Why Do We Have to Learn So Much Gemora?

It’s a question often heard around the halls of Yeshiva High Schools and many Baalei Teshuva also ask “Why Do We Have to Learn So Much Gemora?”.

High School Boys have to persevere but many Baalei Teshuva reduce their Gemora learning greatly.

How do you answer the question “Why Do We Have to Learn So Much Gemora?”.

32 comments on “Why Do We Have to Learn So Much Gemora?

  1. Mr. Cohen -try reading Shaar Daled in Nefesh HaChaim and Hilcos Talmud Torah in SA HaRav on the necessity of comprehending TSBP and, Halachic Man and Emunah u Bitachon on the learning of TSBP as the basis for any view on what is the Jewish view on any subject.

  2. S (#14),

    Allow me to expand on my comment(#3) about beginning with Talmud study with Seder Nezikin.

    To be more specific, many schools start study with the 2nd Chapter of Baba Metzia, which is part of Seder Nezikin. This chapter is called Elu Metziot, and concerns one’s responsibility in safeguarding and returning a found object.

    This is a mitzvah that every Jew should hold dear to his or her heart. It presents tremendous opportunity to sanctify Hashem’s name (bein adam l’makom) and to bring relief and happiness to the distraught person who lost the object (bein adom l’chavero).

    To take it a bit further, I think that safeguarding one’s speech (Shmirat haLashon), returning lost objects (Hashavat Aveidah) and showing appreciation for others’ goodness (Hakarat haTov) are the very foundation of leading a “good Jewish life.” Through these mitzvot, we show concern for other people’s feelings, their property, and their time and effort on behalf of others.

    To take it further still, the return of lost objects in particular favorably distinguishes the Jewish people among the nations (Mi k’amcha Yisrael, goy echad ba’aretz — who is like Your people, Israel, a unique nation on the earth.) While many good individuals of all backgrounds return lost objects, it seems to be a NATIONAL obsession with us: websites, newspaper advertising sections, and other media are devoted to the return to their owners of objects ranging from a key to a diamond.

    The talmudic analysis found in Elu Metziot gives us guidance on when and to what degree we are to pursue the goal of reuniting an owner with his lost object.

    There are items you are allowed to keep because the owner has no reasonable expectation of either knowing it was lost or of being concerned about the loss. There are other items that can be disposed of by the finder because they would be spoiled in the time it takes to conduct a search for the owner. And finally, there are the objects that you must make all possible efforts to return to the owner.

    With this guidance, we know when to keep plugging away at this particular mitzvah, and when to turn our attention to a mitzvah that has greater importance under the circumstances.

  3. sb, I apologize for not remembering the exact cites (that’s with a “c” not an “s” from pre Internet days).

    I know that in one place in the Aggadita (non-halachic) portion of the Talmud Bavli, there is a discussion among a number of rabbonim about the importance of teaching one’s son a trade. One rav is of the opinion that not teaching a son a trade is teaching him to steal. A second rav says that one’s son should not pursue a trade but should only learn Torah. A third rav says that many tried to do so but only a few were successful. The second rav retorts to this that since a few were successful, why shouldn’t one’s son keep on learning, maybe he will be successful too. I’m sure many of the other commenters will recognize exactly where this discussion takes place.

    At another place in the Aggadita, there is a statement that one who takes on the Yoke of [Learning] Torah is freed of the yoke of earning a living and of the yoke of government.

    At yet another place in the Aggadita, there is a saying that math and astronomy are merely the handmaidens of Torah, and that the laws of kosher birds and the purification of women are the foundations of wisdom. (Sorry, this is my loose paraphrase of an inexact translation. But you get the gist).

    Regarding the mindset that a man should keep on learning Gemara, this was the prime focus of the Bais Yisroel Torah Center on Kings Highway in Brooklyn, better known as the shul of Harav Avigdor Miller, zatzal. Rav Avigdor Miller gave shiurim on different Masechtas of the Gemara throughout the week, aside from his famous Thursday night hashkafa lecture series. I remember particularly that the shul once purchased and used a large quantity of those official United States postage stamps that declared, “Learning never ends.” Maybe the U.S. Postal Service didn’t intend it to mean the continuous learning of Gemara, but that’s the way Rabbi Avigdor Miller and his shul and his followers interpreted it.

  4. One common approach to getting exposure to “all the Torah” where gemara skills are not there or not there yet is one still popular in many BT yeshivos including those sponsored by Chabad as well as Aish: Learning Rambam’s Mishna Torah.

  5. 1. I agree with those who say the prerequisites for Gemara study (Tanach, Mishna, basic logic/analysis) are often skimmed over.

    2. Ramchal wrote two works on logic/analysis as related to Gemara study that are available with translation:

    http://www.feldheim.com/cgi-bin/category.cgi?item=0-87306-495-X&type=store&category=search

    http://www.feldheim.com/cgi-bin/category.cgi?item=0-87306-707-X&type=store&category=search

    Ramchal was a master of orderly thought, and serious Gemara students should explore these works at an early stage of their Gemara study to acquire good thinking habits.

    3. Those of us who lack the background, time, or inclination should study other material that is “best” for us. To make the best choice, we could use some good advice from one or more rabbonim who know us well.

  6. Ron, even if we would point out any lazy un-analytical content in your comment, it shouldn’t necessarily lead us to the conclusion that you are either lazy and/or un-analytical, but perhaps in this instance you were either lazy or un-analytical. And although we couldn’t prove it through a controlled experiment, we certainly could reasonably hypothesize that a Ron Coleman who learns Gemora properly is less lazy and more analytical that a Ron Coleman who doesn’t learn Gemora properly :-)

  7. I asked this question also many years ago and was satisfied by this answer: The Torah is, of course, an expression of insight into the “mind,” so to speak, of Hashem, including what He wants from us and what we can do to come closer to Him.

    That’s good as far as it goes. Then what? Well, the Written Torah is, in theory, the more direct route to that connection to the Divine sensibility, especially Chumash and Nevi’im [the Prophets]. But it is basically incomprehensible without at least the gloss of the Oral Torah.

    So how do we learn the Oral Torah? We could all do worse than thoroughly to learn Chumash with Rashi, who has made such wise choices about what aspects of the Oral Torah to “bring” in his commentary that he is regarded as having done so via Divine inspiration. This would at least open up that door.

    But the Talmud has been described as a unique example in world history of an entire people’s culture being memorialized in a written, portable and essentially standardized work. It is not only the distillation of the meaning of its scriptures, which in any event tell us very little about the Jewish way of life, including in halacha, that has predominated since the time of Ezra. (Shabbos as we know it could never be found in Tanach.) Rather the gemara is a reflection of the Torah’s entire sensibility, way of life and ethos.

    In other words, the Sages of the Talmud are not merely transmitting or articulating the content of the written Torah. They are setting out for us the full breadth and depth of Jewish sensibility, and challenging us to “connect” with it anywhere and everywhere we are. The more of this we can assimilate, the better off for our lives as Jews.

    Having said all that, I feel a need to address this “analytical thinking” idea. I have had occasion to express my frustration on a regular basis over the fact that I regularly encounter people with many years, even decades, of talmudic study behind them, and yet who are utterly unable to “think analytically” the way a well-trained lawyer does — that is, dialectically, comprehending alternative aspects of a problem, abstracting from a particular fact issue or being able to discuss an analytical challenge or posture objectively. In other words, many people can “give over” sugyos [analytical treatments of particular talmudic topics] and appear to do this, and to manipulate the sugyos (i.e., demonstrating that they are not merely memorizing) on a sophisticated level. Yet very few products of the yeshiva world seem to be able to utilize what appear to be the dialectical (or what are sometimes called “critico-analytical”) problem-solving skills necessary for such mastery to problems outside of the pages of the gemara. (Those who can do so, however, often do make really great lawyers!)

    My point? I am very skeptical of the claim that gemara learning turns every Jewish male into an incisive, analytical Sherlock Holmes. For that matter, the chance of many BT’s being exposed to enough gemara as adults that it could seriously enhance their analytical ability seems low to me.

    But seeing a lot of gemara from an early age, and making the effort to really engage in what you’re learning to the extent possible (hence I share the skepticism about Daf Yomi for most of us, including me), can still have very valuable effects:

    (1) Gemara educates us not only in halacha, but, critically, about how halacha is made. A lot of amateur sniping about divisive or controversial issues in Jewish law demonstrates a lack of genuine insight (forget mastery, which I certainly don’t claim) into where halacha comes from and what the parameters of halachic decision-making are; and

    (2) As I said at length above, learning allows us to make small but continual progress at “thinking like a Jew” — thinking like the Torah — so that the Torah’s “contents,” not only in terms of history and halacha but of sensibility, kedusha [holiness] and Awe of Hashem have some chance of affecting us and fueling our continued growth.

  8. Count me in with Charlie and Mr.Scher. I’ve started Daf Yomi twice and abandoned it quickly both times. As a friend of mine said “Daf Yomi is like speeding dating – you spend long enough to get the idea there is something interesting there and then you move on to the next.”

    While studying Gemarah in depth is a lot more appealing to me than Daf Yomi, I still find it isn’t where I personally get the biggest bang for my educational buck. I like studying a particular topic (e.g. Hilchot Bishul B’Shabbat) starting from the Shulchan Aruch and then branching out both to read its predecessors (Rishonim and yes, the Gemara) and its successors (achronim including Mishneh Berurah, Igrot Moshe, and Yad Yosef).

    At my age and educational experience I’m never going to be in a position to make original piskei halacha on new topics, so I don’t see why I should follow a course of education designed to produce a single gadol at the cost of losing 1000 ordinary Jews.

    Now this works for me. The point is that we should be open to other forms of torah exercise than swimming in the sea of Talmud. Some people may benefit from high impact tanach study or other approaches.

    Lastly I want to particularly commend Mr. Scher for pointing out that Talmud study should be the apex of our educational learning, not the start. Pirke Avos recommends studying Torah and Mishna before moving on to Gemara. Its starting age is 15 – long after most Orthodox schools for boys have made Talmud study the major part of their curriculum.

  9. Look like I’m with Prof. Hall on this one.

    If our schools are turning out people with g’mara skills and some g’mara knowledge, but they are woefully uninformed and unskilled in learning Tanach, Mishnah, Hebrew language – then we have put the cart before the horse. Note that Hazal clearly expected someone to be well versed in Tanach and Mishna, and have strong language skills by obvious association, before learning g’mara. Over the generations, people like the Maharal decried the neglect of fundamentals in learning in favor of pilpul (associated with limud g’mara). When the gaon Rav Meshullam Roth published his ideal curriculum in Torah study, he emphasized knowledge of the fundamentals (including topics like history and poetry/piyut) before and continuing with learning g’mara and poskim. The pamphlet is called, if I recall correctly, L’amailim BaTorah.

    On a practical note, if we are talking about adults, g’mara is interesting and challenging; but I’d rather see a kehilla full of people who know Tanach, Shas Mishnayot, and have a good grasp of practical halacha from the Hayei Adam, Mekor Haim, etc. Those will be more well-rounded Jewishly, and they can learn g’mara as well. But I think the initial emphasis is misplaced. I certainly think it is ridiculous, and wrong, to see 10th graders who’ve been learning g’mara for four or even five years, but have never (and may well never in the future) completed a seder (even a masechet!) of Mishna nor been through all of Tanach with even a shallow reading.

    As a simple Jew, and an educator, this is a big pet peeve of mine.

  10. One key aspect of Gemara is that the reasoning and received information behind halachic decision-making are revealed.

    Then,

    1. The decisions we come across can no longer look arbitrary, but follow a pattern we can understand, within our limitations.

    2. Those of us in a position to make new decisions in new situations have a means to do so properly, to the degree that we have internalized the Gemara’s thought process and information.

    In learning an important subject from a text, we would not get very far if we only scanned the answers at the back and did not work through the lessons and exercises.

  11. According to the Rosh in Orchos Chaim, the study of Gemara is more important/better than all other subjects. He doesn’t supply a reason but he does say it explicitly and I believe that is one of the reasons that so much effort is placed in doing so.
    ספר אורחות חיים להרא”ש – ליום שני
    (לז) למד פרשיותיך עם הצבור, שנים מקרא ואחד תרגום ופרוש רש”י ז”ל, ותדקדק בו כאשר תוכל וכן יהיה לך בגמרא, כי העוסק בגמרא מדה טובה ונותנין עליה שכר. ואין לך מדה טובה הימנה ותנן תלמוד תורה כנגד כולם:

  12. Dear Steve Brizel (or anyone who can help me),

    My question is in response to message 12.

    Exactly where does the Nefesh HaChaim say:

    “While one receives reward for studying Torah SheBiCtav regardless of one’s comprehension, the reward for learning TSBP is dependent on one’s comprehension of the arguments”?

    I looked for it by searching on the word SheBiCtav, but because of my small comprehension, I could not find it.

    If you can not find it in Nefesh HaChaim, then other Jewish sacred texts are good also.

    I thank you in advance for your help in this matter.

    Sincerely,
    Mr. Cohen

  13. “There is a mindset that says…”

    I would love for someone to show me a Chazal that says this.

    I don’t necessarily think that gemara learning is for everyone, and I certainly don’t think that the yeshiva system as it is is productive at all for the majority of people in it, but the reason for learning so much learning of gemara is poshut: it is the main body of Torah She’be’al Peh, as least the non-aggadic portion.

  14. My three sons Mordechai (25-1/2), Yosef (24) and Yaakov (almost 20) have decided to spend the rest of their lives learning Gemara.

    I know this isn’t for everyone.

    My husband and I with G-d’s help are going to try to assist our sons as long as possible so that they can continue to learn as much Gemara as possible.

    There is a mindset that says that learning as much Gemara as possible is the lifelong mission of a Jewish man, and that the lifelong mission of a Jewish woman is to encourage the Gemara learning of her husband and her sons.

    Again, not everyone wants to do this, and others may well believe their life missions are completely different.

  15. Charlie,

    Your comment was originally unqualified, but now I see your making an “omkimta”, qualifying your statement. And it’s encouraging to see you’re not disagreeing with Rav Lichtenstein and other Torah giants about the importance of learning Gemora.

    Additionally, I don’t think anybody is advocating learning “all gemara, all the time”. Minimally the Shulchan Orach requires Shneim Mikra V’Echa Targum (ie the parsha) and the Mishna Berurah says we need to said aside times for Mussar and we have to know the halachos for starters.

    S,

    If you have sources that the apologetic explanations are after the fact, I would be very interested in seeing them.

    It would probably be helpful to expose the high school students and BTs to more Gemoras to which they can relate. But the analysis takes hard work and there is no way around that.

  16. I would like to point out that I do not deserve to be mentioned in the same sentence as Rabbi Dr. Lichtenstein!

    And I don’t disagree with him. I myself learn daf yomi *and* I attend a weekly in-depth gemara shiur. But note his practical concerns toward the end of his essay. And Rav Lichtenstein’s own elite yeshiva spends a lot of time on Tanakh, while most other yeshivot for men ignore it. Even he does not do “all gemara, all the time”.

    Note also that the reasons he gives for learning gemara apply to women as well as to men. While Rabbi Dr. Lichtenstein would have no problem with women learning gemara, in most of the Jewish world women are actively discouraged from doing so.

  17. Gary

    >I have heard that a reason for the heavy weighting of Talmud study towards Nezikin is the role of those tractates in resolving disputes and maintaining harmonious relations between people.

    Mark

    >As I understand it, the reason there is an emphasis on Nezikin and Nashim is because the subject matter lends itself to better development of analytical skills.

    I know the apologetic explanations, the after-the-fact explanation of why things are why they are, not whether or not these are indeed appropriate for children (or otherwise) frustrated with Talmud. Indeed, what is the point in developing analytical skills in students who won’t use them, or learn them? In fact the rest of Shas, which is chock full of practical halacha, hadracha and theology may well penetrate the hearts and minds of those who will never warm up to oxen goring oxen, at least not via oxen goring oxen. No doubt kindling a love of Talmud in such students may eventually lead to them loving Nashim and Nezikin as well, but isn’t this backward for many a student? The entire curriculum is geared toward burgeoning lomdim. While they should not be neglected, neither should the subjects of this post, namely kids who want to know why they have to learn so much Gemara, ie, they don’t like it.

  18. Why do I have to gather up all of these precious diamonds? So what if there are oodles of valuable gems spread out there for the taking? Who cares if I have only a short time in which I can earn millions?

    “The time is short, and the Master is urgent.” Pirkei Avos.

    What merchandise does a traveler bring back after 120 years? Nothing but one hundred fifty pounds of putrid fats?

    How does one respond to the Divine question, “Were you koveya ittim? Did you set aside times for Torah learning?”

    These are some of the deepest questions a person can ask himself/herself. What is my mission? Why was I put here? What is supposed to be the main focus of my life? Making money? Raising children? Caring for my elderly sick parents? Doing good deeds?

    I have tremendous respect for Charlie Hall, who is extremely intelligent, as I know from his comments on other postings. I am positive that Mr. Hall is capable of finishing Gantz Shas (all 2711 double-sided pages of the Babylonian Talmud). There were Tzadikim who reviewed all of Shas literally hundreds of times in their lives. Imagine such a great accomplishment! I’m sure that if he wished to do so, Charlie Hall could learn the entire Talmud Bavli. He certainly has the ability.

  19. The Talmud in Gittin 60b relates that the real covenant between HaShem and Am Yisrael exists because of TSBP. According to both the SA HaRav and Nefesh HaChaim-while one receives reward for studying Torah Shebicsav regardless of one’s comprehension, the reward for learning TSBP is dependent on one’s comprehension of the ins and outs of the arguments, the rejected and accepted opinions and especially realizing the halachic consequences (what is called a Nafkeh Minah LMaaseh or Halacha Aliba DShamettesa).

    Both the CI and RYBS emphasized that it is only thru a sustained study of TSBP that a Jewish man grasps what is the Jewish view on any subject and appreciates that Halacha covers our lives on a 24/7 basis from the time that we enter this world.

  20. Skeptic, I don’t think the saying you quoted is meant to give license to not learning Gemora, although it’s an interesting approach.

    Michael, I agree 100% that all Gemora study beyond the typical Daf Yomi level is difficult and complex. I was responding to why Yeshivos focus on Nezikin and Nashim.

    Gemora is difficult, but consistent study changes who you are and how you think, and allows you to view the world and live your life at a deeper level. Gemora learning also enables you to learn Tanach, mussar, halacha, hashkafa and virtually any other subject at a deeper level.

  21. The related issues are with whom I should study Talmud? and what is Talmud? I want to echo Mark Frankel above that studying Talmud will show us the many complexities of issues. I would add that it should challenge us to always ask: How do you know this? and it can act as an important antidote to those who claim to have singular answers to hashgafic questions.

    And contra Mark Frankel, I spent a year in Rav Aharon Lichtensteins shiur. We studied Pesachim and Brachot. It was quite complex.

  22. To second Charlie above, “ein adam lomed ela mah shelibo chafetz” — one will only learn that which his heart desires. The trick is to find something you enjoy learning — different people have different interests. If you prefer Tanach, or mussar, or halacha, then you shouldn’t torture yourself with gemara. On the other hand, you should certainly put at least some effort into all different areas of Jewish learning, since there is something to be gained everywhere.

  23. R’ Aharon Lichtenstein in Leaves of Faith (vol 1) has a beautiful piece titled “Why Learn Gemara?”

    If you can get hold of it, i highly suggest reading it as i cannot do justice to his articulation on the subject

  24. S,

    As I understand it, the reason there is an emphasis on Nezikin and Nashim is because the subject matter lends itself to better development of analytical skills.

    Contrast a typical Berachos topic – “What time do we say Krias Shema?” to a typical Bava Kama question “What is my responsibility to pay damages done by my animals?” and I think you will see that there are a lot more factors and issues to analyze in the Bava Kama question.

    But the development of analytical skills is a long term process and most kids (and people) want to experience their gains right now. They’re usually not interested in the long term.

  25. Our schools place maximum emphasis on Gemara because that seems to be the one subject that allows parent to kvell [take pride in] their sons.

    Many Jewish parents will proudly exclaim:
    My son is only __ years old, and he is already learning Gemara!!

    No Jewish parent will proudly exclaim that his son is learning Tanach or Mussar. Gemara will always receive maximum emphasis as long as it grants bragging rights to the parents, just as if your favorite baseball team had won the World Series.

    Another question is why our boys start Gemara at such young ages, much younger than the age suggested by the tractate Avot, chapter 5.
    I suspect that the answer is the same as before.

    Last but not least, if you really want to understand Gemara, you should first learn all of Tanach.

  26. I have heard that a reason for the heavy weighting of Talmud study towards Nezikin is the role of those tractates in resolving disputes and maintaining harmonious relations between people.

    Over the last few years, I started learning Talmud on Shabbat afternoons, and Mishnah on weekday afternoons. These had been independent efforts until recently. It turned out that the tractate presently covered in Mishnah is the same one that we are now studying in Talmud. Studying the Mishnah with a commentary such as Bartenura or Kehati is a great preview or supplement for studying the same tractate in Talmud.

  27. I think a better question is, why do we have to learn so much Gemara of the type that we do? That is, why does it have to be Nezikin rather than Moed or Berachos and the like? In my experience many kids do enjoy learning Gemara, just not the way it is in the standard curricula.

  28. I personally think it’s very important that we learn Gemora with both more breadth and depth.

    The basic reason is that Gemora trains us to think deeply like we need to as Torah Jews.

    Life is complex and every issue has many sides and factors as the discussions here indicate. Learning Gemora gives us the tools and the information to see and live life at a deeper level.

    i think the main reason that BTs don’t dive deeply into Gemora is that it is difficult and generally people avoid difficult things.

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