Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Not for Everyone

I would say that in my time in yeshiva, the majority of yeshiva guys' schedules consisted of the following:
  • Morning Seder: Gemara B'Iyun
  • Afternoon Seder: Chazara of Gemara/Miscellaneous
  • Night Seder: Gemara B'kiyus and/or preparation for the next day's Gemara shiur

I don't think that this is much of an anomaly - in fact, I think that as you move up to the better yeshivas there is even more of an emphasis on gemara and the number of talmidim with the aforementioned schedule increases.

I am not here to knock gemara. I understand that this is something that has been passed down since the giving of the Torah, and that this is our part in something we value dearly in Judaism, the mesorah. My point here is that gemara isn't for everyone. I, for one, am one of these people. I put in my time because I do understand that this my part in the mesorah, but it is not the focus of my learning. When I learn gemara with people and they are blown away by the inner workings of it, I usually sit there unaffected. Perhaps this is a learned response from being unaffected so many times, but it is what it is. I'd much rather learn the intracacies of the laws of netilas yedaim or brachos than learn the intricaties of Talmudic thought; I'd rather learn a dispute between the Taz and the Magen Avraham than a dispute between Beis Shammai and Beis Hillel.

The problem is that I think there are many "AlanLaz's" in the frum community and in the yeshivas. Those in the frum community may be looked down upon for learning a seder of Mishna Berura, while a top talmid may look at an MB for 3 minutes before davening because he arrived to shul a couple of minutes early. As for those "AlanLaz's"in the yeshivas, I believe they probably go along with the aforementioned daily schedule, while their time would be best spent mastering other areas of learning. There are those that come from frum families who label their kids as the "non-learning type" because they just don't seem to have the knack for "it" like some other children/teens may. However, I believe this label is placed due to the fact that the child/teen does not show an affinity for Gemara. Maybe they're an "AlanLaz", someone that has no affinity for Gemara, but may for other areas of learning. I once had a discussion with my Rosh Yeshiva in Israel about the fact that I did not enjoy learning Gemara, and he told me that my part in learning was to master halacha - to know it better than most. He told me that this mastery would be the best way to reap the fruits of my learning. Sure, he could've told me to learn gemara, gemara, and more gemara (although I wouldn't have listened), but this would've been a waste of everyone's time.

As a final note, I know many yeshivish-type guys that when learning with someone that is a new BT or someone that is working their way up the ladder, they emphasize gemara. When someone is becoming a BT or has recently become a BT, they are signing up to live a frum lifestyle. I believe that these people want to soak in as much of how to live this lifestyle as they can. They want to learn the halachos; they want to know how to live like an orthdox Jew. Sure, one cannot ignore the Talmud when properly and thoroughly researching a halachic topic, but this not for the BT's. My Rosh Yeshiva told me that one of his major tainahs on YU (he attended there in the 70's) was that they never taught him what it meant to be Shomer Negiah (it wasn't always a "fad" like it is today). This Rav, a BT, wanted to live a frum lifestyle. Had YU only have taught him this staple of the frum approach to relationships, he would've abided by it. Perhaps they were too focused on gemara, I don't know. All I know is that these people yearn to live the lifestyle, so they must learn how to properly live the lifestyle. When we teach them the reasons that we put on tefillin, the reasons that we wear tzitzis, they will come to appreciate these laws as more than just commandments, but as something much more than that.

Sure, let's expose them to their part in the mesorah, but let's start out with "How to Live Like a Frum Jew, 101."


Blogger Shua said...


Great Post!

I am most definitely in the category of "not good at/don't have a knack for" Talmud, and I agree with your assessment that perhaps our institutions have stigmatized those that do not have the ability or desire to master the Gemara. I do enjoy parts of Gemara (even though my skills are raw), but I do think that in addition to practical, relevant Halacha, some students these days are missing out on Tanach knowledge as well. It would be beneficial for students if some Yeshivot taught Hebrew as well, but I don't see that happening anytime soon.
On the bright side, I'd venture to guess that there has to be some Yeshivot that offer some rigorous halacha or Tanach shiurim. YU had some great Tanach courses that I took, but I'm not sure what the Israeli Yeshivot offer these days.
Overall, though, you're right in that students who master Gemara are looked upon by some, in a more favorable light than others who are less skilled. But is that any different with the way that people dress and the perceptions that go along with that? (I guess that could be a separate blog)

1:17 PM, April 04, 2006

Blogger Jack Davidov said...

There are a number of issues that you are addressing in this post, and I would like to respond to each of them:

Gemara study isn't for everyone - True, Gemara isn't for everyone. Everyone has a chelek in Torah, regardless if they can or cannot learn Gemara. Yisrael is the roshei teivos of "yaish shishim riboi osios l'Torah" - there are 600,000 letters in the Torah. In other words, every Jew has a piece of the Torah within himself.

Ba'alei t'shuvah shouldn't start on Gemara - Again, agreed with you there. The basics take precedence over Gemara (Hebrew, Chumash, basic understanding of the 13 Principles of faith).

Gemara isn't for you - On this point I have to disagree. Gemara takes time, both to understand and to enjoy. Don't give up too early. With all due respect, I disagree with your Rosh Yeshiva. You have the tools within you to tackle Gemara. The bounties are endless. Part of the problem with a lot of people is that they give up before they really experience the pleasure of learning. Do yourself a favor and try and get someone to learn with you who will expose you to real lomdus - Rav Akiva Eiger, the Brisker Rav, something like that. Learn something that you consider beyond yourself. You need to experience it once just to know that it's out there.

5:35 PM, April 04, 2006

Blogger AlanLaz said...


It could be that I do have it in me. That being said, with my limited learning time as it is, I feel as if I don't have the time to wait around to see if the affinity will grow. I'd rather learn the stuff that I love, because if I learned for a couple of months trying to get into Gemara, and I didn't get into it, I would consider that just short of a waste of time.

5:40 PM, April 04, 2006

Blogger Jack Davidov said...

I still think that you are selling yourself short. I can't blame you, I don't do any iyun learning. Although I am trying to remedy that (I'm discussing with a chavrusa about switching from Shmiras Shabbos K'hilchaso to some Iyun in Meseches Kiddushin), I do realize that it is very time-consuming and hard to fit into a working schedule.

What I am saying, is that you should try and at least get some exposure to it, so that you have an appreciation for it. Believe me, I've been there - it took me a very long time to get that feeling. But one day, I was sitting in shiur and it really hit me. It wasn't always like that, but I would periodically get the same feeling in chavrusos and in shiur. I admit, I don't always feel that way - but if you experience it you start to associate a feeling of enjoyment with your learning instead of simply feeling a duty or obligation to do it.

All that I'm saying is that it's really important that you experience the pleasure of seeing the inner mechanics of a sugya at least once so that you know what people are talking about when they say that they really got into learning.

7:21 PM, April 04, 2006

Blogger Jewboy said...

This discussion has gotten a bit interesting. I agree with Jack that it is important to try to experience learning a sugya bi iyun at least once. I had no clue how to do that when I left high school but gained a real appreciation for it. If it's not your thing, there's no need to focus on it, but I think it is good to know what it's about.

7:43 PM, April 04, 2006

Blogger AlanLaz said...

I know what people are talking about when they say that they really got into learning, because I get into learning...just different stuff than most.

8:41 PM, April 04, 2006

Blogger Jack Davidov said...

Alanlaz - The point is this: learning Gemara b'iyun is the foundation of all other types of Torah study. It completely alters your perspective in how you approach other aspects of learning. It gives you the ability to understand the fine details of things and to be able to objectively compare different ways of understanding those details. It also gives you a kind of "high" which is very hard to describe. It's like piecing together tiny parts of a puzzle and then suddenly grasping the whole picture from one little piece.

8:47 PM, April 04, 2006

Blogger AlanLaz said...


I think your comments prove my point about what the olam thinks about those who don't have a true interest in gemara. I agree that it is the foundation of all learning, but the assumption that one cannot get a "high" from learning other things than gemara is a faulty one.

8:59 PM, April 04, 2006

Blogger Jack Davidov said...

Alanlaz - I never said that you couldn't get a "high" from other types of learning. I also wasn't trying to disparage people who don't learn Gemara. Yet, the "high" you get from iyun learning is definitely qualitatively different from the "high" you get from other types of learning.

All I mean is that learning Gemara b'iyun gives you another dimension to your learning - you look at what you learn much differently. My Rosh Yeshiva used to say that you can't really enjoy learning works of Kabbalah unless you have an appreciation for learning Gemara b'iyun.

If you learn Mishna Brurah, a knowledge of the sugya behind a Halacha that you are learning isn't required. However, doing some iyun does give you an appreciation for the process behind the Halacha and some sort of spiritual connection to it.

9:57 PM, April 04, 2006

Anonymous yehupitz said...

I also had a desire for other fields of Torah while I was in Yeshiva. Only Rabbi Frand's shiur provided an outlet for that. One day a week he gave a shiur on a sefer of Nach. And one day a week he gave a preview of his Thursday night shiur. And his shiur also had a Halacha L'Maaseh slant that totally differed from the rest of the Shiurim in the Yeshiva. But as a result, the shiur (not the Rabbi, but the shiur) was not respected as the other shiurim were. But I didn't care.

Otherwise, I discovered that if I wanted more than Gemara, I had to learn it myself.

For the past five years or so, my seder includes many elements that I never learned in Yeshiva, but the fellow who said that it teaches one to think is right. There's got to be some of it in the diet. The Rambam recommends one third of one's time until you have alrady gone through the rest of Torah Shebiksav and Torah She'Baal Peh. But that doesn't have to mean Shas Bavli. It would refer to any type of "Iyun" gemara-style study.

7:45 PM, April 06, 2006


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