Learning the Talmud "bekhavruta" / "bekhavruse"

In addition to my monthly reading circles in four languages (Hebrew, Yiddish, Esperanto and Japanese) with like-minded people in Jerusalem, I started a few weeks ago a weekly reading session of the Talmud in the traditional Jewish manner (known as bekhavruta in Hebrew and bekhavruse in Yiddish) as a preparation for an intensive Talmud study at a haredi yeshiva in Jerusalem in my sabbatical in the next academic year.

Although both this traditional reading session of the Talmud and a conventional reading circle aim to learn (from) what is read, the former is distinguished from the latter in a number of significant ways: 1) the number of the participants is two; 2) you constantly question every wording as well as its supposedly hidden intention and argue about this with your partner; 3) you learn in order to implement what you learn in your daily Jewish life.

My haredi study partner is a good old friend of mine. Actually, I made friends with him since we first learned the Talmud together in this method for the first time about 15 years ago during one of my annual summer visits here (before I eventually moved here for good). Since then I also spent about four months in total at the same haredi yeshiva in Jerusalem where I am going to spend the next academic year, though not full-time. In these two experiences of learning the Talmud I was attracted neither to the language nor to the content, or to be more precise, I could understand neither of them.

I am still a baby in my level of proficiency in navigating "the sea of the Talmud", but compared to that really miserable state in the past, I seem to fare much better now. Although the language (i.e., Jewish Babylonian Aramaic) is still an obstacle, I can now follow discussions of the Jewish sages and even ask my own questions about them from time to time. In short, I can enjoy learning the Talmud now in this very lively manner. I can also feel that although the text was compiled about 1500 years ago, it reads like a living text in the traditional Jewish world. I have also noticed that this learning method requires a lot of concentration, as the reading of the text is not passive but highly active or maybe interactive. It also sharpens your mind.

This learning method is often said to be the most efficient one that we human beings have invented. But there is a seeming paradox here: How can two people learn without a teacher simply by arguing with each other? I myself have no clear answer to this question. But what I do know is that in this method you can always learn something new at each of the levels as you advance.

This weekly session is temporary, i.e., until I start my study at the above yeshiva. But I will probably find a partner to learn the Talmud and/or some other classical Jewish text bekhavruta / bekhavruse on a regular basis.


When I Lose My Temper Completely in Israeli Society

Although I consider myself a person of a placid temperament, there are times when I lose my temper completely in Israeli society and protest directly, often in a very harsh language, to the person who has caused this. The following are some of the typical contexts in which this happens:

  1. When someone treats me stereotypically: This is probably the single most disturbing context for me. I am especially sensitive to linguistic stereotyping. One of its commonest forms in Israel, though it does not happen to me so frequently, is to be spoken to in broken English by a non-native speaker of English who thinks that I do not understand Hebrew.
  2. When someone brings in his private things to the public sphere: This widespread childish behavior takes a number of forms in Israeli society. Someone can carry out a personal cellular phone conversation loudly in public. Someone can email a personal message in public instead of sending it only to the person involved. A bus driver can listen to his favorite music loudly without paying attention to the passengers.
  3. When someone keeps silent when he should say something explicitly in my opinion: I call this "Israeli silence". Many people here simply ignore my sincere questions. Many people do not have the minimal etiquette of thanking for what they requested and received. Many people do not apologize for not keeping what they promised.

Yes, I am fully aware that I am a difficult person to get along with. ;-)


Intermittent Fasting

At least for the past 15 years I have been taking two meals a day, that is, lunch and supper but no breakfast. I did not start this after reading some book, but I simply found myself following this habit of (not) eating instinctively as if I listened to the inner voice of my body. Although I run every weekday morning before work, I take in nothing but water afterward until I eat lunch around 11:30; I eat supper around 19:30 after daily swimming on weekdays. In other words, I fast for 16 hours every day and eat at the beginning and the end of the "window" of 8 hours. Actually, religious Jews also follow this habit on Sabbaths and holidays, but the problem is that many of them overeat.

Although many people seem to believe that breakfast is the most important meal of the day, I feel this habit of eating two meals a day suits me, every time I am forced to eat breakfast for some, mostly social, reasons and feel bad physically later. In short, breakfast destroys my day. Incidentally, academic conferences in Israel also destroy the rythm of my body, as they are organized by and for people who eat breakfast rather late in the morning and eat lunch between 13:30 and 15:00, which is too late for me, as I have to fast 18 hours instead of 16.

Several years ago I stumbled upon books by two Japanese medical doctors recommending this diet and explaining why it is good for the body. Being only a linguist-cum-runner-cum-swimmer, I cannot validate these explanations of theirs, but the fact remains that I feel much better physically without breakfast.

While reading a new book entitled Fitness for Geeks by Bruce W. Perry this week, I found a section recommending this diet. I also found it has a name ("intermittent fasting") and has followers among athletes. The author cited medical explanations about why intermittent fasting is good for the body, and they made sense to me. One of them is that our body is used to fasting but not to overeating, which characterizes many people in our age and seems to cause a number of modern diseases that were not known to ancient men.

In spite of all the physical benefits intermittent fasting seems to have, it may not be for everyone. And if you should decide to try it, please follow guidelines available on a number of websites about it and/or even consult your family doctor in advance. Like every new habit, you also have to adjust yourself to intermittent fasting little by little.