Independent Study of the Talmud

Now that I finished all the talks I was supposed to give this summer in academic conferences here in Israel and abroad, and the month of Elul, which is the beginning of a new academic year in the yeshiva world, started this week, I resumed my study of the Talmud this week. But this time it is independent as I cannot continue it at the yeshiva. During the week I prepare one page of the tractate מכות by myself, and on Friday I have two weekly sessions with my study partners. In the first session I study that page with a new partner who has a similar academic background and a similar level; we study in bekhavruse in its accepted sense of the word. In the second my second partner, who is FFB and far more advanced than I, explains the same page, so this is more like a shiur.

This new challenge of learning the Talmud with no yeshiva environment has already shown me two important things: 1) the benefits of a yeshiva as a learning and supportive environment; 2) the study tools I seem to have acquired through an intensive formal study of the Talmud at an Ashkenazi haredi yeshiva.

The greatest benefit of studying at a yeshiva is, of course, that we can learn directly from rabbis who themselves learned directly from other rabbis in this unbroken chain of the traditional Jewish teaching and learning. Another, no less important, advantage is the atmosphere of the yeshiva. We are surrounded daily not only by inspiring rabbis but also by like-minded fellow students, which produces a supportive environment, which in turn helps us persevere in this highly challenging intellectual pursuit of ours.

The main purpose of my spending one academic year at Ohr Somayach was to learn how to learn the Talmud independently after leaving it. Having struggled with a new page of a new tractate, I think I have achieved this goal in overall terms, though I can always strive for a higher level. Now I can, for example, read unvocalized Aramaic texts of the Talmud quite fluently, punctuate them, anticipate questions, and follow the logical flow of arguments that can stretch over pages. What I have attained in one year may be comparable to what I have attained in an intensive swimming lesson.

I am especially indebted to Rabbi Dovid Kaplan of this amazing yeshiva in Jerusalem for this feeling of mine. He has inspired me beyond words both as a Torah scholar but also as a human being with his deep knowledge and unwavering faith. When I started learning there, I was not sure what would await me. But what Rabbi Kaplan wrote in the introduction to his own book The Ohr Somayach Gemara Companion has come true: "Talmud study is a fascinating, challenging, stimulating, thought-provoking, wholesomely addictive activity which has experienced and enjoyed by millions of Jews throughout history. So to you, dear reader, we say: jump into the "sea" of Talmud and allow yourself the exhilarating experience of being swallowed up by the waves. But be aware - once it takes hold of you, it will never let go."