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Daily Israel Report

'New Math' Based on 2,000-Year-Old Talmudic Methods

Orot College teachers wish to alleviate Israel’s math problems by imparting algorithms and pedagogical techniques Jewish Sages developed long ago.
By Hillel Fendel
First Publish: 9/3/2009, 11:13 AM / Last Update: 9/3/2009, 11:30 AM

Israel news photo

Teachers at Orot College in Elkanah wish to alleviate Israel’s math problems by imparting algorithms and pedagogical techniques developed by Jewish Sages over the generations.

The reason for the new course is to help improve Israeli students’ dwindling math achievements and motivate new Torah-oriented math teachers.

Dr. David Zeitun, head of Orot’s Mathematics Department, says that Israel’s low math scores in international terms stem from the use of faulty teaching methods, which are suited neither to Israel’s population nor to the knowledge being transmitted. In addition, the Central Bureau of Statistics reports that Israel faces a growing shortage of trained math and science teachers. The lack is expected to reach into the hundreds in the coming years, and the Education Ministry says it is having trouble finding math teachers even now.

Dr. Zeitun, who made Aliyah from France, told Israel National News of the three topics he plans to feature in the new course:  “Traditional Jewish teaching methods, various scholarly books written by Jewish Sages on math calculations and the like, and many Talmudic passages having to do with math.”

He said he “cannot understand why the Education Ministry is bringing in new methods of teaching math from Singapore, when many of the elements therein have been the bread-and-butter of rabbis and Jewish teachers for generations.”

These include repetition of verses and Mishnayot (which can be applied to multiplication tables), the extraction of the ‘bottom line’ law from amidst complex argumentation (and avoiding the long and confusing explanations that are often found in new math books), the use of stories, and more.

The Orot College is “dedicated to education and representing academia in the spirit of Torah,” its website says, and wishes to train new math teachers among the religious public. “We would like the young religious public to view teaching math - and not just Bible and Talmud – as an important mission,” Dr. Zeitun says.

Dr. Zeitun noted that many Jewish scholars, such as Maimonides (Rambam), Gersonides (Ralbag), the Maharal, and others, wrote scholarly treatises on math topics, and these should be recognized today. In addition, the Talmud is replete with math calculations such as figuring out the area of a round Sukkah, the circumference of Jerusalem, astronomical calculations that predict with pinpoint accuracy when the new moon will appear hundreds of years in advance, and more (including on today’s daily page, Bava Batra 13).

It was noted that the great German mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauss has been credited with discovering, when he was a boy over 200 years ago, a quick way of summing up numbers in an arithmetic series - which has become the accepted method for doing so. In fact, however, the method appeared hundreds of years earlier in a popular Talmudic commentary by the Tosafists in Tractate Sukkah. Dr. Zeitun noted that the famous French number theorist Fermat studied under Gersonides.                       

Having recently merged with Moreshet Yaakov College, Orot is now the largest and most diversified of all religious academic teaching colleges in Israel. A total of some 1,500 students are registered this year for full-time undergraduate studies, with another 150 M.A. students.