• Home
  • Parashah
  • Ask the Rabbi
  • Festivals
  • Freemasonry
  • Articles
  • About
  • Books
  • Media

    A.B. Davis’s textbook – a 100th yahrzeit tribute

    The following article by Rabbi Raymond Apple appeared in the Journal of the Australian Jewish Historical Society in June 2014, Vol. XXI, Part 4.

    Alexander Barnard DavisTo mark the 100th yahrzeit of Rev Alexander Barnard Davis, a classical figure of the Victorian-age Jewish ministry,[1] this article looks at Jewish Rites Explained, the textbook on Judaism which he wrote in 1869 and which was reprinted at least twice, in 1879 and 1902.[2]

    Davis served the Sydney Jewish community, first at the York Street Synagogue and then at the Great Synagogue in Elizabeth Street, for 41 years (1862-1903), setting the pattern for what has since generally been a series of lengthy incumbencies at the “Mother Congregation” of Australian Jewry. He was an impressive preacher, melodious officiant, respected pastor, effective charity collector, and dedicated educationist, but neither a Talmudic scholar/theologian, nor a particularly productive writer.

    He was not the first Jewish minister to produce a locally-written textbook. This distinction was held by Rev Morrice R Cohen.[3] In 1855 (seven years before Davis’s arrival) Cohen published a small 30-page book entitled Principles of Judaism Arranged in the Form of Question and Answer for the Use of Scholars of Zion House School, Sydney. Zion House in Pitt Street was an early Jewish school. The first such school was the Sydney Hebrew Academy founded by Rev Moses Rintel in 1846. Cohen taught Hebrew and religion at Zion House, and based his book on his lesson notes. The book was a pioneer piece of work, but it never enjoyed the fame of Davis’s Rites, though it was the first Jewish book published in Australia and would today be amongst the rarest pieces of Australian Judaica. There is or was a copy in the State Library of NSW, but no other is known. We can see its drawbacks when we read passages like these:

    Question: In beholding the marvellous work of the indescribable God, how might we, all God’s loving creatures and natural beings of His own formation, to glorify Him?
    Answer: With the utmost of our power, with energy of faith and purity of mind.[4]

    The children learned the answers by rote. Not only was this a common method of teaching at the time but Cohen also had his limits as a teacher. Employed as reader and mohel (ritual circumciser), he knew enough Hebrew to conduct religious services, but he was neither erudite nor an expert educator, though he did his best to fulfil the wish of the Synagogue committee “that for the purpose of furthering the ends of and the advancement of our Holy Religion, amongst our Youthful Members… a competent Master be engaged to instruct them in the Mosaic Religion, and in the ordinary and most approved courses of English education”.[5]

    Davis, on the other hand, had a relatively good background in Judaism, though he was no rabbi and lacked the academic qualifications of his son-in-law, Rabbi Dr Joseph Abrahams of the Melbourne Hebrew Congregation.[6] In his youth in London he had been a pupil teacher, and at the age of 20 was headmaster of the Westminster Jews’ School. For a time he was the minister in Jamaica but the climate did not agree with his wife. London in those days was poorly equipped with teaching aids and textbooks: Sydney was worse. The Sydney community was small, largely ignorant of Hebrew and lax in observance of the commandments, though some of its members had come from relatively orthodox homes in England. Not all children received instruction. Jewish education took three forms: private teaching; “dame” schools conducted by well-meaning Jewish ladies; and a series of denominational schools. All three types of teaching lacked trained or even modestly competent teachers, though it gained gold in Louis Pulver, a remarkable teacher, who served as the Sydney community’s headmaster from 1885-1897, and the author of effective textbooks on Hebrew language and Bible translation as well as his most famous work, Bible Stories for Little People, which was reprinted several times.[7]

    Prior to Davis’s appointment, the Sydney Synagogue had been through a tumultuous period. There were the difficult years with Rev Dr Herman Hoelzel[8] and the 1859 communal split when the Macquarie Street Synagogue came into existence in opposition to the establishment synagogue in York Street, partly because of the (probably halachically justified) actions of MR Cohen in a case involving the circumcision of the child of a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother.[9] When York Street Synagogue needed a minister it sought, and found in Davis, a man of good sense and stability, who amongst other things eventually re-united the community.

    From the moment of his arrival in 1862, Davis attempted, with varying success, to improve the community’s education situation, and he was able in 1863 to create the Sydney Jewish Sabbath School, which met on Saturdays after the Sabbath service. It came into being “in union with the Association, London”, that is the Jewish Association for the Diffusion of Religious Knowledge, founded in 1860. Amongst its other activities the Association provided Sabbath classes on Saturday afternoons. Funds were sent to the Association in recognition of the “entertaining and instructive” tracts which it sent to Sydney, which were amongst the few Jewish publications that most of the community ever saw, there being as yet no regular Jewish press in Australia. Subscribers to the Sabbath School (including those who lived in country districts) had the London tracts sent to them by post.[10] Amongst these publications was a Jewish response to the criticism of the Pentateuch and Book of Joshua by Bishop Colenso of Natal.[11] One is impressed to think that scholarly controversies even reached a readership in the Antipodes, though how many Jewish adults, much less their children, could handle such heavy material?

    Originally the Sabbath School targeted girls only,[12] because the existing day school, the Sydney Hebrew School, only taught boys, leaving most of the girls without access to Jewish education. Within a year the day school admitted girls too, and the Sabbath School thereupon broadened its range and taught both sexes, in separate boys’ and girls’ classes. The girls were apparently more receptive than the boys. The initial enrolment of 14 soon climbed to 81 with an average weekly attendance of 45. By the time of the third annual report there was a roll of 106 (67 boys and 39 girls), with 16 teachers. The pupils were from “all grades of society”, and the School’s supporters provided good clothes for some of the needier pupils. Originally the Sabbath School met at the Pitt Street rooms of the Sydney Hebrew School, a short walk from the Synagogue. It is not recorded whether all the Sabbath School pupils attended services before their Sabbath School classes.

    At first there were parents who objected to sending their children to lessons on the basis that after a week at school the youngsters needed a rest from study on the Sabbath, but before long the parents changed their minds. There were no harsh disciplinary methods; the classes were run with “mildness and love”.[13] Some but not all of the pupils attended both the day school and the Sabbath School. In the first year there were six female and five male voluntary teachers. Sabbath sessions regularly saw adult visitors, some of whom must have been parents of the pupils and possibly used the children’s lessons to repair defects in their own Jewish education. We are not certain how many fathers worked on Saturdays and sent the children to synagogue with their mothers or some other adult. Children who lived in the inner city were able to walk to and from the Synagogue by themselves. Davis and the Sabbath School honorary secretary, Louis Phillips, were in attendance more or less every week. Phillips was a dedicated communal worker who was president of the congregation for ten terms.

    Over the years the venue of the classes changed. During the time that they met at the premises of the day school, the Sabbath School management met the expenses of cleaning and setting up the classrooms. After the Great Synagogue was built in the late 1870s, the classes took place in the Synagogue itself and/or the rooms at the Castlereagh Street end of the Synagogue. For a time they moved to the nearby Carrington Hall, but the committee found it difficult to raise the necessary funds to pay rent for the hall, and the classes returned to the Synagogue. The Sabbath School was in a better financial position than the community-wide Jewish Education Board founded in 1885 which – after the Public Instruction Act of 1880 removed government funding from denominational schools, leading to the closure of the Jewish school – conducted “Right of Entry” classes at government schools as well as Sabbath, Sunday and weekday classes at the Synagogue. Because the Education Board was not financially stable, it was the Sabbath School which – at least initially – met the expenses for the annual tea and entertainment organised by the Board. The Sabbath School continued in independent operation until 1909, after which the nature of Shabbat morning children’s activities at the Great Synagogue took various forms, in latter years as a children’s service. Sabbath School numbers fluctuated, partly due to the weather (children did not always come if the day was too hot, too cold, too windy or too rainy), but on the whole it attracted a significant proportion of the children of the congregation. Its pattern was emulated by suburban congregations as they came into being, in Newtown and Bankstown and then in other areas of the metropolis.

    Who were the Sabbath School teachers? No comprehensive list is available but we get the impression that Davis utilised the services of more or less anybody who had a modicum of knowledge and he acknowledged defects in the “teaching power” of the voluntary staff.[14] Not that he left them without guidance. His book more or less fulfilled the role of a syllabus, and he tried to instil some of the elements of educational practice in his “teachers”. When the Sabbath School became part of the Education Board in 1909 there were still over 300 children on the Sabbath registers with a weekly attendance of about 200. Presuming that many or most came to shule first and added to the attendance of adults, there would have been a sizable Sabbath congregation; Davis ruled the service with a firm hand and commanding eye, so that decorum must have been impressive.

    The 16 Sabbath School teachers in 1866 included Miss Minnie Cohen, Mr Saber, Mr N Emanuel, Miss Woolf, Miss Sara Cohen, and others. In 1871 there were 19 classes. With so many groups to supervise Davis must have had a busy time after Sabbath services ended. In those days there was no weekly Kiddush after the service. Whilst most people lived in the inner city, some children walked home after Sabbath School. That others went home to the suburbs by public transport is to be assumed. Some of the staff were former pupils. They included Joseph Jacobs, born in 1854, who left Sydney for Cambridge University and became a famous writer, editor, historian, folklorist and storyteller in England and the United States of America. Little is known of Jacobs’ early Jewish education but we have to presume that Davis played a significant part in the development of the young scholar. Jacobs taught at the Sabbath School in 1871-1872.[15]

    From the beginning of his ministry, Davis saw that he could not automatically replicate London in Australia, though it was easier in religious matters than in the educational field. The London model of Minhag Anglia (“the English Usage”) became the pattern of the liturgical practices of York Street and later the Great Synagogue. Indeed the name “Great Synagogue” may have been chosen in conscious imitation of and tribute to the historic Great Synagogue in Dukes Place in the City of London. In some respects Sydney was even more English than Dukes Place, for instance in the fact that for many decades the Sabbath and festival haftarot (prophetical readings on Sabbath and festivals) were generally read in English and not Hebrew.

    The educational needs of London and Sydney differed considerably. In London a primary aim was the anglicisation of the children, many of whom were immigrants from Europe who had picked up a smattering of various languages; the Jews’ Free School endeavoured to teach them good English. In Sydney the priority was different, not so much linguistic but ethnic: that of a minority seeking to maintain its faith and culture, hence the name (“Old Songs in a New Land”) chosen for the New South Wales Jewish community’s bicentenary program in 1988. The education system in London had to provide for a socioeconomic spectrum ranging from the illiterate poor to the elegantly wealthy. In Sydney the middle class dominated. There were few really affluent or extremely needy Jewish families, though the latter could not afford the membership fees of the Synagogue.

    Davis at first sought guidance from London but found that this was not likely to help. The preface to his book says that “a correspondence has long been pending with gentlemen in London and New York, engaged in the education of our youth, for the supply of… a manual, but these overtures have only been met by the frank acknowledgment that such a work was required as much by them as by us, and that, consequently, they laboured under a similar difficulty”.[16] Britain had both “public” institutions, which provided food, clothing and education, and “private”, fee-paying schools for the children of the gentry. In the first category the most famous was the Jews’ Free School, founded in 1732 as the Talmud Torah of the Great Synagogue. Later it became the largest school in Europe and possibly the world.[17] It was reorganised early in the nineteenth century when Chief Rabbi Solomon Hirschell protested against sending Jewish children to conversionist institutions.

    We are not certain what if any religious textbooks were used in the schools. It is likely that pupils were drilled in catechical lists of data and set translations of passages from the prayer book and Pentateuch. The schools may have used a work by Rev Abraham Pereira Mendes, Torath Moshe: A Catechism of the Jewish Religion, published in 1861. Mendes liked catechisms: when he was minister in Birmingham a catechical exchange was part of his “confirmation” services. One solitary copy of his Torath Moshe existed in Sydney, though there were several copies of a textbook by “Dr” Asher, probably Initiation of Youth by Rev Benjamin Henry Ascher, published in 1850. Cecil Roth’s Magna Bibliotheca Anglo-Judaica has a meagre list of six items under “School Books”, though there were several Hebrew grammars, mostly intended for Christians. The catalogue of the 1960 London exhibition, Anglo-Jewish Religious Education, also has very few textbooks, though, interestingly, one is for girls (The Jewish Preceptress, published in 1818). At the Jewish schools, Hebrew reading included the rudiments of Biblical Hebrew, with the older pupils being drafted to tutor the younger. Select pupils were introduced to Mishnah by zealous teachers, generally after school hours. One of the few textbooks was by Henry Abraham Henry, a teacher who became head of the Free School and wrote a work colloquially known as Henry’s Classbook. If it used the heavy style of his Series of Six Discourses it would have been hard going even though it was reprinted at least seven times. Other teachers presumably used (and maybe dictated to the children) their own lesson notes, without turning the notes into books.

    Though Davis was a product of the London Jewish educational system, he could not rely on London curricula, teaching aids or textbooks. In a sense this gave him free rein, and he proved to be an innovator in the field of extra-curricular education, setting up as adjuncts to the Sabbath School a children’s library and a savings bank. The pupils had outings such as a picnic at Clontarf. Once a year there was “a repast”.

    Jewish rites explained alexander barnard davisBefore addressing Davis’s educational ideas, let us record some of the technical details of his book. Its full title was Jewish Rites Explained: Together with Reference Texts to the Thirteen Articles of Jewish Faith and Prayers for Children on Different Occasions. The idea and nucleus seem to have derived from Davis’s 1866 compilation (later published) of questions on Judaism together with a declaration of faith for use at a girls’ confirmation service, one of the earliest of such services in Anglo-Jewry, the precedent coming from the Central Synagogue in Great Portland Street, London.

    The 65-page book Davis wrote was sponsored by the Sabbath School, whose management undertook to give Davis any profits that were made from selling the book. The first edition was supported by over 400 subscribers, listed at the end of the book. An analysis of the subscribers’ list, reprinted in all three editions, comes later in this paper. The first two editions used only English type, presumably because that was all that was available at the time. The first edition was printed by F Cunninghame and Co. and the second by The Caxton (Henry Solomon), both of Pitt Street. A Hebrew font was introduced in the third edition, printed by Harris & Son, publishers of the Hebrew Standard. The Harris family were now the community’s regular printers. The Hebrew in the third edition had at least one glaring mistake (etrog spelt with a samech and not a tav), which suggests either carelessness on the part of the author or a lack of adequate proof-reading. Throughout the book (in all its editions) there are strange transliterations, which lead to the question of what Hebrew pronunciation Davis instilled in his pupils. It is unexpected for an Ashkenazi to use a Sephardi “ng” for the ayin in Shema, making the word Shemang – but if he believes this is how to pronounce an ayin, why does he say Omer and not Ngomer? Whatever pronunciation he favours, why distortions such as Simchos (Torah) instead of Simchas? The letter tav is sometimes “s” (matzos) and sometimes “th” (berachoth); chet is sometimes “ch” (Simchoth) and sometimes “h” (hatan); vet is usually “b”, not “v” (Abib, Tebeth). He is inconsistent when it comes to the final hey, so that we get Ameedah and Torah but also Habdala and Mishna. Vowels are sometimes quite wrongly rendered, e.g. shibarim, not shev(b)arim; shemine, not shemini; tekeah, not tekiah; and cohenim, not c(k)ohanim.

    These cannot be the mistakes of a writer in a hurry since they are repeated in later editions of the book when the author obviously had time to repent at leisure. They also cannot be attributed to the old Anglo-Jewish pronunciation, which its deriders called Anglo-Cockney and which long flourished in anglicised congregations like St. Kilda in Melbourne and the Great Synagogue in Sydney. Strange though that pronunciation sounds to many modern ears, it was at least consistent. It is possible, though, that Davis was careful in the way he pronounced the Hebrew consonants and vowels in sermons, speeches and lessons, but he might have allowed peculiarities to enter his written work. A further consideration may be that his text was written in long-hand and the mistakes came when the compositor tried to decipher the handwriting and set up the pages for printing, though again one wonders if Davis checked the text between printed editions.

    From the three sections into which the book was divided – rites, beliefs and prayers – we get an idea of the “religion” part of the Sabbath School curriculum, though Bible stories must also have been taught. To what extent midrashic (homiletical) elaborations of the stories were utilised is not certain, but some of the Midrashim are so famous that it is hardly possible that they were not included. The children learnt to recite in English translation the Thirteen Articles of Faith, a number of the main prayers, the Ten Commandments, and some of the psalms, and to sing some of the prayers (in Hebrew?).

    The general press often carried reports of Jewish events, including Sabbath School annual examinations and subscribers’ meetings. Some of these reports are accessible from online archives.[18] For example, in August 1866, the Sabbath School’s annual examination and distribution of prizes began with recitations from the pupils and oral tests in the principles of religion. Interestingly, “the whole of the pupils were then examined in the Bible, and gave evidence of their intimate acquaintance with its contents”.[19] On the equivalent occasion in 1871 “the children were… closely questioned with regard to the texts upon which the articles (of faith) were based, the Scriptures, and the manners and customs of the Jews in religious matters”.[20] The examinations were conducted by Davis, in later years joined by Louis Pulver. This procedure presumably followed that customary in Christian Sunday Schools. In one report Davis is said to have spent almost every Sunday at the Sabbath School, but this may be because a Christian reporter thought that “Sabbath” meant Sunday.

    The written style of the book is lucid and clear. Over a hundred years later we would probably criticise Davis for his “high” English. We wonder how children reacted to words like “incumbent”, “thither”, “abide”, “beneficence”, to quote only a sprinkling of terms from the chapter on Sukkot, but we have to admit that on the whole, in contrast to the florid, sometimes stilted style of his age, he had a rather modern way of expressing himself. Even the prayers for children at the end of the book are couched in intelligible, albeit “high”, verbiage. In assessing his style we have to bear in mind that the British clergy, including the Jews, were heavily influenced by the King James version of the Bible. Even though Dr Michael Friedlander, principal of Jews’ College in London, drew attention to christological phrases in the King James Version which Jews of course could not accept or use, the rhetorical and writing styles of Anglo-Jewish clergy were generally rather archaic. These days, by way of contrast, some rabbis err in the opposite direction.

    Modern scholars might question Davis’s approach to a number of historical, halachic (legal) and theological problems. One cannot be sure that Davis was even aware that problems existed, and even if he did it could be said in his defence that he was writing for the person in the pew (or rather, that person’s children), and complex issues were above their heads. Whilst far from a total list, the following are matters where Davis gives answers and explanations that scholars would question or at least analyse in more depth:
    • The origin and purpose of the Mishna (sic, first part of the Talmud) which Davis explains as necessary because persecution led to “the teachers of the law (being) continually diminished in number”.
    • The origin and purpose of the Gemara (second part of the Talmud), which Davis says was added to the Mishnah “to amplify and illustrate”.
    • The occasions for the priestly blessing, which Davis regards as limited to “the high festivals”. Actually, the priestly blessing of the congregation did not begin at the Great Synagogue until the 1970s.
    • The source of covering the head, which he attributes to eastern custom as a mark of dignity, whilst uncovering the head is a sign of mourning or guilt.
    • The lengthy chapter on Chanukah naturally speaks of kindling lights but does not refer to the Bet Shammai/Bet Hillel controversy as to whether to begin with eight lights and go down to one, or to act vice-versa.

    Some observances are ignored: for example, whilst correctly stating that white vestments are worn on Yom Kippur, no reference is made to not wearing leather footwear; yet the former observance is mere minhag whilst the second is halachah (complete body of Jewish law). Yet the author shows considerable skill in drawing symbolic lessons from Jewish practices: such as washing the hands can be taken as denoting that “our thoughts and our language should be guided by purity, and governed by decency”, and the wearing of tzitzit (which he spells tzissith) on the four corners of a garment (he calls it arbang kanfous) is a lesson in subduing pride – “not to be enticed by ostentatious show, nor finery, and so (to) bear in mind, that our highest honor (sic) consists in the fulfilment of our religious and moral duties”. He shows an acquaintance with the terminology of several disciplines, including music: the Kaddish “is chanted alike in the plaintive and the jubilant, the andante and the allegro”. He shrewdly avoids adopting the conventional translation (“I believe with perfect faith”) of the introduction to each of the Thirteen Principles, preferring to say “We believe that”, since belief “with perfect faith” is not Maimonidean and may have been introduced from outside as a preface to Maimonides’ thirteen fundamentals of Judaism.

    Towards the end of the book there is quite an important section in which, following Maimonides, Davis provides a Biblical basis for each of the Thirteen Principles. Though Davis does not contribute much if any personal scholarship to this section, he seems to think that the Principles have the status of a formal Jewish list of dogmas, even though current scholarship finds difficulties in the Maimonidean text and queries whether the Principles really are the last word in Jewish theology.

    Davis may have had one eye on the Christian environment and thought that since the Churches had official creeds which children learnt at Sunday (or Sabbath) School, the Jewish children of the Colony needed a Jewish equivalent. If other respectable faiths had articles of belief, so did Judaism. This not only presented Judaism as a valid and indeed more logical alternative to the dominant faith, but was also a form of polemic, making Jewish children able, in their own minds at least, to counter Christian claims. Whilst Maimonides himself does not claim to have compiled his list as a direct response to Christianity, a number of his Articles clearly but subtly address basic Christian positions as well as Islamic and Karaite interpretations[21] and arguments, to which some of the Articles also impliedly respond. Jews did not actually have to face any challenge from either Islam or Karaism in Australia, only from Christianity. It is not that Davis expected the Christians themselves to take notice of his arguments, or even to buy his book and become aware of what he wrote, but Jews lived amongst Christians and could have been targeted by missionaries, so it was necessary for Jewish children (and their parents) to be aware that Scripture did not necessarily support the theology of the host society. In this respect the commentary Davis provides in small print concerning the twelfth Principle[22] is particularly significant in that it demonstrates that the Biblical requirements of the promised Messiah have not yet been fulfilled in human history. If a Jewish child were tempted to see Jesus as Messiah, this material helped to overcome the temptation.

    The book ends (apart from the list of subscribers to the first edition) with a set of especially composed English prayers for children to recite at the beginning and end of Sabbath and daily study, as well as prayers to be said each morning and evening. It is a fair assumption that the pupils of the Sabbath School recited the Sabbath study prayers at the beginning and end of each class session. Whilst some of the phraseology echoes the Bible, none of these passages is couched in the traditional liturgical language (in Hebrew and English) chosen by Davis’s younger London colleague Rev Simeon Singer for the final pages of the Authorised Daily Prayer Book sanctioned by Chief Rabbi NM Adler and first published in 1892. Forgiving the occasional typographical errors (such as “We reverently offer to the”), Davis’s style is not nearly as heavy as one might have feared and is indeed quite poetic. As an example, the daily morning prayer thanks God for:

    waking us once more to another day – to new life – to see the glories of the rising sun, and enjoy the light of Thy evershining goodness, and Thy never-failing grace. No words, the depth of our thanks can tell, for the guarding care that watched our couch, that preserved us from troubled dreams, and refreshed our strength anew to follow our daily course…[23]

    The preface has to be read carefully to gain an idea of the author’s purpose in writing the book. As we would expect, Davis desires to convey the essence of Judaism, not just the outer form, to his young readers: “to instil a little of this ‘essence’ into the pliant minds of the Jewish children now growing up in our midst.” He knows:

    …that the forms and ceremonies of our faith are not generally understood. Some follow them with exactness from a superstitious interpretation: others deem them worthy of no reverence; while others have a smile upon their countenances when such are performed as waving the Lulav, or holding the finger-nails before the light at the service of Habdala. These arise, in many instances, from a want of knowledge of their origin and effect.[24]

    So his aim – as the reader would expect – is to teach the origin, effect and symbolism of the Jewish way of life. This is very lucid, very laudable, and probably a true picture of the range of attitudes towards Judaism he encountered in his now variegated Sydney community. What is missing is whether the children saw inconsistency in the actions of their elders, who in theory believed in what their minister preached but in practice made constant compromises and presumably caused conflict in the minds of their children. This probably applied across the board in the Sydney Jewry of Davis’s time, including those who held leading office in the Sabbath School itself and in the Synagogue’s lay management. It is certainly not a new problem, and it is still far from having abated. Stock answers were and are possible – “If only the parents would give a better example”, “If only more families would slowly raise their standards of observance”, “If only the children would teach the parents and the parents would listen to their children”.

    There is a further option, which the book does not touch upon but is implicit in the obituaries of Davis. That is the option of impliedly endorsing the compromises. An obituary writer[25] remarked that Davis approved the widespread Sydney custom of supposedly orthodox Jews travelling on the Sabbath. Not that he transgressed the law himself, nor that he merely tacitly accepted the people’s laxity, but he made a semi-official ruling, adopting a position which the community perceived as relaxing the standards of orthodoxy. The problem with the obituary is that it does not quote Davis’s actual words, so we are not in a position to tell whether he really said anything publicly on the subject or only gave rise to a community perception that might (or might not) have reflected his real views. Time and further research will determine the correct picture.

    One thing is certain, that by the end of the nineteenth century, fewer and fewer of the congregation followed strict orthodox standards. In respect to travelling on the Sabbath, a city synagogue whose members increasingly resided in the suburbs would have been unable to maintain itself if congregants did not use transport to come to services. There is an allied problem, in fact more than one. Despite the fact that the Great Synagogue provided kosher meat facilities – the annual reports contained statistics of the animals slaughtered by the congregational shochetim (ritual slaughterer) – many members were easy-going when it came to kashrut (dietary laws). We know this from the regular appeals from the pulpit for people to keep kosher homes. Geography had little or nothing to do with it. Some families in the suburbs made complicated tram trips to the kosher butcheries, and others could have done likewise. It almost goes without saying that very few women observed the orthodox rules about immersing in the mikveh (ritual bath), and this too is highly unlikely to have been a problem of geography. Much more research needs to be done on the social history of Davis’s community including the levels of religious observance and non-observance.

    A major educational problem at the time was the question of method. Did children really need to learn a pre-ordained catechism? In Christian religious teaching the answer would have been yes. The articles of faith brooked neither ambiguity nor argument. There was only one way to read a scriptural text. Names, dates, places, facts and figures, stock explanations and interpretations, all were drilled like times-tables. Teachers of general subjects often followed the same approach, even when education became “free, compulsory and secular”. Elementary grammar (even in Latin, which was the main “extra” language taught), dates of events, lists of the kings and queens of England – all were drummed into children’s heads and regurgitated on demand. Official inspectors presumably entered the schools in order to judge the teaching staff, but the children did not realise this. As far as they were concerned, the inspectorial visit was to check that the set information and set terminology were known and could be recited.

    Davis clearly states in his preface that he is not a believer in the catechism approach, not for theological but for pedagogical reasons.[26] He does not address the philosophical question of whether Jews need to know and publicly endorse a set of dogmas. He uses pragmatic criteria: “The book might easily have been enlarged by the adoption of the catechetical form now so much in use; but the Editor has found from experience that children, as a rule, learn answers by rote, without thinking of their general sense and bearing, and so he has preferred… the learner to give the answer in his own language and mode of expression…”[27] How successful Davis was in getting the children to understand and to explain in their own words obviously depends on who the teacher was and whether they themselves were capable of what their minister hoped the children could do.

    The annual general meetings of supporters of the Sabbath School, as we see from the reports in the press,[28] incorporated a series of recitations and a public oral examination of children of both sexes. These performances must have been preceded in the classroom by class examinations – carried out orally because of the prohibition of writing on the Sabbath – on the basis of which the prizes were awarded. Davis presided at such events, even though he said he did not believe in catechisms and did not expect stock answers using a rigidly prescribed and carefully memorised set of words. It might have been easier for everything to have been done by rote: but Davis preferred the children to think for themselves and find their own words, giving answers that varied according to their capacity and understanding. The press reports of the annual examinations bear this out,[29] suggesting that the questions did not so much test attitudes or interpretations, but facts such as the names of the three patriarchs and four matriarchs, the list of the Ten Plagues, Ten Commandments, Hebrew months and the four species of plants used on Sukkot. Questions on Biblical history followed a similar pattern, though we of a later generation wonder how much if any post-Biblical history was taught in the Sabbath School classes.

    Press reports confirm that Davis required the children to recite Maimonides’ Thirteen Principles.[30] Was this a theological inquisition to ensure that the children accepted and stood by a set of dogmas? Davis might have replied that he was not necessarily probing their inner soul but testing what they had learned. It is possible, however, that the children really wanted nothing more than to please their minister and not be excluded from the annual tea. It was unlikely that any child would have thought through any of the Principles to the extent that they would admit to any doubts, much less to being an agnostic or atheist. Despite the Darwinian challenge to faith in the middle of the nineteenth century, agnosticism or atheism was rare or non-existent amongst Anglo-Jewish communities at that stage of history. Not that everybody was a confirmed adherent to orthodoxy, but Victorian-age Anglo-Jewry was simply not really a thinking community. Amongst Jews (as amongst Christians) the power of conventional religion was such that they could hardly credit the possibility of rejecting all belief in God. To their way of thinking, one either was a believer in God or an idolater.

    According to the list of subscribers to the first edition of his book, 128 individuals in Sydney, plus the Sydney Hebrew School, ordered 454 copies between them. This must have represented a high proportion of the then synagogal membership. We do not know what they paid, but the book certainly covered its costs and more. In Melbourne the minister of the Melbourne Hebrew Congregation ordered six copies; we wonder why more copies were not sold in that community. The only other Australian colony on the list is Queensland, where the Brisbane Hebrew School took ten copies, six individuals in Gympie ordered six between them, and one person in Maryborough took three copies. In New Zealand the Auckland Jewish Sabbath School took 18 copies and 11 individuals took 14 between them; in Wellington nine individuals ordered a total of 27 copies. Thus 538 copies were ordered. With better marketing, the number could have been doubled.

    It is impossible to judge to what extent Davis’s educational work in all its many forms had a lasting impact on his young charges. We do know that a number of leading figures sat at his feet – men like Joseph Jacobs and his younger contemporary Sir Daniel Levy – but in regard to the majority of the community brought up in Sydney in Davis’s era the question must remain open-ended. Davis was certainly a representative figure in the Minhag Anglia ministry in Australia, and probably the most we can say is that nobody else would have achieved more than him in the circumstances of his place, period and people. The fact that copies of his book circulated long after his death tells us a great deal.


    1. The only full study of Davis is Raymond Apple, “Alexander Barnard Davis: Colonial Clergyman“, in M Dacy, J Dowling & S Faigan (eds.), Feasts and Fasts: A Festschrift in Honour of Alan David Crown, (Sydney: Mandelbaum, 2005), reprinted (with changes) in Raymond Apple, The Great Synagogue: A history of Sydney’s Big Shule (Sydney: UNSW Press, 2008). The Sydney Morning Herald printed an obituary of Davis on 17 December 1913.

    2. The title page notes, “Published under the direction of the Committee of the Sydney Jewish Sabbath School”.

    3. David J Benjamin, “Essays in the History of Jewish Education in NSW”, in Australian Jewish Historical Society Journal (AJHSJ), vol. 4, parts 2 & 3 (1955); “The Sydney Hebrew Certified Denominational School”, in AJHSJ vol. 4, part 5 (1956).

    4. Quoted by Benjamin, “Essays in the History of Jewish Education”, p.37.

    5. From a text circular issued by the committee in 1839: text published by George FJ Bergman, AJHSJ, vol. 6, part 1 (1964), pp. 35-39.

    6. John S. Levi, ‘Joseph Abrahams (1855-1939)” in Australian Dictionary of Biography (ADB), (Melbourne: MUP, 1979), vol.7; Keith Freedman, “Rabbi Dr Joseph Abrahams”, in AJHSJ, vol.8, part 7 (1879); Joseph Aron & Judy Arndt, The Enduring Remnant: The first 150 years of the Melbourne Hebrew Congregation, 1841-1991 (Melbourne: MUP, 1992), pp. 58-77.

    7. The book, written in 1889 and published in Melbourne by George Robertson & Company, was still being reprinted decades later; the 1930 edition published in London was edited by Rev Morris Rosenbaum. On Pulver, see David Benjamin, AJHSJ, vol. 4 part 2, pp. 43-45; and Raymond Apple, AJHSJ, 2008, pp. 180-181.

    8. Israel Porush, “Rev Herman Hoelzel: the first qualified Jewish minister in Australia”, AJHSJ, vol. 2, part 4 (1945), pp. 172-200; The House of Israel (Melbourne: Hawthorn Press, 1977), chapter 3.

    9. Ibid. The split is debated in AJHSJ, vol. 3, part 1 (1949), by Sydney B Glass pp. 5-13 and Rabbi Dr Israel Porush, pp.13-28, with a further paper on the subject by David J Benjamin in vol. 3, part 9 (1953), pp. 379-431, 489.

    10. First Annual Report of the Sabbath School, 1864; Third Annual Report, 1866; handwritten notes by honorary superintendents of London Sabbath classes, 1884, in Elkan N Adler Collection, Jewish Theological Seminary of America, photocopied by Raymond Apple.

    11. John William Colenso, The Pentateuch and Book of Joshua critically examined (London: Longmans, 1863). A Jewish response was written by Rabbi Hermann Adler: see Raymond Apple, “Hermann Adler: Chief Rabbi“, in ed. Alan D Crown (ed.), Noblesse Oblige: Essays in honour of David Kessler, OBE (London: Vallentine Mitchell, 1998), pp. 127-138.

    12. The material on the Sabbath School is mostly drawn and collated from the School’s Annual Reports. Some but not all reports are held in the archives of the Australian Jewish Historical Society. Some reports can be accessed via the Internet.

    13. Third Annual Report, 1866.

    14. Seventeenth Annual Report, 1886.

    15. Jacobs and – at a later period – the philosopher Professor Samuel Alexander, are the two leading Judaica scholars emanating from Australia. On Jacobs, see George FJ Bergman, “Joseph Jacobs (1854-1916)” in ADB (Melbourne: MUP, 1983), vol. 9; David J Benjamin, “Joseph Jacobs”, AJHSJ, vol. 3, part 2 (1949), pp.72-91; Mabel Kaplan, “Joseph Jacobs (1854-1916) – a boy from Oz – one of Australia’s forgotten sons”, AJHSJ, vol. 17, part 2, (2004), pp.180-190. Much material on Jacobs as a historian, storyteller and folklorist is accessible via the Internet. His first emigration, from Australia to England, is understandable. His second emigration, to the USA, can be explained for financial and employment reasons. Though brought up in Sydney, Jacobs does not seem to be listed in the Great Synagogue birth registers.

    16. Rev AB Davis, Jewish Rites Explained: Together with Reference Texts to the Thirteen Articles of Jewish Faith and Prayers for Children on Different Occasions.

    17. In the early 1900s, with more than 4000 pupils, JFS was “the largest school in Europe – probably the largest in the world”. See Gerry Black, JFS: The history of the Jews’ Free School, London, since 1732 (London: Tymsder, 1998), p. 1. This observation is attributed to Beatrice Webb in Vivian D Lipman, Social history of the Jews in England, 1850-1950 (London: Watts, 1954), p. 147.

    18. See various references in Trove, National Library of Australia.

    19. “Sydney Jewish Sabbath School”, Empire, 27 August 1866, trove.nla.gov.au/ndp/del/article/60598859, accessed 16 May 2014.

    20. “Sydney Jewish Sabbath School”, Sydney Morning Herald, 9 January 1871, http://trove.nla.gov.au/ndp/del/article/13215430, accessed 16 May 2014.

    21. The Karaites were a Jewish sect that emerged in the Gaonic period (seventh to ninth centuries) and believed that Jewish law should only be based on the Tanach and rejected rabbinic Judaism.

    22. The Twelfth Principle, concerning the belief in the coming of the Messiah, had obvious relevance in a Christian environment. In the third (1902) edition of his book, Davis’s explanation of the Principle is on pp. 60-61.

    23. Davis, Jewish Rites Explained.

    24. Ibid.

    25. Sydney Morning Herald, 17 December 1913.

    26. From the theological point of view the notion of a Jewish catechism is debatable. Despite an ancient polemic (itself subject to much debate) in chapter 10 of the Mishnah Sanhedrin, denying the afterlife to those who reject certain doctrines, Judaism does not impose doctrinal tests nor impose punishments for unorthodoxy. Its tests are pragmatic – does the person identify with the Jewish people? Does the person behave as a Jew? By way of contrast, Christian catechetics require memorisation of and assent to basic dogmas. Davis’s view that the catechical approach has pedagogical advantages as well as drawbacks possibly does not fully recognise the importance of a person developing his or her own religious position, though it may be unfair to criticise Davis for failing to acknowledge diversity.

    27. Davis, Jewish Rites Explained.

    28. See, for example, Empire, 27 August 1866; Sydney Morning Herald, 9 January 1871.

    29. Ibid.

    30. Ibid.

    Comments are closed.