Friday, November 25, 2005

Still Struggling To Learn The Other Half

After resolving my misguided thinking last November, I have spent the past year slowly learning Gemara. I have been able to finish Berachos and Rosh Hashanah, and now I am making my way through Maseches Sukka. As someone who never went to yeshiva, I continue to find learning Gemara to be extremely difficult. My simple mind constantly gets distracted by the numerous arguments and tries to remember who said what. I am pretty sure that a 10 year-old in Boro Park or Bnei Brak could learn circles around me.

I would be lying if I said that I do not struggle sometimes to find the relevance in the subject matter (ex. Can one who sleeps under the bed in a sukkah fulfill his obligation to dwell in a sukkah? [20b]) . An argument on a very minor detail in the Gemara can go on for pages and pages and pages while my mind says, "Just tell me the halacha already!!" Nevertheless, I continue to turn the pages and try to apply myself to the best of my ability.

In Vayikra 10:16, the words "darosh darash" ("inquired insistently" [literally: "inquire he inquired"]) mark the halfway point by word count in the Torah. In fact, in many Chumashim the phrase "Half of the words of the Torah" is written in small print between the words darosh and darash. The Degel Machaneh Ephraim explained that this hints to the fact that the Torah sheh b'ksav (Written Torah) is only half of the Torah. The other half of the Torah can be found in the Torah sheh b'al peh. (Oral Torah); the part of the Torah where the Rabbis "inquired insistently" to expound upon the meaning of the Torah sheh b'ksav.

I constantly remind myself that one who learns Chumash without learning Gemara is only learning half of the Torah. I daven that Hashem opens my mind and my heart to be able to better understand, appreciate, and be successful in learning Gemara. I hope that someday I will at least be able to get to the level of the 10 year-old yeshiva bocher.


At November 25, 2005 at 12:44:00 PM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Don't feel lonely, you have plenty of company. I am not, by any stretch of the imagination, well-versed in Gemmara - and although I learn it every day, it can get very tedious and even boring. It's not unusual; there are many like us.
However, this does not have to be the case.
If we stick with it, it will eventually click. People have often told me how "one day the lights go on," and when this happens, there's nothing like it. I wish I had more time to learn, but it can be an exhilarating experience to delve into a sugya, and really begin to see how Torah works. Gemmara contains everything from the most hidden to the most revealed; it gives us insight into Jewish history, laws, experiences and thought. It is a window to a different time, and yet it is current as well.
There are many perushim that cover every imaginable angle, it's probably a good idea to find an approach that you like and learn seforim that work that angle.
And although many yeshiva bochurim may be able to run circles around us, they too have only scratched the surface, and their perceptions are quite limited. Honestly, I think that although many bochurim may have superior skills, I think that they’re often served a disservice – and their thought process warped, even damaged – by the way the yeshivos teach it. I wonder if those who didn’t have a yeshiva background to learning gemarra aren’t in some ways better off…

At November 25, 2005 at 1:19:00 PM EST, Blogger A Simple Jew said...

Chabakuk Elisha: Thank you for your words of encouragement. It is so nice to know there are others out there who wrestle with these issues as well.

What do you do when you are learning and find it to be "very tedious" or "boring"?

The Artscroll Gemara that I use includes many different perushim and footnotes, however if I struggle to maintain focus on the subject matter, I will REALLY struggle to maintain focus on its explanation.

I have found that I would really have a difficult time with Gemara if I did not also learn Chassidus. Chassidus (particularly Degel Machaneh Ephraim and Likutey Moharan) helps me see how the teachings in Gemara fit into a larger helps pull me out of the minutia.

Perhaps you are correct about it being it an advantage NOT to have a background in learning Gemara. Sometimes it might be better to blaze our own trail....

At November 26, 2005 at 12:51:00 PM EST, Blogger Unknown said...

Simple Jew,

I defintely sympathize. It's not an easy path.

I was blessed to begin my process of return when I had very few attachments, so I was able to spend a couple years in yeshiva, mostly focusing on 'skills'. I still lean on what I learned there, but there's a level that they, and most other yeshivas, miss (Chabakuk Elisha eluded to this.)

It makes sense that what has come before does not satisfy us completely. If the Master of the World needed us to learn the same way that R. Chaim Brisker learned, then he would have put us in a Brisker world from the get go. Better yet, if we're only supposed to learn the way R. Chaim Brisker learned, then why do we need to learn at all? R. Chaim Brisker already did it!

Clearly, the Master of the World created us with such various and varied lives, especially us ba'alei tshuva, because the Jewish world, and Jewish learning, needs some fresh air, some insights that only we can bring.

R. Kook writes about this in 'Orot haTorah.' He says quite clearly that each person has Torah that only they can reveal in the world.

After 6+ years of learning (2 in Yeshiva, and 4 around the edges of a work schedule) I'm beginning to get a sense of what the shape of the Torah I have to bring into the world is. What's amazing is that it's so clear that it needs to come into the world, and it's so clear that it's real, and it's not something that any of the great sages that have already come before us paid much attention to. It seems to be a question that is put in the hands of our generation.

For me, the questions that stare me in the face are the macro questions. How does this story relate to this halacha that it comes next to? Why does the gemara bring this statement here, specifically? If there's a gezara shava between X and Y, what does that tell me about the underlying nature of X and Y? Are they related? What's the theme of this perek, the underlying structure?

I've spoken to people about this, and I'm not alone in asking these questions. I and others have begun to really work them, and they offer up such beautfiul jewerls. People have really just begun to answer them in our generations. (Similar questions can be asked on Chumash as well.) You don't find commentaries that ask them though, they had other burning concerns. It seems like this is the Torah for our time.

I can't tell you this is your Torah. I don't think anyone can tell you what your Torah is. But I can encourage you to trust your questions, trust that because it bothers you, because it's interesting to you, it's a good question, and trust that God is clapping with joy when you hold on to your question and try to answer it.

May you be blessed to see success in your learning, and bring your piece of Torah into the world.


At November 26, 2005 at 5:30:00 PM EST, Blogger yitz said...


Looking back at your post of a year ago, I'd say you've already come a long way!!!

Let me share a personal experience: coming to one of the first American yeshivas that included a "program" for baalei teshuva [I won't tell you how many years ago this was :)], I felt somewhat inferior when some of the guys who were younger than me could learn circles around me. In fact, the Rosh Yeshiva's son, not yet Bar Mitzva, was in the highest shiur, something I could only dream of! Imagine how we felt!

Nevertheless, after a short while learning, first Mishnayos and then Gemara Brachos, those who were in my shiur undertook an awesome project - to complete the entire Masechta Bava Metzia!!! Line by line, amud by amud, daf by daf, we made a tiny "Siyum" upon completing EACH perek [chapter]! It was only a "L'Chaim" and a cookie or piece of cake, but it kept us going!

Day after day, month after month, we sweated through almost 120 blatt of Gemara!! This was unheard of for Ba'alei Teshuva, but we had done it. At the big Siyum, the entire yeshiva, plus Rabbis from other, more prestigious yeshivos, came. We felt ten feet tall!

But more than that, our lives were changed! We could now approach Gemara with much less trepidation. We found that our learning of just about anything was easier - Rashi on Chumash, Mishna with its commentaries, other Gemaras, Midrash, etc. etc.

More than that - after ignoring an important law-centered course in college, which I needed for my degree, I went back & took it - and breezed through it!!!

So, do indeed learn Gemara, keep it up, and when you're ready, dive into one of the "Babas" or Masechta Kesuvos, and you'll become a different person - guaranteed!!!

Finally, I must say that even my learning of Chassidus, Zohar, etc. changed by learning Gemara! And as you say, it's a very important HALF of Torah, without which the first half is not very meaningful. Chazak v'Ematz!

At November 26, 2005 at 5:32:00 PM EST, Blogger yitz said...

PS - that project I mentioned in my previous post took us over a year of full-time yeshiva learning to complete, but I'll never forget it!!!

At November 26, 2005 at 7:01:00 PM EST, Blogger A Simple Jew said...

'laizer & Yitz: THANK YOU very much for your amazing words of chizuk!! I can't tell you how much I appreciate them.

At November 26, 2005 at 10:41:00 PM EST, Blogger MC Aryeh said...


Thank you for the beautiful quote from Degel Machaneh Ephraim.

I share your frustration. For a long time I thought I just wasn't cut out for gemara learning (it is still not my favorite subject). I almost went out of my mind while learning Bava Metziah (by the end of the zman, I didn't care who got the tallit, as long as we could be done with it!), while the more legal types at the ba'al teshuva yeshiva I went to loved it! I was always more drawn to Chumash, Chassidut and halacha.

There are parts of the gemara I connect to very much, however, such as the aggadita, and there are sections of gemara I have fallen in love with - such as ben sorer umorer in Sanhedrin.

I have come to realize that I do not learn well in the style of the yeshiva system. We all learn differently and yet we are all shoved into this one system of learning.

There is a beauty to the logic in the gemara. Certain days I am able to see it and appreciate it more than others. It is said that each person has a chelek (portion) of Torah - every kind of Torah - whether chumash, halacha, gemara, etc. There is a lot of Torah to learn - perhaps we have just not found our chelek yet.

I also agree with 'laizer, who so eloquently mentioned that we each have Torah to reveal in the world. When thought of in that way, there is no room for jealousy or competition, because the Torah you have to reveal is not the same as the 10 year old who can learn up a storm.

There is also a wonderful and very inspiring story I once heard from Rav Moshe Weinberger about the Steipler Rav, which always makes me feel better when I am frustrated in learning: -

"Some time ago, there was a young bachur in Bnei Brak who, though intelligent, was not particularly adept at gemara. This was a very difficult thing for a young boy in Bnei Brak, where everything is measured by how well one learns gemara. From the time he was little, this boy felt broken. The Rebbeim paid him little attention, saving their time and praise for the boys who were strong learners. The boy became so despondent over his situation that he slit his wrists. Fortunately, he was found in time and was taken to the hospital. When he was released, a kind man took the boy to see the Steipler. The man had told the Steipler what had occurred, that the boy had tried to kill himself because he couldn’t learn.

The Steipler looked at the boy and said to him, “I swear to you a shvua deoraita, that at the time you are learning, HaShem says to all his melachim, ‘I am not interested in hearing what the Kehillas Yaakov (the Steipler) or the Brisker Rav have to say. I only want to listen to this boy when he is learning eilah metzius.’”

The boy asked why HaShem would say this, to which the Steipler replied, “kacha”. The boy asked again, but really, why? The Steipler said it is written in Midrash Rabbah (parshat Tzav) that HaShem loves and chooses to use broken keilim. HaShem is close to those with broken hearts and humble spirits (nishrei lev). “This is why HaShem loves your Torah more than mine or the Brisker Rav's,” said the Steipler, “because you break your head and your heart over it to figure it out.”

May you continue to grow in your learning and to realize that it is the effort and not the result which is more cherished...

At November 27, 2005 at 5:37:00 AM EST, Blogger yitz said...


Beautiful story, it even brought a tear to my eye. And it seems very true. I'm only puzzled by one thing - are you sure he swore a "Shavua d'Orayta"? That's very heavy stuff! Please check with Rabbi Weinberger & report back to us, thanks!

At November 27, 2005 at 5:45:00 AM EST, Blogger yitz said...

For some more inspiration on Gemara learning, in a brief post, check out today's Cosmic X:

At November 27, 2005 at 8:01:00 AM EST, Blogger A Simple Jew said...

I continued to be amazed at the wonderful and kind comments to this posting.

MCAryeh: Thank YOU for the inspiration. It looks like we are both cut from the same cloth. We certainly share so many similarities.

Yitz: Thank you for the link to Cosmic X. I have added a link to his blog in my blogrolling list.

At November 27, 2005 at 1:47:00 PM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm just impressed at those of you who stick it out trying to learn this stuff without a yeshiva background at all‭. ‬Kol haKavod to all of you‭. ‬I have been zoche to learn in yeshiva now for a little over‭ ‬2‭ ‬years‭, ‬starting from scratch‭, ‬and now at a pretty advanced level B'H‭. ‬It's still hard at whatever level you are working at‭. ‬
‭ ‬One thing about Gemara‭- ‬it is the most difficult area of Jewish learning‭. ‬I know there's a quote either in the Midrash or the gemara itself‭ (‬I unfortunately don't know the exact location‭) ‬that compares the Oral Torah to‭ "‬darkness‭".‬
‭ ‬So you shouldn't feel too bad when it seems uninspiring‭!‬

‭ ‬A few tips though‭- ‬1‭, ‬is that when you review what you've learned a lot it tends to get much clearer‭, ‬and more enjoyable‭. ‬The first time through is always the hardest‭, "‬plowing the soil‭". ‬The fruit comes from review‭, ‬when it all fits together and becomes clear in your mind‭. ‬
‭ ‬2‭. ‬Speak out each point in your own words‭, ‬trying to understand why this question was asked‭, ‬etc‭, ‬or how this resolves the said difficulty‭.‬
‭ ‬3‭. ‬It can really help to take a pencil and paper and map out the sugya‭. ‬This helps especially to differentiate between the major questions and answers‭, ‬alternative answers‭, ‬and side points to the sugya‭. ‬Just making like a flow-chart can be immensely helpful towards organizing the structure in your mind‭. ‬When you get the structure clear‭, ‬is when it actually becomes enjoyable to learn gemara‭, ‬because then you can appreciate the give and take‭, ‬and savor each point‭.‬
‭ ‬
I hope this is helpful‭. ‬It's so hard to‭ "‬shteig‭" ‬on one's own‭- ‬the whole world probably stands on your efforts‭. ‬This website‭, ‬BTW‭, ‬is really a kiddush hashem‭, ‬and it's s true pleasure to read it‭.‬

‭ ‬Good luck with learning‭- ‬you should have success‭, ‬and the learning of Gemara should help you appreciate everything you learn more‭. ‬
‭ ‬And in any case‭, ‬rebbe Nachman teaches that a person can be a tzaddik gamur even without being the biggest Talmid Chacham‭, ‬as long as they learn halacha and cultivate a relationship with Hashem‭. ‬All the best‭, ‬and thanks for the site‭, ‬it's wonderful‭.‬

At November 27, 2005 at 4:32:00 PM EST, Blogger A Simple Jew said...

Yosef: You made some really excellent points. I have found that sometimes I do need to map out different arguments with a pencil and paper just to keep it straight. Sometimes, however, I just get so frustrated that my "learning" is merely reciting the words with only a few brain cells activated.

Thank you for the compliments on the website. Feedback from people like you make it all worthwhile.

At November 28, 2005 at 2:24:00 AM EST, Blogger MC Aryeh said...

Yitz - definitely was shvuah deoraita.
ASJ - I have to second Yosef's comments - I am continually inspired and moved by what you write each day on your blog. I am sure your words provide chizuk for many...


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