Learning How to Learn

A new friend who is moving to Washington DC, to attend college at George Washington University writes the following:

I’m stuck with the issue that I’ve been trying to solve for about a year and haven’t been too successful even after much effort. And I refuse to believe that I am the only one who is dealing with this problem.

Because I grew up as a reform Jew, I never learned how to learn a daf of Talmud. So essentially, I’ve been trying to “learn how to learn”, and I don’t know where to start.

But from here, Chicago, and Israel, which is where I’ve been living this past year, I didn’t know if I should just walk into a yeshiva and ask a rabbi to sit down with me and teach me how to learn from the Talmud.

Does anybody have suggestions or experience on how a new BT who is currently attending college should “learn how to learn”.

17 comments on “Learning How to Learn

  1. I missed Aaron Huber’s earlier comment about learning Hebrew.


    I always emphasized this to my students in America. Many of my colleagues disagreed, because they all came up through learning by translating, rather than thinking in, and intuiting the language of the Torah. One colleague did call me years later to tell me I was right. She had a class of girls, some of whom had come from a school where they learned near-fluent Hebrew, and now she could see the contrast between those who translated and those who pretty much read the text.

    If your Hebrew is good, you will find that you have a more intuitive feel for the Aramaic of the gmara as well. Learn the language Hashem gave His Torah in…

    That is as fundamental (moreso) as learning Tanach and Mishnah…

    May Hashem bless you with success in learning and living His Torah…

    Shana Tovah,


  2. I’m throwing in my two shekels as an opinionated teacher who has taught outreach, Orthodox HS shiurim, and to new adult learners in several communities. I do know that many will disagree with me. So here goes…

    Not everyone needs to run to learning gmara. Eventually, a truly literate Jew needs to do that; but not very soon.

    Consider that in the normal order of Torah education, the student has a firm grounding in all of Tanach, Mishnah, and the routines of Jewish living before he gets to a gmara. The order of learning laid out by our sages in Pirkei Avot is still adhered to in many communities (although the vogue in the NY area seems to be a competition to see which school/yeshivah can start gmara at the youngest grade).

    If your goal is to be a literate Jew, developing competence in learning, I strongly suggest you be a little patient and follow the route of taking a year to just learn Tanach and Mishnah. Also learn normative halacha from a source such as the Chayei Adam (or Mekor Hayim Hashalem of Rav Hayim David Halevy ztz”l). If you have a good familiarity with those, you will have a grasp of the concepts of Torah and halachah that will become refined when you start learning gmara. The gmara *assumes* you know Tanach and Mishnah pretty well. You can do this with a little discipline while pursuing your college studies. Learning Mishnah with Kehati is the best. You can even get them in English, if need be. Find a teacher or partner to learn with you a few times a week, in addition to on your own.

    A good primer to how learning gmara ‘works’ is Rav Eliyahu Krupnik’s ‘The Gateway to Learning’. I hope it’s still available. There is no one correct way to develop a technique in gmara, but I think this is just about the best. BTW, I suggest it even for those of us who consider ourselves pretty competent in learning.

    Steve’s suggestion to transfer to JSS at YU for a year is excellent. If you can do that, you don’t my (or anyone else’s) advice.

    Let me know if I can be of some help.

    Mordechai Y. Scher
    galut Sante Fe, NM
    struggling a bit to keep up my learning while back in school…(how embarrassing! :-))

  3. I agree with what Aaron says; if you are committed to staying in University and not dropping out and going to a yeshiva, at least take all of the Hebrew classes you can. Shmuel makes a great point also. Learn one page “cold” that you can translate and read perfectly.

  4. Being in college and starting to learn can actually compliment each other very nicely. I would encourage your friend to take as many Hebrew classes as possible. I was in a similar situation when starting college and after taking 3 years of Modern Hebrew I have found myself much more able to deal with learning. Also in a lot of the BT yeshivas they don’t really teach you Hebrew, you sort of just pick it up. Going to any Yeshiva and actually knowing Hebrew is a huge advantage.

  5. I taught beginning Gemara in both Ohr Sameach and Aish HaTorah and understand the challenge you face. Students there clearly have the advantage of spending intensive time honing the skills you seek, as others have already pointed out on this site. I have also taught in Yeshiva Day Schools to students who could be considered (even after a few years of gemara) beginners. I would not discourage you from beginning wherever you are presently located. But I would encourage you to find someone who will commit to assisting you, and to make a slwo but consistent effort. Rabbi Avigdor Miller, z”l, comments in one of his tapes to someone asking your question that the key is to master “ONE PAGE.” My experience encourages me to believe he was correct. Even if it takes you months to complete a mere amud of text, once you know it you will have something extremely meaningful in your arsenal. Repeat the words yourself while you and your chevrusa learn and practice them again in your spare time, line by line. You will have internalized many words and concepts that are repeated over and over again on countless pages of the Gemara. Begin by finding a patient chevrusa. There are many wonderful people who volunteer their time. It is even possible over the phone, as someone has suggested. But clearly it is better in person.

  6. In my high school years, I had a Mishnayos seder. I found this somewhat helpful in adding to fluency of Gemara and Chumash/ Rashi , and in understanding as well(although obviously, it doesn’t help directly with Aramaic).

    I found Kehati and Mishnah on the Phone(Torah Communications Network)helpful with this. After he obtains his initial Gemara skills,your friend might therefore want to try adding Mishnayos, in conjunction with his continuing Gemara studies.

  7. Here’s another shout-out for Shapell’s, from a proud alumnus. Spending a summer there, or even better, a year or two, would be great way to play “catch-up” in learning skills. Their website is http://www.darchenoam.org. They specialize in college and post-college guys who are looking to get a solid base in their learning.

    I also have friends who got a lot out of attending Machon Shlomo, which is another yeshiva in Jerusalem which serves students of a similar profile.

    I have a friend who used to be in the Baltimore branch of Yesodei, and I heard good things.

    Also, asking a local Orthodox rabbi (Hillel, Shuls, Community Kollels, etc.) is definitely a good way to go. They’ll either volunteer time themselves, or tell you where to go.

  8. If at all possible, I would check out the possibility of either spending one full year in JSS then followed by a summer in the JSS kollel or a year in Shapell. Both of these programs emphasize the acquisition of textual literacy ( i.e. learning how to learn)in core Jewish sources-Chumash with Rashi and Ramban,Mishnah, Talmud and Halacha.

  9. As another alum of Midreshet Rachel, I’ll second what Chaya said – and the emphasis at MR is the same.

  10. Aaron is right that a year, or even a summer in yeshiva would be the best choice if it is a possibility. As an alumna of Midreshet Rachel, I know that the brother school of that institution, Shapell’s (Darche Noam) has a strong emphasis on learning how to learn and on gaining the skills most crucial to integration into the mainstream frum community. It may be helpful for other posters to chime in with other yeshivot that have similar goals. Even if this student can’t take off time now, he can start researching his options.

  11. I am sure that there is a Chabad at that University that probably would be able to help. I have a co-worker who went to college in that area and is now a frum Jew because of the Chabad in that area. The writer has a good question but unfortunatly the only way you will learn how to learn Gemara properly is to drop everything and learn in a Yeshiva full time for a year. I was never able to do that because of my circumstances but I was able to do things little by little. I now learn Daf Yomi so I can get a better idea on how the gemara comes about and how the whole Talmud was compiled. Because of all the shiurim and study aids available I am able to do this. I also have as a suggestion for this student to go to Israel for the summer or enroll in YU’s JSS Kollel next summer. Programs like these help in those areas. For the rest of the year I am sure Chabad on that campus can help.

  12. Hard work is certainly a main ingredient. I think you can find someone at any Yeshiva who will help you. Tell him to visit R’ Lopiansky’s Yeshiva in Silver Spring. They can likely find him a tutor. Another idea is Yesodai HaTorah – http://www.yesodeihatorah.org – an evening and early morning Yeshiva tailored for Baalai Teshuva at any level. They list the following as the Silver Spring contact:
    Rabbi Pinchus Idstein
    1216 Arcola Avenue Silver Spring, MD 20902
    E-mail: rabbii@thekosher.net

  13. I spent a year in Ohr Somayach never having opened a Gemara and was more or less able to learn on my own when I left, but it required perseverance. I would recommend R. Aryeh Carmel’s Aid to Talmud Study – read it and remember it from cover to cover. Also, don’t be discouraged. Many people from Orthodox homes who spend years in yeshiva still come out without fluency. If you choose to spend time in a yeshiva, make sure it is the right one.

  14. I know a man, now a Rav, who (I believe) could read, translate and understand at a decent level a gemara two years after starting in Yeshiva, which he started not long after his gerius (coversion to Judaism). I spent one year full time in yeshiva and have spent 4 years since learing most evenings and mornings, but I still cannot just stam open a gemara and learn the gemara with Rashi. Every person is different, but if I were college age I would go to a yeshiva and expect to spent however many years there until I had achieved at least the equivalent in learning skills to a graduate of a “regular” mesifta (yeshiva high school).This could take two years or four years or more.

  15. My brother-in-law teaches at Ohr Sameach Yeshiva Monsey. His specialty is a course in Gemorah skills. I give permission for the owner of this blog to send my email address to the writer of the above for the purpose of my passing on my brother-in-law’s email address.

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