What Gemara Can (Theoretically) Provide Students, Part I


Learning a Foreign Language, Studying a Foreign Culture

“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there” – L.P. Hartley

One of the things often emphasized in liberal arts or humanities curricula is the importance of ‘broadening horizons’, and there are few ways more effective to do this than learning at least one foreign language. Such study provides the keys to learn about an entirely different culture, with aspects both similar and different from one’s own. This is to say nothing of the potential gains in learning ability from such study. It is a map to a ‘foreign country’, both literally and figuratively.

What most Orthodox Jews don’t recognize and admit is that the world of Chazal, the Rishonim and Acharonim is just such a ‘foreign country’. The vast literature of halacha, midrash and aggada was written in a largely unused foreign language and in cultural and historical conditions entirely different than our own. The entire structure of pre-Modern Judaism which informs our behavior and beliefs was not made by people who speak our language, in every sense of the phrase.

This is why the study and mastery of Rabbinic Hebrew is critical. Rabbinic Hebrew, that eclectic mix of Hebrew, Aramaic and other languages, was the lingua franca of the people who wrote our religious-cultural DNA. Translations of their work can help, certainly, but anyone who wishes to truly come as close as possible to ‘getting inside the head’ of our forbearers needs to ‘speak their language’. No other Jewish language – Yiddish, Ladino or Judeo-Arabic – is as critical to Jews who follow in the Rabbinic tradition (at least those who are not academics).

So what does this have to do with the study of gemara?

Well, that’s obvious – gemara is the largest collection of Rabbinic Hebrew and it is the most widely studied. There are few better sources I can think of for practicing and perfecting one’s knowledge of Rabbinic Hebrew. It’s generally a good idea to practice language skills by reading stuff you find interesting. Well, gemara has it all – stories and fables, legal analysis and mathematical calculations, ancient science and religious political intrigue. There’s something in it for everyone.

This isn’t to say that the ‘sink or swim’ way of teaching Rabbinic Hebrew is effective or can’t be replaced with other techniques. Gemara should, as I said, be the ‘real battlefield’, not the ‘training ground’ for studying language. Gemara instructors would do well to learn about the different methods of teaching language and apply them to Rabbinic Hebrew. Learning gemara – either in class or on one’s own – should not start before students have a command of the language. Otherwise it will be like sending someone to do laps in an Olympic pool when they only know to tread water – no real progress will be made.

NEXT: Logic


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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3 Responses to What Gemara Can (Theoretically) Provide Students, Part I

  1. fred says:

    eh. dont really buy it. first, gemara is not quite rabbinic hebrew. second, gemara language is similar enough to hebrew that with some basic vocab and basic grammar you can grasp gemara pretty well.
    i think the whole command of the language thing is overblown in the case of gemara.
    that said, sink or swim with the gemara, which is how it is traditionally done, is painful and dangerous. cant really think of a better way offhand tho.

  2. Shlomo says:

    Learn gemara to learn rabbinic Hebrew??? Do you perhaps mean mishna? Mishna is great for rabbinic Hebrew and culture, due to its relatively familiar language, straightforward presentation, and manageable quantities. A certain subset of Aramaic can be learned through gemara, but VERY inefficiently, IMO.

    Subject-wise, gemara includes “everything”, but so much of that “everything” is stuff we don’t really want everyone to study – embarrassingly outdated science and medicine, superstitions, non-PC judgments of all sorts of people, rabbis who behave in ways that are extremely hard to reconcile with our image of religious leaders. These are topics that expert gemara learners pass through with a half-cracked smile on their face. Is this really the overall image of Chazal we want to give?

    While language (specifically: Aramaic) is an issue in gemara study, I think an equally big issue is STRUCTURE. Nobody learns mishna, halacha, or machshava unpunctuated. Nobody learns chumash unpunctuated, except in preparation for their bar mitzvah. So why should the hardest subject also have the least amount of textual aids? Not only are the sentences harder to delimit, due to the unfamiliar language, but the concepts are much harder, and the overall branching structure of the sugya is hard to keep in mind. I think if a sugya were presented in an outline/tree form, with each statement and rejoinder on a different line, with appropriate indentation to signify nesting, gemara would be MUCH easier to learn.

  3. AIWAC says:


    Keep in mind that this a series on what gemara can THEORETICALLY provide students. I have not yet said anything about how one can PRACTICALLY do so. I agree with you wholeheartedly that the curriculum and the text would have to be more structured and organized, and designed to build SKILLS before INFORMATION.

    I am dead-set against the “sink or swim” method of teaching. I consider it one of the most inefficient and grossly overrated methods of teaching in existence. Combined with the lack of training, tests and/or skill building in most yeshivot, it is the greatest waste of human time and capital I can think of outside of twiddling your thumbs all day. As to what I believe can begin to help, that will have to wait until the end of the series.

    If you want, you are more than invited to write one or more guest posts on what one can gain or how to fix gemara education, and send it to me at opdycke1861 – at – yahoo.com.


    PS Your comment on the “outdated science &c” will be dealt with in the Negotiating with Tradition post.

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