When Colored Textbooks Were New

Joel Lurie Grishaver

Joel Lurie GrishaverThis is a reflection on a historical moment in Jewish Education. Originally in 1986 Torah Aura Productions released a black and white book called Being Torah. It had a full colored cover. Textbooks had been in full color for years—just not a lot of them. In 2005 Torah Aura had the negative hand-painted and that meant the book could be in color. The big deal was that the Text could now be in color, too.

The book was a 3nd-5th grade translation of the Bible that was based on a famous academic translation of the Torah done by Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig. That translation was famous because it revealed in German the nature of the Hebrew in the Bible that had allot of elements of poetry attached to the narrative. The Torah is probably the oldest book of prose in the world. It is written in a unique style that caused it to be studied in an idiosyncratic way. Being Torah was a radical attempt to create Hebrew style bible study and interpretation in English and did it for primary students rather than for those in graduate school. The color only added to the experience.


The teacher said, “Page 29.” This really happened. Before a word of the lesson was taught, a dozen hands are raised. This was the fourth lesson and the method was already clear.

When called on, one student said, “Cain is in Red and is used 13 times.” Someone said, “No you miscounted. It is 14 times.”

A third hand. “Abel is in blue, it is used 7 times.”

A fourth hand yields, “Brother is in green and it is also used 7 times.”

A secret of Rabbinic interpretation is now clear in this elementary school classroom.

The teacher collates the results on the board.

Cain = 14

Abel = 7

Brother = 7.


Readers are assigned. Someone is picked for God. Someone else is assigned Cain. Abel never speaks. The class is divided into thirds: One is red. One is Blue. One is Green. The teacher takes the narrator for herself. The reading is staccato. Cain, Abel and brother boom out. God’s speech and then Cain’s stand out as distinct.


The teacher goes through the story and established what happened. When she gets to “Why did God let Cain kill Abel. Things get fuzzy. Everything else has been based in facts. Everything else is proved by quotes.

Without an ending, the teacher asks, “What did God tell Cain?” The class lands on a quote.

“Why are you angry? Why has your face fallen?

When you are good, aren’t you lifted up?

But when you don’t do good,

Sin haunts your door ready to tempt you.

But you can master it.”

As a class the quote is taken apart. Cain is angry—you can see it on his face. Why? The text gives no evidence as to why. One little girl says, “I would be jealous if God rejected my offering and took my brother’s. The class established “Sin haunts your door ready to tempt you.” Means that feelings can get you to lose control—but everyone can “master it.”

What does the text say about “God controlling people?” The first answer is nothing. The second after some thought, “You (not God) can master it.” The teacher writes the words “free will” on the board and says, “We control our behavior not God. That is one of the lessons of this story,

Let’s look at numbers. What do they say about brothers? Cain and Able are both multiples of seven, so is brother. Cain and Abel are supposed to act like brothers. The answer is yes, “You are your brother’s keeper.”


Read the three student commentaries on page 33. Which do you like best? Why? The teacher listens to the answers and the explanations.

Sachi: When I first read this story I thought that God was really unfair. God seems to be playing favorites. I didn’t see any good reason wjy God should accept Abel’s sacrifice and rejected Cain’s sacrifice. My teacher told me to read that part of the story again. This time I saw he difference. Abel brought the best of his flock and Cain just brought from the fruit of the soil. Now I know that God wants out best.

Owen: Cain was stupid. God warned him not to act out his anger. God said, “you can master it.” Cain didn’t listen. Even though I know better, sometimes I lose my temper, too. What I should do is wait until I calm down before I act. But it doesn’t always happen.

Paulina: The big question in this story is “Am my brother’s keeper?” It reminds me of something in the story of Adam and Eve. It was part of God’s idea of what people can be like. People are supposed to be keepers. In that story it says, “Adonai God put the HUMAN in the Garden to work it and keep it.” Get it?

Then she tells the students to open their student commentary and write their own comment on the appropriate page. The teacher goes around the room and writes everyone’s basic idea on the board with their name. She then asks each student to copy someone else’s comment into their empty slot. Everyone writes one other comment from another student on their page. Instant classroom community!


This lesson was learned from a book. It was an exciting, innovative, participatory lesson that could not be better learned on a computer. No markers were damaged in the learning of this lesson. It was a lesson built of words, not small groups. It was plenty creative. But it was a creativity based in problems solving, not in creating ex nehilo.

This lesson is based in traditional Jewish text study, something that has a place in every Jewish school. The question which remains to be asked: “Can it still be learned without books?