How NOT to Teach Gemara in High School, Part IV

[Intro, Part I, Part II, Part III; once again, all bracketed comments and emphases are mine. The section on the curriculum, the teachers and method of teaching will be up next week. – AIWAC]


Gemara has competitors. We will denote three of them: secular studies, other Jewish religious subjects, leisure activity.

Secular Studies

In terms of the value and the (degree of) interest, in terms of the level of teaching, in terms of the level of “reward” – the weight they carry in the Bagrut and later in university, and in terms of the burden, most of the students have at least a few secular subjects whose weight (and subsequent importance) is greater than Talmud – and the amount of class time is less! This is known to all and there is no need to go into detail.

Tanach and Machshava

Precisely in successful institutions – the primary religious achievement in terms of relevance takes place in Tanach and machshava classes, and in seminars. This is also the case in youth movements: the study of Tanach and Mishna is encouraged, but no-one considers the option of setting up a regular gemara shiur on location. This is also something to which pre-Army mechinot contributed. They proved that an emphasis on emunah, Tanach and machshava has greater success in terms of study and benefit than the yeshiva curriculum.

As was mentioned above, one of the important reasons for this is the difficulty in study. In Tanach, machshava and halacha, the class arrives at a discussion of principled and essential questions at a pretty early stage of the study. This as opposed to gemara, where the stages of initial deciphering are very long, and the time dedicated to a discussion of principle and essence is less, both relative to other subjects, and also relative to the time dedicated to deciphering the gemara and the mefarshim.

Leisure Activity

What hasn’t been said about the damage cause by television?

In my opinion, the complaints about television in the present context are exaggerated. Television does not prevent the youth from dealing with many interesting, important and principled matters. Take, for instance, the example of counselors of youth groups or MADA (Magen David Adom) volunteers.

Generally, television enters where there is already boredom, and is not a cause of idleness to someone who has important and interesting things to do. The idlers of old used books and soccer in place of TV, and succeeded to slack off to the same degree. In contrast, we should remember that there is also important and positive leisure: volunteering, counseling &c. All of these squeeze out gemara from times of leisure entirely, encouraging more “attractive” activities even during the seder and the shiur.

Next: The School and the Teachers


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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7 Responses to How NOT to Teach Gemara in High School, Part IV

  1. fred says:

    ah, machshava, emuna. two largely useless or harmful and nontraditional subjects. they remain largely undefined, with little textual moorings, and most of its study is little more than postulating. this is especially true of the nebulous emuna, which is something like reading some dreary barely comprehensible medieval jewish philosopher, and whatever modern religio-political position your yeshiva abides. talk about harmful to the teen/young adult mind!
    and tanach? eh. usually tho not always seems more suited for lightweights.

    now i know you are just a translator, but the sense i get is that the article is positive about emuna. where do you stand?

    also, he has an interesting position on tv. he may have a point, tho tv does raise the bar some — it can be inherently enjoyable, and not just in the breach.
    as i recall, you defended tv. what say you here?

  2. AIWAC says:

    “now i know you are just a translator, but the sense i get is that the article is positive about emuna. where do you stand?”

    Depends how it is taught. In most high schools, where it is a bagrut subject, it is indeed useless. However, there are alternative ways of teaching it, and often the “informal” lessons of teachers and counselers are more effective than the dreary, irrelevant study of Jewish medieval philosophy. I happen to support the direction of the following alternative curriculum of emuna (even though I don’t think it’s comprehensive ENOUGH):

    “and tanach? eh. usually tho not always seems more suited for lightweights.”

    Even if what you say is true, you’re still proving R. Dr. Brandes’ point about intensive gemara study only being suited for a certain (middle-weight? heavy-weight?) cross-section of students.

    “as i recall, you defended tv. what say you here?”

    I have little to add to what I’ve already said, and I’m happy to see that I’m not the only one who thinks TV is a (not always negative) symptom and not a cause.

  3. fred says:

    …or, you can make gemara palatable for the middle/lightweights…

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

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

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

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