A yeshiva is an academic institution which offers Jewish education. On the university level, a yeshiva is open to anyone who wishes to advance his or her knowledge of Judaism, and yeshivot (the plural form of yeshiva) also offer courses of study for people who are interested in becoming rabbis. Typically, yeshivot are Orthodox Jewish institutions, traditionally open to men, although some yeshivot have mixed student bodies. Women may also choose to study at a midrasha, an equivalent institution designed for women.
Scholarship and education are very important in the Jewish tradition, and it should come as no surprise to learn that some version of a yeshiva has been around in Jewish communities for centuries, although the modern organized form really arose in the 1800s. Israel hosts a large number of yeshivot, and there are a large number in the United States as well, especially in and around New York City, where there is a large Jewish community.
The term “yeshiva” is derived from the Hebrew yasab, which means “to sit,” reflecting an Jewish belief that pupils must sit to take lessons from a teacher or master. Yeshivot can be found at all levels of Jewish education; primary and secondary schools which offer religious instruction are also known as yeshivot. You might think of a university level yeshiva as a sort of seminary, although these schools are designed specifically for the advancement of religious education, not necessarily to create ordained rabbis.
At a yeshiva, students typically have long, grueling days which incorporate studies of the Torah, Talmud, and Jewish law (Halakha or Halacha). During the day, students often stop for prayers, study sessions, and debates to discuss issues which come up in the course of study. Each student is paired with a study partner (havrutha or havruta) or study partners (havruthot or havrutot) to work together with, drilling each other, discussing the meaning of the texts they study, and debating each other on various points of discussion. As a result, the interior of a yeshiva can get quite noisy, with a constant hum of discussion.
Courses of study in yeshivot encourage individual responsibility, reminding students of their obligations to the ideals of justice. Students are encouraged to probe more deeply into topics they do not fully understand, and to discuss issues with each other and come to their own opinions. A thorough course of study in a yeshiva can help someone understand the complexities and fine points of Jewish law, even if he or she does not choose to go on to become a rabbi.