How to Teach Gemara

The inspiring sucess of the Daf Hayomi study cycle shows that it can be done: Gemara can be a favorite subject for high school students - and Rav Melamed, bringing that form of study to life, explains how it should be done.

Rabbi Zalman Baruch Melamed

Judaism הרב זלמן מלמד
הרב זלמן מלמד
הלל מאיר

The popularity of the Daf Hayomi study cycle shows that Gemara can  be an exciting subject -  for yeshiva high school students, not just for their parents. We can and must effect a change in high school students' attitude to Gemara..

The wonderful impression left by the joyous celebrations of the recent completion of the Daf Yomi cycle are still vivid and fresh in our memories..

Many tens of thousands of Jews study Gemara every day by joining and  attending Daf Yomi sessions all over the world. Most of them study  on a basic level, not looking for varied interpretations  and abstruse commentaries.  And they love it.

It draws them. Like a magnet.

It seems  worthwhile to examine why the Daf Yomi form of study became so widespread, rather than the study of Mishna or Halakha. There must be something intrinsically attractive about it.

HaRav Tzvi Yehuda Kook zts"l, revered head of Merkaz HaRav Yeshiva in Jerusalem, explained that the Talmud was written down in a disorganized fashion, sort of like a recording of the conversations in a  Beit Midrash,   because it is actually forbidden to write down the Oral Law. The Talmud was only written down [by the Amoraim of the 7th century, ed.] because it began to be forgotten, and there was a real fear that the Torah would be lost to future generations.

However, said Rav Kook,  in order to remind us and emphasize that this is really supposed to be Oral Law, passed on from generation to generation by word of mouth, the Gemara was written as though it were live, as though it were being studied at the moment it is being read.

When one studies Gemara , he enters the study hall of its giants - Ravina and Rav Ashi, the Beit Medrash in which Rav and Shmuel, Abaye and Rava and all their contemporaries, the Amoraim, are sitting and debating, discussing and recalling the interpretation of the words of the Mishna. The learner is present while the exciting arguments swirl around him, questions and answers fly back and forth, each side backs up its statements - and finally,  the conclusions of the Gemara are reached.

And that discussion is ever lively, fascinating and interesting. The topics flow from one to the next, suddenly someone recalls what a Tannah or Amora once said - and that brings to mind other things he said, even if they are not connected to the current topic. Biblical verses are brought to back up statements and they lead to varied interpretations of the verse.  A stream of consciousness and memory in a battle of intellect, it is all there to be pored over by generations to come.

That is how a live Beit Midrash is run, and the Gemara was written to preserve that excitement. It is  not what is written there that is the main point, it is the study and debate that characterize oral study. The content is the main thing, not the text; the text is only an accompaniment to the study.

The Daf Hayomi brought that atmosphere back to life – the oral study of Torah – live study , not the perusal of dry words devoid of passion.

That means that the Yeshiva High School and Junior High School rabbis must take the time for introspection. Perhaps it is those who teach the teachers how to plan their lessons who need ask themselves – how can it be that Gemara study can attract ordinary, working Jews so strongly, and  get them to sit together and study after a long work day, but that many young students in yeshiva high schools have admitted that they do not like to study Gemara?

These youngsters are not at fault, the methods with which they are taught are at fault. Instead of learning Gemara as Oral law, concentrating on the content and only using the text for review and recall -  teachers spend their time on word study, on syntax – and very little time on the content and its presentation.

If they would teach the content first, orally, and read the text afterwards, the sessions would be alive and interesting. This way, they would also cover much more ground, their students would feel good about it , and know that they are being filled with spiritual riches.

One can teach a whole daf in one or two hours and thus complete tens of pages in a year. After four years in high school, a student will have learned hundreds of pages, dapim, will have become accustomed  to it and will naturally continue in that set pattern all his life.

The method I suggest will give the students both quality and quantity learning. It is not new. It has been tested throughout history and it succeeded.

If students dislike Gemara, and its study is not one of their favorite subjects – it is the teacher's failure. It is the method of teaching that has failed.

The test of success is whether the student likes to learn Gemara, not whether he knows the text. I am not talking about students who do not like to learn to begin with, but about those who like to learn and still rate Gemara at the bottom of the list.

The blessing said each morning before the Shma Yisrael prayer begins "You have loved us everlastingly" and ends "He who chooses His people with love". The Torah is the wondrous gift that the Creator gave us , and we must love it most of all.

Coming from this love, we set about learning it, teaching it. The way we learn must be one that makes the student love what he is learning. It is not too much to request that a teacher who cannot make Gemara a beloved subject find something  else to do.

There is no need to say that the source of all wisdom is fear of G-d and loving Him. We must approach Gemara study from a G-d fearing position.

But that is not the subject here, this article discusses the methodology of teaching Gemara. The blessing before reading the Shma in the morrning prayer  tells us that fearing and loving  G-d is the basis for everything, because the Torah is first and foremost G-d's Torah and we must approach its study with both love and awe.

From the Besheva weekly Hebrew newspaper. Translated by Rochel Sylvetsky.