There was a very tender bond that united Jewish parents to their children. They had no more than nine different terms that each depicted a fresh stage of life for their child.
The first of these simply depicts the babe as the newly-born “jeled” son or “jaldah” daughter. This same term was applied to the prophecy of Jesus’ birth in Isaiah and in several other passages in the Bible.
The next child-name was “jonek”, which means a suckling. This word can also be used of plants and our English word ‘sucker’ comes from it. This word is used in Psalms 8: 2 – Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings has thou ordained strength because of thine enemies, that thou mightest still the enemy and the avenger.
The “babes” in the previous verse marks yet a third stage. This appears from many passages. The suckling is ready for more than just milk in this stage.
A fourth designation represents the child as the “gamul”, or weaned one. This comes from a verb that means to complete, and secondarily to wean. The period of weaning among the Hebrews was generally at the end of two years and was celebrated by a feast.
After that the fond eye of the Hebrew parent seems to watch the child as it is clinging to its mother as it were needing to know where she was all the time. This was called the “taph” stage.
The sixth period is marked by the word “elem”, which denotes becoming firm and strong. The child is growing up from the baby stage at this point.
The seventh is called “naar”, or youth. This literally means he who shakes off, or shakes himself free.
The last stage before adulthood was designated as “bachur”, or the ripened one. Young warrior was another name that they used. The parents must have been very fondly attached to their children to give us such a word picture of each stage of the life of the child.
Then the very last stage would be when they reached full fledged adulthood and were ready to make a way for themselves in the world.
There is a passage in the Mishnah that quaintly maps out and labels the different periods of life according to the child’s characteristics. It was written down that: “At five years of age, reading of the Bible; at ten years, learning the Mishnah; at thirteen years, bound to the commandments; at fifteen years, the study of the Talmud; eighteen years, marriage; at twenty, the pursuit of trade or business (active life); at thirty years, full vigour; at forty, maturity of reason; at fifty, for counsel; at sixty, commencement of agedness; at seventy, grey age; at eighty, advanced old age; at ninety, bowed down; at a hundred, as if he were dead and gone, and taken from the world.”
As with each of these years, it was only a guideline for the parent. At five the child was expected to start reading the Bible in Hebrew, but such early instruction was regarded as only safe in the case of very healthy and strong children. Those who were weaker were not expected to start this until six years old.
Another Talmudical saying was: “If you set a child to regular study before it is six years old, you shall always have to run after, and yet never get hold of it.” This has reference to the irreparable injury to health caused by such early strain upon the mind. Even if the child did not start regular school early, he was still expected to learn certain passages of scripture and say certain prayers by heart. A devout Jew knew so much scripture and had so much training that it was inevitable that he taught his child about many things of God before the child even started learning to read. Also there were many things around the house that the child would pick up much learning about Jewish customs just by living there everyday.
As soon as the child had any knowledge, he would be introduced to the prayers prayed by the family, the domestic rites of the weekly Sabbath ritual, and also when the feast periods came around each year. These festivals were so elaborate and festive that they had to have a profound effect on each child as he was growing up. Just imagine the first time a child went with his parents to The Temple in Jerusalem. It would surely be something he would never forget, with the great crowds of people and magnificent buildings. Then at a certain time in the sacrifice the people would all fall down in worship at the same time. Many of the songs that were sung there would be songs of worship to Jehovah that the child had heard many times since his birth.
Philo, the church historian, wrote that the Jews “were from their swaddling clothes, even before being taught either the sacred laws or the unwritten customs, trained by their parents, teachers, and instructors to recognize God as Father and as the Maker of the world:” and that “having been taught the knowledge (of the laws) from earliest youth, they bore in their souls the image of the commandments”. Josephus also wrote that “from their earliest consciousness they had learned the laws, so as to have them, as it were, engraven upon the soul.”
From the many writings found, it is evident that from century to century, the Jews used great carefulness in the upbringing of their children. Even though in older years the child, especially the males, were trained by the father; the mother had a profound influence on them in the younger ones. She was there constantly and was the one who gave them the most intimate care. Many Godly mothers were named as great influences on their sons, such as the mother and grandmother of Timothy, and the mother of James and John who walked with Jesus.
There must have been another and far greater New Testament instance of maternal influence in Israel, though. This would be none less than the Mother of Jesus Himself. This influence exerted upon Him by her seems implied throughout many of the Gospels. He grew up in a very pious home, and there was a synagogue in Nazareth. This will be explained in the next text, but there was probably a school attached to the synagogue. Moses and the Prophets would be read there and they would be taught the scriptures thoroughly. It is not known whether Jesus attended one of these schools, but his mind was thoroughly saturated with the Scriptures even down to minute details. It’s possible that they had a copy of these Scriptures at home so that He could read them there.
Also, Jesus was familiar with the art of writing, which was not common at all among people in those days. The words Jesus used in Matthew show that He had studied the original Hebrew and was learned in it. This familiarity from early childhood with the Scriptures in the original Hebrew also explains how at the age of twelve Jesus could be found sitting in the Temple both hearing and asking questions of the Rabbis.
At twelve years old, it was the practice to bring children up to the Temple at least one year before they became of age, or had their “Bar Mizvah” so that they could become familiar with the festive rites. This was most assuredly why Jesus was in the Temple at this time with all the other scholars of the day.
It was the practice at the time of the members of the various Sanhedrims to come out upon the Sabbaths and feast-days onto the terrace of the Temple. There they would publicly teach and expound Jewish truths and great liberty would be given of people to ask questions, have discussions, even object to certain things, and just be able to take part in the lectures that they gave. On ordinary days they sat as judges from the close of the morning to the time of the evening sacrifices.
On the occasion of Christ’s presence there, these same type of discussions would have been carried on during the “Moed Katon”, or minor festive days at the proper times. These discussions took place between the second and the last day of the Paschal week. Joseph and Mary had acted according to the law at the time, and returned on the third day back towards Nazareth, while Jesus remained behind.
It was because of the above circumstances that Jesus’ appearance in the midst of all the scholars did not at first cause undue attention. They thought His knowledge was astounding and remarkable because of his age, but since this was what happened during every feast time, they didn’t really think a whole lot about it. The only prerequisite for sitting and discussing with the Scribes was a thorough knowledge of the Scriptures in the Hebrew, and a proper understanding of them.
To the Jews, the greatest thing they could achieve was religious knowledge. That’s why they got together at these festival times, so they could show how much they had studied and how much knowledge they had obtained.