Why Should I Study Torah?

I was talking to a Rav recently, who also is a high school teacher, and he felt that many frum teenagers are not connected to the Torah they are learning. They don’t really see how the sugyas in the Gemora or the Parsha is relevant to their every day life.

How would you answer the question: “Why Should I Study Torah?”

How would you answer the question: “How is the Gemorah Relevant to a Teenager?”

48 comments on “Why Should I Study Torah?

  1. FWIW, and for those interested in this discussion, see Rashi on Shmos 31:18 s.v. Kcalalso, where Rashi states that a Talmid Chacham must be a “baki in the 24 books” of Tanach.

  2. There is a very substantial community in the “haredi” world that is known for its dedication to outreach, for its commitment to halacha and to being welcoming to BT’s — and for what could fairly be characterized as a reduced emphasis on gemara learning compared to most others in the “black hat” camp.

    I am speaking, of course, about Lubavitch. And for all the fine things Chabad has stood for and still does, and all its accomplishments, it is hard not to think that this choice or approach to how to fundamentally educate Jewish householders and leaders has come home to roost in the last decades, and not to Chabad’s credit.

    This does not answer the questions raised in this very high-quality thread, but it is a perspective that think should inform our thinking on the question.

  3. To my eye, this statement is, itself, a platitude:

    (and again – it’s amazing to see a list of BTs denying the breadth of their own educations to mouth Haredi platitudes…)

    Which “Haredi platitudes” do you mean?

  4. What are we preparing our children for?

    As another poster reminded us, we now have almost universal, extensive schooling – a luxury unprecedented in Jewish history.

    Education has to prepare the child for their role in life.

    WHAT IS THE EVENTUAL LIFE ROLE OF MOST STUDENTS enrolled in modern Jewish schools?

    It’s lovely – and appropriate – that the self-selected elite of Talmidei Chachamim in Lakewood are engaged in “deep Gemara study” – but how, if at all, will aping such study prepare most students for their role in life?

    Sorry – all the “quoting of sources” in this thread floats away from this essential question of fitness for purpose.

    The sources and historical precedents come from generations in which illiteracy was the norm, and limited resources were devoted to identifying future scholars – who then did their best to sustain their largely unlettered flock.

    I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but THAT IS NOT THE CURRENT SITUATION.

    (and again – it’s amazing to see a list of BTs denying the breadth of their own educations to mouth Haredi platitudes…)

  5. Maybe it got buried in one of my earlier comments but I presented the position that the very fact that the RT uses the term “master” (I will try to look up the precise lashon later today) proves that he can only be talking about an adult. As such, according to this approach a teenager could not fulfill the learning of mikrah through gemara.

    As to the question of valid as opposed to equally valid, I’m not sure if you’re speaking of commensurablity (sp?) vs incommunsurability but I would say this, I don’t think there is necessarily one right answer for everyone when it comes to approaches to chinuch and limud. I would also say that there is ample support from Rishonim and Acharonim for the position of more formalized Nach study.

  6. It’s not only about more or less. It’s usually a question of any at all. I also think it’s about the Yeshivos helping us educate our boys about the chashivus of Tanach so that they might make some time to learn it on their own as well. Or maybe listen to Rabbi Reissman’s Nach shiurim or something similar.

  7. Steve, I strongly agree with you in regard to more sophistication, which is why I don’t understand what the term “mastering Tanach” as a teenager can possibly mean. Its seems to me that “mastering” is either a mistranslation or misunderstanding of what those gedolim really said or meant.

  8. Mark-If an adult’s knowledge of Chumash or Nach is no more sophisticated than when he last learned Chumash in yeshiva ketana, then one can argue that his level of knowledge is that of a child, as opposed to a person who has worked through the works of the major Mfarshim we have been discussing and others as well.

  9. David, I’m not sure what you mean by valid. Do you mean equally valid?

    The Yeshivos have a current emphasis on learning Gemora which I think makes sense. You seem to be suggesting that they should put less emphasis on Gemora and more on Nach (or Tanach).

    When I have disagreed with what went on in the schools, I’ve sometimes had discussions with the principals and sometimes it did bear fruit and changes were made.

    I would suggest you fortify your case and go to your local Yeshivos and have the discussion with them about learning more Nach (or Tanach) and less Gemora.

  10. I don’t think these are out of context. They are in the context of the discussion on the same level as the gemara we discussed about learning gemara to fulfill the division of learning into thirds. Rabeinu Tam (I think) states that this approach is only for those who have already mastered (there’s that word again) Tanach. In other words, according to RT, learning Gemara will only fulfill the obligation to learn Tanach when one already has a certain proficiency in Tanach. Some would say that according to RT, learning Gemara to fulfill the 1/3 1/3 1/3 would only apply to adults because they are the ones who have possibly mastered Tanach. That might very well be the answer to your question above.

    All of the quotes in the thread need further explanation and discussion. That doesn’t make them out of context.

    Besides, all I’m advocating is a discussion not a resolution. Or, at the very least, an appreciation that the question is valid and that there are potentially differing, yet valid, approaches.

  11. And either do I, because it makes no sense that any of them used the words “mastering Tanach” in regards to your average teenager.

  12. I have no clue! At the same time, I think it’s worthwhile looking into and not dismissing the positions of these gedolim (I’m not saying, cv’s that you (Mark) are).

  13. >>Steve said-Are you stating that the Derech Limud in all of the above yeshivos ( as well as RIETS) is identical as to covering ground, looking at th relationship of Talmud to Psak. etc?
    Of course not. I explicitly stated my point which is that mussar has been de-emphasized in most of the Yeshivos founded by the students of the Alter.

    >>David said: The Abarbanel, Maharal, Shela, Mahrsha, Bach, Shach, Pri Magadim, Gra, amongst others advocated the mastering of Tanach prior to learning Mishnayos and Gemara.

    I’m not sure what mastering would mean for a child or teenager. How do you understanding what mastering means in this context?

    As I said before, the times have changed and we have a much larger percentage of Jews, in schools spending much more time learning (primarily because of mandatory schooling). This presents us with new challenges. I agree with the heads of the Yeshivas (and as it turns out, the progressive schooling advocates in the secular world), that going deeper towards understanding is more important than going broader with more facts.

    The biggest challenge that I see is how to help the less naturally-talented students go deeper.

  14. Steve and David, you need to make a clear distinction between Tanach and Nach, you seem to be using the terms interchangeably and they’re not.

    As I mentioned previously the requirement to learn Chumash is a halacha in the form of Shneim Mikra and people who take Torah learning seriously, spend serious time fulfilling this requirement by reading the Rishonim and Achronim on Chumash. And if you spend some time learning the haftorahs you’ll be exposed to the major stories in Nach.

    Considering that there is so much to learn in Gemora, Mishha, Chumash and Halacha, I find the case to sacrifice these areas in Yeshivos in favor of Nach, very weak. If you can give me some support for your contention, I would love to hear it.

  15. David Linn-I think that the Netziv’s HaEmek Davar is the shiurim on Chumash. R Meir Simcha HaKohen wrote both the Ohr Sameach on Shas and Rambam, as well as the Meshech Chachmah on Chumash. Rashi and Ramban both wrote indispendable works on Chumash and Shas.

  16. Ok, I did a little poking around and found some historical basis for a stronger emphasis on Tanach, especially Chumash (as Mark pointed out). These are not proofs of anything other than the fact that the nearly singular focus on gemara in present day Yeshivas was not always the norm. A few facts:

    The Netziv would give a daily Chumash shiur to his most advanced students;

    The brother of the Shela said that to neglect Tanach to the point that one is not familiar with the “24 adornments of the bride”, chas v’shalom, is to cast off the yoke of Torah.

    The Abarbanel, Maharal, Shela, Mahrsha, Bach, Shach, Pri Magadim, Gra, amongst others advocated the mastering of Tanach prior to learning Mishnayos and Gemara.

    The Shulchan Aruch obligates a father to pay someone to teach his son Torah Shebeksav (if he is unable to do so himself) and, if possible, Torah Shebalpeh. (Not sure whether this is the pesak)

    At the very least, something to think about.

  17. Mark Frankel wrote:

    “As I said before I don’t think the solution is to de-emphasize Gemora learning in favor of Nach, but rather to focus on how we can make Gemora accessible to more Jews. We’ve made some great strides in that area with projects like Daf Yomi and Art Scroll, despite their limitations. We have a ways to go, to bring Gemora understanding to all Jews. The Oral Torah is our heritage and we all deserve the ability to learn it at its accepted source”

    What do you mean in terms of accessibility? How would you define “the ability to learn it at its accepted source”?

  18. Mark-re your comment re Haschalas Gemara, I doubt that this issue would or will ever be discussed at Torah UMesorah or a similar venue, but essentuially the reality is that a Mishnah has been displaced by a Medrash that Rav Dessler ZL poppularized-“one thousand enter and only one leaves capable of psak.”

    I think that while understanding Gemara, Rishonim, Acharonim and Poskim are the key elements of Talmud Torah, one would be hard pressed to say that every blatt is an elucidation of the Tanach. One can learn blatt after blatt in many Masectos without any Psukim being quoted because the premise of the Talmud is that the student has a working familiarity with Tanach. More importantly, many of the greatest Rishonim and Acharonim wrote both Perushim on Shas and on Chumash. I tend to doubt that these Rishonim and Acharonim viewed their work on Chumash as not worthy of serious study.

  19. Mark Frankel wrote:

    “David, because they (and we) pasken that Gemora itself contains all three.”

    Is it not the case that the above statement is a reflection of the statement of Rabbeinu Tam, and other Baalei HaTosfos, as opposed to the Shitas HaRambam who states unequivocably that one must study Tanach, Mishnah and Talmud?

  20. Mark Frankel wrote in part:

    “The Alter also encouraged deep Gemora learning and while deep Gemora learning is prevalent in Lakewood, Chaim Berlin, Torah Vodaas and Chofetz Chaim, mussar has been highly de-emphasized in most of the major Yeshivos. In our Chofetz Chaim world there is still a mussar orientation, but you would be hard pressed to show that this is true of most of the American Yeshiva world.”

    Mark-are you stating that the Derech Limud in all of the above yeshivos ( as well as RIETS) is identical as to covering ground, looking at th relationship of Talmud to Psak. etc?

  21. >> I agree that we shouldn’t de-emphasize Gemara.

    I’m not really clear what specifically you’re advocating.

  22. I agree that we shouldn’t de-emphasize Gemara. I just think that there’s room for discussion regarding balance. Artscroll was something new (albeit within the realm of Gemara) and has its fair number of detractors. Yet, you embrace that as a legitimate aid, at the very least. (Others argue against it and/or refuse to allow it in the Yeshivah or tuck it away out of sight). Just as Artscroll provided a new approach, we need to be aware of and welcoming to approaches that may not have been acceptable in the past. My point is that just because something has always worked doesn’t mean it always will.

  23. David, cause and effect is always hard to gauge. As you well know mussar was introduced as a major study by Rabbi Yisroel Salanter and there were other streams practiced besides the Alter of Slabodka. It is possible that he produced such great Roshei Yeshiva in America, because he himself was a great teacher and he encouraged his students to go to America and create the foundation of what is now the American Yeshiva system.

    The Alter also encouraged deep Gemora learning and while deep Gemora learning is prevalent in Lakewood, Chaim Berlin, Torah Vodaas and Chofetz Chaim, mussar has been highly de-emphasized in most of the major Yeshivos. In our Chofetz Chaim world there is still a mussar orientation, but you would be hard pressed to show that this is true of most of the American Yeshiva world.

    As I said before I don’t think the solution is to de-emphasize Gemora learning in favor of Nach, but rather to focus on how we can make Gemora accessible to more Jews. We’ve made some great strides in that area with projects like Daf Yomi and Art Scroll, despite their limitations. We have a ways to go, to bring Gemora understanding to all Jews. The Oral Torah is our heritage and we all deserve the ability to learn it at its accepted source.

  24. I’m not saying, c’vs, that the Roshei Yeshivah or Poskim are violating halachah. It would seem to me that there is plenty of breadth within the halachic framework for different approaches, in different times and places. When the Alter of Slabodka decided to make formal mussar study a part of the Yeshiva “curriculum”, he had many opponents who claimed that if you learned gemara all day, you will be learning mussar through the gemara. His approach produced many of the greatest Roshei Yeshiva of the past three generations.

  25. Shmuel, I’m with you. Torah study in all its forms is the most potent divine service. In Derech Hashem, the Ramchal explains that just reading the words of Chumash is an awesome service of G-d. He goes on to explain that the more we understand the words of Torah, the more potent the service. For observant Jews, the Oral Torah is a critical component of that understanding as embodied in the Gemora and the commentaries based on the Gemora.

    Your point of the importance of learning Chumash is strengthed further in the Gemora and halacha itself through the institution of Sheneim Mikra V’Echo Targum, reading the Torah portion out loud two times every week with at least one verbal recitation of an Oral Torah based commentary of that week’s portion.

    In recent years we’ve had posts that stress the importance of learning Chumash through Shneim Mikra. Rabbi Welcher, my Rav and one of our Rabbinic advisers teaches us regularly the importance of actually doing this mitzvah and paskens that we can fulfill this obligation through reading the Artscroll commentary for the commentary component, according to the psak of Rabbi Chaim Pinchas Sheinberg.

    To paraphase – Learn Chumash Every Week – Just Do It!.

    So I 100% agree that saying learning Gemora should be a part of our Torah learning diet does not imply that learning Chumash is not important. But I would like to point out that learning Chumash is clearly more important then learning Nach (Neviim and Kesuvim), which is not to say that learning Nach is not important, just that it falls lower on the Torah learning pyramid then Gemora, Mishha, Chumash and Halacha for men.

  26. Mark–

    I agree that understanding of chazal’s statements about Tanach are necessary to a complete understanding of Tanach. But they are not the only way to understand Tanach and thus they are not sufficient for a complete understanding of Tanach.

    However, that doesn’t really say anything about how to divide students or adults’ time for learning –one might still say that gemara (or some other subject) is more important for one reason or another and thus conclude that while ideally one should study everything, if something has to go it is X or Y.

    The important point that I would like to get across (and I believe it’s important as a value no matter what area one might emphasize in Torah study) is that all areas of Torah have supreme value as Torah, and while some are going to emphasize one area over another (after all, no one can study or know everything), that shouldn’t imply a denigration of the value of any other area of Torah. For example, although chumash isn’t studied in any depth in many curriculums, I would hope no one says or thinks that it’s not an important part of Torah (imagine what this would imply about the importance of the Author!)

  27. I would guess that the leaders of Yeshivos and the poskim do not think they are violating halacha or hashkafa when they set out the curriculum like they do focused on in-depth Gemora learning.

    You can not master Tanach, the bible, unless you master it in the Gemora, unless your definition of mastery is parroting back the verses.

    There is a huge difference between knowing information and understanding it. Understanding is the goal and the Oral Law as brought down in the Gemora and the commentaries of Gemora are the keys to understanding if you are an Orthodox Jew.

    The problem of teaching the child according to their way is a major current issue. Until the relatively recent historical innovation of mandatory through-high-schooling in western countries, a deep and broad education was provided only to the intellectual and/or financial elite. Now that our societies provide schools and teachers for all kids through 12th grade, we have to figure out how to get to understanding, for a much broader precentage of the population. There is a lot of work to be done here and I’m currently involved with some projects trying to address this issue.

  28. Ben David, while I agree that there are varying approaches to what it means to “learn” Tanach, I think it’s a stretch (or at the very least, extreme speculation) that “you are probably a BT because the “traditional” educational approach left your grandparents ignorant and perplexed.”

  29. I don’t necessarily disagree with the POV that boys need to invest the time to develop the necessary Gemora skills. My question is more directed to the position that we are following the Gemara’s mehalach that we split our learning into thirds. What I’m saying is that we really are not doing that.

  30. Can those quoting sources on the ideal curriculum admit that those ideals are now trampled in a headlong, snobbish rush to Gemarah study?

    And please – “Tanach is covered in the Gemarah” is a pathetic stretch: in most cases it’s pesukim yanked out of context. Compare this to the study of Tanach in modern Israeli yeshivot, where midrash, Jewish thought, and field trips support in-depth understanding of Jewish history and philosophy.

    THAT is what our sages meant by mastery of the Bible preceding the Talmud – just like “Derech Eretz kadma la-Torah”.

    Conveniently ignored are some other sources about “teaching the child according to their way” and “finding the study that resonates with one’s heart”.

    The Talmud itself refers to people whose main focus was Bible and midrash instead of Mishna/Gemarah – and treat a person who mastered both worlds as a special genius, an “Ish Eshkolot”.

    Do we really think those souls no longer exist today?

    We have inherited a system that devoted meager resources to perpetuating Torah scholarship. It is totally unsuited to the education of the vast majority who will go on to be laypeople.

    BTs reading this: you are probably a BT because the “traditional” educational approach left your grandparents ignorant and perplexed.

    There is no need to repeat this mistake in suburban America or modern Israel.

  31. David, I was just following this thread of thought of yours, where you said:

    >> Well, it’s clear that it includes Mishnah but ask your average Yeshiva Bochur how much Tanach he learns, inside and outside the Gemara, and I’m betting the honest answer is slim to none.

    My first point was that the Gemora includes Tanach as well as Mishna. So learning Gemora does include learning Tanach also.

    Your second point was that Yeshiva boys don’t cover ground so they wouldn’t learn much Tanach and I would add that they also won’t learn much Mishna either. I agree, but because they need to develop depth skills, the breadth has to suffer. I think that is a necessary sacrifice at that age and it’s certainly better than American public school philosophy which is described as learning a mile wide but an inch deep.

    So learning Gemora does provided the Tanach, Mishna and Talmud that the Gemora dictates, it is just that our Yeshiva system feels that in the early learning years (teens to early twenties), more time needs to be spent on developing Gemora learning depth.

  32. Much of Tanach IS covered in the Gemra but most boys in Yeshiva don’t come anywhere close to learning Shas, so I certainly don’t think that addresses the issue for most boys.

  33. I assume you mean how much Nach is learned, because most Yeshivos do have a Chumash curriculum.

    If you go through the Daf Yomi cycle you will see that much of Tanach is covered in the Gemora.

    Torah is vast and in the time that the boys are in Yeshiva Ketana and Gedolah they are focused on the sugyas that will strengthen their in-depth Gemora learning. Given the amount of effort it takes to acquire those skills, that makes sense to me. If they don’t acquire them in Yeshiva it is very likely that they will never acquire them.

  34. Well, it’s clear that it includes Mishnah but ask your average Yeshiva Bochur how much Tanach he learns, inside and outside the Gemara, and I’m betting the honest answer is slim to none.

  35. I would suggest that based on the Maharal’s comments in one of his sefarim on the Mishnah in Avos, that the time for what is called “Haschalas Gemara”, which is a few years before Bar Mitzvah, is probably educationally unsound. RHS once mentioned that he remembered none of the Gemara that he learned during that time and that the best time for such a concept is as a teen, which would be in accordance with the view of chinuch advanced in the Mishnah in Avos. IOW, most children prior to their Bar Mitzvah should be progressing through Tanach and Mishnayos ( ala the famous Zilberman Derech, which is in vogue both in the Charedi world in Israel, and even in a few yeshiva ketanos in Lakewood) well before the students ever open a Gemara. Like it or not, the average student is not intellectually ready to swim in the sea of the Talmud in the years before Bar Mitzvah.

    I would add that RYBS mentioned once that Nezikin, especially is relevant, because the Torah views the Halachos that are set forth in Parshas Mishpatim are as important in being a Ben or Bas Torah as the Halachos of YK, Seder Leil Pesach of Shabbos. Unfortunately, unless one learns with a view that is Aliba DHilcasa, with a view of how to treat an employee, how to compensate an injured person, etc, one will probably not gain an appreciation of what the Torah considers a proper society and the treatment of one’s fellow man and woman.

    Mark’s point is well taken, but when one looks at most yeshivos, the key is learning Gemara, regardless of the derech, with nowhere as much emphasis on an indepth study of Tanach or Mishnayos.

  36. I think I fall somewhere in between the two positions –I think gemara should be an important part of most people’s learning (and it’s a central part of mine), but I believe that other areas of Torah have been de-emphasized to the point where they aren’t sufficiently valued. And if an adult (I specify adult becuase a child has to follow his school’s curriculum) finds he doesn’t really take to Gemara but he loves learning Tanach/Mishna/machshava or some combo of these, I don’t believe the solution for that person is to spend 90% of his time on gemara.

    One thing that needs to be pointed out is that although it doesn’t undermine Mark’s general point, the word “Talmud” as used in the gemara quoted by Mark doesn’t mean opening up the book we call the Talmud –although I would think that the book we call the Talmud would certainly be included in what it’s referring to.

  37. I want to go on record as strongly disagreeing with Ben David. I feel that every observant male should be learning Gemora with part of his learning time. The Gemora says that a person should learn Tanach, Mishna and Gemora regularly.

    How to teach BTs and teens is another matter.

    Kiddushin 09

    Rav Safra said in the name of R’ Yehoshua ben Chanania, what is (the meaning of) that which is written: “And you shall teach them thoroughly to your children?”

    Do not read “you shall teach” but rather “you shall divide into thirds;” one should always divide his years into thirds, a third in Scripture, a third in Mishna, a third in Talmud.

    Who knows how many years (he will live)?

    No, it is necessary – for days. (divide your days into thirds)

  38. Many teens should NOT be studying Gemarah.

    We have inherited an educational system formed in the bad old days – when limited resources were devoted to finding and polishing the gifted few who would go on to be Torah scholars and community leaders – and the needs of the majority of students, who would go on to be laymen, were largely ignored.

    We’ve made this system worse by adding suburban competition and academic one-upmanship to the mix – I’m not at all surprised by Menachem Lipkin’s sad report of “learning” gemarah in 5th grade.

    I still remember attending Yeshiva University in the 1980s – and seeing the “advanced” guys in the Yeshiva program sneaking into the philosophy, Bible, and liturgy classes of the “Ba’al Teshuva” program… because the “all gemarah, all the time” schedule of the “classic” yeshiva program was disatisfying and left huge holes.

    Time for something better.

    Teens should learn a few key parts of gemarah to understand how Jewish law works – how “frontlets between your eyes” becomes the laws of Tefillin, or “dwell in a booth seven days” becomes the laws of Sukkah.

    But most do NOT need gemarah beyond that – and do need a lot of other stuff.

    We should heed the wisdom of our own sages – who ensured that students had mastered the entire Bible and Mishnah before delving into Gemarah.

  39. The question that needs to be asked first is, “how should we teach Torah”.

    I started “learning” gemorah in 5th grade. It was pretty much gibberish to me. It’s no wonder that so many kids are turned off to Gemorah by the time they reach high school.

  40. Step 1 is to understand why we have “everyday life” and to Whom we owe it. With that understanding, we’d want to know His instructions for living that life

  41. Study Torah because it is the medium through which Hashem reveals Himself to man, and particularly to the Jewish people.

    Many or most teenagers will have trouble appreciating this, granted. But much has to do with their background and what kind of yeshiva or high-school-level institution they are in.

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