How NOT to Teach Gemara in High School, Part I

[Intro]

[The comments in brackets are my own; there are a few cases where I tweaked the language to make it more readable. – AIWAC]

I. The Students

Learning Difficulties

The study of gemara is a “skills-heavy” subject. In other words, in order to arrive at the ability to learn and understand the text at the most basic level, and certainly to reach higher levels of study and understanding, a student must acquire a range of skills. These skills come from different disciplines, and they are necessary for maintaining the most basic level of learning.

Language

The two primary languages of Talmudic literature, which are:

  • Hebrew – At the level of the language of the sages, as well as Rabbinic Hebrew, and
  • Aramaic

are foreign languages, in varying degrees, to the student. Obviously, the Hebrew dialects are less foreign to the student than Aramaic, but they too contain difficulty. For instance, Rabbinic literature is strewn with acronyms, which are indecipherable to the unskilled reader.

Under the inspiration of the present atmosphere in the yeshiva world, there is a tendency to avoid providing basic reference material, be it dictionaries or translations. Furthermore, there is no systematic instruction of the Aramaic language, which is supposed to be acquired through accumulated experience through reading. This is an impossible way to teach a language.

The assumption that it is possible to teach language in such a manner derives from the fact that in yeshivot the acquiring of the language (of Aramaic) is done by way of osmosis. It is similar to a man who travels to a foreign country and quickly acquires its language through constant use thereof. It is clear that this method has obvious advantages and disadvantages.

The advantage: A quickly developed ability to use the language well.

The disadvantage: The student does not know the rules of the language, except through intuition.

The attempt to pass on the yeshiva method of learning, via osmosis, to the religious high school, and even to the yeshiva high school, is not successful – because the students are not sufficiently immersed in an atmosphere of gemara study to acquire the language through osmosis and at an intuitive level.

Background:

Every sugya in the Talmud is based on a broad prior background (of knowledge), which does not exist among most of the students, such as: Mishna, halachic terms, the history of the sages. Quite often, it is necessary to dedicate a great deal of time to teach the basic concepts which underly the sugya.

For instance, in order to teach the first sentence in the Mishna: “מאימתי קורין את שמע בערבין, משעה שהכהנים נכנסים לאכול בתרומתן”, one must first explain the following matters: Reading שמע, Eating Truma in Purity, A טבול יום, and sunset (from an halachic perspective). One cannot assume that this background exists among the students, and dedicating so much time to teaching terms which are outside the sugya – this distances the student from dealing with the matter at hand, that being the sugya itself, which assumes prior knowledge of its sources as the basis for understanding it.

Methodology:

The Talmud is not laid out like a consistent, continuous text, something which differentiates it from all other written material the student has been exposed to. The methodology of Talmudic dialogue does not naturally fit the student’s way of thinking. This is especially in light of the hidden assumptions which accompany each stage (of the dialogue). For instance, the assumption that there is nothing extraneous in the Mishna, that an Amora may not dispute a Tanna, and so forth.

There is no sign in the Talmud indicating what a question is and what an answer is. The text therefore becomes a riddle also in terms of its structure and in terms of the thought processes which lay at its base, and this is aside from the foreignness of the language and the terminology. There is no introductory book which imparts the Talmud’s method in an orderly fashion. Even the existing introductory books do not accompany the actual study, and there is a huge gap between reading such a book (such as R. Steinsaltz’s מדריך לתלמוד [link to English edition]) and the ability to implement (its lessons) in practice.

 All of these problems do not exist in the teaching of Tanach. Even if they do, they appear either at a far more rudimentary level (of teaching), or the opposite, at a very advanced level. In other words, the basic language needs to be taught in the first classes of elementary school, and when we are dealing with a foreign language – the Aramaic of the Book of Ezra or the difficult flowery Hebrew of the Book of Job.

However, these are the exceptions which prove the rule. The 9th grade Tanach teacher enters the class, instructs the students to read a chapter and make a summary of it, on the basis of which he develops an advanced discussion, both in terms of content and interpretation. The Talmud teacher, even at the end of 12th grade, cannot afford to open a high-level discussion before dealing with the level of basic interpretation of the text.

The problem which arises from the comparison of Gemara to Tanach, History, Literature and the like is twofold:

1. The difficulty of Talmud in and of itself.

2. The status of the subject relative to other subjects in which one can arrive at significant layers of study without agonizing so much at the basic level of acquiring the necessary fundamentals.

Next: The Problem of Significance

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About AIWAC

Hi, my name is Avi Woolf. I'm an American-Israeli MO Jew living in Israel. I have a background in Israeli (as in Land of Israel) and Jewish History and an insatiable need for knowledge. I also have professional experience as an editor, translator and indexer. Enjoy the ride! If you are interested in using my services or just want to drop me a line, contact me at: opdycke1861NOSPAM@yahoo.com
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14 Responses to How NOT to Teach Gemara in High School, Part I

  1. Pingback: Teaching Talmud in High School « Menachem Mendel

  2. Pingback: How NOT to Teach Gemara in High School, Part II | QED

  3. Nachum says:

    The Madrich LeTalmud was translated into English as the Reference Volume that was the first in the English translation of the Talmud. You linked to a translation of HaTalmud LaKol, which now includes chapters, but not all, of the Madrich.

  4. Pingback: How NOT to Teach Gemara in High School, Part III | QED

  5. Pingback: How NOT to Teach Gemara in High School, Part IV | QED

  6. Pingback: How NOT to Teach Gemara in High School, Part V | QED

  7. Pingback: How NOT to Teach Gemara in High School, Part VI | QED

  8. Pingback: How NOT to Teach Gemara in High School, End | QED

  9. Yitzhak Frank says:

    Perhaps my Practical Talmud Dictionary can help some people — as well as the new work that is in progress The Comprehensive Pracical Talmud Dictionary at
    http://daf-yomi.com/content.aspx?PageId=26
    Y.Frank
    Jerusalem

  10. AIWAC says:

    This does indeed look promising. However, I’d think an “ulpan” in Rabbinic Hebrew (ie Hebrew/Aramaic) where the (linguistic) principles and concepts are taught would be even better. A dictionary can certainly assist the process, but should not be a substitute for such instruction.

    Thank you for your reference, though – I will try to make use of it in my own learning :).

  11. Avi says:

    There is a book written by a rishon that does teach a methodical approach to learning Gemara and mefarshim. It is called darchei hatalmud or darchei Gemara by Rabbi Yitschak Kanpanton in Spain the book is available on http://www.hebrewbooks.com as דרכי התלמוד . I also have a website where I try to teach a methodical approach based on this Sefer and the ramchal. I have a website where o try to present a methodical approach to learning gemara .Www.Howtolearngemara

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