By Rabbi Chaim Eisen
According to recent surveys, the overwhelming majority of yeshivah high school students in Israel dislike learning Gemara.1Alas, this finding was hardly surprising, especially to educators in post-secondary yeshivot in both Israel and the Diaspora who must reap — and redress — this grim harvest of “Gemara-phobia.” Experience suggests that a similar survey of yeshivah high school students in America would generate no more encouraging conclusions.
A stream of questions might flood the mind: Where did we go wrong? How have we failed so miserably in instilling in our youth an enthusiasm for the most fundamental standard of true Torah literacy — study of the Talmud? Is an unresolved, subconscious antipathy for Gemara trickling down from us to our children? However, while such soul-searching may be intriguing, it begs the issue. Therefore, this article focuses instead on the underlying “clinical” question: What induces “Gemara-phobia” in us — and, most importantly, what can we do about it?
I confess: As a yeshivah high school “refugee,” I disliked learning Gemara (like everyone in my class and most people I know). Several powerful emotions dominate my earliest memories of Talmud class, most of them negative. First and foremost was a profound feeling of irrelevance. The issues under discussion and debate seemed remote, picayune, and thoroughly unrelated to my life. In addition, while in some people “Gemara-phobia” may reflect an aversion to intellectual activity in general, I did relish thinking — but Gemara didn’t seem to involve any. Although other classes demanded that I think for myself, Gemara entailed only discipline and memorization — no independent, creative thought. It was a “spectator sport,” divorced from my life and my mind.
The Image Problem
It is tragic that Gemara study is popularly perceived as antithetical to independent thinking, because such creative thought is the very definition of Gemara learning approached properly. Rabbi Yehoshua instructs us to trisect the time we devote to Torah study, committing “one-third to Talmud” (Kiddushin 30a). Regarding this third, Rambam states:
One should understand and comprehend the conclusion of a matter from its initial conditions and derive one matter from another and liken one matter to another and understand by the rules through which Torah is expounded, until one knows how the principal rules [operate] and how to derive the forbidden and the permitted and the like from matters one has learned from tradition. And this subject is what is called “gemara.” (Hilchot Talmud Torah 1:11)
Rambam is obviously describing an analytical approach rather than the text we call the Gemara.2 But it is no accident that this mode of Torah study lent its name to the Gemara. Thus, Rashi explains this dimension of study:
This is the Gemara, which depends upon reasoning — for [the sages] would give reason to the words of the Mishnah and would gather together and engage in this [pursuit] – and this is the model of the Gemara, which the Talmudic sages [later] ordered. (Rashi on Berachot 47b, Dibbur Hamatchil, Shelo).
Gemara, in both its general and specific senses, denotes the independent reasoning that spawns derivative conclusions and true understanding.
Apropos of Rashi’s reference to sages who “would gather together,” consider also that mainstay of classic Gemara study, the chavruta (study partnership). Clearly, this would be a poor tool for memorization and regurgitation, which can often be accomplished more readily alone. It is rather a forum for creative thought — for the innovative cross-pollination that can result only from an ongoing exchange of ideas.
Likewise, in prescribing threshold ages for different types of study, the Mishnah differentiates between “Scripture” and Mishnah” — associated with ages five and ten, respectively — and “Talmud,” deemed appropriate only for a “fifteen-year-old” (Avot 5:21). Maharal distinguishes Talmud as striving “to understand the reason of the matter, which is not in the Mishnah at all” (Derech HaChayyim). This dimension of abstraction implies the rationale of the age limit. As Rav Yisrael Lipschutz explains, only by age fifteen is the student “already enabled in his intellect to plumb [the Talmud's] laws” (Tiferet Yisrael).
Of course, herein lies part of the problem. Even if extenuating circumstances might justify our pervasive noncompliance with the age limits indicated by the Mishnah, we must appreciate the inherent risks of premature exposure to Gemara.3 Most of my contemporaries — and many of my students as well — were first exposed to Gemara by learning Perek Ellu Metzi’ot by rote, at an age that precluded a more analytical approach, because we were not “already enabled in…intellect to plumb its laws.” Consequently, instead of being taught to grapple with the Gemara critically — and actively think and struggle to understand — most of us were trained just to listen passively, memorize, and “turn off” our minds.
This handicap impacts directly on the feeling of irrelevance that frequently colors students’ attitudes toward Gemara. To see how, consider what renders a subject “relevant” in the first place. A football game between two colleges, neither of which you or any of your relatives or friends are likely ever to attend, is in principle totally unrelated to your life. Why, then, do many of us find such a game not only interesting but exciting and thus, strangely, “relevant?” The answer, alluringly simple and annoyingly circular, is that anything we are “into” — for whatever reason — anything in which we feel involved and through which we feel activated, becomes relevant by definition. Conversely, anything becomes boring when we feel uninvolved. Relevance is not an external barometer of subjects “out there”; it reflects our attitudes toward those subjects, based upon all the internal “baggage” that has already fostered or undermined our relationships with them.
What induces Gemara-phobia in us…and what can we do about it?
We have here the makings of a vicious cycle. By relating to Gemara passively and externally, we come to regard it as increasingly irrelevant. This in turn exacerbates the detachment and alienation between us and Gemara, which further aggravate the sense of irrelevance. To break the cycle, even before addressing the ultimate significance of Gemara study,4 we must reverse this passivity and uninvolvement. By doing so - whether or not we yet appreciate just how Gemara impacts upon our lives — the sense of irrelevance may steadily recede and vanish.
Reversing the Image
In practice, overcoming deeply-rooted detachment and alienation is still no easy task. Granted, even in my bleakest high school Gemara experiences, I found that concentrating on shiur could make it interesting to me (despite linguistic and other technical difficulties). Nevertheless, simply telling a student (or ourselves) to pay more attention will obviously not suffice. Where “Gemara-phobia” is real, such platitudes may goad but not heal. The solution, like the problem, lies in the approach.
Here, a cautionary note is in order: The Talmud affirms, “Just as [the people of Israel's] faces do not resemble one another, so their minds do not resemble one another.” (Yerushalmi Berachot 9:1) Therefore, as King Solomon counsels, “Train a child according to his way. ” (Mishlei 22:6) Malbim explains:
The training should be “according to his way,” because every person is suited by his nature to a different subject both in mind …[and] in deed. … It is necessary to train him according to his way and according to the impressions within him of that to which he is predisposed” (Musar Chochmah).
That there are many legitimate, diverse approaches to Gemara is not only healthy but vital. We each must continually rediscover our own, individual ways “into” Gemara.
Despite this pluralistic, personal dimension, certain basics are indispensable for an effective approach. An elderly, sharp-tongued Torah scholar at the Brooklyn shul where I grew up often asked rhetorically, “Since everything God created has a purpose, why did He create appikorsut (skepticism)?” His reply: “Appikorsut, too, has a purpose. When you learn in the Gemara that Abbayyei said this and Rava said that, don’t believe them until you understand how they reached their conclusions!”5 Of course, in determining the relevant Halachic decision, we defer to the giants of the Talmud and their later rabbinical surrogates. But when we engage in study, we struggle above all to understand. We plunge undaunted into the fray, not as spectators but as contestants, refusing to yield to any position until we understand it. Nor does the struggle end with Abbayyei and Rava. Rav Soloveitchik writes:
When I sit down to learn, I find myself immediately in the midst of the scholars of the Tradition. The relationship between us is personal. Rambam is on my right; Rabbeinu Tam is on my left; Rashi sits at the head and expounds; Rabbeinu Tam questions; Rambam rules; Ra’avad criticizes. They are all in my little room, sitting around my table. They gaze upon me affectionately, playing with me in reasoning and in tradition, encouraging and strengthening me like a father. Study of Torah is not merely a didactic enterprise. Occupation in words of Torah is not merely a formal, technical matter realized through innovations and the exchange of information. It is a monumental experience of comradeship among many generations, of a commingling of spirits, of a union of souls. Those who transmitted the Torah and those who received it happen together upon a single historic inn. …
All the scholars of the Tradition from the days of Moses until now have befriended me, and they are my companions and comrades! When I resolve the words of Rambam or Rabbeinu Tam, I see their radiant faces expressing satisfaction. I always feel as though Rambam and Rabbeinu Tam were bestowing kisses upon my forehead and congratulating me. …This is not imagination. It is an extremely profound experience. It is the experience of the handing over of the Oral Torah.6
The distinction between this scholarly fellowship and the approach many of us tend to apply to Gemara is neither imaginary nor technical; it highlights the contrast between studying Torah from within and from without.
Often, in the grind to prepare the source list for Gemara shiur (or even in an agenda of independent study), even experienced yeshivah students may lapse into a “checklist mode”: “covering” the requisite passage of the Gemara, then “covering” Rashi, the Tosafot, and whichever additional commentators are on the agenda, preparing — perhaps even memorizing — the material well but externally, meekly absorbing everything with nary a challenge. Attempts to understand remain detached and superficial, dominated by simple questions of “what” rather than probing demands of “why.” One can amass encyclopedic knowledge this way — but passively, devoid of personal animation and individual innovation.
In contrast, the Midrash comments on an assertion of King Solomon, paragon of wisdom: “‘Even (af) my wisdom remained with me’ (Kohelet 2:9) — Wisdom that I learned with exertion (af) remained with me.” (Kohelet Zota 2:9 and Yalkut Shimoni Kohelet:968) Indeed, scholastic achievements bereft of such fierce effort not only lack enduring value; their very authenticity is suspect: Only “if a person says to you…’I have toiled, and I have found’ — believe it.” (Megillah 6b.) Furthermore, the Talmud avers that true Torah without innovation is a contradiction in terms: “It is inconceivable for a house of study to be without innovative interpretations.” (Chagigah 3a) Solely through such creative struggle can one relive “the handing over of the Oral Torah.”
The first step “into” Gemara must lie in redressing the “checklist mode.” In tackling a passage, first learn it critically from your own standpoint. Understanding the vocabulary and punctuation is crucial — but it is only the introductory phase. Constantly ask yourself not only what the Gemara is saying but why.
How does each line contribute to the conceptual development of the passage? When two sages disagree, where exactly do their views differ ideologically? What premises underlie a given statement in the Gemara? If the statement is challenged, where do the premises of the challenge diverge from those of the original statement? If, in response to the challenge, the original statement is modified, how does the modification grapple with and shed light upon the premises of both the statement and the challenge? Ultimately, what disparate world views and potential Halachic ramifications emanate from these distinct sets of premises? Through an incessant onslaught of such questions — leaving no stone unturned — the Gemara can come alive, with you as part of it.
To whatever extent possible, struggle with these issues initially on your own (or with your chavruta), without retreating to the safe haven of other commentaries (and any translation is a commentary by definition). If technical difficulties of vocabulary or punctuation force you to solicit assistance, you may (grudgingly!) do so, but remember that any commentator necessarily presents the Gemara from his point of view, and vigilance is imperative to prevent his interpretation from unduly prejudicing your own. Step by meticulous step — paying attention to detail — construct your p’shat, your exhaustive understanding of everything the Gemara has stated and why.
Only with your own p’shat in hand are you ready to confront Rashi, the Tosafot, and whichever additional commentators are on your agenda again, without succumbing to the “checklist mode.” Only now, subtleties that would have otherwise gone unnoticed come into focus. Rashi, for example, was not merely explaining the syntax of an apparently straightforward line. He was grappling with the same problems with which you just struggled, and his commentary embodies his p’shat of the underlying dynamics of the Gemara. Armed with your own p’shat, challenge him and each other commentator in turn. As in Rav Soloveitchik’s graphic portrayal, you may find yourself surrounded not only by the Talmudic sages of the passage you have learned, but by all the scholars of the “tradition”: “Rashi…expounds; Rabbeinu Tam questions; Rambam rules; Ra’avad criticizes” — with you as an active participant as well.7
Excessive humility (“But I’m not Rav Soloveitchik!”) has no place here. Remember the purpose of appikorsut! Fight with each commentator over the underlying meaning of the Gemara, and be committed to your p’shat! Explore where and why your understanding differs from others’. Does Rashi, for example, concur with your p’shat? If so, you can feel the flush of victory, the exhilaration of knowing you reached the same conclusion as Rashi on your own. If not, why not? Perhaps you overlooked some subtlety of grammar or syntax that only now — by comparing your p’shat with Rashi’s — becomes salient. Perhaps Rashi and you differ over some logical deduction. Don’t capitulate! Fight him tooth and nail, unless and until he convinces you that your p’shat is defective. If it is, you will have learned something for the next round. Your p’shat may, however, be a legitimate alternative understanding of the Gemara. Press onward! Perhaps Rashi would have accepted your p’shat were it not for constraints imposed by his understanding of other passages in the Gemara. Again, he may convince you that these constraints force you to yield, with the dividend of new insights into a host of additional passages in the Gemara, Alternately, you may find yourself dueling over p’shat throughout the Talmud! Perhaps Rashi disagrees with you, but Rabbeinu Tam champions your cause. You have already thrust yourself into the midst of a debate among the rishonim (the early rabbinical commentators)!
This technique can be reapplied in whatever directions of further study you explore. Whether dissecting disputes between Rambam and Ra’avad, analyzing other commentaries and chiddushim (innovative interpretations) on a passage, or tracing the thread of Halachah from the Gemara to operative conclusions in contemporary situations, take the helm. Plunge into whichever course appeals most to your interests. Only through immersion can it excite and vivify you. Above all, you must feel involved and activated.
A Question of Effort; A Matter of Commitment
All this may sound a bit overwhelming and unrealistic. Imagine toiling over your p’shat for hours, only to discover it unsalvageable. Wouldn’t the illusion of accomplishment through the “checklist mode” be preferable to the certainty of having not really learned anything? The Midrash addresses this very scenario:
[Of] two fellows who are engaged in a matter of Halachah, this one formulates an underlying principle of Halachah, and this [other] one does not formulate an underlying principle of Halachah. Said the Holy One Blessed be He [regarding the latter], “His failing [lit. banner] is beloved by Me” (Shir HaShirim Rabbah 2:4).
As Rav Yissachar Berman Ashkenazi adds, God regards “the collection and extension of [this fellow's] words [as] pleasing and cherished … even though he did not concur with the Halachah” (Mattenot Kehunnah). The effort has decisive impact, irrespective of the conclusions.
Maharal posits that we affirm this priority daily at the beginning of the blessings recited before Torah study. Citing the above midrash, he concludes:
A person should not say the Torah was given only to the greatest scholars, who are distant from errors; rather, the Torah was given to all. And one also should not say, “Perhaps I will err in the Torah…” It appears that, because of this, the blessing on Torah study is “to engage in matters of Torah,” and one does not bless “to learn Torah” … because “to learn Torah” does not apply unless one learned Torah and concurred with the true Halachah. … Therefore, one blesses, “to engage in matters of Torah” — whether one concurs with the Halachah or does not concur with the Halachah — simply intending to learn the truth, even though one [may have] erred (Tiferet Yisrael, “Author’s Introduction”).
By blessing, “to engage in matters of Torah,” we commit ourselves daily to struggle in the mitzvah of Torah study regardless of our immediate accomplishments. The potentially paralyzing fear of error is overcome by indomitable confidence in the sincerity of our efforts. Rav David ben Shmuel HaLevi comments, “The blessing is ‘to engage in matters of Torah’ — [meaning] the way of toil exclusively” (Turei Zahav on Orach Chayyim 47:1).
The key is commitment: commitment to confront Torah study with a relentless barrage of questions; commitment to strive constantly to refine your p’shat; and commitment to yourself, to gain the knowledge you need in order to grow. I never desist from drumming this idea into myself, my students, and anyone else who will listen: Solely to the extent that you are committed to something are you really alive! This commitment, insists the Talmud, must know no bounds: “Words of Torah endure only in him who kills himself over it!” (Berachot 63b) This dictum, explains Rav Elimelech of Lyzhansk, refers to “one who learns with mesirut nefesh (self-sacrifice)” (Noam Elimelech on Chukkat). Rav Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter of Gur notes that “killing oneself” in this sense is the only way to be ultimately “vivified anew” (Sefat Emet on Shavuot [5647-9]). Comments Rav Dessler, “Happiness is reserved only for one who devotes himself to his aspiration” (Michtav MeEliyyahu, III, 56). Solely through such commitment will you ever experience the pride of acquiring your Torah, which is essential to enjoying the process of attaining it.
Finally, one additional corollary of commitment is crucial to this pride of acquisition. Despite the promise that “Those who sow in tears will reap in exultation” (Tehillim 126:5), the Talmud warns, “Anyone who learns Torah but does not review it resembles a person who sows but does not reap” (Sanhedrin 99a). The Tosefta’s version of this statement refers to “one who studies but does not toil” (Tosefta Aholot 16:4). Rav Chanoch Zundel ben Yosef observes that the Talmud Bavli especially “is our strength and light, but great toil is necessary to review one’s learning lest forgetfulness prevail. And regarding all this, Chazal said, ‘[If a person says to you,] “I have toiled, and I have found” — believe it!’” (Anaf Yosef on Sanhedrin 24a). Meaningful toil — committed struggle — includes serious review.8 Otherwise, Torah study, without lasting impact, is like sowing a field for nothing, and no one can feel committed to such an exercise in futility. “One who learns Torah and forgets it resembles a woman who bears [children] and buries [them]” (Sanhedrin and Tosefta Aholot, loc. cit.). Thus, the Vilna Ga’on counsels, “It is better that a person learn little and review constantly and know everything completely than learn and gather much and not know the matters completely” (Even Shelemah 8:7). True pride of acquisition hinges on true acquisition: the sense that you own what you have learned. There is an indescribably exhilarating feeling of accomplishment in being able to course through a page of Gemara — or an entire chapter, or a complete tractate — because, by dint of your persistent commitment to conquer it, you already know it so well.
“No Pain, No Gain”
Gemara is not easy. Over the years, many a student has bemoaned to me his supposed inability to get “into” Torah learning in general and Gemara in particular, blaming any number of putative congenital factors. Yet at least thrice daily - irrespective of individual aptitudes and personal career goals — we each pray that God grant us our share in Your Torah,” (concluding supplication of Amidah) presupposing that “our share” does exist. Still more emphatically, every evening we declare that words of Torah “are our life and the length of our days, and we shall articulate them day and night” (Bircat Ahavah). Thus, Chazal urge, “the crown of Torah …the toil of Torah” awaits each of us; “anyone who wants to take it may come and take it” (Avot DeRabbi Nathan 41:1). “To the ignorant” notes Rabbi Menachem HaMe’iri, Torah remains as if “betrothed…but unwed” (Beit HaBechirah on Pesachim 49b), a real potentiality — unfulfilled.
Regardless of the inauspicious introduction to Gemara that many of us received in school, the potential remains. Both individually and communally, we cannot afford to abandon the field of Gemara — one of the most vivifying and uplifting dimensions of Torah learning — to rabbis and so-called Torah professionals. The Torah is “the inheritance of the congregation of Jacob” (Devarim 33:4), the “ancestral inheritance” of each and every Jew (Sanhedrin 91b). Rav Hirsch explains, “It is meant to be the common possession of the entire community, and the maximum dissemination of the knowledge of the Law is viewed as our supreme task and our most sacred concern” (Com. on Avot 1:1). The sequel to this article will explore, God willing, why Gemara study, in particular, is crucial to this dissemination of Torah knowledge and why it has earned its historical status as the most fundamental standard of Torah literacy.
In the interim, I hope the above suggestions on how to get “into” Gemara provide an impetus for re-evaluating our relationship with it, despite the authentic difficulties — or, perhaps, because of them. The Midrash summarizes:
This is the Oral Torah, which is difficult to learn and is accompanied by great suffering and is likened to darkness; as it is said, “The people who are going in darkness have seen great light” (Yeshayahu 9:1). These are masters of the Talmud, who have seen great light, for the Holy One Blessed be He enlightens their eyes. ...
The Oral Torah is accompanied by great suffering and flight of sleep, and there are those who wear out and degrade themselves for its sake. Therefore, the granting of its reward is toward the world to come; as it is said, “The people who are going in darkness have seen great light” — the Great Light, the light that was created on the first day [of Creation], which the Holy One Blessed be He reserved for those who toil in the Oral Torah day and night, through whose merit the world endures; as it is said, “Thus said God: If not for My covenant day and night, the laws of heaven and earth I would not have established” (Yirmeyahu 33:25) — Which “covenant” applies “day and night?” This is Talmud (Tanchuma Noach:3).
The toil and suffering are real — but, like any wise investment, so are the dividends.
It is time we recognize that, despite the difficulties, “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, / But in ourselves, that we are underlings.” Even “genius,” said Edison, “is one per cent inspiration and ninety-nine per cent perspiration.” In the same context, he noted that “there is no substitute for hard work.” But then, we already knew that. As the Mishnah concludes Avot, “According to the suffering is the reward” (Avot 5:23) — or, in looser translation, “No pain, no gain!”
Rabbi Eisen has taught at Yeshivat HaKotel and other yeshivot in Israel and lectured on Jewish thought throughout Jerusalem for the past 14 years. He also teaches at the OU-NCSY Israel Center and in the Torah Lecture Corps of the IDF Rabbinate. He was a founding editor of the OU journal Jewish Thought. The author gratefully acknowledges the comments of Rav Yoel Yehoshua and students of Yeshivat HaKotel who reviewed a draft of this manuscript. He has contributed this article in memory of Rav Ben-Tziyyon Freiman, z”l, “a true ish Yerushalayim, whose every fiber simply and eloquently bespoke total commitment to the truth of Torah.”
1. See Shimon Wieser and Mordechai Bar-Lev, “Hora’at HaTalmud BaYeshivah HaTichonit: Keshayim VeSikkunim,” Niv HaMidrashia, 8 (1990), 233-56. See also Mordechai Bar-Lev and Peri Kedem, Chanichei Aliyyat HaNo’ar BaYeshivot UvaUlpanot (Ramat Gan: Bar-Ilan Univ. Press, 1989), pp. 62 ff.
2. Note that the Gemara as a text did not yet exist when Rabbi Yehoshua, a Mishnaic sage, formulated his instruction.
3. It is beyond the scope of our discussion to consider the optimal age at which students should be introduced to Gemara. Obviously, in the shtetl, considerations of survival militated against deferring Gemara study, since most youngsters began working for a living at a tender age. Perhaps as a result children matured more quickly as well. Yet even under such conditions, many rabbinical authorities — notably Maharal (see Derech HaChayyim on Avot 6:7 [p. 305]) — vehemently decried early exposure to Gemara. In any case, the applicability of these and other considerations to elementary education today is clearly debatable.
4. The sequel to this article will examine, God willing, why Gemara study is so important and can so substantively affect our lives. With the premise that one must understand what Gemara study is before comprehending its true value, this article centers on how to get “into” Gemara on an operative level.
5. Courtesy of Rav Moshe Nashelsky, z”l.
6. Rav Yosef Dov HaLevi Soloveitchik, “UVikkashtem Misham,” Ish HaHalachah — Galui VeNistar, 2nd ed. (Jerusalem: Jewish Agency, 1979), p. 232 (translation mine). See also Abraham R. Besdin, Man of Faith in the Modern World: Reflections of the Rav Volume Two (Hoboken: Ktav, 1989), pp. 21-3. (In addition, Rav Soloveitchik, z”l, discussed this approach to Torah study on an operative level in his public lecture at the chag hasemichah [ordination ceremony] of Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary on 6 Nisan 5730 [April 12, 1970]. For this source, I am indebted to my father-in-law, Rav Aaron Rakeffet-Rothkoff.)
7. I should stress that this approach is neither new nor revolutionary — nor was Rav Soloveitchik, z”l, its sole advocate. In particular, Rav Avraham Yeshayahu Karelitz, z”l (Chazon Ish), urged his students to formulate their own p’shat before consulting Rashi (or any other commentator) and comparing their p’shat with his. (For confirmation of this portrayal of his approach, I am indebted to my esteemed teacher Rav Ya’akov Katz, the Rosh Kollel of Yeshivat Hakotel and a devoted disciple of Rav Karelitz.)
8. Note that several commentators deduce from Eruvin 54b that the first four times a passage is studied are reckoned minimal initial study and not even review. (This position was also articulated by the Steipler, Rav Ya’akov Yisra’el Kanievsky, z”l [Kehillot Yaakov], in his advice on educating youngsters.) The Talmud’s differentiation between “one who studies his lesson one hundred times” and “one who studies his lesson one hundred one [times]” as tantamount to the contrast between “one who serves God” and “one who did not serve Him” (Chagigah 9b and Midrash Tehillim 31:9 in com. on Malachi 3:11) implies decisive value in even prodigious reviewing (see Michtav MeEliyahu, III, 105-7). Operatively, the Vilna Gaon (and many others) recommended ten reviews as the barest minimum (see Keter Rosh, Hilchot Talmud Torah, nn. 49, 54, and 57).