BET (HA)-MIDRASH (pl. battei (ha)-midrash) (Heb. בֵּית (הַ)מִדְרָשׁ, pl. בָּתֵּי (הַ)מִדְרָשׁ; "house of study"), study center where people assembled to listen to words of wisdom and exposition of the Law from very early in the Second Temple period. Esau and Jacob are said to have attended beit ha-sefer together until the age of 13, when Jacob continued his studies at bet ha-midrash; Esau, instead, frequented idolatrous shrines (Gen. R. 63:10). The Talmud described the 394 courts of law in Jerusalem and the equal number of synagogues, battei midrash, and battei sefer that existed there (Ket. 105a). Simeon *Ben Sira in the second century B.C.E. invited people to "dwell in my bet midrash" (Ecclus. 51:47). In the mishnaic period it was an institution independent of the synagogue and regarded as being more holy. R. *Joshua b. Levi stated that a synagogue may be turned into a bet midrash, but not the contrary, for it is "a place where Torah is exalted" in contradistinction to the synagogue which is "a place where prayer is exalted" (Meg. 27a). Sleeping in a bet ha-midrash was prohibited, although an exception was made for scholars who spent all their time there (Meg. 28a; Ber. 25a). It was considered ill-omened for a family to eat its Sabbath repast while public study sessions met at the local house of study (Git. 38b). Mothers were praised for sending their children to the synagogue to study, and for waiting up for their husbands who returned late from bet hamidrash (Ber. 17a). One who goes directly from the synagogue (after services) to bet ha-midrash (to study) is deemed worthy to welcome the Divine Presence (Ber. 64a); and whosoever enters synagogues and houses of study in this world will be privileged to enter synagogues and houses of study in the world to come (Deut. R. 7:1). The bet ha-midrash was the center of instruction for scholars and the common people alike and contributed to disseminating culture widely in Jewish society. In the Middle Ages it tended to be merged with the synagogue, but its specific characteristic was preserved: in the bet ha-midrash prayer was a secondary activity, while the study and discussion of Jewish Law and problems concerning Judaism were its main concern, and usually open to all who cared to attend. The bet ha-midrash normally had a library with works on various branches of rabbinical literature intended for all sectors of the public. Attendance at the bet ha-midrash was not limited as at the *ḥeder and *yeshivah, and the instructors were often itinerant preachers engaged by the community. The battei midrash serving the yeshivot acquired a somewhat cloistered character. The rabbi prayed there with his students when he was not required to join the communal worship. The bet ha-midrash also afforded lodging to yeshivah students, and occasionally was used as a hostel for impecunious travelers.
In some battei midrash independent study was pursued. In some communities the bet ha-midrash became identical with the yeshivah or the synagogue, where scholars taught immediately after morning and evening prayers. Some battei midrash were established and maintained by the community, while others were built by philanthropists who bequeathed funds for their maintenance. In Germany, such battei midrash were known as Klaus (from Lat. clausura), and in Eastern Europe as kloyz. The *Ḥasidim developed a new combination of public instruction and prayer in the *shtibl ("small room"). In Islamic countries, and some Sephardi communities, the bet midrash is called simply midrash.
Baron, Community, index; H.H. Ben-Sasson, Hagut ve-Hanhagah (1959), index; J. Katz, Tradition and Crisis (1961), index; ET, 3 (1951), 210–3.