Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Guest Posting By Chabakuk Elisha - Gemara

(Illustration courtesy of Yevrey.com)

Our friend ASJ has been asking me to share my struggles with Gemara, so I finally gave in.

There's no question that Gemara is the primary limud haTorah. From Gemara we understand more than the halachaic nitty-gritty with assorted anecdotes. Gemara contains the thinking of Chazal, who are basically the founding fathers of our Torah Shebaal Peh, and our Yiddishkeit. There we are taught how to think, we are taught the structure of Torah, and we are able to connect our thoughts with thousands of years of Jewish thinking. The Gemara contains great secrets, often hidden in the aggateda, as Chazal reveal an inch but conceal miles. In truth, Gemara is the ikkur limud haTorah for Klal Yisroel throughout the history of our galus.

Moreover, Gemara, Torah Sh'Baal Peh, is the other – equally essential - half of Tanach, and was equally given to Moshe at Sinai. Our learning Gemara connects us all the way back. Without it, it would be impossible to understand Torah correctly, as much of our understanding of Torah is only hinted at – or not even mentioned all – in Torah Sh'biksav and is only explained in Shas. In Tanya, R' Schneur Zalman of Liadi states that the Talmud is a manifestation of G-d's will, even higher than the level of Chochma (wisdom). By studying Gemara a person's mind becomes one with G-d's will in a perfect unity, making the person's mind G-dly.

What can be greater than that?

But then there are the facts on the ground. I don't feel it. I learn Gemara every day, and I've done so for years, but I usually walk away feeling somewhat empty. Sometimes I am inspired by an insight into Chumash or Navi, or a piece of aggadeta, but it's not every day, and it's not really what Gemara is anyway – technically, if I wanted those things, I could just learn Tanach with miforshim and Ein Yaakov. So, I do it day after day, and often wonder if I am getting anything out of it. Is there not a better use of that time? Am I being foolish learning something that doesn't speak to me, when I could be learning something that does? I feel like a guy that got invited to the greatest event in history, but after driving around in circles, I just can't find the entrance.

Sometimes, I feel guilty about it, other times I feel foolish in persisting. I know that I'd rather be learning Chumash or Tanach in depth – that's something I really enjoy! But, on the other hand, I know that this was a matter of great dispute between the maskilim and the chareidim of old… Tanach or Shas? The Maskilim said Tanach, the Tzaddikim said Shas. The Yorei Shomaim wanted us to spend our days with Chazal, learning Gemara. But maybe things are different today? Maybe because my Gemara skills aren't great, or because I'm a working man without the time for real in-depth Gemara study, the rules are different? I don't know, but my chavrusa won't let me change the seder anyway – so I continue, tomorrow morning I'll open up to Eiruvin, daf lamed...

21 Comments:

At February 21, 2007 at 7:27:00 AM EST, Anonymous moshe said...

Thank you CE! I feel exactly the same! Moreover, when I was in yeshiva, I would often feel a very unpleasant emptiness after a good gemara seder, and was afraid to ask my rabanim about it...
Let me try to adress a few issues: First of all, Rav Ariel Bar Tzaddok just put up a very good article that deals with learning gemara: http://www.koshertorah.com/PDF/wayofhalakha.pdf
He quotes some opinions (of very important contemporary poskim) that learning Gemara without extracting Halacha from it is like bitul Torah (may be that's why you feel empty)... He also quotes what these poskim suggest as a limud for laymen... I think it's required reading for you if you're bothered with these issues...

Furhtermore, I'd suggest that the chareidim of old disagreed with the maskilim because the maskilim wanted to learn Tanach as a way of "Bible criticism"... If one learns any part of Torah without complete emuna, any limud will leave you feeling empty, be it Tanach, Gemara of even Chassidus. However if one learns it as a way of CONNECTING with the tzaddikim of old (be it the neviim or tanaim and amoraim, of rishonim and achronim) then any limud will leave you fulfilled!

 
At February 21, 2007 at 7:43:00 AM EST, Anonymous moshe said...

Another issue may be that our limud may just not be "spiritual" enough, and it may be especially true when learnig Gemara. When one tries to get very intellectual and analitical, one could loose their dveikus... I think the Alter Rebbe deals with it in Tania...
May be that's what Rabbi Nachman meant when he said that we should make our Torah into tefilla, not that we should just mumble the appropriate likkutey tefilos after learning (or make up our own) but rather the learning itself should have the same dveikus as tefilla... After all, when learning any piece of Torah, we're mentioning great tzaddikim, and it's an opportunity to connect with them, NOT ONLY INTELLECTUALLY but also on an emotional and other levels.

 
At February 21, 2007 at 8:00:00 AM EST, Blogger A Simple Jew said...

Moshe: It looks like CE, you, and myself all feel exactly the same way about this. I

wonder how many others there are out there.

Thank you for the link to the interesting article as well.

 
At February 21, 2007 at 8:52:00 AM EST, Blogger A Simple Jew said...

Moshe: One more question. What have you done today to resolve this problem? Do you still learn Gemara on a regular basis?

 
At February 21, 2007 at 9:03:00 AM EST, Anonymous moshe said...

ASJ: Here's another superb article from Rav Ariel Bar Tzaddok on the same topic: http://www.koshertorah.com/PDF/wayofheart.pdf (especially on page 2 he outlines the priorities in Torah study).

BTW, he's one of VERY few people who teach some aspects of the Baal Shem Tov's Torah that hardly anyone else even mentiones (like what comes after "lichsheyafutzu mainosecha chutza..."). I highly suggest that you look at his library section: http://www.koshertorah.com/alefbet.html or buy his CDs on the Baal Shem Tov.
If you want I can send you more specific links...

 
At February 21, 2007 at 9:06:00 AM EST, Blogger A Simple Jew said...

Thanks again!

 
At February 21, 2007 at 9:35:00 AM EST, Blogger Sechel said...

Any kind of Torah learning--it doesn't matter if it's gemara, Tanakh, or kabbalah--needs to be accompanied with dvekut in order for it to succeed, because dvekut is the ikkar. The content is subsidiary to the dvekut. The chasidim (eg see Tzavaat Harivash 29) and mitnagdim (eg Nefesh Hachayim 4:6-7) actually agreed in principle on this, though they differed on the what the process of dvekut was.

 
At February 21, 2007 at 9:40:00 AM EST, Blogger A Simple Jew said...

Tzava'as Harivash #29 can be seen here

 
At February 21, 2007 at 9:42:00 AM EST, Anonymous moshe said...

ASJ: My goal in learning pshat now is to first go through all of Tanach, Mishna and Shulchan Aruch a good few times so that I'll know it very well, and then I'll be ready for Gemara. Let me add to that that I spent about 10 years in yeshiva learning mostly Gemara and Halacha b'iyun all day long, but I felt that the learning only stayed in my head and did not enter my heart (and kishkas) in any significant way... My last year in yeshiva I was about to get smicha, but just couldn't take it any longer!
Recently I started realizing what could've caused it: First of all, I'm a BT, and I started learning at age 18, so I spent one year in a BT program where I picked up basic concepts, and then I jumped straight into Gemara, not having properly learned Tanach and Mishna. Not that I couldn't understand the Gemara because of that - no, if there's a pasuk or a mishna that I didn't know I'd just look it up, what's the big deal... But the reason that Tanach and mishna study must precede Gemara is not just that logically Gemara is based on psukim and mishnayos, Learning Tanach and Mishna first, PREPARES ONE'S NESHAMA in a way that one could analize the Gemara and not loose one's focus of spirituality...
When one learns Tanach and Mishna as a child (or as an adult with child like simplicity) it enters one's heart much easier than Gemara which one has to analize. That's what I'm trying to regain now...
(BTW, I'm not trying to discourage anyone from continuing to learn Gemara, everyone should feel what's good for them and "ein adam lomed ela ma shelibo chafetz"... That being said, there're universal requirements that everyone should learn no matter what, halacha being one of them)

 
At February 21, 2007 at 9:54:00 AM EST, Anonymous Bob Miller said...

It helps if you find a really inspiring teacher of Gemara. They exist but not everywhere. The maggid shiur of our local Daf HaYomi is exactly that. Whatever else he teaches, Parashas HaShavua, Ramchal..., is done with the same enthusiasm and deep knowledge.

I agree, though, that the student's step-by-step progress into Gemara learning has to be structured properly for best results.

 
At February 21, 2007 at 9:55:00 AM EST, Blogger A Simple Jew said...

Moshe: I hear ya! I think you are doing the right thing.

Bob: I appreciate your thoughts. Do you also find you have problems learning Gemara?

 
At February 21, 2007 at 10:07:00 AM EST, Blogger yitz.. said...

I couldn't learn gemara until I could learn it as if it was sod..(ie. if you learn a few hassidic explanations of the gemara--i know the Maor Eynayim has an appendix of his comments on different sections of the gemara--maybe even the Notzer Hesed which is on Pirkei Avot would help change your perspective, or other Hassidut on the mishna) then if you look for the deeper applications of what seem like simple statements, the gemara is wild. but try wading through the gemara like this, it takes a LONG time.

Having said that, I don't invest a lot of energy or time in learning gemara.

My Rav told me the Baal Shem Tov said that mishnayoth with bartenura is better for anyone who isn't a yeshivah bochur or kolel avrech. (I have a vague recollection of perhaps seeing this inside somewhere in the Notzer Hesed as well, but I could very well be wrong.) I think one of the reasons given is that it derives the halachah from the mishnah. (presumably instead of just leaving it at a logical debate.)

I definitely read somewhere recently (it might have been here on ASJ now that I think about it, but i'm 99% sure it was online in any case, perhaps Chabad? that Mishna is (one of, if not) the most important thing to learn.)

I'm starting to get an inkling that perhaps the reason it takes so much effort to connect to the Gemara is that i've been trying to learn Talmud Bavli.. I'm hoping to start learning soon the Yerushalmi and see if that helps. I love learning the mishnah, and the midrash, so I think this may solve many problems.

And lastly let's not forget that the Torah is metish koah haAdam. -- Torah is said to exhaust and weaken us. (That's why by just accepting the yolk of the Torah, Resh Lakish couldn't leap back across the river--a feat he had achieved moments before.)
Perhaps the fact that your gemara learning is exhausting and emptying is a sign that you are in fact really learning Torah. (I hope you can find encouragement in that.)

 
At February 21, 2007 at 10:43:00 AM EST, Anonymous chabakuk elisha said...

Gevaldig! Thanks for everyone's input! It seems that I'm in good company :-)
Thanks for the links, ideas and ecouragement!
I cant help but think what a shame it is if I have been following the path of the "beizer lamdan"...

 
At February 21, 2007 at 11:52:00 AM EST, Anonymous Bob Miller said...

"Bob: I appreciate your thoughts. Do you also find you have problems learning Gemara?"

When the subject matter doesn't grab me, it's harder to stay tuned in. My Gemara background is pretty thin, so at home I rely heavily on the Artscroll and other "crutches".

For a time I had a telephone Gemara study schedule with a old friend living in New England, but he recently enrolled at the Yeshiva in Providence RI, so he's pretty unavailable now.

Until recently, the maggid shiur I mentioned also led a very interesting beis medrash style session at our shul three nights a week, but lately he's had to be out of town too much to keep it going.

 
At February 21, 2007 at 12:07:00 PM EST, Blogger David Guttmann said...

I do not reacll who, i think the Rogatchover or the Steipler, writes that one should learn a perek four times without tosafot, follow up with the Rosh. start with an easy perek and try it you will really enjoy iy. You end up knowing both the gemara and the resulting halacha. Another tip is to stop after each sugya or subject and make a summary of the resolution in your own words. i like to wrute it down.

There is a letter from a Baghdadi jew to the rambam asking him what he suggests he should learn.He writes him to learn the Mishne Torah follow it in order. As he finishes each halacha e.g. hilchot sghabbat he will feel the accomplishment of knowing one full set of halachot well.

There is a machloket beteween the Tanya and r. Chaim Voloziner what is the meaning of learning torah Lisjma, lishma shel torah and lishmo shel hashem If the later Deveihus counts if the former it may be wrong. I would leave these issues for greater ovdim and worry about enjoying what one learns. Ta'amu Ure'u ...

 
At February 21, 2007 at 1:31:00 PM EST, Blogger avakesh said...

Unfortunately, like all technical subjects one has to be good at it to enjoy it. Love of Gemara is acquired during those long years of breaking teeth over it in the yeshiva, the struggles and successes, self-sacrifice to master long-term and not short-term. It is a very difficult thing to gain when one approaches it on a part-time basis and and later in life. So what? There is plenty to learn and Chazal already told us that a person should study that which his heart desires (A'Z 19).

 
At February 21, 2007 at 3:55:00 PM EST, Anonymous Litvak said...

Firstly, I wish to congratulate CE on the fine and important posting and ASJ for hosting and posting it.

I think that such feelings as expressed by CE are felt and shared by many, though expressed openly in such a way by few.

Now, a few comments.

1) "There's no question that Gemara is the primary limud haTorah."

While of course it's important, I am not sure what that means. What if someone would learn gemara and never chumash ?

It is of said of Moreinu HaGR"A that he, bisof yomov (toward the end of his mortal life), spent most of his time learning chumash.

2) I think that while in many things you instinctively and reflexively take a Hassidic point of view, however, here, for some reason, you are thinking like a Litvak, and that is somewhat surprising (the Alter Rebbe was a Litvak too).

3) I think the principle of 'ein odom lomeid Torah ela bimkom shelibo chofetz' (a person does not learn Torah, only in a place [subject area] where his heart desires), something the gemara itself tells us (BT, AZ, daf 19 or thereabouts) must be stressed strongly to deal with this problem of loss of desire in learning. I recall hearing that the Chofetz Chaim was asked what should someone do if he lost interest in what he was learning and the response was to switch to something else he was interested in. And the CC was not a Chossid.

As an interesting aside, a number of years ago in Brooklyn there was a symposim on derech halimud. R. Hershel Schachter and R. Yisroel Reisman were two of the speakers. I liked what RHS said. One of the things he mentioned was learning bimkom shelibo chofetz. However, I was very upset when another speaker there said, subtly but significantly taking issue, that 'one should transform whatever one if learning into a mokom shelibo chofetz.' I think that was/is a terrible distortion of what Chazal taught and that he was migaleh ponim baTorah shelo kihalocho, Rachmono litzlon.

See also what Rabbeinu HaGR"A wrote about the proper way to learn - in sefer Even Shleima and elsewhere. He says that first one should fill up his belly of mikra, mishnah, gemara, etc. and only then be oseik in pilpul chaveirim. But if he switches the sequence he will lose even the Torah he learnt before. The fact is that most Litvaks today do not follow the GRA unfortunately - whether in minhogim or things like this. Claims that they are following his ways are not accurate for the most part (though there are some laudable exceptions). The GR"A was very concerned about things like this. Many people, esp. Hassidim perhaps, unfortunately lump together the GR"A with the Litvak in the Yeshiva down the block. That is usually a big mistake. The GR"A was involved in so many different aspects of Torah, whether halocho, mikro, kabboloh, gemara.....He was so far from the stereotypical Litvak that you Hassidim like to conjure up and put down.

4) One can learn gemara quickly, alot of ground, even without Rashi, certainly without Tosfos. The Maharal advocated a similar style of learning, as did other great gedolim, but many foolish midgets ignored them, leading us into the mess we are in today.

The Zilberman chadorim in Eretz Yisroel are a laudable attempt to fix things.

5) Rav AY Kook z"l, who was from an interesting background, having a Litvish father and a Hassidic (Lubavitch) mother, who learned in Volozhin and was a talmid muvhak of the Netziv, also dealt with some of these issues. He wrote a great peirush on aggodoh called Eyn Ayah. Are you familiar with it ? A few pieces have been translated into English, but there's much more in loshon kodesh. Unfortunately, it only covers a few mesechtos - four volumes have appeared.

6) One also should realize that gemara really means taking the Torah of the past and relating it to present conditions with debates and comparisons and contrasts. When we study gemara today as a dry, static text, it's as if the gemara has become another layer of mishna. Gemara is basically debates and discussion they had in the ancient academies using the mishna as a basis and jumping-off point. In our days real gemara would be debates and discussion we have on the basis of the gemara, not the gemara itself, which has become a basically static text.

I have written much and there is more to say, but the matter is very important. I hope my words help.

 
At February 21, 2007 at 4:07:00 PM EST, Anonymous A Yid said...

For some reason no one mentioned the fact, that mekubolim say, that the inner desire to learn certain part of Toyro is revealing the actual need of the neshomo for its tikun. This is usually ignored in litvishe system, however chasidim of old paid attention to it (it should be used with a balance still). Today even chasidim don't think about it.

Also, it's iteresting to note, that Baal haTania says, that a balabos should learn more Zohar, because it helps his yiras shomaim.

 
At February 21, 2007 at 4:09:00 PM EST, Anonymous A Yid said...

I see someone said it just before me :)

 
At February 21, 2007 at 5:20:00 PM EST, Blogger der ewige Jude said...

yitz...-
I found that learning Yerushalmi was much easier for me than learning the Bavli, the rulings seemed to be much clearer and more user friendly. Unfortunately the halachah always follows the Bavli where there is a difference between the two.

 
At February 21, 2007 at 8:31:00 PM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

In aperfect world we would learn in the right order whatever we are supposed to but in todays day and age whatever one finds interesting to him he needs to learn otherwise he will be spacing out. However one has to keep on trying to learn the essentials even if they dont intrest him suchas Gemara, Chumash, Halacha.

 

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