Friday, July 31, 2009

Question & Answer With Moshe David Tokayer - Taking Breaks From Learning Torah

A Simple Jew asks:

Rashi explained that the purpose of the paragraph breaks in the Torah was to give Moshe Rabbeinu a chance stop and contemplate subjects before proceeding on another. Obviously if someone as great as Moshe Rabbeinu needed a break from learning, than all the more so, we do too.

How have you been able to utilize breaks as a way to recharge your batteries and return to your avodas Hashem reinvigorated?

Moshe David Tokayer answers:

First, I want to point out that Chazal say that Moshe Rabbeinu used the break between parshiyos to "digest" what he had just learned. It was not a break from learning. He used the break to review what he had learned. This is an interesting concept. Usually we think of a break from learning as just that. We discontinue our learning and do something else. However, a break from one type of learning to learn something else may also be an effective break. For example, I have various learning projects during the week. On Friday and especially on Shabbos, I learn other things. I find this invigorating and a welcome "break."

I'd like to address your question, though, considering the conventional understanding of a break - stopping to learn to do something else for a short period.

When I was in Yeshiva we were taught the importance of continuity. I remember clearly a shmuess given by Rav Yankel Galinsky on this topic. He related the story of Rebbi Akiva who left his wife for 12 years to learn Torah at the feet of the Torah greats of his time. On return as he approached his home, he overheard his wife speaking with a friend. The friend wanted to know why she put up with her husband being away for such a long period of time. She responded that she would be happy if he went away for another 12 years to learn Torah. Upon hearing this, Rebbi Akiva turned around and went back to study for an additional 12 years.

The obvious question, Rav Galinksy asked, is, why did he not enter the house and say hello!? The answer, Rav Galinsky posited, is that had Rebbi Akiva entered his home, it would have broken the continuity of his learning. Two stints of 12 years are not the same as one stint of 24 years.

Obviously, Rav Galinsky was not suggesting we emulate Rebbi Akiva exactly and leave home for 24 years. Rav Galinsky was trying to encourage the boys to stay in Yeshiva over Shabbosim. He was noting that continuity in learning is important and going home for a Shabbos was a negative break of continuity.

Having said this, I know from experience that sometimes I am just not learning efficiently. My head is not working well. I take a break, maybe a short walk and when I come back to my learning, it's a breeze. What was difficult before, is now simple and straightforward.

But doesn't this contradict the principle of continuity? The answer is that depends. It depends why you're taking the break and what you do during the break. In the situation I mentioned, taking a short break occasionally to air out my head works wonders for me. Going to China for a three week tour, on the other hand, I feel would cause a big break in the continuity of my projects. Instead of invigorating me, it would take me time to get back into it. Basically, it would be a major distraction.

Rav Galinsky encouraged boys to stay in Yeshiva for Shabbos but he did not suggest that for the sake of continuity the boys learn straight through from 8 in the morning until 11 at night with no break. So my answer to your question is that I find breaks to "clean out my head" very important, crucial even. But to be effective, they need to be brief and not involve distractions.


At July 31, 2009 at 8:58:00 AM EDT, Anonymous Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen said...

Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky, zt”l, was a Lithuanian gadol (leading Torah sage) who became the Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshiva Torah Vodaath in Brooklyn, New York. In the ArtScroll biography of this great sage – “Reb Yaakov” by Yonason Rosenblum – it states the following information regarding Rav Yaakov’s views on summer breaks for yeshiva students:

One of Reb Yaakov’s final contributions to Torah Vodaath was the impetus he gave the founding of Camp Ohr Shraga, one of the first of the “learning camps.” Reb Yaakov had long maintained that bein hazmanim (the period between yeshiva semesters) was a period with great potential for growth, if properly utilized, and therefore encouraged Rabbi Nesanel Quinn and others from Torah Vodaath to found Camp Ohr Shraga.

The first rule for summer vacation, Reb Yaakov felt, was to recognize that it was not simply an extension of the previous zman in the yeshiva. Though one might be able to continue learning in the same manner through the summer that he had in yeshiva, in the end there would be a reckoning and somewhere in the middle of the next zman the bachur (youth) would find himself unable to learn at his normal pace. Reb Yaakov illustrated this point with a mashol (example) drawn from a sefer Torah (Torah scroll). If any of the openings which divide the text of the sefer Torah are absent, the scroll is pasul (unfit). Just as the divisions in the sefer Torah are necessary, so are the breaks in the learning year.

...This then, was the twofold task of Camp Ohr Shraga – on the one hand, to be a clear break from the rest of the year, and yet, at the same time, to provide an opportunity for spiritual growth. Reb Yaakov insisted on both aspects of the camp being given their due. Once a prominent talmid chacham (Torah scholar) arrived at Ohr Shraga after lunch, during the period usually set aside for swimming and sports. He wanted to deliver a shiur (lecture/class), but Reb Yaakov refused to shorten the free time to allow him to do so.

At July 31, 2009 at 6:06:00 PM EDT, Blogger machine gun fodder said...

As a bachur I "broke" because of the way the breaks were presented. When we would go to the gym our rabbeim would remind us that we were only playing ball to facilitate better learning. I often remember the feeling of guilt I would associate with an unneeded break. While I understand that my rabbeim were trying to teach me that nothing has inherent significance unless it relates to avodas hashem, As a student with touettes and OCD I would have related much better to the analogy of how when we ride a horse we don't have our hand on the horse every step of the way, rather if it goes off one way we guide it back on the path, and rather then try and focus on every step we shouldt try and insure that we are staying the course. I think the average bochur's spiritual growth is impeded as a result of this approach although that is not about to change soon. The disease of our generation is a lack of self confidence, and derachim like this one don't help promote a cure.

At March 9, 2011 at 1:13:00 AM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

With much respect for Talmidei Chachomim and Gelolim, I would like to put in my , Jewish mother comment about kids being encouraged to remain in yeshiva over shabbosim. In Israel, we send our kids off to yeshiva at age 13 - 14. This is a very young, impressionable age. While the yeshiva is a good environment for the boys, there is something that family and the comfort of home offers that is irreplaceable. There has to be some balance with this. Some boys are very sensitive and need to touch base w/family regularly (not to mention the family's need to touch base with their loved one!)I don't think there is enough emphasis put on the importance of continuing to build and maintain familial relationships. After all, the Torah is a tool for living life. what is life w/out family relationships?

If there are any ladies reading this, I know there are those who agree with me. I want my son to be a whole person. And I don't want my son feeling guilty about coming home when I ask him to.
I am tired of sticking to these rules which make sense to the men world and scream out for balance in the real world.

I don't know about learning and continuity. I know about tefilla and continuity. It's true what - was said in the answer. Still, there are times when we are challenged and need to choose between the continuity and the need to do a chesed or simply make mom or wife happy. I wonder if the yeshiva world prepares our boys with the tools to make correct decisions when challenged in the future.


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