How Not To Teach Gemara In High School – Some Personal Reflections

I’m a very smart guy. I’m fairly certain that even people who disagree with my blog posts would agree that I at least make cogent, knowledgeable arguments. I’ve read tons of material and held many an informed conversation with people several years my senior. Yet my inability to truly penetrate or gain from gemara study has been a constant source of pain and misery for me.

It was perhaps my misfortune that my first exposure to gemara study came when I had just come to Israel at the age of 11. Here I was, struggling mightily to learn a second language, and here I was expected to learn a third, one which was not in everyday use. Self-study was particularly awful; I could at least study prepared material with my father or a tutor, but I had no tools to deal with sugyot entirely on my own.

I distinctly remember that the one time I did succeed in doing so, the teacher made a point of telling the class how easy the sugya was. I was crestfallen. There I was, so proud of myself for finally conquering a mountain, only to be told it was a pitchers’ mound. This would set the tone for things to come.

My gemara-studying abilities sputtered and improved in fits and starts for years afterwards. I could never get the hang of it. I would find myself in seder boker covering maybe a third or a fourth of the mar’e mekomot while it seemed that everyone else was close to the finish line. No matter how hard I tried, I kept feeling like I was second-rate, an inferior Jew. All my ability to swim in the sea of Machshava or history or Tanach was as nothing compared to my inability to crack the Talmudic code, as it were. I cannot begin to express the feelings of dejection, hopelessness and worthlessness I felt whenever I tried, and failed, to overcome these problems.

Yet the great irony is that I don’t hate gemara per se. I hate the horribly restrictive way of teaching it, the insistence on a specific, inefficient method good only for geniuses (because only geniuses can overcome the inefficiencies). I hate that no-one has given any thought for how ba’alei batim, even brilliant ba’alei batim, can be taught to learn and enjoy gemara.

Most of all, I hate that even now, when I am completely free of any institution, that I lack the courage to learn gemara in a way that is best for me, whether it’s using Steinzaltz for the beginning stages or using my own way of understanding text. I have no patience for the present methods of instruction and study, and I know that I could swim in the Talmud if I let myself go my own way. Yet my psyche still shrieks that I must do things as they were done in Volozhin.

So the gemara just sits there, a permanently closed book to me.

NEXT: Why I think Gemara can be an amazing educational tool


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 – Some Personal Reflections

  1. Moshe says:

    I emphasize with your distress at not being able to ‘connect’ with the Gemara, something I suffered form myself, albeit at a younger age. Gemara can be very enjoyable. Since ‘knowing how to learn’, means not only knowing how to ‘decipher code’ but also means receiving a whole new unique way of thinking, It’s learning is must involve a subjective experience via immersion, or submersion. The difference would be akin to the student of Spanish culture who actually lives in Spain, rather than merely reading textbooks. Allow me to share some life-experience tips which I have gathered over the past 20 years of learning Gemara. I do not know you or what level you are at. This is for anyone who happens to stumble on this.

    1. There are two main difficulties in learning. Conceptual and Textual. Some Sugyas and Masechtos are more ‘choppy’, meaning are harder to read, while others are ‘clean’ easy to read, the words just flow. Some Sugyas and Masechtos are conceptually difficult, hard to grasp its build-up etc. while others are much easier. For example, Nedarim, aside for the end, deals with relativity easy concepts, though the text is almost impossible to understand without the Meforshim. Yevamos, on the other hand, might be difficult conceptually, but is, if I may say, written very well. If someone older, with a college degree asks me what to learn first, i will recommend Yevamos over Nedarim, for I am sure he will grasp all the different concepts and ‘relations’.

    2. Get a Chavrusa. Besides for the ‘two knives sharpening each other’, it is important express your thoughts vocally, or if a Chavrusa is not an option, write it out or talk it quietly to yourself. Your thoughts become much more define and crystallized. In Yiddish we say אז עס פעלט אין הסברה, עס פעלט אין הבנה or as I recently read in the WSJ in the name of Bill Buckly “”If you don’t read you can’t write. If you can’t write, you can’t think. If you can’t think, then someone else will do your thinking for you.”…”

    3. Rely on your common sense. Everything should eventually make sense on a basic level of understanding. If it makes sense, move on. If it doesn’t make sense, figure it out. Do not try to think and scratch your head that perhaps you ‘don’t really understand’ or that you are merely a shallow thinker. I read once a letter by someone that after learning a Sugya, the questions that might come up after sitting and ‘thinking’ are minuscule compared to the questions that have already come up (and might have already been answered) while you have been ‘inside’ the Sugya. You gain much more by turning the page. Gradually, your ‘criteria’ for ‘making sense’ will become wider and deeper. ריבוי הכמות מכריע את האיכות.

    4. Tosafos is כשמו כן הוא, Tosafos. It is meant to add into the Shakla V’tarya of the Sugya. It is easier to read and understand than Gemorah, has less Aramaic words and follows the structure of the Gemara’s way of reasoning. Learning Tosafos can be an important stepping stone to being comfortable with learning Gemarah. Other advantages are, that it gives you some ‘awareness’ of the Sugya’s significance in Shas, it quotes parallel Sugyas and sought of puts the Sugya through a basic ‘litmus test’.

    5. Don’t get disheartened when you think that you don’t have a ‘Derech-Halimmud’. Anyone who has some minimul understanding and has learned a significant amount of Dafim, automatically develops a ‘Derech-Halimmud’. Sometimes I wonder if ‘Derech-Halimmud’ is a buzz-word used to convey someone’s importance by spending time by so-and-so Rosh Yeshiva, implying that unless you were also there you are lacking a fundamental dimension. It is not so. While learning by a Rosh yeshiva is very important for Mesorah etc, when learning alone you gain by kind of ‘letting the Gemara speak for itself’ without the Sugya being framed in some type of lomdishe narrative. Along that note, avoid positing any Krumme Brisker-style abstractions. Unless you are Reb Chaim or someone is thoroughly knowledgeable of Shas and Poskim, your efforts most probably will lead to twisted thinking.

    6. Absolutely avoid using a Shteinzaltz or Artscroll. From experience, none of your skills will become developed, and you will miss out on the ‘geshmak’ of learning, which eventually will become the thing that draws you back to the Sefer. If you need a translation, use a dictionary.

    7. Never gloss over a word. You might ‘get’ the Sugya but you have missed out on another ‘building block’ towards your goal. They say that the advantage of learning the Maharsha is that you either understand what he is saying or you don’t, there is no fooling yourself.

    8. Reading the Pirush of “Kehati” can provide much background to understanding the basic concepts of the Sugya or the quoted Mishna. Alternatively, use the Pirush in the ‘Rambam Le’am’.

    9. ‘Zitz-Fleisch’, the ability to sit and focus for very long times, until ultimately earning the designation ‘Bentch-kvetcher’ is something that doesn’t come overnight, it takes many hours, days, weeks, months and years. You should start short and gradually increase with time.

    10. Learning the ‘Rosh’ after the Sugya can be very beneficial. It kind of summarizes the main points and opinions. It also can give you a sense of ‘closure’. Alternatively is learning the Rif or Meiri, which has its own advantages.

    11. The Gilyon Hashas of R’ Akiva Eiger can be instrumental in making a seemingly drab Sugya exiting. Aside from his ‘Klotz Kashes’ that are important to take in account, he sends you scattering over the Masechta, of Shas and sometimes over a vast spread of Seforim, from Teshuvos to Pirushei Tanach, giving you some ‘treasure hunt’ form of excitement.

    12. Eventually, after much learning, you will begin to anticipating the next ‘bend’ in the Sugya, when Rashi would comment, when the Tosafos will ask a question. Then, you will know that you have been successful in your pursuit, the Gemara has left an imprint on your mind. מחיל אל חיל.

  2. fred says:

    i mostly agree with your sentiments in the post, while not generally as extreme.
    i disagree with a number of moshes points, which i hope to get to.

    howd your father pull it off?

  3. Shlomo says:

    There are different ways of being smart. I remember one chavruta, with whom I was constantly lost when it came to discussing different combinations of the rishonim’s understandings of amoraim’s understandings of tanaim. But on the one sugya which required spatial thinking (on tumah), I blew him out of the water. Of course, the sugyot that use my type of thinking are relatively rare.

    I think Moshe’s advice is good for many people who are learning gemara full-time, but very counterproductive for someone whose circumstances do not allow the same amount of focus.

    • AIWAC says:

      You’ve pinpointed the problem – gemara programs are almost exclusively designed for full-time yeshiva students, not for other types of people (who are no less “smart”).

  4. Sholom says:

    Learn from the Steinzaltz and Artscroll with absolute abandon, if you find that Rashi is not helpful. I would only give yourself a limited period of time to understand a particular Gemara relying solely on a dictionary and Rashi. In yeshivas Rebbeim are there to tell you what Rashi assumes you know, but you very often do not. Artscroll and Steinzaltz accomplish this to a greater degree then Rashi (sacrilege!), but largely because they built on his accomplishments, in addition to the legions of meforshim after him.

    Learn the Gemara Marking system (you can find a pdf of it online), to annotate the tzuras ha-daf. (This is perhaps the greatest advice I can give you). Then chazer it over “inside” the text, once you’ve achieved a requisite understanding of the topic. Much of the pleasure of Gemara study is in the review, but especially if the underlying structure of a given sugya has been elucidated for you via understanding the pshat, and annotating the Gemara appropriately.

    Having a solid grasp of the pshat of the Gemara is far and away the most important thing. Higher levels of learning are entirely secondary–better to understand the pshat, and learn to learn it “inside” even if you relied on Artscroll initially, than to not get through half a mesechta in your lifetime, because you decide to adopt the “break your teeth method.”

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