Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Question & Answer With Yitz Of A Waxing Wellspring - A Learning Smorgasbord

A Simple Jew asks:

As someone who never went to yeshiva, I tend not to have the sitzfleish to sit in front of any one sefer for a long period of time. Rather, I tend to learn a little bit from a variety of different seforim given the limited time I have. This usually occurs commuting to and from work or on my lunch break. During an average lunch break, I may start off learning Gemara until my concentration lapses and then I switch to learn a few halachos from Shulchan Aruch HaRav. Once the technical details begin to overwhelm me I switch to recite a section of shnayim mikra v'echad targum for the parsha of the week. Completing this, I return to Gemara once again for the remainder of the time.

During my commute to and from work I routinely say Tehillim and learn Chumash with Rashi, Kitzur Shulchan Aruch, Degel Machaneh Ephraim, Nach, and Mishnayos. Like a hummingbird, I buzz from sefer to sefer extracting its nectar and then flying on to the next one; never staying to long in one place. Given the fact that Rabbi Yakov Horowitz once compared learning Torah to a smorgasbord, what is your opinion of this grab and eat style of learning for a working person?

Yitz of A Waxing Wellspring answers:

As a working person myself, my opinion is based only on my limited learnings in similar contexts. I have a few ideas that might help to provide a framework for this style of learning.

My basic framework

1. Always learn a sefer from start to finish. This is very helpful because you gain the benefit of the flow of the sefer, and the author/compiler's intent, style, and underlying themes. If you jump in in the middle you may miss out on basic fundamentals that change everything the author is saying. Also often a sefer builds from one idea to the next.

My Rav taught me that the Komarna Rebbe said it's important to learn a sefer in order and always to keep track of where you left off, and pick up from there. I don't always keep to it one hundred percent, but it's good to be aware of where you are and going back to review is ok, as long as you know you are reviewing. I believe this is especially important in helping to avoid mistakenly skipping ahead and missing part of a sefer.

2. Learn the same sefarim at the same set times. It doesn't matter how short a seder you have of a particular sefer, you should still keep to it regularly. This has real repercussions with the way your mind prepares for the learning. Things you might forget you learned throughout the course of the day will come back to you when the time to pick up the sefer comes. This is just part of the nature of the way people work. (I don't know how true it is when you get down to really small units of time, or very many sefarim in a very short interval, but on the whole my experience supports the idea.)

3. Have a subset of your seder that you ALWAYS learn without fail. Try to make these sub-seders at particular times. (The times can be relative to daily activities [like 'right after Mincha'] rather than at exactly 6:00 pm etc.) In this way you fulfill the axiom of making your Torah schedule permanent. This subset also functions as your lifeline. No matter what else you do with your day, you can rest assured that the day wasn't wasted because of your lifeline seder. For me during some of the most challenging times, the mere fact that I learned fifteen minutes of Tanya every morning after Shacharit without fail kept me a float.

4. Try and keep to a sefer and fight through the difficult parts once you've started. This isn't a rule to set in stone but some of the sefarim I've derived the most benefit from were ones that I kept to learning simply to maintain my seder even after I felt the content was boring. I nearly put down the Noam Elimelech at one point, but I'm so thankful I stuck with it now that I'm almost through the whole Torah and it's lessons have a huge impact on my daily life. Obviously if you thought the book was going to discuss a particular idea and it turns out to be about something else entirely, it doesn't necessarily fall into this category.

5. Challenge yourself to learn quickly. When you know you will be jumping around and only have a limited time to master a page or two of a sefer, see how much you can cram into that small time. When you reach a difficulty read through it and keep going, often the difficulty will explain itself in the context as you continue. For myself, I remember hearing stories about how fast the Gra used to learn and how fast the Ben Ish Hai used to write. It made me realize that if I was ever going to get anywhere in the limited amount of time I had for learning, I had to learn quick. You would be surprised how fast you can actually read and comprehend even the most complex language and ideas. This kind of learning is called "Rehitah" (essentially 'speedy' in Aramaic if I'm not mistaken) and my Rav explained that it is meant to create a great thirst for Torah. After years of focusing almost entirely on this method I can definitely tell you it makes you very thirsty for Torah, thank HaShem. I think a caveat here is that this particular style of learning only works when you are learning the Torah that your heart is drawn to. But that's my personal experience.

6. Review. This is something I fail at more often than succeeding, I'm so excited to find new things to learn, feeling that I have so many gaping holes in my knowledge, that I can't generally can't psych myself up to go back over things. I had a very hard time trying to review the Maor Eynayim though I loved it the first time. The Tanya I've reviewed I think eight times, though, and I'm halfway through Likkutei Moharan for the second time. The Notzer Hesed I'm on my fourth round and basically everything else is new material. It definitely is hard to jump right back in to a sefer after you've just finished it. Though the Tanya has been comfortable and inviting every time. I now learn it with the daily cycle of Chabad, which I think adds something. When a book is broken into daily learning, I think it may be easier to keep returning back to it. There are a number of advantages of review, the major one is that each time you understand it in a new light, getting closer to the intention of the author. Especially in my rehitah style of learning when I do go back over a difficult passage a day later, I find my understanding skyrockets. Giving our minds a chance to chew on something in the background is a really expedient way to learn.

Regarding the Smorgasbord approach

In the kind of learning you describe there are a number of advantages that can't necessarily be seen in other forms of learning.

1. First and foremost among them is the cross pollination that you open yourself up to. When you learn a number of different sources on a number of different topics, you get a very broad view of Torah and how it's various domains integrate into a singular whole.

I actually believe this is a type of learning that was lost for the most part over the years as Torah has, Baruch HaShem, expanded so greatly. Either breadth learning has vanished, or it is largely underrated. Whatever happened, it's very important for certain people to learn the Smorgasbord approach. This is because it is how some people's minds work. For myself the reason I'm drawn to breadth learning is that I'm always looking to see the big picture in all my understandings and if I focus on a particular area of Torah for too long I feel like I'm drowning.

Until you have actually learned in the manner you describe, you haven't experienced the synchronicity of ideas and themes that pop out of all of one's simultaneous learning. This phenomenon is almost unbelievable. When all of your independent learning emphasizes one particular idea all in the span of a day or two, you gain a magnificent insight not only into the multi-faceted Torah but also into what HaShem wants you to learn and understand right now.

It is a miracle that happens on an almost daily basis until it brings out ideas that are hinted at but not mentioned in any of the sources you are currently learning. Personally the most striking example was when I came across Rabi Shimon Bar Yohai in the Zohar contradicting himself in Midrash Rabbah. On purpose. Either you would need an indexed and footnoted encyclopedic mind to notice this contradiction, or you would need to be learning both of the sefarim coincidentally in the same day. From this contradiction I gained new insight into understanding the Holy Rashbi's statements in Talmud and the Midrash.

2. Learning broadly also allows us to obtain the flavor of many different kinds of Torah. This is especially useful when Torah is a new world to us and we don't yet know what exists to focus on. Once we have experienced and tasted everything, it is likely that we will focus into a particular direction, not all of us, but some of us. In this, perhaps in a way, the Mishnaic precept of learning in order to get to learning for the sake of learning is fulfilled. In all of my learning I feel that I haven't yet begun to learn, and so I need to learn as fast and broad as possible to catch up to what I'm supposed to know, and then from there I can focus on the specific areas where I need the most work, have the most to gain, or most enjoy. Rav Yisrael Avihai, the Rosh Yeshivat HaMekubalim, Bet El in the old city, explained that many serious talmidim start out learning Kabbalah until they have established themselves in Torah and awakened their desire to learn and end up focusing on Mishnayoth, Talmud, or Halachah in their long term learning.

3. As we know, there are many different levels and aspects to Torah and each of them affects and rectifies another part of our body and clothes another part of our Neshamah. Just as in exercise, if we focus on one muscle group exclusively we will very quickly exhaust that specific muscle group to the point where they can do no more work, so too, in learning, if we only focus on one kind of learning, we will exhaust our mental capacity to learn. Instead, just as in exercise, if we mix it up and work all the various muscle groups in a good order, we can actually carry on the work out for an extended period of time without risk of injury, so too, with learning when we branch out and use different mental 'muscle groups' we can keep fresh and serve HaShem with renewed vigor.

The total

The maxim that one only learns from where his heart yearns doesn't have to mean a single place, a single source. For myself, my heart yearns to take in all of Torah at once, to see the whole picture. Like a moth, I will keep flying into the light and bouncing off, I hope my fate is other than getting burned, for that I rely on the Torah as my shield.

There is a lot to be said for learning from many sefarim at once, but Torah, described as medicine in the Talmud, must be treated like all other medicine, and a Rav should be consulted to see about potentially dangerous interactions. Indeed the Notzer Hesed explains that it is important to receive the ikar of your learning from a single Rebbe. I believe this teaching relates to having a Rebbe rather than learning from a single sefer, but perhaps only a Rebbe can teach us how to apply that teaching properly.


At May 6, 2008 at 4:17:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

great post, big siyata dishmaya for me (thinking about the same topic recently) - if i remember correctly R. Kook speaks (in different terms) about this idea in the middle keta'im of Oros Hatorah. The 'smorgasbord' is a sign of coming geulah. Last thing - its incredible to consider that the tannaim and amoraim never had the almost endless libraries of torah that we have in this generation. I wonder how the Kadmonim would have dealt with these issues - apparently was much simpler then.

At May 7, 2008 at 2:08:00 AM EDT, Blogger Batya said...

Education experts say more efficient to keep switching. So the classic full-day or full morning for kids in the Beit Medrash is a waste.

At May 7, 2008 at 8:42:00 AM EDT, Blogger yitz said...

we have to keep in mind with regard to science, that they (not only we) have a thing or two still to learn.

For example, studies show that the oldest child in the family has the highest IQ, with each following child having a decreasing IQ..

They found this study doesn't apply to Jewish families where birth order has no bearing on IQ.

So not every finding is automatically applicable to Jewish families, especially in the case of Torah study which is fundamentally different from study of other subjects in that it has tremendous spiritual accomplishments even if on the surface we don't see them. Especially in the case of children every moment of their Torah study is precious beyond compare. (See all of the comments of Chazal on Tinokoth shel beit Raban)

So I would hesitate long and hard before applying the latest educational discoveries to Torah learning. On the other hand, for those children who are having a difficult time in the normal system, it makes a lot more sense to experiment with these alternative ideas. (Though, in my personal experience people in every age group learn extremely well (and quickly) from a truly skilled educator)

At May 7, 2008 at 10:02:00 AM EDT, Blogger Batya said...

I teach in a yeshiva high school, and the boys there can't handle a full morning. Too much time gets wasted.
In Kinor David, Ateret, they split the Beis Medrash learning between morning and late afternoon. It's much more successful.
Of course there are people and kids with a strong enough concentration, but not everyone is so blessed.


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