Some new approaches that help students of the Talmud enjoy their studies
By Ilan Preskovsky
While the Tanach may be the bedrock and “point of departure” for Judaism as both a religion and a culture, it is the Talmud (especially the Babylonian Talmud or Talmud Bavli) that is the best encapsulation of how Jews for the past two-thousand years have related to the Torah and, thus, how we have lived as Jews.
The Talmud Bavli was compiled in the sixth century CE (the less-used Jerusalem Talmud or Talmud Yerushalmi was compiled about a hundred years prior) and collected the thoughts, teachings, and arguments of the great Jewish rabbis of the previous six centuries, which had been transmitted orally up until its recording. Comprised of the Mishna (itself compiled in 190 CE by Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi) and the Gemara – the commentary on the Mishna by the rabbis who came after it – the Talmud has been at the heart of Jewish learning ever since. Incidentally, the word “Gemara” is used to refer both to that specific aspect of the Talmud and the entire Talmud itself. Confusing, I know, but the latter is, in fact, how most of those who learn Talmud refer to it.
The bulk of the Talmud deals primarily with Halachic matters, usually in the form of debates between rabbis and rabbinic schools, but these legal arguments are also often interspersed with what is known as “Agadata”: an apparently chaotic swirl of thoughts and opinions on everything from philosophy to mysticism; psychology to history to social criticism. One of the most profoundly brilliant aspects of the way the Talmud was compiled and presented is that, despite the fact that the rabbis of the Talmud often lived centuries and many miles apart, it presents these arguments as if they’re happening between contemporaries. This gives it both a sense of immediacy and timelessness by creating the illusion of great scholars sitting eye-to-eye in yeshiva, arguing over the tiniest details of Biblical exegesis and Halachic minutiae, in the way that “talmidim” have been doing ever since.
Aiming to capture some of the freewheeling and fluid nature of the Oral Torah in written form, the Talmud is, by the standards of a traditional legal text, genuinely quite anarchic, jumping from topic to topic. Rather than a failing, though, this “messiness” is at the very heart of the Talmud’s enduring resonance throughout the centuries. The Talmud is not an ordinary book that can simply be read, but must be given over from teacher to student so that it can be understood. This preamble should, I hope, give some idea of the supreme importance of the Talmud to Jews of all stripes throughout the past two millennia, but it should also make fairly clear the challenges inherent in learning it.
We’re Teaching Our Kids What?
Talmud study makes up some 90% of the curriculum in any yeshiva and is the focus of all Jewish Day schools where post-Matric yeshiva attendance is expected or at least highly desired. At these schools, the switch from a focus on Chumash and/or Mishna study to an immersion in Talmud happens anywhere between the ages of ten and thirteen. This is, if you stop for a second to think about it, especially the fact that this is a PhD level of study (original texts and commentaries in their original foreign languages), fairly mind-boggling, but is something we take for granted because of just how central a part the Talmud plays in the life of any “religious” Jew and just how much passion so many have for it.
While secular subjects are very much tailored according to the age, maturity, and learning levels of not just each grade but often to numerous sub-groups within each grade, when it comes to “religious studies”, our expectations are amazingly entirely different. Thirteen-year-old boys are thrown head-first into studying something that was written fifteen hundred years ago, mostly in long-dead languages (the Mishna is written in relatively more familiar post-Biblical Hebrew, but the Gemara is written in Aramaic) and with no punctuation or vowels throughout the text. And that’s just the formal aspects of it. It’s a bewilderingly difficult text to get one’s head around – all the more so as it deals with often esoteric subjects to your average 21st century teenager (the world is changing at such a pace now that kids today have trouble relating to something that happened fifty years ago, let alone fifteen hundred) – but we expect our kids to “just go with it” in a way that we would never dream of doing with secular subjects.
This is not, Heaven forbid, a knock on the Talmud or its centrality to Jewish religious education. I’ve hopefully already made clear by now why the Talmud is so invaluable to us, but we do sometimes need a bit of perspective on something that we take all too easily for granted, but is, ultimately, just a stone’s throw away from teaching Aristotle in the original Ancient Greek to ten-year-olds.
Finding New Solutions to Very Old Challenges
During the course of his years teaching Talmud to eighth-grade boys in yeshiva grade schools, Rabbi Yakov Horowitz, an educator in Monsey, New York, came to the realisation that he, like so many rebbeim, was guilty of taking exactly that for granted as he came to the shocking discovery that a significant percentage of his students came to his classroom without a basic command of Talmud – this, despite the fact that they had spent the past two to three years studying Gemara.
Here, in this notably “frum” suburb of New York, a good portion of his students would go through their entire childhoods and adolescences in schools that place a particularly strong emphasis on Torah study, but, at the end of the day, would graduate without the “basic abilities to learn even a single blat (page) of Gemara”.
Rabbi Horowitz came gradually to realise this huge gap between his expectations of his students and the grim reality, but it was crystallised for him under the most extraordinarily mundane of circumstances. On a certain occasion, he found himself on a 45-minute car ride to an airport with a small group of carpet makers who, throughout the journey, were talking endlessly among themselves about their specific craft; laughing at in-jokes that only they would get. Their intention wasn’t, presumably, to alienate the rabbi among them, but the result nonetheless left him feeling utterly bewildered and isolated.
The realisation that this is exactly what many of his students must feel, day in and day out, for hours at a time, hit him with full force. The next day at school he “addressed the students, begging them to forgive him”, and from that day on his teaching style shifted dramatically. He threw all assumptions out of the window about where his students were holding and, along with discussing the basics of each subject before going into it, he created an open and inviting space for his students to ask any question they wanted on what they were learning, no matter how seemingly basic. Soon he would embark on a project that would bring his new, much-improved teaching methods to yeshivas and yeshiva schools throughout the world.
No longer interested in getting through as many pages of Gemara in as little a time as possible, Rabbi Horowitz slowed things down and started to concentrate heavily on teaching his students the language of the Talmud so that, though they might get through less Gemara with him, they would finally be equipped to actually study it throughout the rest of their lives. It would also turn something that they were supposed to love into something that they actually would love.
He, inevitably, received some push back from parents who had their own ideas about how Gemara learning was supposed to go, but Rabbi Horowitz would sit down with both parents of new students and those that he had been teaching a while and patiently explained why his open, back-to-basics approach would immensely benefit their children. Ultimately, Rabbi Horowitz was proven entirely right as his “new” methods resulted in major changes in his students, igniting a new found passion for Talmud study and ensuring that even those who once struggled in his class were able to come to grips with a page of Gemara.
Along with the none-more-crucial step of slowing down his classes and focusing on Talmud on a meta-textual rather than purely textual level, he focused on three specific areas of Talmud study that would affect different kids differently and started to grade them on these three areas individually, rather than as a single mark: an ability to read without punctuation; an ability to translate Aramaic and old Hebrew; and an ability to follow the flow of the Talmud’s very particular form of logic. One builds on the next, to be sure, but he immediately noticed that, while some students had great difficulty with following the structure of the Gemara’s logic, those same students quite easily were able to translate the text and read it fluently without punctuation, while other students could just as easily do the precise opposite.
With his new teaching style more than proving itself, Rabbi Horowitz started to put plans into place for a book that would spread his unique but very elemental approach to Talmud education to not just young high school students, but anyone starting to learn Gemara for the first time. He wanted his book to focus on giving new learners the tools to become independent Gemara scholars, intimately familiar with the inner workings of any page of Talmud.
Rabbi Aron Spivak, a former student of Rabbi Horowitz who was initially brought into his yeshiva to teach those who were struggling with their learning, would write the book, while Rabbi Horowitz himself handled the editing and production. With Rabbi Spivak’s compassionate, fluid writing in tow, Rabbi Horowitz began to piece together what would become a short introductory book to the Talmud as a whole, called “Bright Beginnings: Hachana L’Gemara”, and a two-volume teaching-guide to tractate Brachos, entitled “Bright Beginnings Hascholas: Gemara Brachos Workbooks Volume I and II”. These books started life as black-and-white printed sheets, but, after years of road testing, they were released about five years ago in fully-illustrated, brightly coloured, and elaborately produced text books that would make the study of Talmud as accessible as humanly possible.
Within these pages, Rabbi Spivak breaks down each page of Gemara into smaller, more manageable “bites”, providing translation, punctuation, and test questions on each section, a systematic overview of what each “bite” is saying and, more crucially, how it goes about saying it. These books – which are a follow-up to similar introductory guides to chumash – have already sold in the thousands as hard copies to 100 yeshivas throughout the world and they are available as fully interactive apps for iPhone (https://apple.co/2PRZje) and Android.
For more information, visit: https://bbstore.thebrightbeginnings.com/
Chazara, Chazara, Chazara
Rabbi Horowitz is certainly not the only educator trying to find new ways to bring the light of the Talmud to today’s youth. Working in a comparable community to Rabbi Horowitz, Rabbi Dovid Newman has his own take on a similar problem. Rather than addressing the basics of Gemara for beginners as Rabbi Horowitz has done, Rabbi Newman has taken on a more general issue with teaching Talmud to young people in that, in his own experience as a rebbe at a yeshiva high school, he has noticed that, despite being expected to love learning Gemara, many of his students simply never embraced it in the way that even they want to. They want to love Talmud, but they just don’t.
Rabbi Newman came to the conclusion that the disconnect lay in the fact that these students struggled to properly grasp any given page of Talmud, which created a level of frustration that created a solid wall between them and the words of our greatest sages. That they were under extraordinary external pressures from their parents, the school, and the way their curriculum was set up, only exacerbated the problem. As Rabbi Newman himself puts it, bechina (intense examinations) worked for him and it works to fire up the engine in those young bochrim (students) for whom their “engines are already running”, but for those whose engines have never started in the first place, such pressure only turns them off.”
With such knowledge in place, Rabbi Newman decided to create a new approach to learning Gemara that would excite, rather than frustrate his bochrim; one that is based on taking what could be a massive exercise in monotonous frustration, chazara (revision of any piece of learning), and turn it into something richly rewarding and which would turn their aggravation with learning into pure joy for the material. There’s an old adage that to properly grasp a page of Talmud, one requires “chazara, chazara, chazara, and then chazara again” – one needs to go back over a piece of Talmud again and again and again to be at all at ease with it. He needed to find a way that would make revision – in the students’ own free time, no less! – something enticing, rather than dreadful.
This is, of course, was rather easier said than done, so Rabbi Newman, with his ground-breaking programme known as Vhaarev Na (taken from the blessings we say each day over Torah study, in which we ask Hashem to “make sweet” His Torah in our mouths), has put into place a new paradigm of teaching Talmud, based on eight individual steps intended to turn learning Gemara from a chore into a true pleasure. The results have already been extraordinary with many talmidim who previously could not get their head or their heart into learning Gemara now anxiously awaiting their learning sessions. So successful is the programme that it has already been exported to many other yeshiva high schools in the USA – mainly through Rabbi Newman teaching other rebbeim these eight steps.
Eight Steps to Success
1. Remove the pressure. Stop telling students that they “have to do” something. Rather, teach them how to want to do it. Vhaarev Na isn’t even an “incentive”-type of programme, in that it’s not about coercing the students to do something they don’t want to do. Instead, it’s about properly rewarding them for putting in the hard work for what they already want to do, but with which they may have struggled previously.
2. On the opening day of a new school year, use what can be called “shock treatment” to get those engines started. Make a literal kiddush as if this new semester of learning is a Yom Tov. Start off each term with incentives (Rabbi Newman gives his students expensive pencils with their names engraved, for a start) and make it clear that this isn’t about forcing them to learn, but convincing them that if they choose to “hop on the train” the rewards can be incredible. Even offer a $500 “refund” to anyone who does not find himself inspired by his learning by Chanukah time (a short few months after the start of the school year in the Northern Hemisphere).
3. Make your personal Gemara “chazerable” by making it yours. Students should write constantly in their personal Gemaras, making it so that re-reading what they already learned comes with their own commentary that “talks back” to them in their own voice. This also helps them understand what they’re learning the first time and makes them feel a sense of real ownership of the Gemara.
4. Build up the students’ self-esteem. This couldn’t be more crucial. “Get their hearts to move” by showing constantly how important they are as an individual soul and how important they are to Klal Yisrael. This should be true regardless of the level on which each individual student finds himself.
5. Call parents as much as possible with good news. As we have already shown, parents can often unintentionally add much unneeded pressure on their kids, so it’s crucial to have them as involved as possible in this method of teaching their kids. Their own nachas in their kids causes them to encourage their kids further.
6. Quality over quantity. No doubt, this is the area with the most obvious parallels to Rabbi Horowitz’s own methods. We live in a “world of numbers” and this has spread to the study of Talmud, where it has become more important to get through as much as possible, rather than making sure you have proper understanding of what you’re learning. Slow down and emphasise proper understanding over speed and “bragging rights” over pages completed.
7. Siyumim (celebratory feasts to mark the occasion of the completion of a book or chapter of learning). These siyumim are tailor-made to the individual students and offer huge bashes for the learners to look forward to constantly. And, make it clear, that in order to do this, every word of Gemara needs to be learned and relearned. (So successful has Rabbi Newman been in this area, in fact, that his students constantly call him and promise to catch up when they are home sick or are unable to be in class.)
8. Get previous talmidim to talk about their experiences. Learning from a teacher is one thing, learning from other students who went through similar things is quite another. By connecting with older bochrim, students can get a different perspective entirely on both their situation and learning in general.
Plenty more information about the programme can be found on their website at https://vhaarevna.com, including some music videos, especially created for the programme, which already have over one million views.
Bringing It All Back Home
It’s worth noting that both Rabbi Horowitz and Rabbi Newman are working in a culture fairly different to that of most South African Jews. There is a small portion of Jewish kids in this country with a similar background to the “Yeshivish” world of, say, Monsey, New York, but most of us fall somewhere along the lines of “traditional” or “Modern Orthodox”. The difference is not just academic – though, it literally is that as well. For Vhaarev Na in particular, though Rabbi Newman does note that his students are interested in things like sports, it would be disingenuous to say that those who come from a very religious, very Torah-centric background have anywhere near the same amount of distractions that we have here.
Still, for all the differences between us, there is still plenty to be gained by looking at the Vhaarev Na methodology and it can liberally be applied to our own teenage talmidim. Oddly, in one particular area, most South African Jewish students are, in fact, probably at an advantage over their Monsey counterparts. Specifically, with so much focus placed on secular studies and getting good enough marks to get into university, then securing a good job in a very tough job market, there is inevitably less pressure placed on high school kids to knock it out of the park, academically speaking, with limudei kodesh – though, this obviously varies from school to school and parent to parent. This lack of pressure actually makes it far easier for students to develop a healthier, more relaxed, and more easily enjoyable attitude towards studying Gemara than those expected to flawlessly glide through an entire tractate of Talmud in a single term.
In terms of Rabbi Horowitz’s beautiful introductory books to the Talmud, they would actually work just as well here , perhaps even more so, when you consider just how many South African Jews start learning Gemara at a later stage in life and would benefit tremendously from one of Rabbi Horowitz’s books on the subject. And, with them being just an iPhone app away and with more volumes to come – including volumes specifically aimed at adult learners – Rabbi Horowitz has made great strides in making Talmud accessible to all.