A Yeshiva is a Jewish study house or seminary, traditionally a centre for the study of Talmud.
The word "Yeshiva" is Hebrew, from the root Yud-Shin-Vav and means literally 'sitting'. It is also the word in modern Hebrew for a formal meeting.
From ancient times, there have been Jewish study houses. The Midrashic legends talk of the Yeshiva of Shem and Eber, supposedly founded by Noah's son.
The first 'real' yeshivot (the plural) were probably the Schools (lit. 'houses') of Hillel and Shammai. These schools followed their respective leaders, and had very firm and entrenched positions on matters of Jewish Law.
It seems that prominent Rabbis in the Tannaitic period had their own followers and schools, most notably Rabbi Akiva. These followers are sometimes depicted in stories as literally following their Rabbi around everywhere he went. These Rabbis taught their own interpretation of Jewish Law, though they deferred to the majority opinion of the Sanhedrin.
The times of the Amoraim in Babylon saw the rise of the great Torah academies of Sura and Pumbeditha. These functioned as the nexuses of Jewish learning, aiding in the construction of the Babylonian Talmud. After its completion, the heads of the two academies became known as the Geonim, the 'Geniuses'. These academies continued functioning for hundreds of years, until the 11th Century.
As Jewish centres reached prominence so did yeshivot. By the end of the 19th Century, there were a number of yeshivot spread -- mainly -- throughout Eastern Europe, Arabia and North Africa. Some villages had little yeshivot, most didn't and so they would send their men a great distance to the big towns.
After the pogrom
s of 1881
, the mass immigration of Jews to the USA
surprisingly didn't really bring many yeshivot with them. This meant that the Holocaust
wiped out almost all of them. Survivors founded new yeshivot in The USA
and Israel, often calling them after the yeshivot that were destroyed .
Today there are hundreds of yeshivot, mainly in Israel and America.
What do they do?
The primary method of study in most yeshivot is Chevruta. This is a system of study where a text -- often Gemara -- is studied in pairs, trying to interpret the ambigous text. often the Gemara will say something like 'part of that last argument was wrong' and leave you to figure out which side it was disagreeing with. The idea of these chevruta is to generate a dialectic of interpretation. It's not uncommon to see very heated arguments between members of a pair over fundamental interpretations. Incidentally, this makes the main Beit Midrash (study room) of a big yeshiva incredibly noisy, as hundreds of pairs try to argue over the buzz of others doing the same. Unless you already knew, you'd never think it was a place of learning.
The other major teaching technique is a shiur, a lesson. This is like a familiar lecture or class. It's fairly common to have a shiur after a chevruta session, often tackling the same text from a novel angle.
varies at different yeshivot. Most will have Talmud
playing a big part, though exactly what a participant will study depends on when they enter (the Talmud is pretty big, and many Yeshivot teach it on a several-year cycle. Any one student will only see a part of it). Halacha
(Jewish Law), Tanach
(Jewish ethics) are also taught, though different institutions emphasise different areas of study.
Intake, Course Length etc.
The amount of time people spend in yeshiva varies enormously. Some yeshivot offer summer programmes, or the option to study for just one term. Many offer a year-long programme (taken mainly by 18 year old school leavers), which can normally be extended to two years. Some Yeshivot take people from as young as fourteen, and some take people essentially for life, offering family accomodation.
Many yeshivot offer a rabbinical training programme of some kind, or at least grant semichah (rabbinic qualifications) to people who have attained the necessary levels of knowledge and normally passed some kind of test too.
Most yeshivot are Orthodox, and only accept men. There are a few exceptions, though. The Conservative movement's Conservative Yeshiva and JTS, and the Reform movement's Hebrew Union College are co-educational. There is also Pardes, which offers yeshiva-style education to Jews of all backgrounds.
Another interesting phenomenon is hesder yeshivot. Unlike the ultra-orthodox Israeli Jews who don't serve their mandatory national service because they are in yeshiva, these Israeli institutions offer a combination of yeshiva-study with military service to enable religious Jews to fulfill their civil obligations too.
In the USA there are also Yeshiva high school
s which are not exactly yeshivot. Avoid this common confusion.