How NOT to Teach Gemara in High School, Part II

[Intro, Part I] [Emphases and bracketed words are mine – AIWAC]

The Problem of Importance

Another large gap exists between the subject of Talmud and the other subjects of Humanities and Jewish subjects, and that is the great distance between the (actual) study (of Talmud) and its important contents. In part, the problem derives from the great effort invested in acquiring fundamental skills. However, it is more serious than that. Even a student who can learn a page of gemara at a basic level on his own, does not achieve learning of importance.

The Multiplicity of Details:

The structure of the gemara does not allow for prior acquaintance with the overall picture in which details gain their respective value. The student is immersed in deciphering the ni-tty-gritty details and does not gain the ability to see the general pictureuntil after he has exhausted himself toiling to understand the details. For instance, a student who studies the sugya of “ויחלוקו” at the beginning of Baba Metzia (2b-3a), he will spend a great amount of time studying each of the individual sugyas that comprise the larger sugya. He will then eventually have great difficulty conducting an overall discussion of the fundamental underlying question of the sugya – when do we use the solution of splitting in a case of safek mammon and when do we not, and why.

The Shakla and Tarya:

The gemara is not built in a manner that presents clear conclusions. Most of the student’s efforts, and certainly the beginning student, are dedicated to deciphering the messages from a structure of give and take – both in the gemara and the mefarshim. A student will spend a lot of time deciphering a piece of Tosfot – due to all of the language problems mentioned above. His ability to summarize the Tosfot at the end of the deciphering and summarize in a brief sentence the main idea which the Tosfot innovates regarding the gemara is limited. Even if he does so, the gap between the importance of the job of deciphering and the essential content is immense, and the gap does not favor the essential part.


On the face of it, most of the sugyot that are studied do not have relevant significance to the life of the student, whether it is the sugya of “האשה נקנית בשלושה דרכים” or that of “עני וכהן חד שיעורא הוא”. Even when it comes to sugyas that have consequences הלכה למעשה, the student encounters the relevant aspect of them in the halachic literature. The discussion which takes place in the gemara is, as far as he is concerned, irrelevant, because he does not see in the rejected opinions, strained interpretations and the fundamental conjectures (סברות) any direct connection to the halachic case.

He therefore wonders – why not suffice with an efficient and extensive study of halachic sources?

Next: The Problem of Motivation


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:
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5 Responses to How NOT to Teach Gemara in High School, Part II

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

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

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

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

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

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