Question & Answer With Rabbi Micha Golshevsky - How To Learn Gemara
A Simple Jew asks:
There seems to be a never ending discussion about the merits and shortcomings to the plethora of scheduled "yomi" learning programs. Would you recommend that someone new to Gemara begin by learning Daf Yomi as a way to get a broad knowledge quickly or would you recommend that he take one masechta and go through it slowly and methodically?
Rabbi Micha Golshevsky answers:
Excellent question as always. Truth is that there is a lot of confusion regarding this issue for many people who are very experienced in Gemara. Should one focus more on bekiyus, trying to learn and remember what it says, or is he better off with iyun, learning slowly but with much more depth.
Rav Isser Zalman Melzer, Rav Shach's rebbe and uncle and the famed Rosh Yeshivah of Eitz Chaim, said that this was an unresolved question even in Yeshivas Volozhin. Some worked solely on bekiyus while others focused on iyun. Still others spent some time trying to attain depth in learning while also spending part of their time working on learning through the bredth of Torah.
Rav Melzer recounted, "Of those who learned only iyun, very few people attained greatness in Torah. Of those who learned only bekiyus, no one attained greatness in Torah. Most of those who attained Torah greatness used their time to gain mastery in both areas of Torah."
Now you may well ask: that's nice but what does it have to do with my question? Clearly Rav Melzer was discussing a young man who was willing and able to spend his entire day learning.
To this I would request that you give me a moment to explain.
Rebbe Nachman of Breslov also focuses on learning bekiyus and iyun. In Rabbi Nachman's Wisdom he adjures us to learn the entire Talmud every year! In addtion one must spend some part of his day learning "a little iyun."
As is be expected, Rebbe Nachman does not allow us to become depressed by this tall order. He immediately points out that one should not be discouraged if one does not manage to learn, since one can be a true tzaddik without knowing Gemara. But he adds that to be a true ba'al hasagah, a person who grasps things on a higher plane, one must be a lamdan, have deep understanding of Gemara Rashi and Tosefos. (Some say that a "little iyun" means enough to get to this level.)
Interestingly, iyun is an important part of Breslover avodah. Although it is well known that Rebbe Nachman said that it is a very great mitzvah to always be joyous, very few are aware that he also said, "It is a very great mitzvah to always sharpen one's intellect."
So now you understand the connection: it is best that every person should spend some time each day doing both.
But the Gemara says that only learn where his heart feels an interest. Rav Binyaman Zilber comments that the same is true regarding what part of Torah one should spend his time in. As Rebbe Nachman explains there is no point to learning out of a feeling of pressure. That will get you nowhere. Instead one must learn with pleasure where he feels like learning.
But the importance of gemara cannot be diminished. Rebbe Nachman and many other tzaddikim point out that the word Gemara is an acronym for Gavriel, Michael, Rephael and Uriel, since learning Gemara affords a very great protection from any troubles and especially spiritual hardship.
Rav Ben Tzion Abbah Shaul, pointed out that the word Gemara has the same root as the Aramaic word gumrah which means coals, to teach that the back and forth of Gemara burns out all evil like buring coals.
It is precisely because of the difficult to learn Gemara that it is so efficacious.
Interestingly, the Arizal makes the very same point. He explains that every person has kelipos, evil within that must be conquered. It is precisely through the toil we exert while learning that we break through these barriers to spiritual connection.
Interestingly, both the Chofetz Chaim and Rav Shmuel Shapiro would encourage people to learn Daf Yomi with the Midrash that states that in the ultimate future, Hashem will reveal the deep secrets of the sugyos of Shas but one who has never even learned through a mesechtah will not merit to enter the shiur. Even one who read through the Gemara but did not understand it will be allowed entry into the shiur. (The part about sodos is not explicit in the midrash but this is how the Chofetz Chaim explains it.)
So this is yet another reason.
But you make a good point: what about retention?
First of all, I would like to share an essential parable Rebbe Nachman said (from the Arizal.) This can be compared to some workers the king hired to empty an immense vessel of water into a pit using bottomless recepticles.
The foolish among them felt that the work was meaningless since hardly any water was transfered. The wiser did what the king said anyway. They reasoned that it was not their concerned how much work got done since they were well paid for this seemingly meaningless job. Besides, the work certainly served to cleanse the bottomless vessels.
Even when we do not retain what we learn, it still serves to cleanse us. In additon, exerting oneself to understand seemingly difficult sugyos is excellent preparation with dealing with one's fellow man. It is for this reason that Rav Aharon of Belz learned pilpul (as I once wrote in a piece for you.) Similarly, it is easier to see another's point of view even if it appears a bit specious or improbable.
The Gra would also say that one who learns Gemara has an easier time changing the bad within himself since he sees how little he knows and how often he is mistaken or that there is a side that he would not have thought of.
In addition, most people who stick it out and go through the Daf Yomi are able to learn Gemara anywhere with relative ease. When they are on the second cycle they find that they comprehend and retain with much less effort, even though it does not appear that they retained too much from the first time around.
So I think it is worthwhile to stick it out and make the difficulty into an avodah. If it takes you half hour or whatever a day to go through the daf - even in English, I think you should so. But if you see that even any of this advice doesn't work for you or you feel that it is disastrous or even just a recipe for failure, then you should learn however you feel drawn to learn! Most importantly : don't give up!
As you may know, the Chofetz Chaim said that Jews in earlier generations who could not attain mastery in Shas, would at least learn Rif with Rashi, and he lamented that people stoped learning Rif.
It is much less well known that the Ramah MiPano actually made a Kitzur Rif. It follows that even just reading through the daily daf in the English mini summary on Revach L'Daf is very worthwhile. This takes maybe two or three minutes and it adds up to a huge storehouse of essential concepts which also make learning Gemara.
Rebbe Nachman points out that Hashem only wants us to do our best, not to overextend ourselves beyond our present level. (This also comes out of Rabeinu Yonah on Avos and the writtings of the Gemara much easier. But one should only do this if he can manage to make this an avodah and feel pleasure in it. This means simply focuing on the connection to Hashem through the learning whatever one understands or retains. One who serves Hashem through his daily daf of Gemara, and yearns to truly understand and retain it all will eventually merit to do so. After all, Chazal tell us that Torah is a gift. Recalling our learning especially depends on siyatah d'Shmayah. One who uses the hardship in learning Torah to connect to Hashem will be afforded magnificent spiritual gifts that are literally beyond his wildest imagination- and the harder it is the greater the gifts. But this takes great perseverance and profound humility.