along with the Bahelfer (Cheder assistant). I, the honoree of the party, appeared wearing a chain and my father’s watch. We walked in pairs through the marketplace to my parent’s home. The house was filled with relatives, neighbors, and friends who had come to hear my discourse on the first chapter of Vayikra.
The “discourse” took the form of a series of questions and answers. The Rabbi asked and I answered, sitting on a high chair.
“Come to me, oh young child!”
“I am not a young child, I am already a fine youth!”
“If you are already a fine youth, what have you succeeded in learning?”
“What does Chumash mean?”
“What? Five bagels for a ‘greitzer’ (a type of coin)?”
“No, five holy books of our holy Torah.”
“Bereshit, Shemot, Vayikra, Bamidbar, Devorim” (twirling my thumb around).
“And which are you learning?”
“This!” (I showed my middle finger).
“What? You are learning about your middle finger?”
“No! I am learning the third book of our holy Torah.”
“What is it called?”
“What is the meaning of Vayikra?”
“Who called? Did your mother call father? Perhaps the shamash (beadle) called the Jewish community to come to the shul (synagogue)?”
“No! Vayikra – He called. Hashem – G-d called, el -to Moshe – to someone whose name was Moshe, leymor – saying as follows: daber -tell el – to Bnei – the children Yisrael – the Jewish people .…. (The child would translate into Yiddish.)
Thus, did I continue to read the entire first chapter as the people around me melted with joy and contentment.
When the “discourse” concluded the Bahelfer (assistant) and a family member stood by the door and every child who left received a bag of goodies. The children spread through the city, running with joy. Then the gathered guests sat down with the Rebbe to enjoy food and drink as we celebrated the event with great importance and with an exalted spirit.
Thus four-year-old Isser started to study Chumash at a propitious time and became attached to the yoke of Torah.” *
Taken from Memories of My Childhood Years by Isser Eshel-Ichel with translation from the Hebrew by Jerrold Landau, slightly adapted. Isser dedicated this store to: “In memory of my father Daniel and my mother Reizel Rachel of blessed memory”.
The town of Bolechow, Ukraine is today known as Bolekhiv. It is a regional city in Kalush Raion of Ukraine (NW Ukraine). Before WWII the Jewish population was over 3000 and the majority of the city. Very few Jews survived the war. A Bolechow memorial monument can be found in the cemetery in Holon, Israel. The Chassidic rabbi of the community, Rabbi Shlomo Perlow, may G-d avenge his death, remained with his flock and was tortured and killed by the Nazis and Ukrainian police, may their name be erased. A number of documentaries have been printed about the atrocities committed in this city.
*Today in traditional Cheder schools, children learn Torah with Yiddish or English translation in the spirit of ‘Yaakov Saba’ – our Grandfather Jacob who taught his 12 sons and their progeny and established a Yeshiva for the study of Torah in Egypt. Torah study for children is the hallmark of Judaism and our future and survival.