Monday, October 8, 2012

On Learning Gemara and Daf Yomi

Imagine a school in which, after graduation, most if not all graduates never, ever returned to the mode of study that they had engaged in during their entire education. What would call such a school (other than college)? Most, I daresay, would call such a school a failure.
What then, can we say about a yeshiva system in which all students spend a majority of their study time studying Gemara b'iyyun (i.e. in intensive depth, with a strong if not exclusive focus on theoretical study, with an almost allergic avoidance of any practical ramifications to that study), but, once they leave yeshiva, never study Gemara b'iyyun ever again? Would that not indicate that our yeshiva system is failing us?

During a recent Gemara shiur that I give here in Yad Binyamin, I mentioned a thought that Rav Tzuriel (the former mashgiach in Sha'alvim) once said that stuck with me. He said that he felt that instead of putting the commentary of the Ba'alei Tosfot on the side of the page of the Gemara and the commentary of Rosh in the back of the book, they should have switched the two and put the Rosh on the side and the Tosfot in the back. I'll explain.
The commentary of the Ba'alei Tosfot generally attempts to unify Shas into a single entity, challenging our understanding of a text by raising contradictory evidence from different texts from across the breadth of Shas. Using this methodology, Tosfot will arrive at a new, different understanding of the Gemara based on a resolution that allows the two seemingly "contradictory" texts to coexist. It's critically important and intellectually exciting. But it's also often quite theoretical, and many times the commentary of Tosfot does not affect that halachic outcome of the sugya.
Rosh, on the other hand, is essentially a halachic summary of the Sugya at hand; similar in content to the gloss of the Rif, but far more expansive. Moreover, due to his unique place in intellectual Jewish history, having been raised in Germany (Ashkenaz) but having moved to to Spain to escape persecution, his commentary forms a critical crossroad between halachic and intellectual worlds, and represents one of the first rabbinic texts which melded the worldviews of Ashekanaz and Sepharad. (For you intellectual historians out there, I know that I'm painting with a very, very broad brush, but I'm doing it to make a point. Please don't hold me to every detail. The basic gist is accurate.) Now, imagine that instead of the theoretical studies of Tosfot on each page of the gemara, we first confronted the halachic, practical commentary of the Rosh. The manner in which we study Gemara today would be fundamentally different than we learn today. It's impossible to measure, but to what degree is the theoretical learning that's standard in every serious yeshiva partly due to the placement of the Tosfot on the Daf, as opposed to at the back of the book?
The most ironic aspect of Rav Tzuriel's suggestion is that this isn't a decision that was made by a group of rabbanim or educational leaders after careful consideration and study. Rather, it was a decision that was made by a printer, who for reasons I don't know decided to put Tosfot in the front, and Rosh in the back, and forever altered the way Gemara would be learned.

My weekly shiur in Gemara is a shiur that learns Gemara minimally "b'iyyun" (in depth). We don't cover a specific amount of material during each shiur. Rather , we study the Gemara and discuss the issues that arise from the text, and look at some basic Rishonim until we've exhausted the issue, whether it takes one shiur, or three. Only then do we move on. We began studying Brachot four years ago, and have since moved on to Beitzah. During the four years of the shiur, attendance has been relatively stable - between six and eight participants. One dropped out recently, two more joined. It's a nice group which I enjoy and appreciate very much, and I don't think that it would be a better shiur if it was much bigger. But, in my shul (and the broader community, as far as I can tell), I give one of perhaps two regular in depth gemara shiurim in our community.At the same time, since we began studying four years ago, while our shiur has remained stable, I have watched dozens, if not hundreds of men join the daf yomi. Shiurim have sprung up at all hours of the day. You can learn the daf here beginning at 5:20am, or at 6:00am or at 7:15am or even at 8:00am, in Hebrew or English. It's a juggernaut; a runaway train that cannot be stopped (nor do I think it should.) And yet, I wonder: many, if not most of the community here in Yad Binyamin spent years in yeshiva, whether in Hesder or in chutz la'aretz, studying Gemara "b'iyyun." And now, later on in life, when they voluntarily choose what type of learning to engage in, they're not asking for iyyun. They never asked for such a shiur, and that's why it doesn't exist. What they want now, and attend religiously, is the Daf Yomi shiur. So I have to wonder: Did they ever want to learn iyyun? Were the hundreds if not thousands of hours spent studying b'iyyun really worthwhile, if people are voting with their feet (and their Artscrolls) in such overwhelming numbers?

And yet, I think that the most appealing aspect of the Daf isn't the goal of finishing Shas, and it's certainly not that most people who learn the Daf hope to remember most of what they've learned. Rather, it's the kvi'ut (regularity) - the security of knowing that the system forces us to learn a set amount, each and every day. You have to keep up, because everyone else is, and even if it's not in depth; even if you don't fully understand every issue, it's time invested in Talmud Torah, which is time well spent.

For years I've avoided learning Daf Yomi for reasons I consider legitimate. If you're reading this blog you probably know what they are without my needing to hash them out again. And yet, I've always done so from the outside, while people who "do the Daf" seem to like it quite a lot. So the time has come to "bite the bullet" and give the learning a shot. After all, I doubt I'll get through much of Shas at the pace we're learning once a week.
The real challenge will be to keep up with the Daf without sacrificing my other learning I'm already doing: preparing for the shiurim that I already give; learning mishnah yomit with my son, maybe even putting down a Torah thought as I do here every so often. I truly hope that I can keep up without feeling overwhelmed. So I figure that since the cycle just started Shabbat, and I've never learned through Masechet Shabbat (which is hard to really believe, since I'm an ordained rabbi. How is it that you can get semichah without having finished Masechet Shabbat?!) I'm going to try and do the daf at least until the end of the masechta, and then reevaluate. After I've done if for a good few months, I'll have a better sense of whether I feel I really learned, and whether the time was well spent.
I'll keep you posted.


  1. I'm also planning on starting the Daf now. We'll see how long it lasts

  2. Good introduction and I agree completely, considering the point made indeed it does sound weird that the system is not questioned (is it ever??)

    On the other hand, perhaps it's the one time most people get to learn b'eyun, being young and immature makes that possible, once all kinds of adult responsibilities set it it may be nearly impossible until retirement.

  3. The Rosh only writes on sugyos which are relevant to Halacha. The second perek of Makkos, the second half of Pesachim, almost all of Yoma, whole masechtos in Kodshim, would lack commentary. THios would be terribly disproportionate. Also, by only writing on the maskanos, the commentary printed on the page would be bottom-heavy, skipping one amud and then laying it on in the next. The printers knew just what they were doing.

  4. Hallel Newman - your comment reminds me of an old joke that we used to tell in Yeshiva: Why did Tosfot give such and such an answer? Because if they hadn't, it wouldn't fit properly in the layout. Not funny now either. Do you mean to say that they chose Tosfot because they wouldn't be able to fit the daf? What about Rashi, who didn't write on most of Baba Batra (and much of pesachim)? Somehow, they figured it out.
    More to the point, you're basically saying that it was a printing decicion, which is exactly my complaint. Shouldn't such a critical issue be left not to the printers (what will fit), but the educators (what should)?


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