Monday, July 24, 2006

How and What to learn

The Halachah is that Baalei Batim who only have a little learning time daily should learn Halachah, not Gemora, since it is more important for them. However, the Aruch Hashulchan adds, if we will tell this to the Baalei Batim, they will not learn anything because all they want to do is learn a Daf a day. Therefore, it is best to leave them alone, and hope that at least they will learn Gemora.

If you are talking about Yeshiva Bochurim, that is a different story. The Yeshivas are in the business of teaching students how to learn and how to be Lamdonim. And even though invariably not all the students will be big Lamdonim, perhaps not even most in some cases, still, to create those great Torah scholars is the goal of the Yeshiva. And it is not as if the Torah the others learned was wasted c"v. An appreciation for learning in depth is valuable to all of us. Not to mention the fact that - and this is well know but very, very understated - you never know who the great Torah scholar will be. It won’t necessarily be the brightest. It is very foolish to write off a given student when he is young, saying that he cannot be a great scholar.

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You should finish Shas. But you can't do it at the expense of learning how to learn. If you do, when you get older you'll just fall behind your friends who are able to be m'ayan much better than you. So spend more time on b'kiyus than your friends, but leave first seder for iyun, and enough of the night also, for review.

Plus, if you want to finish shas, you MUST chazer the bekiyus too. Very few people in the world can learn "a daf a day" and remember it.

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Rav Yisroel Salanter was once approached by someone asking if he should spend the fifteen minutes of extra time he had learning Gemrah or Mussar. Rav Salanter told him to learn mussar. Learn Mussar and you will see that you have a lot more than 15 minutes to learn!

Rav Yisroel knew about this specific guy that he really did have more time to learn. He also knew that by learning Mussar he would realize that. Do you think that that means everyone who learns Mussar will be similarly affected? Reb Yisroel knew this guy, probably, and he told him what was best for him in his circumstances. It's good to tell the story, because it has an obvious lesson. That is, don't be so sure you only have 15 minutes to learn.

However if this guy really has only 15 minutes hours to learn, the halachah is clear:

The Shach, Taz, Drisha, and Aruch haShulchan all write (in Hilchos Talmud Torah) that is a Baal HaBayis who only has a few hours a day to learn, must learn Halachah.

(So why are so many of them learning Daf Yomi when they don't even know Hilchos Shabbos? Says the Aruch HaShulchan (246:17):

"A Baal Habayis who only learns a few hours a day should learn Halachah, not Gemara. Every man must know Orech Chaim, and some Halachos of Yoreh Deah, Even Haezer, and Choshen Mishpat . . . but we see that if we will tell them this, they will not learn at all, because they only want to learn a daf of Gemara each day. Therefore, we should not disallow them to [learn daf yomi], and we hope they will do even that . . . "

In other words, they refuse to do what's right and we have to deal with them as such. Fine.

Rav Ovadiah Yosef similarly rules in Responsa Yechaveh Daas that a Baal Habayis who is committed to learning Daf Yomi may change his curriculum to Halachah without being Matir Neder, because halachah is what he should be learning.)

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There is definitely an element of "compromise" in the way Yeshivos learn. The Gedolim, in particular Rav Shach ZTL were adamant that the Yeshivos should learn faster, cover more ground, and not spend so much time on Achronim. There is a famous letter of Rav Elchonon Wasserman ZTL describing the preferred curriculum in a Yeshiva. Basically it says Gemora, major Rishonim, find answers to the main questions, and go on. Rav Gifter ZTL would complain over and over, and over and over, about how Bochurim do not cover enough ground. In fact, there are those who would tell you that for a period of time, this was the main topic he would speak about. They should always finish the Mesechta they are learning, he would say. There is also the complaint of other Gedolim that a Lamdan needs to know how to learn sugya aliba d'hilchasa - to derive the Halachah l'maaseh from the Gemora, and Yeshivos do not teach much of that at all.

So why don't the Yeshivos do all this? In a sefer called Orchos Chaim, shiruim and speeches given by Rabbi Chaim Segal ZTL, who was Menahel of the High Schol in Chaim Berlin, it describes how Rav Hutner ZTL was complaining to the principal of his own High School about how they do not cover enough ground. Rabbi Segal answered that although the way they learn is not ideal, it is necessary, because the emphasis on Achronim and the give and take of the svoros that they spend so much time on is much more exciting than learning fast, and that is the method of learning that is needed to encourage the students to want to learn more and to remain learning long term. Rabbi Segal reported that Rav Hutner conceded the point.

So even in Yeshivos we are not learning in the ideal fashion, but we are doing the best we can under the circumstances.

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There were Roshei Yeshiva who tried to learn the way the Gedolim told us to and their Yeshivos atrophied. The way they learn in Yeshiva is more Geshmak, and easier, and so unless everybody together changes - and that will never happen since you cannot control who opens a Yeshiva - those places that do the right thing will have no chance at success.

I imagine there is also a decision kind of by default, that it is better to teach this way and have people learn more than to teach the better way and have people learn less. Perhaps. But in any case, it’s a hard thing to fix.

The fact is that the Roshei Yeshiva have told us how to learn and we don't do it - Rav Shach has screamed about it, as have others. Rav Gifter has screamed about it many times and even in his own Yeshiva they do not follow what he said. The rebbeim have learned all their lives like this and it's not easy to make shiurim on things that you have never learned, and also, when certain Roshei Yeshivos tried this they ended up with no talmidim wanting to learn like that. SO there is little to do.


It is indeed possible to learn how to learn starting from the basics but only if the Talmidim want to accept that that is the right way to learn. Believe me, if there would be a demand for this type of learning, there would be Rebbeim to accommodate them. But when certain Roshei Yeshiva tried to open a Yeshiva where they learn the right way, nobody wanted to come. And the there's little you can do to force the issue. So of course its possible, but only if both students and rebbeim want it. You can’t have a Yeshiva without Rebbeim but you also can’t have a Yeshiva without students, and it is at the student level that the problem is stuck.

The phenomenon that many students are more interested in using the Gemora to understand the Birkas Shmuel than in using the Birkas Shmuel to understand the Gemora is indeed a mess. And it’s come to the point where even the Gedolei Achronim such as the Pnei Yehoshua are put on the back burner, with the Shach and Taz not even in the kitchen.

I actually had a Bais Medrash bochur tell me that he was sitting in Yeshiva at night with an Avnei Never, and one of the older bochurim who was passing by noticed this and said to him, "Did you do all the Reb Boruch Bers on the sugya that you’re busy with the Avnei Never?"

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You need to consider the purpose that each sefer was written for. Emunos V'Deos, Moreh Nevuchim, and others like them were written to deal with the philosophical issues of the day. They are great seforim, but they spend much energy on things that are not important to you (such as debunking the philosophy of the Kalam) but were important then, and they spend little energy on some of the things that are very important to you. They are infinitely valuable seforim, but the question is, are they priority for you and your needs?

If you want to learn a sefer from the Rishonim that is complete and generic in its discussion of Avodas Hashem, then your choice will be the Chovos Halevovos, which remains to this day, the most important sefer on Avodas Hashem. (Please note that the Chovos Halevovos wrote another sefer, Toros Hanefesh, which indeed deals with a specific topic - the soul - in a way similar to the other seforim of the rishonim. The Toros Hanefesh is a wonderful sefer, but it is not nearly as popular as the Chovos Halevovos because for the above reason).

Mishle is of course required reading for everyone, with the commentaries. But again, the purpose of the commentaries is to explain a sefer in Nach, which is great, but it will not give you step-by-step instructions on how to grow in avodas Hashem the way the Mesilas Yeshorim will (the Mesilas Yeshorim, it should be noted, is based on the Braisa of Rav Pinchas ben Yair).

Two seforim of the Ramchal in particular are totally generic, meaning, they were not written for a specific audience, but rather they describe Judaism in general (Derech Hashem), or the pathway to Avodas Hashem (Mesilas Yeshorim). In this, he is different than even the Nefesh Hachaim and the Chasidishe seforim which were also designed to address specific issues and/or written for a specific audience.

Also, there are many differences of opinion in the seforim of the rishonim, and Klall Yisroel today are not always talmidim of those hashkofos. You can find extremely unaccepted statements in some legitimate seforim of legitimate rishonim, but our Rebbeim favored other opinions instead.

The seforim of the Achronim - like Mesilas Yeshorim and Derech Hashem - are based on Chazal and the Rishonim and they pick and choose what they desire. It's like learning halachah fomr the shulchan aruch as opposed to the Rambam. The Rambam is the Rambam, but you need a bottom line psak.

Today, Klall Yisroel are basically talmidim of either the GRA or the Baal Shem Tov. There are plenty of wonderful seforim out there, hashkofos from the Abarbanel, the Tashbetz, as well as the Rishonim you mentioned, and more. But every school of thought has their teachings, and our Rebbeim have theirs as well. And although it is great to learn EVERYTHING, we do have to prioritize our time, and learn those things that are most needed by US, here and now. And that is why certain seforim are chosen above others.

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The problem with using an Artscroll Gemarah is that it prevents you from developing the skills to learn. Like any crutch, it's good if you need it, but if you use it regularly, you forget how to walk.

Especially with respect to learning, where Yegiah (effort) is an integral part of the learning process, not merely because it is necessary to figure out the gemora but because it is valuable in itself, if the Artscroll removes the Yegiah of learning, it is not worth it, even if you have to learn less. (It says nowhere that you have to learn a daf a day).

Rashi is not a crutch because you are not expected to know what Rashi says on your own. It is not your goal. Rashi is enlightening even for the greatest Torah scholar. You will never be able to do what Rashi did. But you are expected to figure out the translation and simple pshat, which is what ArtScroll does. Therefore, you are letting someone fulfill your goal for you. That’s what makes it a crutch.

The difference between Seforim that were written or translated into common languages versus the Artscroll is that the Gemora, the Rambam, et al, are written with precision accuracy, where each word contains so much diyuk and so much consideration, that it did not take away the yegiah, it just allowed them to accomplish more with the same amount of yegiah. Except now you have to apply the Yegiah to the Rambam, or to the Gemora's language. It would have been a waste to make the Gemora in a language people don’t understand, because why spend time translating things? Better spend your yegiah LEARNING.

As opposed to Artscroll, where the writers are not sages, you can’t "horveh" over the footnotes the way you can over a real Rashba, and if you do that, you will have gained less than had you spent that amount of energy on the original.

The Rambam allowed you to retain the Yegiah and he scrapped the unnecessary parts of Yegiah - he focused your energy on where it can do most good. Same with Chazal.

But Artscroll just translates, and of course you lose the ability to make diyukim, you lose the ability to have different interpretations (except for what artscroll decides to give you), you cannot understand things based on different ways of punctuating the Hebrew, etc etc. Artscroll limits the amount of Yegiah you are able to put in. And the problem with that is, where you NEED the Yegiah, you will not have it because you are not used to it anymore. Besides that, the very fact that Yegiah is no longer part of your learning makes the learning itself less.

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It takes years of sensitivity to "feel" the glory of Torah learning, but you know for sure the process has started when someone says "I really want to be part of that". You want hard enough and long enough, and I promise you, you will be. You will be an inspiration one day to all who need chizuk in their struggle against the darkness. You will be a powerful force for good.

Your wanting to be a part of that, those tears that you cried when you read about learning, they are the first tingling of the feeling that you are yearning for.

You want it, you will get it. You're on the way. Just don't give up.

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