The pietists and their affiliated groups who ultimately came to be subsumed under the general term of Pharisees, continued the tradition of Torah interpretation which ultimately came to be known as the Torah Shè-Be’al Pèh, the Oral Torah or Tradition of Interpretation. When citing a tradition which came to be enacted into law by the courts of the Pharisees; at first the Anshei Knesset Ha-Gedolah and later the Sanhedrin, those who expressed the majority opinion which became law would refer to a biblical passage which supported their view. Often the passage cited could be a phrase of two words, even of one word, and at times, the unique appearance of a single letter would serve to provide the Biblical foundation on which the law had been based after it had been decided by interpretation and agreement by a majority of the judges.
One remarkable example would be the two words in the famous passage in Deuteronomy 6:4-9, the prayer which Jews repeat every day, morning and evening and known as the Shema. After the initial declaration, Hear, Oh Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One, which is the proclamation of the faith of the people of Israel, the passage continues:
You should love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength. These words which I command you this day shall be on your heart, and you shall teach them to your children, and speak of them when you are at home, when you are traveling, you shall write them as a sign on your hand and as tablets on your forehead, and you shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on the gates of your cities.
This phrase, “you shall teach them to your children,”: which in the Hebrew original consists of but two words, veshinantam levanekha, was taken by the Pharisees as a divine commandment, just as the rest of the statements were taken as religious obligations. But this commandment meant, as far as the Pharisees were concerned, a divine demand that all children of the People of Israel shall be taught from early childhood how to read and write, the purpose being that they should study the Torah and become acquainted with its teachings. Incidentally, the verb “to teach” normally would be velimmadetem. But the verb used in this statement is veshinanten, which is stronger, and should be translated as “teach them diligently.”
This interpretation of two words in the Torah was, in effect, a revolutionary development in Jewish history, if not yet understood and applied to the world at large. This statement by the Pharisaic interpreters of the Torah means that universal compulsory education was established as a vital principle in Jewish life from the time of its decla-ration, in the first century before the Common Era, to the present day. This innovation was a blow directed against the Sadducees.
By making it clear that it was the divinely ordained obligation that every Jew teach his children the Torah, it also declared that there could not be a privileged class in Israel, an aristocracy who would be the guardians of the Torah because of their monopoly on learning. From the moment that the Pharisees interpreted the two words, veshinantam levanekha as a mitzvah, a divine commandment making universal education obligatory and compulsory, knowledge of the Torah would be the possession of all the people. This principle is reaffirmed in the first chapter of the Book of Joshua, where Israel is given the divine command, “The words of the Torah shall never depart from your mouth, and you shall study it day and night.” Learning and study became a universal and eternal duty, and thus has it remained a part of the tradition of Judaism throughout the ages.