Pitfalls in Learning Gemora

Getting to the roots and fixing them

 

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TABLE OF CONTENTS

 

1. READING SKILLS

a

 

Speed and accuracy

b

 

Seeing what is written

c

 

Recognizing letters

d

 

Does not know how each letter looks

e

 

Confuses letters because they are of similar shape

f

 

Confuses letters because they are of similar sound

g

 

Reading letters

h

 

Cannot recognize letters fast enough

i

 

Cannot vocalize fast enough

aa

 

Reading all the letters

ab

 

Ignores some letters

ac

 

Reading letters in their correct sequence

ad

 

Interchanges consonants

ae

 

Forming letters into words

af

 

Cannot combine letters to form words

ag

 

Unaware of the letters which comprise the word

ah

 

Does not remember the sound of the word.

ai

 

Reading words accurately

 

 

Confuses word which look alike

 

 

Confuses words which sound alike

 

 

Understanding words

 

 

Confusion whether some words are or are not prefixes/suffixes

 

 

Confusion between various words formed by one set of letters

 

 

Confusion between the various meanings of one word

 

 

Roshai Taivos

 

 

Understanding sentences

 

 

Reads without thinking

 

 

Cannot form a sentence from the words

 

 

Gets stuck in the middle of sentences

 

 

Does not look ahead to see where to pause or stop

 

 

Seeing what is written

 

 

Mis-reads because of inaccurate word-identification

 

 

Mis-reads because of superficial understanding

 

 

Mis-reads because of a pre-conception

 

 

2. USING LANGUAGE

 

 

Expressing thoughts

 

 

Is unable to put a thought into words

 

 

Can express himself, but not clearly

 

 

Organization of thought

 

 

Cannot analyze and classify thoughts

 

 

Cannot sift thoughts

 

 

Development of ideas

 

 

Cannot develop an idea into a clear statement

 

 

Cannot develop a statement into a mental picture

 

 

Cannot generalize a statement

 

 

3. THE TALMID'S ATTITUDE TO TEXT

 

 

Appreciating words

 

 

Under-estimates the author

 

 

Over-estimates himself

 

 

Basing the meaning on the text

 

 

Explains the meaning of the text, but does not try to base it on the text.

 

 

Allowing sufficient time to understand the text

 

 

Is in a hurry

 

 

Thinks he cannot understand more

 

 

Thinks there is no more to understand

 

 

Experience with literature

 

 

Cannot follow a new author's style

 

 

4.FOCUSING THE TALMID'S ATTENTION

 

 

Concentrating on the Text

 

 

Chronic fatigue

 

 

Fatigued and has swollen glands

 

 

Shallow absorption

 

 

Inability to focus onto the page

 

 

Vision problems

 

 

Eliminating distractions

 

 

The talmid's mind wanders

 

 

Getting to work on the text

 

 

Cannot face a big tract of text

 

 

Sticking to the topic

 

 

Gets involved in side-issues

 

 

Asks too many questions

 

 

5. INTERPRETING WORDS AND PHRASES

 

 

Understanding words and phrases

 

 

Uses words and phrases without knowing what they mean

 

 

Realizing the special meaning of words and phrases

 

 

Cannot see the meaning in the words

 

 

Cannot see the power of the special operator-words

 

 

Adjusting for the style of Loshon Hakodesh

 

 

Translates word-for-word

 

 

Cannot work out how to punctuate the text

 

 

Reads too much at one go

 

 

Seems to skip points

 

 

Analyzing words and phrases for their essential principles

 

 

Cannot develop the essential idea

 

 

Cannot extract the halacha from a text

 

 

Understanding how to apply principles in other situations

 

 

Cannot re-apply concepts

 

 

6. BEING OBJECTIVE

 

 

Changing opinions

 

 

Feels committed to a set view

 

 

Sensitivity to questions

 

 

Cannot see the question because of the answer

 

 

Equanimity

 

 

Feels guilty

 

 

7. ATTAINING CLARITY

 

 

The drive to attain real clarity

 

 

Does not attempt to attain real clarity Will not commit himself to a clear answer Forgets quickly

 

 

Sugya analysis

 

 

Confuses sugyas

 

 

Cannot get into a sugya

 

 

8. OTHER PROBLEMS

 

 

Split-level intelligence

 

 

Virtual Brain-damage

 

 

Depression

 

 

Feelings of non-achievement

 

 

Re-start problems

 

 

 

 

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READING SKILLS

 

Most people who are learning to learn can read quite well. But is such reading ability sufficient for advanced learning?

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SPEED AND ACCURACY

The first sentence of Ashrei comprises twenty-five consonants and seventeen vowels. If you say it in two seconds, you are reading at a rate of twenty-two consonants and vowels per second. A large page of Rashi print -- for instance a page of Ramban or Rashba -- may contain 5000 letters. If you can scan the page for a specific reference in five seconds, you are reading at a rate of 1000 consonants per second, adding vowels and at the same time recognizing them as words, considering whether or not they are the required reference and deciding to continue scanning through the text. Clearly, the level of reading proficiency required for learning Gemora, Rishonim and Acharonim is much higher than the level needed for davening.

 

The ability for fast as well as accurate reading is not needed simply to enable the talmid to get through a text quickly. When learning, many processes must take place in a short time. All works on advanced talmudics are printed without vowels: the reader must supply the vowels as he reads. Therefore, glancing at each word, he has to consider all possible combinations of vowels and select the one which makes the most sense. If one word may be read in several ways, the choice will depend on the meaning of the rest of the sentence. But other words in that sentence might also be able to be read in several ways. So, to make a decision, the reader will have to work through all the possible permutations. Even then, the final decision may depend on the meaning of the entire paragraph or text.

 

An accomplished talmid supplies the vowels to the consonant text almost automatically. He can concentrate on understanding sentences and paragraphs without having to think too much about letters and words. But the slow reader must consciously work through all the possible combinations of vowels -- an agonizingly laborious process. Furthermore, inaccurate reading turns a text into a maze of mistakes and cryptic messages. Who can fathom the frustration, the despair of a talmid who reads both slowly and inaccurately?

 

Accurate reading requires several distinct skills:

 

recognizing letters

reading letters accurately

reading all the letters

reading all the letters in their correct sequence

forming letters into words

reading words accurately

understanding words

understanding sentences

 

These skills should require no conscious effort by the talmid, who must be free to concentrate on interpreting and analyzing what he is reading.

 

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Seeing what is written

Unlike taking a photo, reading is not a straightforward process. The image which enters the eye goes through very complex processing by the brain. Some of this processing is conscious, but much of it is subconscious.

 

In fact, though a talmid may be competent in all the skills needed for accurate reading, he might still, without realizing it, make serious mistakes. A person can look at a word and read it incorrectly, yet be convinced that he is reading it as printed. He may misread it repeatedly. He is seeing a word that is not thand not seeing the word that is there! Break the illusion and ask him to spell out the letters; break his preoccupation with the word and redirect him to the letters: then he will readily see his mistake. For accurate reading, it ithe mind records faithfully what the eye sees.

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RECOGNIZING LETTERS

While seemingly simple, letter recognition is actually a complex mental process. One glance must analyze the shape of each letter, identify it and assign it a sound.

 

Every letter has a unique shape. In order to read accurately, the talmid must be able to identify each letter by its shape, rapidly and with certainty. Just knowing the sounds of letters is fine for sounding as if one is reading well, but in order to read for understanding, it is essential to assign even similar-sounding letters their unique identity.

 

An intelligent talmid can at first advance by merely possessing a small vocabulary and knowing the sounds of letters. He will assign meanings to similar-sounding words by making calculated guesses. But, as his passive vocabulary increases, he will eventually be unable to cope with the myriad of similar-sounding words, to none of which he can assign a meaning with grcertainty.

 

There are three reasons why the talmid misreads a letter. Either he does not know how each letter looks, or he confuses the letter with one of a similar shape, or he confuses the letter with one of a similar sound.

 

Test: Ask the talmid to name each letter of a random-order list of the א/ב. Ask him to go through the list faster and faster.

 

If the talmid cannot identify a letter, see the following problem The talmid cannot identify all of the letters of the א/ב with certainty .

If the talmid mistakes one letter for another letter, note the substitute letter, then:

if the substitute letter is of a similar shape, see the following problem The talmid confuses letters because they are of similar shape

if the substitute letter is of a similar sound, see the following problem The talmid confuses letters because they are of similar sound

 

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The talmid does not know how each letter looks

Problem: The talmid cannot identify all of the letters of the b/) with certainty.

 

One might think that this problem is rare since all talmidim know how to daven, but it is surprising how many talmidim are not sure of their b/).

Also, mature students who are being introduced to Torah are sometimes given only a minimal acquaintance with the b/) before being taught to daven. Of course, such talmidim do need to be taught to daven as soon as possible so that they can fulfill their daily obligations. But their lack of familiarity with the letters remains a latent deficiency which later impedes their ability to study Torah.

Hints: Fill in the gaps in the talmid's knowledge using the exercises printed in a standard reading primer.

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The talmid confuses letters because they are of similar shape.

Problem: The talmid mistakes one letter for another because they are of similar shape. For example, the following letters can be confused:

 

Hints: Train the talmid to distinguish between letters he confuses by pointing out the differences between the shapes of the two letters.

 

Use the exercises in a standard reading primer for the correction of common mistakes. To produce exercises for the correction of unusual mistakes, ask a rubber-stamp manufacturer to mount block letters on individual holders. Use these to print individualized exercises. Or use a word-processor to print out customized charts.

 

An older talmid can learn Hilchos Sofros on the shapes of the letters. Checking tefilin or mezuzah parshios will help train the eye to appreciate the significance of each part of each letter.

 

A talmid can acquire thorough practice by tutoring a young child, using one of the standard reading primers. Responsibility for teaching correctly will put the talmid on his toes, making him more sensitive to his own mistakes. Furthermore, in an honorable way, he goes over basic reading exercises many more times than he would have patience for when doing them by himself.

 

Look out for evidence of poor eyesight. If the talmid complains that he cannot see the letters properly, he may need glasses or a new prescription. But, some people, even though they can see well, cannot judge sizes or shapes well. Such people will need more intensive training to distinguish between the letters they confuse.

 

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The talmid confuses letters because they are of similar sound.

Problem: The talmid mistakes one letter for another because they both sound similar.

See the previous sections.

This confusion may be due to a slight hearing defect. Poor sensitivity to specific bands of frequencies may make it hard for the talmid to distinguish between letters whose sounds fall within those frequencies.

If any hearing defect is suspected, the talmid should be referred to an audiologist for testing.

 

It is important to distinguish between a hearing defect and a listening defect. A hearing defect implies a defect in the actual working of the auditory system. A listening defect implies that the person is not trained to listen accurately, even though his auditory system is working perfectly.

 

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READING LETTERS

The previous section dealt with recognizing isolated letters. This section deals with recognizing the constituent letters of words while reading a text. Reading consists of recognizing a succession of letters as the talmid looks along the line of the text. As well as identifying each letter, the talmid must also note its relationship to other letters on the line, particularly those immediately before and after it.

 

Furthermore, reading must usually be rapid, allowing little time for identification. Admittedly, a talmid's maximum reading speed should be limited by the rate at which he can identify each letter accurately. Yet, all too often, the talmid feels compelled to read faster than his optimum speed. So the speed of reading and the presence of other letters can interfere with the talmid's accurate identification of letters.

 

When reading, the talmid looks at each letter and decides which letter it is. When reading slowly, he has time to double-check his decision. But when reading quickly, the identification is instantaneous and there is no time for a double-check. If the talmid can accurately identify each letter with absolute certainty, he does not need to double-check and his reading at high-speed will be as accurate as his slow reading. But if he cannot accurately identify each and every letter, the lack of double-checking will make his reading less accurate.

 

When a talmid is not certain about the identity of a letter, he usually knows that the letter is one of a group of letters, but he is not sure which one of the group it is. For example, he might mistake a "sof" for a "hay"or a "chet" because all three letters look alike. Or he might mistake the "sof" for a "sin"ׂ or a "samech" because all three sound alike.

If the talmid is almost sure that the t is sof, then he will usually identify it correctly. But there will be times when he will select one of the other letters from the group h x t (of similar shape) or from the group s & t (of similar sound). The greater the doubt, the greater the chance that he will choose the wrong letter. Similarly, the faster he reads, the less time he will have to double-check, and so the greater the chance that he will choose the wrong letter.

 

Sometimes, the talmid's personal desire to cover ground makes him read at a faster rate than that at which he can properly recognize letters. Since it is easier to supply letters, vowelling, or even words, from the imagination than to read accurately, he might provide his own supplements to what he reads so as to maintain the speed he wants.

 

Sometimes, the talmid can recognize letters quickly, cannot activate his vocalizing muscles at such a fast rate. If he understands what he is reading from the appearance of the letters on the page, this handicap will not affect his learning, though it will limit hspwhile dave. But if he understands what he is reading, by subconsciously listening to his own vocalization, this handicap can also slow down his understanding of the text.

 

Test: Ask the talmid to read a difficult text, e.g. from Selichos or Kinos. Ask him to read the passage faster and faster. Note the types of mistakes he makes, how the speed changes with each repetition, and how the quality changes as the speed increases.

 

Hints: If the first reading is inaccurate, see the section on Recognizing letters (page 19).

 

If many letters are omitted, a convergence deficiency might be indicated.

 

If many letters are omitted and added, see the section on Reading all the letters (page 25).

 

If the speed of reading increases, but quality degenerates as the speed increases, see the section on Recognizing Letters (page 19).

 

If the speed of reading increases to a limiting speed after two or three repetitions and then does not increase at all, though the quality remains good, see the section on Fast Vocalization.

 

If the reading remains good but the speed barely increases, the talmid might be unsure of the identity of the letters and so does not say each word until he checks and re-checks himself. See also the section on Word pronunciation models.

 

If the talmid reads progressivelslower with each repetition, see Method B (Improving Reading Confidence).

 

If the talmid reads progressively slower with each repetition, see Method A (Improving Basic Reading Skills,) and Method B (Improving Reading Confidence) to take off the pressure and allow him to be relaxed while reading.

 

If the reading contains elements of more than one fault, deal with each fault in turn, then repeat the cycle until each fault is eliminated.

 

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The talmid cannot recognize letters fast enough.

Problem: Even though he can identify each letter accurately on its own, the talmid makes many random mistakes while reading. The faster he reads, the more mistakes he makes.

 

The talmid is reading too fast in relation to his ability to recognize the letters. But if he slows down, the reading becomes too slow for his comfort.

 

Hints: See Method A - (A Method for Improving Basic Reading Skills.)

 

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The talmid cannot vocalize fast enough.

Problem: The talmid reads accurately but slowly, even though he can identify letters quickly.

 

Hints: Select a difficult text, e.g. from Selichos or Kinos. Ask the talmid to read the text faster and faster, timing him each time with a stop-watch, noting down the times. His speed should increase until, after about six or seven repetitions, he will not be able to go any faster. However, ask him to continue trying to read even faster. After some more repetitions, he will suddenly be able to go faster and his speed will increase until he again will not be able to go any faster. The sudden improvement in speed indicates that he has learned to speed up his vocalization.

 

This process can be repeated until the talmid vocalizes as fast as he can properly recognize the letters. If he reads faster than that, accuracy will suffer.

 

If the vocalization does not speed up, see the section on Word pronunciation models (page 28).

 

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Reading all the letters

In English, mani wurds kan bi mispeld, yet still be understandable. But the identity and position of each letter of a word of Loshon Hakodesh affects its meaning. Therefore, when reading Loshon Hakodesh, every letter must be read accurately and in its correct sequence.

 

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Omitting letters

Problem: As the talmid reads, he ignores some letters.

 

Test: Ask the talmid to read several times through a list of alef-bais as quickly as possible.

 

If, as his speed increases, he skips some letters, this indicates that he is saying a first letter, he is looking at the second letter and then proceeds to say the third letter, leaving his processing of the second letter incomplete. The talmid lacks discipline in concentrating on each letter in turn and processing it fully.

 

Note: This problem might indicate an inefficiency in the working of the eye-muscles. If the problem persists or if the reader otherwise complains of any discomfort while reading, an optometrist trained in convergence-deficiencies and visual therapies should be consulted.

 

Hints: To correct the problem, ask the talmid to go through a text, reading every second or third letter as fast as he can. the talmid should not point at the letters as he reads them, but he should rely only on his eyes to select the correct letters. repeat this until he consistently says the correct letters. then proceed to other texts until he always selects the correct letters.

 

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Reading letters in their correct sequence

Because the letters which compromise a word carry so much meaning, the position of each letter in a word is far more critical in Loshon Hakodesh than in English. If a letter of a word of Loshon Hakodesh is positioned incorrectly, the meaning of the word is drastically changed.

 

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Interchange of consonants

Problem: The talmid interchanges consonants. For example, in the following pairs of words, the talmid reads one instead of the other:

 

This is a common dyslexial problem. Usually, the talmid is aware of which letters he tends to interchange.

 

While learning, the talmid is more likely, subconsciously, to convert a word which he does not know, into a word which he does know, or to convert a word which seems to be out of place into a word which seems to fit better.

 

Hint: The talmid should always try to read over important texts several times and look out for suspect words.

 

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FORMING LETTERS INTO WORDS

After correctly identifying each letter and noting its correct sequence, the letters and vowels must be combined to form words.

 

The words of Loshon Hakodesh can be far more complex than English words. One letter can be the equivalent of one or two English words. So the individual letters which comprise a word play a more active role than in English. Therefore, when reading Hebrew, the reader has to strike a balance between combining the letters to form a word and retaining awareness of the identity of the constituent letters.

 

Furthermore, the meaning of a word cannot be defined precisely until the consonants have been assigned vowels. But most talmudic books are printed without vowelling. The reader must supply the vowels himself. To do this quickly and efficiently, he should have a memory-bank of word-pronunciation models which will enable him to easily fit suitable sets of vowels to each word.

 

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The talmid cannot combine letters to form words

Problem: The talmid can read each letter, and he can even read together the individual letters of a word and say them as one word, but he does not understand the word as a unit of meaning. The letters remain isolated entities.

 

This is a stage through which everyone passes.

 

Hints: The talmid should study grammar and read as much as possible. He can start by reading books written in simple Hebrew.

 

The talmid should study a good English translation of a Hebrew text and relate the translation back to the original. (The Metsudah Siddur is excellent for this.

 

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The talmid is not aware of the letters which comprise the word.

Problem: When the talmid sees a word, he does not realize the significance of the individual letters. He sees a word, but he takes nof its letters. A certain combination of letters becomes a symbol for a certain word. When he sees another word containing the identical, or a similar, combination of letters, he reads it as if it that word. For exam, any threeletter word beginning with the letters מש he might read as משה

 

This is common among those taught English by the `look-say' method. According to this method, the reader is taught to read and recognize words as distinct, integral units; he is not taught to read the individual letters.

 

Hints: The talmid's preoccupation with the word as the unit of reading must be broken. One method is to compile lists of those letters which act as prefixes and suffixes and to attach their various meanings (see Machberet Tejaun). The talmid should learn the lists and analyze words into roots, prefixes and suffixes until he becomes sensitive to the letters which comprise a word.

 

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The talmid does not remember the sound of the word

Problem: The talmid does not remember the vowelling of a set of letters and so has to work out the vowelling of every word each time he reads it. even though he has read a text many times, he still reads haltingly, as if he had never read it before.

 

Reading a word for the first time is a slow process, as we work out the pronunciation. The second time goes faster when we recognize the word and remember how it is pronounced. When we meet a second word with the same basic spelling, we recognize the pattern of its vowel-sequence, using the first word as a model. We can now see how to pronounce the second word at a glance, without working through the sequence of letters and vowels.

 

For example, if we meet the word בָּרוּך for the first time, we work out that it is pronounced `boh-rooch'. The second time we meet it, we do not need to work out its pronunciation because we remember how we read it the first time. If we now see the word כָּרוּך we instantly recognize the pronunciation pattern `oh-rooch' using the first word as a pattern. So, without bothering to work out the actual vowelling, we can see that it is to be pronounced `koh-rooch'.

 

This ability to form word-pronunciation modeis very important to learning. The meaning of a word depends upon its pronunciation. When reading a text printed without vowels, the reader has to decide which set of vowels will fit each word to make the most sense. With a full memory-bank of word models, matching the letters of a word can be almost instantaneous. But without a memory-bank the reader needs to consciously go through all possible combinations - a long and tedious process. And if a sentence includes several words which must be processed, working through all the permutations becomes a difficult task.

 

Test: Ask the talmid to read through a text as fast as he can, three or four times, timing him on a stop-watch each time.

 

There should be a gradual speeding-up, finally, by the fourth time reading about twice as fast as the first reading. Very little increase in speed, or even a slight decrease, indicates that the talmid is not learning from the previous readings. He is not reading the pronunciation patterns of the words as he reads them.

 

Hints: The talmid must learn to remember the pronunciation pattern of each unfamiliar word as he reads it. Ask him to read each word while exaggerating its pronunciation. Every part of the mouth should work hard - lips, tongue and throat. He should say each word loudly and distinctly. This is best done in private as the unusual facial expressions this causes can be inhibiting in public.

 

The talmid should daven loudly and clearly, which might necessitate his going to shacharis half an hour earlier than usual to allow plenty of time.

 

He should read Targum Onkelos clearly, saying each word as a single unit.

 

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READING WORDS ACCURATELY

The talmid has to be able to identify words accurately and speedily.

 

The talmid might confuse words which look alike or which sound alike. He will then remember a word as being one of a group of words which all look or sound alike. When he needs to recall a word, the word which comes to mind might be any word from that group. Confusion might be so acute that when he sees a word, instead of reading it objectively, he will read it as one of the other words from the group.

 

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Confusion between words which look alike

Problem: The talmid confuses words which look similar. For example, in each of following groups of words, the talmid might confuse one member of the group with another member of the group.

 

Hints: The talmid has to learn to appreciate the significance of each letter.

 

He should keep a notebook of all the confusing words with their vowelling and meanings.

 

He should learn dikduk. If he cannot undertake a rigorous course, he should at least learn to distinguish between root, suffix and prefix. (See Method D - in depth analysis of select words.)

 

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Confusion between words which sound alike

Problem: The talmid confuses words which sound alike. For example, in each of the following groups of words, the talmid might confuse one member of the group with another member of the group because they all sound alike.

 

Hints: See the previous section (page 28).

 

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UNDERSTANDING WORDS

Even though a talmid maybe able to read and understand Loshon Hakodesh perfectly, he may still find it difficult to give the correct meaning to various words. By its very nature, the language of the Gemora can sometimes be both ambiguous and obscure. To the talmid who knows little of Hebrew or Aramaic grammar, the Gemora presents a baffling array of letter-and-word permutations, and he is forced to remember each word as an isolated item.

 

Faced with this task of having to decide what a word means, several aspects can cause confusion. Either a word might be the equivalent of one English word, or because some letters might be prefixes or suffixes, the word might be the equivalent of several English words. Also, one set of letters can form any one of several different words, depending on the context. Furthermore, one word can have a whole range of meanings, the precise equivalent of which will depend on the context. And of course, there is the problem of working out roshei taivos.

 

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Confusion whether some letters are or are not prefixes/suffixes

Problem: The talmid is confused about whether all the letters form the equivalent of one English word or whether some letters are prefixes/suffixes. For example, in each of the following groups of words, one set of letters can be read in several ways, depending upon whether or not at least one letter functions as a prefix or suffix:

 

Hints: See the previous section.

 

The talmid has to keep an open mind and consider all possibilities and see which makes most sense in the context. Sometimes, several meanings can make good sense and sometimes, if one meaning is adopted, the whole text must be re-interpreted. These alternatives may be the basis of different explanations of Chazal or arguments between meforshim.

 

Seeing how the meaning of a text changes according to alternative meanings of one word, can be a good subject for class discussion.

 

The talmid should try to write as much as possible. He should try to take notes of shiurim and then write them over afterwards - all in Hebrew and Aramaic, using the words of the Gemora and meforshim as much as possible.

 

The talmid should copy out passages. He should first look at the text, write out a few words, then look back at the text to check that those words are written correctly and proceed to the next few words.

 

A more advanced talmid can read through page after page of Gemora, aiming to get only a most superficial meaning. This exposes the talmid to a large amount of vocabulary and tto consider rapidly different combinations of alternative meanings.

 

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Confusion about the various words foone set ofletters

Problem: The confuses the various words formed by one set of letters. For example, in each of the following sets of words, one set of letters can be read as several different words, depending upon the vowelling assigned to the letters.

 

Hints: See previous section.

 

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Confusion over the various meanings of one word

Problem: The talmid confuses the various meanings which one word can have. For example, each of the following words can have any one of the various meanings noted, depending upon the context.

 

See previous sections in this chapter.

 

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Roshei taivos

Problem: The talmid cannot decipher roshei taivos.

 

Hints: See previous sections in this

 

The talmid should keep a small note-book and jot down all the roshei taivos with their explanations.

 

As consolation, the talmid should know that even talmidei chachomim sometimes have trouble figuring out roshei taivos, and some seforim are famous for their puzzling roshei taivos.

 

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UNDERSTANDING SENTENCES

Once the reader knows the translation of each word, he has to be able to combine the words into an intelligible sentence.

 

He has to think about what he is seeing as he reads, be able to re-arrange in his mind the separate ideas which each word represents, and read enough of the sentence to be able to get an idea of what message is being related.

 

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Reading without thinking

Problem: The talmid reads without thinking about what he is seeing.

 

Perhaps the talmid learned to daven before he learned how to translate. He therefore became accustomed to reading without thinking.

 

Hints: Reverse the process. The talmid should try to translate as he davens and think of what he is saying. The Metsudah Siddur is very good for this. He should read interesting books written in Loshon Hakodesh, to encourage him to understand what he reads.

 

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Combining words to form sentences

Problem: The talmid cannot combine the individual words to form an intelligible sentence.

 

This is quite usual because it is a stage through which everyone passes. Usually, it is just a matter of time until the talmid suddenly realizes how words fit together to form complete sentences.

 

Hints: Reading simple children's books written in Loshon Hakodesh may be useful. When a parallel English version is available, it can be used to give help if needed.

 

For help in learning to understand Rashi and Tosefos, the talmid should try learning Mishna Brura. The vocabulary and style are the same as those of the Commentators, and each phrase refers to a specific point of halacha. This limits the possibilities of what each paragraph can mean. At the same time, there is a definite motivation to get the correct meaning, as each phrase is relevant to halacha.

 

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The talmid gets stuck in the middle of translating sentences

Problem: The talmid starts translating a sentence but finds that he cannot get past the first few words.

 

One language cannot be translated into another language word for word. Translation is achieved by first reading through the original, understanding it, and then re-thinking it into the second language. So, before translating a sentence, the talmid must read enough of the original to be able to understand it. Only then can he start to translate. However, some talmidim try translating each word in turn, as they read it, even though they have not read enough of the sentence to be able to see what the sentence is talking about. This problem is aggravated when a word can have several meanings - especially common when the text is printed without vowels. A final selection can then only be made when the rest of the sentence is understood.

 

Hints: When translating, the talmid should always read on, beyond where he first wants to stop, to see if the continuation affects that first part. Similarly, when translating a text, it is advisable to first read through the whole text to get a general idea of the subject.

 

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Looking ahead to see where to pause or stop

Since the basic sentence structure of Hebrew differs from that of English, the reader needs to look ahead to see what is coming up before he can decide where to pause or stop. If he does not do that, the reader might pause or stop in the middle of a phrase. Therefore, when he then tries to understand what he just read, he finds that even though he can translate each word, somehow it does not make sense.

 

For example, in English, the subject usually precedes the verb. Therefore, the reader expects to be able to stop after he has read the verb and understand who the subject is. For example, "And after that Rabbi Yehuda said to Rabbi Yosef..." When reading this phrase, the reader can pause after said and expect to understand who is speaking.

 

However, in Hebrew and Aramaic, the subject often follows the verb. Therefore, in the Gemora, the phrase quoted above might be written, "ואחר כך אמר ליה רבי יהודה לרבי יוסף". So the reader will be tempted to pause after the word אמר and look back to see who is talking.

 

Problem: The talmid reads and translates accurately, but pauses or stops in the wrong places. He therefore mixes-up sentences and cannot make sense of them.

 

Hints: Always look ahead to the next few words before stopping and trying to translate. Be aware of the fact that the syntax of English is different to that of Hebrew and Aramaic, so do not try to read them as if you are reading English.

 

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SEEING WHAT IS WRITTEN

Reading is a complex mental process. The reader has to identify what his eyes see and produce an intelligible message. To get a message from what he sees, the reader has to make a whole series of judgments. Ideally, these judgments should be completely objective, the reader interpreting purely what he sees. But the reader's desire to produce a message sometimes sways his judgment; what he interprets as being read is not what he actually saw. However, because the error is subconscious, he really thinks that he sees his version of what is written.

 

The reader might misinterpret the text because he reads inaccurately; or he may have read it correctly, but it did not make sense to him; or perhaps he had a preconception which swayed his judgment.

 

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The talmid misreads because of inaccurate word identification

Problem: The talmid does not read accurately and so cannot make sense of the text. Consciously or subconsciously, he rationalizes his mistakes into some sort of message.

 

Test: Check the talmid's accuracy of reading, as he reads.

 

If reading is inaccurate, the talmid cannot hope to understand the text. Obviously, this problem has to be tackled at its roots and he has to be taught to read accurately .

 

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The talmid misreads because of superficial understanding

Problem: The talmid reads too fast and does not appreciate the significance of each word. He decides what it means without really understanding the text and reads his own opinion as if it were the true text.

 

Hints: The talmid must learn to slow down and read each word objectively before forming an opinion. What does each word mean? What does it contribute to the final message of the sentence?

 

The talmid can try writing down each word separately with its literal meaning. Then he should make those separate translations into an intelligent message, rearranging the words as necessary.

 

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Misreading because of a preconcep

Problem: The talmid cannot accept the words of the text as they stbecause they donot seem to make sense.Therefore, consciously or subconsciously he reads the text as a version which is more acceptable to him.

 

Hints: The talmid must understand that not every text can be understood on the first reading. Many texts need to be re-read many times before they can be mastered. The talmid's task is to tackle each word in turn, objectively and with an open mind. Sometimes, sentences mean the opposite of the meaning suggested by the first reading. Sometimes, a sentence is not intended to make sense and the reader should be aware of it; if he tries to correct it automatically, he will miss the point of confusion.

 

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USING LANGUAGE

Language is the vehicle of thought. A talmid who does not have sufficient command of a language cannot express his thoughts fully, organize them, or develop them.

 

A thought can only be as precise as the language used to express that thought. Unclear understanding of words will cause correspondingly fuzzy thinking and vague ideas. Organization of thought also requires precise classification of concepts and clear delineation between them.

 

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EXPRESSING THOUGHTS

If a talmid cannot express himself clearly, he may be having difficulty putting his thoughts into words, or he may have difficulty making himself understood.

 

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The talmid is unable to express a thought

Problem: The talmid does not know how to say what he thinks. He rounds off vague statements with phrases like, "You know what I mean" Stumbling over words, searching for the right one, he might become agitated from the frustration of not being able to express himself properly.

 

Hints: The talmid needs to increase his vocabulary, learn grammar and practice using them. He should read as much as possible and discuss his learning with various people. Pocket-size electronic dictionaries and thesauruses are available which he can use to build-up his vocabulary.

 

He should learn with a talmid or junior chavrusa who will force him to explain himself clearly.

 

The rebbe should try to draw the talmid's thought's out of him. He should not 'fill in' when the talmid is searching for the right words, but allow him to think the matter through. Nor should he be satisfied with a "You know what I mean."

 

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The talmid can express himself but not clearly

Problem: The talmid does not make himself understood. He knows what he wants to say, but it does not come out as he thinks it does. For example, he thinks that he gave the correct answer to a question, but when the rebbe gives a different answer, he says "That's what I meant!"

 

When there is a breakdown in communication, either the talmid does not know the precise meaning of each word or he has a `language' of his own.

 

Difficulty in communicating may be a problem particularly for a talmid who has grown up in a tight circle of family or friends who know each other's way of thought and therefore do not need to express themselves fully in order to convey their thoughts. It may also be a problem for someone who had immigrated when young, or who grew up bi-lingual. Though he mayknow two languages well, he might be master of none, and be unable to express himself perfectly in either.

 

Hints: Ultimately, it is up to the talmid to correct his own deficiency. He should read as much as possible and discuss his learning with others as much as possible. He should talk to people outside his circle of friends or relatives, who do not know his slang and are not used to his catch-phrases. He should find a junior chavrusa who needs to have the Gemora explained clearly and precisely.

 

Meanwhile, the rebbe should resist the temptation to correct every incorrect word or phrase, as this can become unnerving for the talmid. Better that the rebbe try to understand what the talmid is trying to say. The rebbe should then repeat to the talmid how he understood what the latter said, to confirm that is what the talmid really means. At the same time, this will show the talmid how to phrase the idea correctly.

 

If the talmid continues to think that he really did express himself correctly, the rebbe should ask the talmid to write out his answers. The rebbe will then be able to pin-down the talmid to what he actually wrote.

 

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THE ORGANIZATION OF THOUGHT

The talmid also needs to be able to analyze and classify his thoughts and problems. And he needs to be able to sift through his thoughts to select those which are relevant to the subject he is dealing with.

 

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The talmid cannot analyze and classify thoughts

Problem: The talmid does not think clearly. He cannot analyze his own thoughts and isolate their various components. For example, the talmid might be trying to express several ideas at once or several problems might be bothering him and he may be trying to solve them by asking about them as if they were one problem.

 

Hints: In this case, the talmid needs to learn how to think about his own thoughts. When learning with his chavrusa, or when in shiur, he should try to dig up those feelings of uneasiness and dissatisfaction which indicate that something is bothering him. If he cannot analyze it by himself, he should tell his rebbe or chavrusa that something is bothering him, even though he does not know what it is. Then, together, they can go over the sugya in detail to try and find the 'bug'.

 

The talmid should not be afraid that he is wasting anyone's time or that he is making a fuss over a minor point. These clarifications are the very essence of learning and often lead to great insights into Torah which are of benefit to both the one who asks the question and the one who answers it.

 

On his own, it is hard for the talmid to analyze his thoughts and problems. One way for him to see what is going on in his own mind is for him to write down the progression of thoughts and ideas in his mind. He should write down every stage of the sugya as he understands it. This may sound tedious and laborious - it is! But this is a remedial process. It will be worthwhile for the talmid to invest a few hours thinking about his own thoughts, analyzing them, learning to organize them and seeing for himself where he is going wrong.

 

 

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The talmid cannot sift thoughts

Problem: The talmid does not answer to the point. He introduces extraneous material when trying to answer a simple question. For example, when asked to explain a simple Rashi, he will start to explain various shitos in the Gemora, or start talking about 'havo aminah' and 'muskonah' instead of giving a clear translation.

 

Hints: To help the talmid learn how to recognize what is relevant to the subject and what is not, it is important that the rebbe insists that the talmid sticks to the point when answering a question. The rebbe should try to explain why extraneous material is not relevant, when such material is introduced.

 

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DEVELOPMENT OF IDEAS

The talmid has to be able to develop an idea into an organized statement which clearly expresses the idea and be able to see the picture of whatever is going on in the sugya, in his mind's eye, as a reality.

 

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The talmid cannot develop an idea into a clear statement

Problem: The talmid thinks that he understands a point or knows an answer, but he cannot express it. He may feel a question or answer deep within himself, but cannot develop it into an organized statement. What he does say may be only a hint or small part of he really wants to say. This deficiencanbe accompanied by feelings of frustration and agitation.

 

Hints: To help the talmid develop the ability to define a vaguidea into a clear s, the talmid should talkover his feelings with his rebbe or a chaver and together they should try to draw the ideas.

 

He can now see how ideas are developed by the Acharonim and try to follow their pattern of thought.

 

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Cannot develop a statement into a mental picture

Problem: When the talmid reads a statement, he acts like a word-processor with a built-in dictionary. He understands the translation of what he has read, but it is a flat, two-dimensional idea. He does not see the reality of the situation. Working through a sugya is a matter of manipulating the text.

 

This problem is a major reason why a talmid does not enjoy his learning. When he sees the reality of the case, he can become emotionally involved with it. He can see the necessity and effect of much of the points raised by the Rishonim and the effects of the differences in their interpretation. He can begin to care about how the difficulties are resolved.

 

The Ramchal lists the ability to imagine as the prime skill when attempting to understand a statement. The skills of understanding words and being able to make deductions take second place to it!

 

Hints: Ask the talmid to tell you a story. What is happening? Who is saying what to who? Describe the scene! The talmid should sit back, relax and try to see the story taking place in his mind's eye. For this, a good day-dreamer has a head start!

 

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Cannot generalize a statement

Problem: When the talmid reads a statement, he cannot see the generality of the idea. When he reads about a chair, he sees the word as a chair without being able to understand that a chair is really only a device made for a person to sit on, and so the statement would also apply to a stool, a bench and anything which fulfils the same function as a chair.

 

Hints: Ask the talmid to describe some common, everyday objects in general terms.

 

For example, what is a table? Is it a piece of wood with legs? So is a chair! Does a table have to have legs? Some tables are suspended from the wall! Is it something to eat off? So is a plate!

 

A table is a platform supported at a convenient height above the ground, dimensioned to be a working surface.

 

What is a pen, a pencil, a kettle or a fork?

 

 

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ATTITUDE TO THE TEXT

 

Many people have no idea how great the difference is between an ordinary person and a real Godol. They think that a Godol is someone like themselves but a bit cleverer than they, and who knows quite a lot of Torah. Therefore they judge the significance of his words with the same yardstick as they use to judge everyone else's. They read his writings as if one of their friends had written it.

 

It is often an eye-opener to show such people how much a major posek usually is able to recall:

 

a.

the whole of Shass - Bavli and Yerushalmi- with all the small print at the margins and the back and with all the Rishonim and major Acharonim;

 

b.

the entire Tur and Shulchon Aruch, also with all the Commentaries and fine print in the margins and back;

 

c.

the major volumes of Sha'alos and Tshuvos;

 

d.

all the major works on hashkofo.

 

 

All this he has to know clearly and in depth. In terms of quantity alone, this is a staggering amount of material, well beyond the parameters of the secular world. And this is the minimum!

 

It is clear then, that the great Talmidei Chachomim are on a completely different plane from that of the ordinary man-in-the-street. We cannot compare the amount of thought and knowledge which goes into what we write to the tremendous amount of thought and knowledge which goes into the writings of a real Godol baTorah.

 

Similarly, there is a major difference between a Rishon and an Ach. Rav Chaim of Volozhin explained that the great Acharonim knew a tremendous amount of Torah, but they knew it like we know 'Ashrei' by heart. We can start at the beginning and work through to the end, and perhaps we can even go backwards from the end. However, we cannot say which letter will be above the other in the siddur. In contrast, the Rishonim knew their Torah as if it was all laid out on a screen in front of them so they could scan it all in any direction. This is a completely different order of knowledge.

 

Similarly, the Amoroim have a higher order of knowledge than the Rishonim, and Tannoim than the Amoroim. And so on back to Moshe Rabbainu, who had the highest order of knowledge of any man.

 

All this has to be impressed upon the talmid. As long as he regards the words of the Gemora, Rashi, Tosefos or any of the great authors as if he or one of his friends had written them, he has no incentive to think into them or to try to fathom their depths.

 

Thus, the talmid has to have due respect for the words he reads. He must realize that every letter and every word counts. Every nuance can be justified. And to understand the text well can take a long time. Certainly, he cannot hope to attain a real insight into the words of the Gemora and other sifrei kodesh if he underestimates the significance of what is written, or if he doesn't allow himself sufficient time to think into the words. Like making a cake, the right ingredients have to go in and it has to bake for the right amount of time.

 

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APPRECIATING THE WORDS

The talmid must appreciate the words of the text and not underestimate the intelligence of the author. Similarly, he must not over-estimate his own intelligence. The talmid may indeed be a genius of the highest order - but so might be the author of the text, and the author probably knows more than the talmid does!

 

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The talmid underestimates the author

Problem: The talmid feels that the author did not really express himself properly. He imagines that he knows what the author was trying to say, but that the author chose the wrong words, and didn't really express himself properly.

 

The talmid might re-phrase the text `so that it makes better sense', or he might `round off' the meaning - "What he really means is...". Or he might find words or phrases which are extraneous - "They don't fit in!"

 

Hints: The rebbe has to show the talmid how each letter is significant. The talmid imagines that the text is imprecise because he does not understand it. When he really understands it, he will see how each word and letter fits into place. In fact, one sign that he does not understand a text is that he cannot justify the necessity for every word and letter.

 

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The talmid over-estimates himself

Problem: The talmid thinks he knows better than the author

 

In this instance, the talmid has an over-inflated ego. He is not prepared to concentrate on trying to understand what anyone else has to say - be it a Rishon or be it his chavrusa!

 

He will not be able to "hear" what their words imply until he approaches them with sufficient humility and respect.

 

Hints: Here, the rebbe must gently deflate the talmid's high opinion of himself. This can be done by gently pulling apart the talmid's conclusions and showing him how he is wrong. But care must be taken not to undermine his self-confidence too much nor to cause him to become depressed. Scrapping wrong ideas is just as much part of learning Torah as is developing correct ideas, and both processes are fulfillment of this most wonderful of mitzvos.

 

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BASEING THE MEANING ON THE TEXT

When Ravina and Rav Ashi wrote down the Gemora, they did so in such a way that, by dealing with the language correctly, the reader will be able to rebuild the discussions of the Amoraim. At first, this process is dif. But, as the tgains experience, he will eventually be able read the text and rebuild the conversations of the Gemora for himself.

 

A regular sit-back-and-listen is usually based on treconstituted conversations of tGemora. The maggid-shiur has already done the initial phases of the lainess and builds his shiur on that. Therefore, the talmid receives no training regarding those stages of dealing with the text of the Gemora.

 

However, the basic developments of the shitos of the Rishonim are all dependent on their ways of developing the very basic stages of understanding the text. And the lomdos of the Acharonim and the development of p'sak halacha are all dependent upon the views of the Rishonim.

 

This means that a talmid who cannot work directly on the text to develop his understanding of the Gemora is lacking the most essential stage of his ability to develop eventual independence, both in understanding lomdos and in understanding halacha.

 

A talmid who learns just by listening to shiur, without relating the shiur firmly to the text, might appear to progress very solidly. Yet he is failing to develop the most basic skills. As a result, he can continue in his learning for many years, and all his friends and rebbeim might be very happy with his progress. However, in reality, he is living in a dangerous world of only virtual success. He runs the risk of having his bubble burst, and, deep down, he might be aware of this problem and so suffer from pangs of depression and lack of confidence and fulfillment.

 

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The talmid does not bother to base his understanding of the Gemora on the text of the Gemora.

Problem: The talmid explains the text without actually depending on the text. He might quote the text, but that is only to show from where on the page the explanation comes.

 

This is an extremely difficult problem for the rebbe to detect. Such a talmid can attain top marks in tests! The rebbe should look out for the talmid's tendency to use the text only as a marker for anchoring his explanation on the page.

 

When the rebbe asks the talmid to show him from where in the text he is getting his information, the talmid will usually become confused. Often, he will only be able to point to a vague area of the page or quote a whole passage of the text. He will not be able to translate the text in such a way that he talks out his explanation from the words of the Gemora. Neither will he be able to translate the exact meaning of the Gemora.

 

Hints: Once the bubble is burst, the talmid will need to face the situation realistically. He will probably need to renovate his whole approach to learning. He might need to start from the very beginning again, and learn how to derive p'shat from the text.

 

He should not become depressed and start worrying that he wasted all his previous years. He has acquired a lot of knowledge which will be a valuable asset when he eventually gets on the right track.

 

The sefer Darchai HaTalmud gives classic guidance on how to learn a passage of Gemora (see Method E - Learning Gemora) 

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ALLOWING SUFFICIENT TIME TO UNDERSTAND THE TEXT

By their very nature, some matters are difficult to understand. Torah can be understood at many levels. Some parts can be understood at a simple level. Other parts can only be properly understood at more difficult levels. Some Tosefos, for example, can be understood at a simple level quite easily, but to understand them at a deeper level may be much more difficult. Other Tosefos might need hours of concentrated thought before they can be understood even at a superficial level. Therefore, it is impossible to set a speed for learning. Even the greatest of Gaonim sometimes have to grapple with a problem for very long periods!

 

True, some ideas do come in a flash of inspiration, but most need to be worked on. But some talmidim are always in a hurry. Others imagine that whatever insight they are capable of will come quickly, and after that they are just wasting their time. Others believe that they will understand whatever there is to understand immediately and whatever they don't get in that instant of effort, they will never get.

 

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The talmid is in a hurry

Problem: The talmid consistently sets himself too short a time to fully understand a text.

 

Perhaps the talmid feels that he must cover a certain amount of tein the time allotted; or perhaps he picked up the habit of reading/skimming through texts quickly from his reading of secular books; or he may find it all so boring that he is not interested in going slowly - he wants to get it over with as soon as possible - the next part might be more interesting; or maybe he suffers from nervous impatience which can itself be due to insufficient sleep, a tendency to nervousness, social pressure, eating too much sugar, or drinking too much caffeine, e.g. from coffee, tea, coke, etc.

 

Hints: These different problem situations imply correspondingly different solutions.

 

A talmid who rushes through his learning is not enjoying the actual process of learning. He derives pleasure only from the end result: acquiring information or covering ground. Therefore he needs to be taught how to enjoy working out the problems of the Gemora. When doing a crossword puzzle or a jigsaw puzzle, each stage of completion brings its own little bit of satisfaction, even if the entire puzzle is not yet completed. So, too, the talmid can learn to enjoy the successive stages of developing his understanding of a text.

 

The talmid has to understand that while it is important to cover ground, it is more important to achieve clarity, even if this slows him down. The reward for learning comes from the effort put in; not from the number of pages turned.

 

The rebbe must try to convince the talmid to spend more time on the text than the talmid considers necessary. He should show him how to re-analyze the text objectively, each time he goes over it and how this deepens his level of understanding. Eventually, he will realize how superficially he first understood it.

 

There should be a minimum of pressure on the talmid to go fast. He should have some time when he can relax and spend as much time as he wants on a topic so that he can become used to exploring different approaches to a text. - "learning needs tranquillity of spirit!"

 

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The talmid feels he cannot understand more than he now understands.

Problem: When the talmid feels that he is "taking too long", he gives up trying by labeling the text as being "too hard for him". He concludes that whatever level of understanding he has attained already is the deepest he is capable of.

 

The talmid feels that there is nothing to be gained by going slower or by going over the text more often.

 

Hints: It is worthwhile for the rebbe to sit with the talmid and show him, if only once, that he is capable of deeper levels of understanding.

 

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The talmid feels that he understands as much as there is to understand

Problem: The talmid feels that someone as clever as he is, or who knows as much as he does, or has been learning for as long as he has, will quickly understand all there is to understand. So, for example, he feels that by the time he has read through a Tosefos three or four times, he understands all there is to understand.

 

Hints: The rebbe must gently deflate the talmid's over-inflated ego. He should show the talmid how much more there is to derive from the text than the superficial understanding he previously attained.

 

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EXPERIENCE WITH THE LITERATURE

Compare the average Western talmid's exposure to English literature with his exposure to literature written in Lashon Hakodesh and Aramaic. By the time he is eighteen he has been reading English fluently for many ye. He has been reading for many hours each day. He has read a vast rangof material - from comics to novels, from newspaperto textbooks - written by a whole host of authors. In contrast, he has been reading Hebrewfor far fewer years. He hasspent very little time each day reanew material - and much of the actual reading is done by the teacher. The material has been limited to Siddur, Chumash, Mishnayos and Gemora. So, a talmid from a Western country entering Yeshiva Gedola might have the reading level of 7- or 8-year-old Jerusalemite.

 

Reading a wide range of literature is not only important for developing basic reading skills, but also for training the reader to understand various styles of writing and to tune himself into the author's way of thinking. If the talmid's reading experience is very limited, his approach to the text will be rigid. If the style of the text does not conform to what he is used to, he will not know how to interpret it. Without reading experience, he will not know how to analyze a new style.

 

This inability to adapt to a new style will be particularly acute when the talmid has to study the writings of the Rishonim and the Acharonim. The concise language of talmudic literature can rarely afford words for mood or expression. The reader must rely on his experience in interpretation to follow the fast-moving cut-and-thrust of a complex argument which might involve radical variations of style as different authors are quoted.

 

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The talmid has difficulty in following the style of an author who he has never read before

Problem: When the talmid has to study a text whose style is not what he is used to, he finds it hard to work out what the text means.

 

Hints: The talmid should be encouraged to broaden his reading. A large selection of Torah literature in easy Hebrew is available. Topics include biographies of tzaddikim, stories of Shabbos and the festivals, history, and historical studies. For more advanced talmidim, there is the whole range of Torah classics - midroshim, ethics, responsae, applied halacha, encyclopedias, etc. The talmid can try just browsing through the seforim in the local bais hamedrash library.

  

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FOCUSING THE TALMID'S ATTENTION

 

 

The talmid needs to be able to concentrate on what he is learning. He has to be able to concentrate on the text, keep his mind free of distractions, get to work on the text, and not be deflected from the topic being discussed.

 

One point which needs to be noted is that of the unique kedushah of Torah. There is a real repulsion between the kedushah of Torah and the tumah of immorality. In practical terms, this means that in order to attain real success in learning Torah and to develop a real ability to absorb Torah and to keep one's mind on it, the talmid has to keep his mind clean and free of immoral thoughts. Undoubtedly, there has never been a time in history when the orthodox Jew has been so under attack from the forces of immorality as in our times, be it from the fashions of the street, the advertisements plastered everywhere, or from the general cultural climate. At the very minimum, a talmid who sincerely wants to be able to get his mind into Torah, should make sure that he keeps his mind out of anywhere where there is a risk of exposure to immoral thoughts. This includes newspapers, novels, films, mixed groups, certain areas of town, or even standing on street corners.

 

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CONCENTRATING ON THE TEXT

Not being able to concentrate for long periods does more damage than most people realize. Ideas and concepts can be developed, molded, refined and brought to fruition only by intensive and continuous thought. Rabbi Chaim Shmuelevitz ztl. once compared this to boiling a kettle of water. It may take ten minutes to boil the water, but if you keep turning the flame on and off, the kettle can be on the fire for years and it will never boil. Every time the flame is turned off, the water cools down! The `Chazon Ish' is quoted as saying that it took him three hours to `get into learning'.

 

If the talmid loses concentration, he might become tired or even fall asleep. But even if he stays alert, he still might find it hard to concentrate and absorb the material.

 

Happy is the one who comes here with his learning in his hand. Baba Basra 10b

This can be explained as follows: The main learning which makes an impression is the learning one learns through writing. Because of this the Chachomim are called Sofrim (scribes).

Maharsha, Chidushai Agodos

 

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The talmid experiences chronic fatigue

Problem: A feeling of tiredness comes over the talmid as soon as he opens a sefer. He feels very weary, yet if he changes to a different subje, the weariness disappears and he finds himself wide awake.

 

The feeling of fatigue might be due to any of the following reasons:-

 

The talmid might not be getting enough sleep.

 

He might be worried about problems - home, shidduch, family, finances, etc.

 

He might have a medical or psychological problem.

 

He might be bored; have no interest in the subject.

 

He may never have learned to concentrate.

 

It might be an involuntary reaction caused by a feeling of despair; he `knows' that he will never understand it! So he `switches off'.

 

Hints: This feeling of weariness can be alleviated by putting the head down and resting for a few minutes. When he gets up, the talmid will feel brighter and he can use that feeling of freshness to get interested in the text.

 

The initial feeling of tiredness can also be minimized by adopting a physical attitude of alertness - sitting up straight in the chair or standing by a shtender - and by learning aloud.

 

The talmid can always try to learn with a chavrusa who likes to argue, or to tutor a junior, which puts the senior talmid on his toes. Or he can start a project which involves writing, so that the activity of writing keeps him alert. He can write his own commentary on the Gemora, or compile his own chiddushim, compile a list of the halachas derived from the text, or he can devise some other project within his sphere of capability.

 

The talmid should aim for a goal which is well within his ability. For example, instead of aiming to know an entire chapter of Gemora by heart, he should work on being able to repeat the main points of one page at a time, or being able to summarize one page of Tosefos by heart.

 

It helps if the topic is interesting, preferably applicable to modern, real-life problems.

 

The main break-through in learning to concentrate on the text comes by learning to regard the next word or problem as a challenge. This involves localizing the area of attention and limiting the scope of inquiry. No-one can solve a crossword puzzle by considering the whole puzzle at one go! Usually a person tries to solve each problem, filling-in whatever words he can. Then he goes back to the problems he could not solve at the first attempt, to see if the filled-in letters can help him. So he continues, using the answers to help him answer the unsolved problems, until he has completed the entire puzzle. Similarly, a text cannot always be fully understood at one go. Often, the meaning has to be built up word by word, phrase by phrase, level by level.

 

Therefore, the talmid can start working on the text at a level which requires a low degree of alertness. For example, he can start to divide up the text into phrases with penciled vertical lines, or he can work on the literal translation of the text. So, gradually, he can get himself more and more involved in the text and as he gets more interested, the tiredness may be forgotten.

 

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The talmid suffers from fatigue and has swollen glands

Problem: The talmid continually feels very tired and has swollen glands in the throat.

 

Also suffered by athletes in training, tcondition seems to be caused by a build-up of stress. The symptoms seem similar to mononucleosis, but the blootest is negative. The condition may last weeks or evemonths.

 

Hints: The talmid should go to bed very early for a few nights. If he feels better, he should get rest until he feels all right. If hedoes not feel better, he should seek medical advice.

 

Especially in Israel, this condition might be caused by dehydration, so the talmid should check that he is drinking sufficient water.

 

Sometimes the condition disappears after taking a long walk.

 

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The talmid has shallow absorption

Problem: The talmid cannot recall what he has just read or heard. He cannot see obvious implications. His mind goes blank when asked a question.

 

Perhaps the talmid never bothers to understand what he is reading, because for years he has been davening without kavana. He reduces reading to a mindless, purely mechanical process, unassociated with thinking. When he begins to read, he `switches off' his brain!

 

Shallow absorption can be due to lack of sleep.

 

Or it can be due to worries and pressures on the mind.

 

Or the talmid's mind might be on something else: a different sugya, a hobby, a book, a song. While reading or listening to the shiur, his mind slips into another interest and he finds that he has spent his time concentrating on the other topic.

 

Perhaps he never gives himself time to allow the information to sink in. He may need to spend a quarter of an hour on a topic before he begins to `tune in', to get an idea of what is going on. Or he may need to go over and repeat a point as many as fifteen times before he starts to grasp the significance of what he is learning.

 

Hints: Try to be aware of how much time you need to warm up and get into learning. Understand that going over a topic time after time is a normal part of learning - the biggest talmidei chachomim do it!

 

Sometimes, just a quick glance over the text before leaving it, is enough to increase retention significantly.

 

Similarly, another quick look-over the next day will help him retain the memory of what he learned. Repeating this every day will enable him to retain all he learns as the days, weeks and months go by.

 

The talmid should try to train himself to immediately understand what he is reading. Let him try as follows. He should read through a short text, then close the sefer and try to recall what was just read. First he should try to recall the general topic; then try to recall some details; then try to remember more details. It may take quite a while to `squeeze out' all that can be recalled, but most people are amazed at how much they absorbed from just a quick glance. (This is the basis of speed-reading methods which, even though they are not recommended for learning, do demonstrate how a person can train himself to read and absorb very quickly.)

 

The talmid should try to find out for himself how long he takes to `tune in', or how many times he has to repeat something before it begins to `sink in'. The Amoraim would repeat a new halacha forty times to be sure that they would not forget it.

 

Forcing oneself to understand a difficult point when tired, or to read with understanding when extremely tired helps to train the mind not to `switch off' when reading.

 

The talmid should read as if reading a legal contract or an examination paper. He should read not only to derive the simple meaning but also to think one step beyond that, to the implications of what is written.

 

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The talmid cannot focus on the page

Problem: The talmid cannot focus his attention on the text. The print may waver in front of his eyes and he may not be able to distinguish the words properly, (not due to faulty eyesight).

 

This is sometimes experienced by talmidim who have left learning for a while.

 

Hints: The talmid should persist in his learning. If he cannot concentrate on difficult studies, he should try something easier.

 

A talmid can help to ensure that he does not suffer from this problem by learning every day.

 

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Vision problems

Problems with vision are a major source of distraction while learning, since learning is, nowadays, so text-intensive. Often, the talmid is not aware that a vision problem is burning up his brain-power because he is accustomed to it - perhaps he has had the problem since birth - so he is not aware of anything being wrong!

 

Long- and short-sightedness are only two of many aspects of vision which can be problematic. Ideally, the brain takes the two images formed by the two eyes and merges them into a single 3-D image. The brain then extracts information from the image and processes it. If the brain cannot merge the two images or if the brain is not sufficiently skilled in further stages of processing, the reader will be severely handicapped in his ability to access his full potential when dealing with visual information.

 

A regular eye check-up only ensures that the image formed by each eye is sharp and clear -- it does not check for problems beyond that stage of p.

 

Hints: When a talmid is not accessing his full potential, he should go for a check-up by an optometrist who is trained to test the full range of visual skills.

 

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ELIMINATING DISTRACTIONS

A person can concentrate on only one thought at a time. If the motivation to concentrate on the subject at hand is not strong enough, the person will automatically start to think about a subject which is more attractive.

 

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The talmid's mind wanders off

Problem: The talmid cannot keep his mind on the subject. Other ideas or images come into his mind. He may suddenly find himself thinking about a completely different subject. He may be able to concentrate on the page for only a few seconds.

 

The talmid might be drinking too much caffeine (in coke, coffee, tea, etc.).

 

He might be eating too much sugar.

 

He might have all sorts of problems: home, finances, family, shidduch, etc., etc...

 

He might have other interests on his mind: baseball, a hobby, songs, a novel, social activities, the next meal, etc.

 

Perhaps he prefers day-dreaming and fantasizing.

 

Perhaps he has never learned to concentrate for long.

 

By nature, he might be a physically active person who finds it hard to sit in front of a book for long.

 

The fact is that there are other people similar to the talmid who also have problems like he has, yet do manage to concentrate on learning. Of course, it is important to remove as many sources of distraction as possible, but in the final analysis, the talmid has to come to terms with having problems on his mind. There will never be a time during his lifelong obligation to learn Torah, when there is nothing for him to worry about!

 

Hints: The talmid should try to avoid activities which energize the imagination. This may entail avoiding reading newspapers and novels (even if they are `kosher'!), giving up hobbies, minimizing social activities, and not getting involved in discussions about current events or politics.

 

He should try to sit in a place where people do not walk past, and away from a window which looks out onto a busy scene. If necessary, he should choose an out-of-town or small-town yeshiva.

 

He should make sure that he gets enough sleep, and that he has no unnecessary worry on his mind when he sits down to learn, e.g. during the session, he should not have to turn over a cassette after thirty minutes or take clothes out of the washing machine at a certain time, or to make or receive a telephone call during the session. He should not get up from his place and no-one else should disturb him.

 

To help develop the ability to concentrate, sufficient time should be available for the talmid to settle down into learning. The pace should be slow enough for him to be able to over and analyze the material as much as he needs.

 

The talmid himself should try to concentrate on the subject for progressively longer periods of time.

 

During the shiur, the talmid should take copious notand then use them to review the lesson. Even if the talmid does not them afterwards, the act of takinnotes can help him focus onto what the reis saying.

 

The rebbe can help by selecting an interesting mesechta which should preferably teach halacha of practical relevance so that the talmid can relate to it and become involved in it. The shiur should be kept lively, not by shouting, but by introducing provocative ideas and questions The rebbe should try to sense when the talmid is `fading out' and try to restore his interest, perhaps by `drifting' off the subject to an interesting little story or `vort'. Such a moment is useful for introducing aspects of hashkofo or mussar implied by the Gemora. Over a period of time, the rebbe can thereby help the talmid to keep his mind on the shiur for progressively longer periods.

 

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GETTING TO WORK ON THE TEXT

Learning involves concentrating on many different points, one after the other. Usually, a large tract comprises many different topics. Therefore the talmid has to concentrate on the first point first and then continue on to the next point.

 

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The talmid cannot face a big tract of text

Problem: The talmid is `turned off' by a large span of print like, for example, a Tosefos which fills a quarter-page or a Rashi which is longer than usual or a sefer which is not divided up into small paragraphs and sub-sections. He is overcome with despair at the sight of it. He is convinced that it is much too hard for him and that he will never get through it all.

 

Hints: A large span of print does look forbidding, but one trick is to divide the text into small sections which are easy to tackle.

 

First the talmid should read through the whole text a few times without making any real attempt to understand it.

 

Then, he should go through it once more with pencil in hand and divide it up into major sections: questions, answers, first part, second part, etc.

 

Then he should take each section in turn, and divide it into phrases, as well as he can at this stage of his understanding of the text.

 

Next, he should try to understand each phrase in turn, adjusting the original divisions as necessary.

 

Following this he should try to understand the idea behind each section.

 

Finally he should string together all the sections.

 

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STICKING TO THE TOPIC

Classically, when learning, one does seem to wander from subject to subject. For example, the Gemora often starts on one point, goes to another topic and then on to a third until the subject seems completely divorced from the original point. Yet this is not a haphazard process. Actually, each change in topic in the Gemora is the result of a definite decision by the Rabbonim involved in the discussion recorded. A talmid must learn to judge when he has to concentrate on one subject to the exclusion of all else, and when he needs to change to a different subject. A thought needs to be developed to a certain degree, and to change the subject prematurely can ruin its development.

 

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The talmid gets involved in side-issues

Problem: The point under consideration gives rise to a question of side-interest. The talmid then becomes totally involved in the side issue to the exclusion of the main topic. He feels that he cannot return to the main topic while his Big Question remains unanswered.

 

This is a classical `frummer yetzer hora'. The talmid feels that he has a real obligation to solve the problem before he can continue. Actually, what usually happens is that he uses up all his available time on the side-issue. He then finds that he has no time left for the main topic. But, even more destructive, is that even if he does get back to the main topic, by then he has lost track of the sugya and has forgotten his train of thought.

 

The talmid has to learn to distinguish between problems in the sugya, and problems about the sugya. He has to develop a sense of values. Which problem has priority? Is the answer essential to the sugya! Can one continue without the answer to this problem? If the answer is not essential, the question should be noted down and left for later.

 

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The talmid asks too many questions

Problem: The talmid asks question after question.

 

In principle, no question is too trivial to be asked. This should be made clear to the talmid and all his questions should be dealt with sympathetically. However, within the framework of a shiur, excessive questioning can seriously hamper the progress of the talmid and of the shiur in general. The talmid can become so obsessed with his questions that he doesn't absorb what the rebbe is actually saying. Everything the rebbe says simply becomes material for more questions.

 

For example: the rebbe says that all fruits which grow on a tree have a brochoh of `Borei pri ho`aitz'. Instantly, the talmid has a question, "But a banana grows on a tree, so why is its brochoh `Borei pri ho`adomoh?".

 

Of course, this question is justified and requires an answer. But the talmid's instant reaction of finding a question to ask can cause several undesirable effects.

 

He does not allow the rebbe's words to sink in and become absorbed. Then, later, when he tries to recall exactly what the rebbe said, he wifind that he cannot remember.

 

He becomes so absorbed in thinking about his own question, he does not hear what the rebbe says after that.

 

The whole shiur can become deflected into a discussion of the botany of the banana plant and the definition of a tree, with various participants in the shiur arguing over details of the banana plant's life-history. In its own right, such a discussion can be very fruitful, but it can also destroy the whole purpose of the shiur - spoil the concentration of the other members of the shiur - especially those who have come for a shiur on brochos and are bored by botany - and leave the outcome of the shiur hazy with no clear conclusions.

 

A talmid who consistently directs his attention to questions and so loses track of the shiur risks failing to acquire the basic skills of learning Gemora. Such a talmid can find that even after attending shiurim for many years, he still cannot learn Gemora by himself.

 

Hints: The talmid should concentrate on listening to what the rebbe is saying. He should shelve questions until after the shiur, unless they are so basic that he cannot understand the plain meaning of what the rebbe is saying. Missing one point can ruin his understanding of the whole shiur and perhaps the very concept which the rebbe wanted to present.

 

 

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INTERPRETING WORDS AND PHRASES

 

Even though each word usually has one basic meaning, the ability to interpret is needed because, in use, every word has shades of meaning, overtones and implications which vary according to the context. In one context, a word might have one meaning, whereas in another context it might mean something else.

 

Interpreting a word comprises identifying the word, recognizing its basic meaning and realizing the specific meaning required in the context.

 

The language of Chazal is highly sophisticated. Each author usually assumes that the reader is familiar with the subject at hand and is aware of the specific colorations of each word. In one text, one word can be used several times, yet each time it can mean something else because it refers to a different subject. Thus, the Rivash and the Rosh, (quoted in כללי הרמב"ם ז"ל - First כלל), warn the reader not to interpret the words of the Rambam unless he is familiar with their sources in the Gemoand knows how the word is defined in context.

 

However, that is not the end of the process. Interpreting also involves analyzing the meanings of the words and extracting the essential principles for reapplication elsewhere. The arguments of the Gemora are ldiscussions. The laws and advice are to be used in all of situations.

 

For example, the woox in a Mishna can be an example of a kosheanimal to be slaughtered. Or it can be an example of a mobile piece of property which needs to be kept in a safe place so that it does not do any damage.

 

When interpreting a text, the talmid has to understand all the words, realize the special meanings of the words, analyze the words for their essential principles, and understand how to re-apply the principles in other situations

 

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UNDERSTANDING WORDS AND PHRASES

Even though a talmid might possess the necessary skills to understand words and phrases, he might not actually take the trouble to understand every single word and phrase. Some talmidim feel that they can get by with just knowing the meaning of most of the words. They get the gist of the text and make do with that. Of course, when learning Sifrei Hakodesh, every word plays a vital role in the text and each word must be fully understood.

 

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The talmid uses words and phrases without knowing what they mean.

Problem: The talmid can repeat an impressive passage or tell over the lomdus of a sugya without having any idea what he is talking about. He has a feel for correctly using standard words and phrases without actually knowing what they mean.

 

There are two levels to this problem. Firstly, there is the problem of how to break through the faח ade of the talmid's apparent comprehension of the material. This can be achieved by asking non-standard questions which can only be answered if the underlying concepts are understood. (NOTE: When asking such questions, care must be taken not to put the talmid to shame, especially in front of other talmidim - and to cushion the blow of his realization that he does not know what he is talking about!)

 

For example, the rebbe can think of a real-life problem which involves use of the lomdus in an unusual way. The problem should not resemble the case of the Gemora so that the talmid will not be able to answer simply by repeating what he has already heard.

 

Secondly, there is the more serious problem of how the talmid got himself into the situation in which he is fooling himself into thinking that he understands when in reality he does not.

 

His less-than-honest evaluation of his understanding may stem from a sense of pride: he does not want to admit that he does not understand. Perhaps the talmid is unmotivated and cannot be bothered to clarify everything he does not understand.

 

Perhaps the talmid realizes that there are points that are not clear to him but, for some reason, he does not admit to his lack of clarity. He may find that he can pretend that he does understand and therefore proceeds through the text even though he really does not understand everything clearly.

 

Perhaps the talmid really believes that he does understand the clichי s and the concepts behind them because he gives them some meaning which, though incorrect, nevertheless fits in quite well with the rest of the text.

 

Or perhaps the talmid is so hazy in his learning that he never understands anything well and does not know what clarity is! So he just juggles vague-meaning phrases around, as best as he can.

 

Hints: The talmid has to learn to clarify each word. When first learning a text, he should make a list of all the words he doesn't know and get both their exact translation and their colloquial meanings in their context. Then he can return to the text and work out its meaning.

 

The talmid should learn the sefer Derech T'vunos by the RAMCHAL and learn to analyze the exact function and scope of each phrase.

 

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REALIZING THE SPECIAL MEANINGS OF WORDS AND PHRASES

As well as knowing the literal translations of words, the talmid must know how the meaning of each word varies according to the context. Sometimes, in one text, one word can have several different connotations because it is being used in different contexts.

 

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The talmid cannot see the meanings in the words

Problem: The rebbe, or a sefer, indicates that a text has a certain meaning. The talmid understands the literal meaning of the text and he understands the meaning the rebbe or sefer is ascribing to it. But he does not see how the text can have such an interpretation.

 

This is a common problem which is really part of the learning process. Every talmid can expect to continue to meet it as he learns.

 

The talmid cannot see the meaning in the word for any of the following reasons:

 

The talmid is not reading accurately.

 

He is not exploring all possible meaning of the words.

 

He does not have some background information which links the meaning to the text.

 

He is overlooking a logical step which links the meaning to the text.

 

He is not thinking in the same way as the author.

 

He is not accustomed to the style of the author.

 

Hints: The talmid should first check that he is translating all the words correctly. Then he should check all the possible meanings of the words and phrases and their combinations. Then he should "worry" over the text and try different approaches.

 

The talmid should try to find other commentators who deal with that topic, or with parallel topics. He should try to understand them. Even if he is not successful in his attempt to understand these other commentaries, nevertheless, when he returns to the original text he might find that he can now understand it.

 

Once the words do fall intplace and he is at last able to see the meaning in the words, it will be easier for him to understand further passages by the same author. It is sometimes worthwhile to invest time and effort to understand a passage even though it does not seem so important, in order to learn how to interpret that style of writing. When a talmid finally succeeds in understanding a text, not only does he gain an insight into that particular text but he also upgrades his entire learning ability.

 

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Cannot see the power of the special operator words

Problem: When the talmid reads the Gemora, he reads all the words as if they are straight text, without realizing that some words expect you to think beyond the straight translations of the words.

 

The text of the Gemora is built rather like a computer program. Some words are there for the information they contain (data). Other words are there to tell you how to process the data (operator-, or key-words). If you read a key-word as if it is a data word, then you will be missing vital stages in the development of the argument.

 

For example, if you relate to the word דתניא as merely meaning "as we have learned" then you are missing a lot of the significance of the word. Actually the word introduces specifically a quotation from a beraisah. The ד indicates that the beraisah is being quoted to reinforce a previously-stated question or a proof. The Gemora also expects us to realize the degree of authority of a beraisah -- that it is superior to the words of an Amora but less authoritative than a Mishna and also that it can be faulty.

 

All these extra factors open avenues for relating to the significance of the quotation in the argument.

 

Hints: Several seforim have been written on the exact roles of the key words. Some of them are by Rishonim and very early Acharonim. The talmid should look through such a sefer. It will sensitize him to the significance and power of these words.

 

For example, Movoi Le'Talmud is printed after the Rosh to Mesechta Brochos in every standard Shass.

 

The talmid should write down key words with their translation, defiand function on index-cards as he learns through the Gemora and files them in alphabetical order. He should be aware that some key words can have several different functions and he should make index-cards for each use.

 

For many days I could not unwhy one is called a Tosefta and one a Beraisah until I foin the sefer Kritus that a Tosefta ian addition which is added onto a Mishna. Tit is introduced neither with the term תניא nowith the term ת"ר. If you do see the termsת"ר or תניא you will know that it is introducing a Beraisah.

Commentary of the Bais Yosef on the sefer Halichos Olom

 

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ADJUSTING FOR THE STYLE OF LOSHON HAKODESH

There are basic differences between the style in which English is written and read and the style in which Loshon Hakodesh is written and read. Therefore if a person tries to read and translate Hebrew in the same style as he reads English, he will find that even though he translates each word accurately, the Hebrew just does not make sense.

 

These differences arise both from the compact nature of Loshon Hakodesh and from the different relationships which nouns, verbs and other parts of speech have with each other.

 

For example, often the word containing the verb also has the subject and direct-object-pronoun built into it, to form a single complex unit of meaning which might need a complete sentence of English for a satisfactory translation.

 

The following quotation is from Yehuda ben Shlomo Hasefardi's Introduction to his Translation of the RaMBaM's Commentary on the Mishna, as printed in the standard Vilna Shass. He was translating into Hebrew from Arabic which has the same basic grammar-style as Hebrew

 

In most places, I translate word-for-word. First I have tried my hardest to completely understand the subject-matter. Then I try to plumb the depths of the meaning of the text and to then reconstruct it so that it conveys what the author originally wrote... As is well known by the wise of all nations, in order to write an accurate translation, the translator must be competent in three fields: 1. the grammar of the language in which the text is written; 2. the grammar of the language into which the text is to be translated; 3. the subject matter of the text.

 

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The talmid translates word-for-word

Problem: The talmid reads a sentence and translates each word correctly, but in the end, everything seems to be the wrong way round and it does not make sense.

 

The sentence is not making sense because the talmid is not re-arranging the translation to follow the differences between the styles of the two languages,

 

For example, וידבר משה אל פרעה translated literally means "and spoke Moshe to Pharaoh" which does not make good reading. It should be translated as "and Moshe spoke to Pharaoh".

 

Hints: The talmid should learn some basic Hebrew grammar and practice translating.

 

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The talmid cannot work out how to punctuate the text

Problem: The talmid can translate each word of the text accurately, but cannot work out where to put the commas and periods, etc.

 

For example:- ואילו תולדות אוכלין ומשקין מטמא אדם וכלים לא מטמא הכא מאי אמר רב פפא

 

The talmid might read it with the following punctuation:

ואילו תולדות אוכלין, ומשקין מטמא אדם, וכלים לא מטמא הכא, מאי אמר רב פפא

and then he will translate it as

 

and if the toldos are food

and liquid makes a man impure

and vessels do not make impure here

so then what does Rav Poppa say?

 

ואילו תולדות אוכלין

 

ומשקין מטמא אדם

 

וכלים לא מטמא הכא

 

מאי אמר רב פפא

 

In the context (בבא קמא ב:) this does not make any sense at all.

 

The correct punctuation is:

 

ואילו תולדות, אוכלין ומשקין מטמא, אדם וכלים לא מטמא, הכא מאי, אמר רב פפא

 

which means:

 

And if they are toldos

 

ואילו תולדות

then food and liquids make unclean

 

אוכלין ומשקין מטמא

man and vessels do not make unclean

 

אדם וכלים לא מטמא

so what is the case here?

 

הכא מאי

Rav Poppa says...

 

אמר רב פפא...

 

How could the talmid work this out by himself? He could work it out by experimenting with the punctuation, trying all combinations and seeing it as a puzzle which can be cracked. Eventually, the reader gets a feel for finding the correct punctuation quickly, but sometimes it really is a difficult puzzle and different Rishonim might decide on different punctuations and learn the sugya correspondingly differently.

 

Hints: If the translation does not seem to make sense, try experimenting with the punctuation. Take your time, be open-minded and enjoy yourself.

 

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The talmid reads too much at one go

Problem: The talmid reads a text and translates each word correctly, but he gets overwhelmed by the amount of information in the sentence.

 

The reader assumes that one sentence in Hebrew is equivalent to one sentence in English. So he reads a sentence and then stops to digest what he has read. He gets indigestion because often one sentence of Hebrew is equivalent to one paragraph of English. This is especially true when reading the extremely terse texts of the Nach, the Gemora and the Rishonim.

 

Hints: When reading such texts, one should read only one, two or three words at a go and then stop to digest the material. Often, one word of Hebrew requires an entire sentence of English to translate it adequately.

 

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The text seems to skip points

Problem: When the talmid reads a text, he can translate each word, but the text seems to jump around and does not describe everything.

 

The text of the Mishna, Gemora and Rishonim is deliberately written in a terse style which often omits vital words and information. The writer of the text assumes that you can fill-in the gaps yourself.

 

Hints: When reading a text, keep in mind the topic and flow of the sugya and the particular vocabulary associated with that topic. Do not be afraid to acknowledge that parts are missing and try filling them in as required. After a while you will recognize some key words and patterns of text which regularly expect you to fill in critical parts of the argument by yourself.

 

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ANALYZING WORDS AND PHRASES FOR THEIR ESSENTIAL PRINCIPLES

After the text has been learned, the talmid has to be able to eand develop the essence of the concepts expressed.

 

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The talmid cannot develop the essential ideas

Problem: The talmid understands the meanings of the words, but he cannot generalize the meanings into abstract principles divorced from the original text. He cannot convert the words into lomdus. To him, the passage is a flat statement which is to be understood only literally. He cannot extract the implied depths of the words.

 

This is a problem which every talmid can expect to meet. It is the essence of learning and is a challenge which every talmid can eventually enjoy laboring over.

 

Hints: The talmid should realize that the significance of a statement in the Gemora is not limited to the mere translation of the words. Other factors expand the meaning of the words, so much more can be deduced from them.

 

For example, answers to the following questions will provide information contained in a statement in addition to the statement's plain meaning.

 

What is the context of the statement?

 

How does the context affect the scope and application of the statement?

 

How would the applicability of the statement change in a different context?

 

What was omitted from the statement?

 

What concepts can be derived from the statement?

 

How can the concept be applied?

 

To what will the concept not be applicable?

 

How is the scope reflected in the statement?

 

The talmid should become familiar with the way the Acharonim interpret the words of the Rishonim. He should select an Acharon who quotesRishonim and go through a passage from that Acharon. Whenever the Acharon quotes a Rishon to derive a specific point, the talmid should look up the relevant text in the original. Then he should `worry over' the Rishon until he sees clearly how the Acharon understands the text to derive that specific point from it.

 

The talmid should then continue in the Acharon and repeat thiswith other points. Eventua, he will be able to see more easily how the points are derived from the texts.

 

Then, when he goesstraight to a Rishon, the talmid will now be able to see much more in the words.

 

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Cannot extract the halacha from a text

Problem: The talmid understands the meaning of a text, but he cannot see which halachas can be derived from that text.

 

Hints: Ask the talmid to imagine that he has to write the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch on the halachas covered by the text. He should write it in such a way that someone not familiar with the text will understand how to put the halacha into effect. This might entail adding information and background to the basic subject-matter about which he has to write.

 

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UNDERSTANDING HOW TO APPLY PRINCIPLES IN OTHER SITUATIONS

The talmid must be able to apply principles to situations which are different to the case described in the Gemora.

 

People were amazed at how fast the Chassam Sofer was able to answer complex sha'alos. He explained that whenever he learns a case in the Gemora, he thinks of all the possible situations which can arise involving the principles discussed. Therefore, when a new sha'alah was asked, he had already thought about it.

 

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The talmid cannot re-apply concepts

Problem: The talmid cannot re-apply specific concepts in contexts or combinations different to that described in the Gemora, e.g., if the Gemora describes a halacha involving a cow, he cannot relate it to a car or a cat.

 

This is one of the most important techniques for a talmid to master if he wants to develop into a lamdan and be able to use what he is learning.

 

To help with this problem, the talmid should try to describe everyday articles in general terms. For example, a table is a platform maintained horizontally, usually by four legs and is used for supporting objects at a convenient height above the ground. A kettle is a device for containing liquid within a confined space so that the liquid can be heated by an internal or external source of heat.

 

The talmid can see this in action by seeing how the Commentators of the Shulchan Aruch base their opinions on the words of the Gemora and the Rishonim. He can see how these opinions fit into the actual words of the Gemora or Rishon. He can see how the shitos of the Rishonim fit into the words of the Gemora and he can compare and contrast the shitos of the different Rishonim.

 

For example, he can trace the din in the Shulchan Aruch back to the Tur. Then he can see the source of the din in the Bais Yosef.

 

The talmid can see how a statement in the Gemora is used in Sha'alos and T'shuvos. Most volumes have a source index which can be used to find relevant discussions.

 

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BEING OBJECTIVE

 

Learning Torah is completely different from studying secular subjects. Studying secular subjects consists of absorbing information and learning how to use the information.

 

Although learning Torah does include assimilating information, the actual process of learning consists of solving successive sequences of problems. Hence, the Vilna Gaon defines a chiddush as the understanding of anything you did not understand before.

 

The beginner, racking his brains trying to understand the meaning of "mai'mosai" is learning in the fullest sense of the word just as much as the great Rabbi Akiva Eider racking his brains over a tremendous problem.

 

Learning better consists of learning to tackle harder problems in the text. Solving problems reveals the knowledge contained within the text. Therefore, two people can learn the same text and can derive completely different knowledge from it. If those two people are trying to solve different problems in the text, the knowledge they release as they solve their problems will be correspondingly different. This is, of course, a system far beyond any secular study. A person can learn one piece of Gemora hundreds of times and still continue to derive new information from it.

 

Incidentally, this difference between Torah and secular studies is the basis of the mistake which the halitaini talmid makes. The halitaini talmid is the one who wants to be fed his Torah. He wants the best rebbe who will explain everything just the way he wants so that he will understand everything effortlessly. He wants the best chaverusa who understands all his problems and fits in with his personality. He wants it all on a silver platter.

 

In terms of absorbing information, such a talmid is justified. But to learn how to learn, to learn how to access the vast storehouse of Torah literature, to develop as a talmid chochom and to fulfill the mitzva of laboring in Torah, in this he is missing the point!

 

Similarly, the role of the rebbe is vastly different from that of the secular teacher or lecturer. The task of the rebbe is to guide and train the talmid to use his own resources to detect and solve the problems built into the Talmudic texts until the talmid himself can not only be proficient at a certain level but can continue to progress and develop his own abilities by himself.

 

Learning Torah requires mental agility - the ability to understand one concept from many different angles and to jump from one to the other while retaining each frame of reference in mind for comparison. This skill needs training and practice.

 

The search for truth is a continual process of suggesting theories, developing proofs, making predictions based on the theory, being proven, being disproven - in other words, refining; refining Torah thoughts with analysis after analysis, check and double check, think and think again. Concepts of correct and incorrect sometimes become fluid and blurred. One moment a statement can have the status of being correct, supported by impregnable proofs. The next moment it may be discarded, shattered by an undeniable truth that now comes to light.

 

The talmid needs to be sensitive to subtle nuances of language and accord them their due significance. A small inflexion can cause a big problem. A talmid can only attain such a sensitivity if he is totally objective and is prepared to accept the consequences of having hours of thought disproven.

 

Rabbi Leib Gurewitz זצ"ל, Rosh Yeshiva of GateYeshiva, used to buy a new Gemora each time the Yeshiva started to learn a different mesechta. He explained that when he prepares his shiurim, he does not want to be influenced by the notes he wrote in the margins of his old Gemoras.

 

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CHANGING OPINIONS

According to secular culture, there is a virtue in a person not changing his opinion. "Have your view and stick to it!" A talmid who has observed this secular value might feel guilty if he does change his opinion.

 

There are two aspects to this problem. Firstly, the trait of objectivity puts one above the personal interest of not being proven wrong. We accept being wrong as being one of the steps to finding the truth and then being right!

 

Secondly, most secular texts have only one valid interpretation. However, the words of the Torah and of Chazal are multi-faceted. One text can usually be understood on many different levels, and at any one level the meaning might depend upon different parameters. Therefore, when discussing legalities, concepts are often very fluid and relative. While a concept is being developed, any one opinion might be very transient.

 

Therefore, a talmid has to learn to disregard previously held opinions and to approach each topic with freshand total objectivity each time he returns to it.

 

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The talmid feels committed to a set view.

Problem: The talmid forms an opinion, sometimes only based on a lightning appraisal. Having once made up his mind, he cannot see any other way of looking at the matter, nor can he consider any explanation. His own opinion is so firmly entrenched in his mind tit blall other thoughts and prevents him from thinkinobjectively.

 

Some talmidim feel that there can only be one rianswer, so they cannot accept the possibility of several answers.

 

Hints: One of the benefits of learning pilpul is to train the mind to be agile, objective and receptive to novel approaches.

 

The rebbe can try to increase the talmid's intellectual agility in several ways.

 

The rebbe can get the talmid to commit himself to a certain view, then demolish that view.

 

Then he can build up a new view and demolish that as well, and so on- but without demolishing the talmid!

 

The rebbe can encourage the talmid to make his own chakiras - different ways of explaining one point.

 

The rebbe can set up an obviously wrong opinion and challenge the talmid to disprove it. For example, the rebbe can misread a text and give an explanation based on the mistake. Or he can misapply a rule of logic or deduction.

 

These exercises all help to break down the talmid's respect for a pre-set opinion and train him to be more flexible in his thinking.

 

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SENSITIVITY TO QUESTIONS

A question is not only a difficulty in understanding that makes a talmid stop and think. It is also any doubt which impedes the smooth flow of rational thought. A question may be a major problem requiring a lot of thought, but it might also be a minor doubt which can be resolved by just a moment's thought.

 

However, there may be a lot of lomdos in the minor problem and its resolution. The problem might be deceptive in its simplicity. It may involve basic assumptions which are themselves questionable. Similarly, the obvious answer might require intensive analysis so that each step of its logic can be investigated and checked for validity.

 

In fact, nearly every sefer on advanced talmudics has examples of simple questions and obvious answers which break down under analysis to most profound problems.

 

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The talmid cannot see the question because of the answer

Problem: When a question is posed, the talmid immediately thinks of the answer. To him, the answer is obvious. Therefore, he cannot see the question as a problem. He may say, "But it can't be, because...', and then give the correct answer. He cannot isolate the problem, appreciate its significance, or consider alternative answers.

 

Hints: The talmid should try to develop a sensitivity for 'simple' problems because they are the foundation of basic understanding. Who said what? Why? Who argues with him? On what point do they argue? What is the answer? Who gives it? Why didn't the others give that answer? ... and so on.

 

If the Gemora or a Commentary poses a question, never dismiss it as being silly, trivial, or obvious. The talmid must treat the words of a great Sage with the respect they deserve. Therefore, he should try to isolate the point of uncertainty which was bothering the questioner.

 

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EQUANIMITY

One of the basic principles of education is that every pupil is different and needs his own approach to learning. And an individual's ability varies from subject to subject. But many talmidim do not realize this. No-one likes to be different. So the talmid builds up for himself a certain image of how competent he should be. This image may be based on the achievements of his peers, or it may be based on his achievements in secular studies. If he does not attain that standard, he feels guilty and inadequate.

 

If the talmid learns through a Tosefos but cannot understand it, he may feel he really should understand it and therefore feel guilty. He might even feel that he has something wrong with himself, to the degree that he says to himself, "I can see that I am not cut out for learning!"

 

However, the talmid must learn to accept the situation as it is. It is far better to accept the difficulty and grapple with it as a real difficulty should be grappled with, than to fake it and pretend there are no problems.

 

A world-famous posek was giving a series of shiurim on the laws of Shabbos. The shiur began to deal with questions regarding the use of solar-heaters. After a while, it became clear that certain facts regarding the working of a solar-heater had to be clarified which only an engineer could answer. For the following shiur, an expert was called in and the posek began to question him about the way the heater worked. Time after time, the Rav said, "But I don't understand. Can you please repeat your explanation." or otherwise asked for clarifications until he understood clearly how the solar-heater worked.

 

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The talmid feels guilty

Problem: When he comes to a conclusion which does not reach the standard of perfection which he expects, the talmid feels guilty. He feels that he may have done something wrong. He may even feel that he has something wrong with himself.

 

This guilt-feeling can take several forms.

 

The talmid might feel that it is wrong not to understand something.

 

If the other talmidim do understand that point, he might feel that he has something wrong with himself.

 

He might feel that it is wrong to question.

 

The talmid might feel that it is wrong to reach a conclusion which actually raises further problems.

 

Sometimes, a text contains a statement which seems unreasonable or which does not seem to make sense. Later on, the text itself admits that the statement is problematic, or the commentators try to explain the statement. However, before he sees the text later on or before he sees the commentaries, the talmid cannot accept the result of his own analysis, that the statement really is problematic and does not make sense!

 

It is illogical to feel guilty about having a question because this is the essence of learning. Different people can sometimes find different questions in the same text. They can all be entitled to their questions. By denying the question, the talmid might be denying himself the pleasure of discovering a real chiddush.

 

Some maggidai shiur try to make learning as easy as possible for the talmid by using teaching aids, diagrams, sheets of translations, etc. Though these aids are valuable for giving over information, they do not always prepare the talmid for facing the cold text by itself. In fact it is possible for an intelligent talmid to attend a well-prepared shiur for many years without learning how to work through a page of Gemora on his own.

  

A constructive approach is to present a text as a progressive series of problems.

What does each word mean?

How do they form phrases?

Who says what?

What does each say?

Why does each say what he says?

To what extent, how and why do they agree or d?

 

At each stage, the rebbe shows how he derives each answer and how that leads him on to the next level of problems. He shows the talmid how to organize and arrange the answers so as to build up a basic understanding of the text and of how to isolate the concepts resulting from that understanding.

 

Through this approach, the talmid learns to accept problems as a tool to increase his understanding. He will learn to enjoy building up a basic understanding of the sugya as much as he enjoys the Reb Chaims. Each talmid can learn to derive satisfaction from tackling problems at his own level and in his own style of understanding.

 

For the talmid who feels really insignificant and depressed at having questions, let him learn through a sugya of a Gemora, noting down all his doubts, no matter how trivial they might seem to be. Then he should scan throuthe Meforshim or talk them over with a statured Talmid Chochom. He will be amazed how many of his questions are significant. And sometimes he will find that some points which he thought were most trivial are actually most significant.

 

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ATTAINING CLARITY

 

A person who knows something really well, does not need a special memoryto recall it. Most people know how to get from one part of their townto part. They can give clear directions to a ; they can even draw an approximate map of the whole town showingthe relationship of the various areas and showing the positions of the prominent sites - all from memory! They can do this because they know their own town well and its layout is clear in their minds.

 

The talmid should aim to attain a similar degree of clarity in each part of the sugya and the relationship between each part.

 

The talmid's desire for clarity must be strong enough to override his pride. He needs to be sensitive to his own shortcomings and honest with himself. Do I really understand it? What is that little voice nagging at the back of my mind saying? Do I really understand how the answer is taking care of the difficulties raised by the question? The talmid needs to experience knowing a sugya really well; to be able to play with it; to be able to analyze all the parts of it.

 

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THE DRIVE TO ATTAIN CLARITY

The relentless drive to attain total clarity is one of the traits which distinguishes a real Talmid Chochom.

 

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The talmid does not attempt to attain clarity.

Problem: The talmid is satisfied with having only a vague, general idea of what is going on. He might be conscious of uncertainties at the back of his mind, but he ignores them.

This might be due to:

defeatism ("What's the use? I won't understand it anyway!");

being scared he will make a fool of himself by asking a silly question;

not wanting to waste his rebbe's time with his `silly' question;

fear that the rebbe will shout at him or shame him if the rebbe feels that he should know the answer himself;

being unable to analyze his thoughts well enough to isolate the precise point which needs clarification;

being unable to form his uncertainty into a coherent question;

feeling that he does not have enough time to spend on trying to get more clarification;

 being so accustomed to `living in the fog' that it does not occur to him to try to attain greater clarity.

 

Hints: The talmid should make a note of everything he does not understand, from the most trivial to the most difficult. This can be done by pencilling notes in the margin of his sefer or by writing the points in a separate notebook set aside for this purpose. Afterwards, he should discuss them with his rebbe, his chaverusa and/or look through the meforshim. (However, the talmid should not become obsessed with questions! - see Section 4, page 58.)

 

The rebbe should make himself available to the talmidim outside the time of shiur for answering questions and discussing points further in more privacy. This also encourages the shy talmid to open up so that eventually he will ask his questions in public.

 

The talmid should give himself a chance to attain clarity. He should spend time on the sugya, going over it time after time for as many times as he needs.

 

The talmid should learn to make diagrams, charts and/or other forms of re-organizing the sugya which will help him attain clarity.

 

The talmid should relax and give the information a chance to sink in.

 

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Does not commit himself to a clear answer.

Problem: The talmid will not commit himself to a clear reply to a question. He avoids committing himself by using evasive phrases such as, "Maybe! Could be! I suppose it might be possible!"

 

The talmid's evasiveness indicates a much more serious problem than his humorous reply suggests. He is so accustomed not to work things out in his mind to the point that he considers his foggy conclusions as a bona fide valid opinion and is ready to stand by them. Perhaps he is always so beset by doubts that he does not know what it is to reach a firm decision. This sometimes carries over to his general behavior, which could be disastrous for married life.

 

A husband cannot run a household with "Could be!"s.

 

It is Shabbos morning just before the meal. Milk fell in the chulent. -- Can they eat it or can't they!

The distraught wife asks her husband, "What should I do? Can I serve the chulent or do I have to throw it away?"

Her husband cannot answer, "Could be!"

 

Also, if the talmid evades committing himself, it is very difficult to show him where he is going wrong (or right). If he remains evasive, when you tell him the correct answer, he can retort, "That's what I said!" -- even though he said something which seemed the opposite.

 

Hints: The rebbe must pin down the talmid to a clear, definite answer. Preferably, ask the talmid to write down his answer.

 

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The talmid forgets quickly

Problem: Even though he has a reasonable memory for other matters, he cannot remember anything about the Gemora. He cannot remember the names of the Rabbonim quoted in the sugya, neither can he remember what they say; the whole thing is a blank!

 

According to basic hashkofa, forgetting is an unnatural phenomenon caused by impurity.

 

More superficially, a poor memory usually stems from two basic causes.

 

Firstly, stress in the reading process can burn up so much brain-power that insufficient remains to allow the mind to store the information in the memory. Stress in the reading process can be due to inefficient reading skills (see Section 2 page 17). Or/and it can be due to problems in the visual processing, such as, for example, poor eyesight, convergence deficiencies and focusing deficiencies.

 

Due to the nature of Loshon Hakodesh and the nature of learning Gemora, the talmid requires a far higher level of reading skill than that required for secular studies. Therefore it is possible for someone to have a visual problem which can be ignored for secular studies, but which can be disastrous when trying to learn Gemora.

 

Secondly, a poor memory can come from not clearly and thoroughly understanding what is being learned. Perhaps the material is not organized in his mind; therefore it does not stick. There are many hints and tricks for developing a good memory and for easily memorizing large amounts of material. Indeed, many of these are mentioned in the seforim and incorporated in the Mishnayos. However, they all depend upon the talmid initially thoroughly understanding the material and having it clear and organized in the mind - and this alone is a major step towards memorizing the material.

 

Hints: The talmid should learn to repeatedly go over the material - not just parroting but each time learning it anew, rethinking through the sugya; clarifying and organizing

 

After the talmid understands the material clearly, he should try to organize what he has learned, perhaps by summarizing it or making diagrams. Then he can try and go over the material by heart, using the summary or diagram to help him when he dries up. Eventually, he should be able to go over the sugya entirely by heart without recourse to the aid. He should try to eventually make the summaor diagram as small and concise as possible and then he can keep it with him so that he can go over the sugya at odd moments.

 

Repeating something by heart once is worth more than reading it over many times.

 

When being prompted to go over a sugya by heart, a talmid will sometimes react by saying, "But my mind is completely blank. I can't remember anything!" The rebbe can help the talmid access the knowledge that does lie in the recesses of his mind by gently prompting him, "What is the topic? Is it about Kodshim? Or Nezikin?" ...and so on.

 

Sometimes there is a detail in the sugya which the talmdoes not understand and which is blocking his ability to get a hold on the sugya. Sometimes, he does not know what it is that he does not understand. He only has a vague feeling that something is not right.

 

One way to track down the point of uncertainty is to laboriously write out every stage of the argument in full. At some stage the talmid will find that there is a break in the train of the argument - a point at which he cannot makeone stage follow from the previous one. This missing link ia point which not understood.

 

Another way to helpget things clear is to always work from the sources. For example, when lethe Gemora, the talmid should look up all the relevant parts of the Chumash. When learning a Tosefos, the talmid should always look up all the Gemoras quoted. In halacha, he should look up all the sources in the Gemora, Tur and the Shulchon Aruch.

 

Perhaps the talmid has no confidence in himself. He has no faith in his own reasoning. Hence, he gives little credence to ideas which pass through his mind and so they make little impression on him; so he remembers very little. Obviously, the rebbe must build up the talmid's self-confidence.

 

Other interests might be occupying the talmid's mind. Even when sitting in front of the sefer, he might be thinking of these other matters. Therefore he remembers little of what he seems to be learning. Obviously, the talmid must determine not to think about anything else when he is learning. If determination alone is not enough, he will have to give up outside interests until he has developed sufficient interest in Gemora to be able to ignore all else when he is actually learning.

 

Before closing the sefer, the talmid should give a last, quick glance over what he has just learned. This can significantly help to retain the material.

 

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SUGYA ANALYSIS

One of the most important skills which a talmid must learn from his rebbe is how to analyze a sugya; to learn how to break it up into its constituent parts and to get the relationship between them clear. Only when the talmid knows the basic construction is he ready for deeper analysis.

 

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The talmid confuses sugyas

Problem: The talmid mixes up topics which are on the same page, but which are not related to each other. He has in his mind an explanation which applied to one topic and attempts to apply it to the other, unrelated topic. He may not be clear where one topic ends and the other begins.

 

The talmid does not understand the Gemora! He is not following the sequence of the sugya and is not thinking very deeply into what he is learning.

 

Hints: Obviously, the talmid must make a thorough revision of the sugya. As he learns the Gemora, the talmid should accustom himself to analyze the function of each phrase and statement. Is it a question? Statement? Answer? Proof? Refutation? He should clarify exactly where each statement starts and ends. He can make a brief summary of the general sequence of the Gemora or even make a diagram of the sugya showing the inter-relationship between the statements.

 

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The talmid cannot get into a sugya

Problem: The talmid cannot work out the different sides to the sugya. There seems to be no clear statement of what each party says. The whole text seems mixed up and structureless.

 

Hints: There is a basic lack of understanding of the entire sugya. The talmid should go back to the beginning of the topic and see where he begins to fade out. Each step has to be perfectly clear and the sequence from one statement to the next must be understood.

 

The talmid might be lacking in some basic information. This can be filled in by doing research into the topic, e.g. by looking up other places in Shass where the sugya or related material is mentioned or looking up the topic in one of the classical encyclopedias such as the Sdei Chemed. By combining the various explanations, a more complete picture can be formed.

 

The talmid should write out the text phrase by phrase and indicate the relationship which each phrase has with the previous ones. He can try to construct a diagram which indicates the function and relationship of each phrase. One advantage of this method is that the significance of every word must be investigated and clarified.

 

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OTHER PROBLEMS

 

Split-level intelligence

Problem: Generally, the talmid understands everything quite well. He understands dinim and hashkofa and can even become quite an expert in them. In shiur, he might anticipate many of the problems raised by the meforshim and he might anticipate the answers to some of the problems raised by his fellow talmidim. Yet sometimes he cannot understand a simple text or a straightforward explanation. He might find it impossible to work through a long Tosefos even though it has no difficulties.

 

Much of this book is directed to this type of problem. The talmid might experience difficulty handling the language of the Gemora, even though he can understand the theory easily.

 

Perhaps the talmid has other things on his mind which distract him and prevent him from concentrating.

 

Or the talmid might be intellectually lazy. Sometimes a very bright student can become accustomed to understanding things very quickly and easily with only a minimum of effort. Such a talmid will lose, or never develop the ability to concentrate with sufficient intensity and for sufficient time to be able to solve the problems which evolve when learning Gemora.

 

Perhaps the talmid cannot process language-oriented or complicated problems well enough. Perhaps his mind is not working in the same way as the Gemora.

 

Perhaps he is aiming for the type of total success that he gained when he was younger or in his secular studies.

 

Whatever is the reason, improvement might be a long, tedious process in which the talmid learns to enjoy solving problems and to re-program his mind to think like a talmid chochom.

 

Hints: This type of talmid needs to learn to increase his concentration span by becoming used to concentrate for progressively longer periods of time. If the talmid cannot increase his concentration span he can direct his energies to a task which requires him to write, such as writing over the sugya. The physical activity of the writing will help him to shut out distracting thoughts.

 

Writing also aids tracking down incorrect thought processes and helps the talmid focus on specific difficulties in the text and the development of the sugya. It also helps him see the reality of what he is doing correctly.

 

No matter how hard a person finds his learning, he is still obliged to forge ahead as best he can. He always has to try to learn, to understand, to remember what he has learned and to pray for success in his learning. Ultimately, true success in learning depends upon not IQ. but Siyata di'Shmaya. Many apparently-poorly gifted talmidim persisted in their efforts and eventually developed into famous Poskim, Roshei Yeshivot and Mechanchim.

 

Meanwhile, the talmid who is experiencing difficulties in his learning and who persists receives his reward for his attempts according to the effort he puts in. The belabored talmid who is finding the going tough but is trying hard, gets more mitzva credits that the faster talmid who is taking it easy.

 

Pesach was a real tzaddik of a bochur, but not of the brightest. Eventually he got married and went to work as a night watchman in an orchard, using the seclusion to enable him to learn by day and by night while his family. A Rosh Yeshiva who knew of his wonderful middos invited him to become the mashgiach of his Yeshiva. Pesach refused the offer because he knew that his standard of learning did not qualify him for the job. His new-born child then became ill. Pesach interpreted the illness as a punishment for his going against the wishes of the Rosh Yeshiva. Immediately he wrote back accepting the job. The child recovered Pesach, with his family, travelled to the Yeshiva and became its mashgiach.

One day, he overheard some bochurim discussing a sugya in their mesechta. He thought of a solution to the problem, joined the group and offered his answer. As he was speaking, he became aware that some of the bochurim were snickering. In a moment, he realized that there was a glaring fault in his answer and the bochurim were actually laughing at him. In shame, he ran from the bais hamedrash, found a secludspot and burst into tears of despair.

Hcried himself to exhaustion, fell and, in the sleep, he a dream in which he was promised Siyata diShmaya. He awoke with a new resoand started to achieve new levels of success in his learning. Eventually he became the famous Rabbainu Pesach of Kobrin זצ"ל, one of the leading Roshei Yeshivot in Lithuania and the Rosh Yeshiva of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein זצ"ל.

This story is recounted by Rabbainu Pesach's grandson in his introduction to the sefer Chiddushai Rabbainu Pesach which bears a Haskomo from Rabbi Moshe Feinstein זצ"ל

 

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Virtual brain damage

Problem: The talmid has a very short attention span. He can hardly concentrate on anything and needs to be constantly stimulated and entertained. He gives in to his every whim and fancy, needs to eat and drink in the middle of the shiur and is very difficult to discipline.

 

Modern styles of mass media indoctrinate demand for instant gratification, self-indulgence and minimal levels of concentration. Such a talmid can be almost ineducable and extremely disruptive to any shiur.

 

Hints: The rebbe will need to help the talmid develop minimally acceptable levels of self-control. Only then can the talmid hope to be able to develop the other basic skills which he needs to be able to participate in a normal educational setup and to begin to develop his intellectual potential.

 

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Depression

Problem: The talmid feels depressed. For some, the feeling does not last long; others feel depressed for years. The depression can be accompanied by headaches, sleeplessness and stomach disorder.

 

Depression can be caused by a feeling of non-achievement.

 

Nearly everyone experiences depression at some time. Depression can be brought on by poor physical health, constipation, hormone imbalance, poor diet, and a large range of causes beyond the scope of this work. It is quite common in the late teens, early twenties and the 35-45 age groups.

 

If the depression does not pass, the talmid should speak to a person experienced in working with problems of this kind, such as his Rosh Yeshiva, Mashgiach, Rebbe or a wise layman who has a trackrecord of helping others in this type of situation and in referring them to the right places.

 

Sometimes, professional help is necessary. In such an eventuality, his rebbe or Rosh Yeshiva will be able to help him arrange this.

 

The book Gateway to Happiness by Rabbi Zelig Pliskin is highly recommended as a first step in sorting out a simple case of feeling low.

 

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Feelings of non-achievement

Problem: The talmid feels that he is not progressing in his learning as well as he should. A bochur sees other boys of his age, or even younger than him, progressing more than he is. While he has trouble with Gemora and Rashi, they are tackling Rishonim and Acharonim. He finds it hard to understand the plain meaning of the sugya and they are already busy working on their own chiddushim.

 

Problem: A talented advanced talmid feels that he can do even better than he is doing.

 

Problem: Some talmidim feel that they have not improved at all during a certain period of time. They detect no improvement in their standard of learning and feel that they are wasting their time in Yeshiva or Kollel.

 

Problem: Some older talmidim, especially late starters who did not have the advantage of an extensive early education in TNaCh, Mishnayos and Gemora, feel that they have developed only a narrow field of knowledge while learning within the usual Yeshiva/Kollel curriculum. They might find that by the time they are in their thirties, they know only a few chapters of the Yeshivishe mesechtas. They see contemporaries who have attained semicha and have left the Yeshiva/Kollel sphere, or have left learning and now have prestigious jobs with large salaries. They look upon what they consider to be their own meager achievements as an insignificant accomplishment and they feel a deep sense of discontent and remorse.

 

This feeling of non-achievement is a common problem. Often, the feeling is largely an illusion which needs to be dispelled. Presumably, the talmid can do better ¾ few people learn to their full capacity and there is always room for improvement - even the Gedolim feel that they can do better - but they don't go into a depression!. But this feeling should be channeled constructively. Despair is both negative and destructive. Rather think what you can do about it.

 

Hints: The talmid should discuss his feelings with a suitable authority who may suggest a change in learning schedule.

 

It may be an eye-opener for the talmid to re-learn a tract of Gemora which he learned the year before and which he then found difficult. Usually the talmid will find that it is now much easier. This indicates that there has been significant improvement over the year.

 

A child is not aware of his growth from day to day or even from month to month. He only realizes how much he has grown when he tries on last year's clothes. Similarly, a talmid is not aware of his daily improvement until he compares last year's achievements with this year's achievements.

 

The talmid can ask a Talmid Chochom to listen to him as he learns a piece of Gemora. The Talmid Chochom might detect a fault in the talmid's approach to the Gemora or some technical fault which is stunting his development. The Talmid Chochom should listen carefully (but only listen - without interceding at all!) to the way the talmid reads the Gemora and Rashi and the way he develops his understanding of the text. He should note what the talmid does correctly as well as what he does wrong.

 

No-one should compare himself to anyone else. Each person is unique. Each person has been created to perform his own special task in this world and to contribute his own unique combinations of talents. Because each person was created different from everyone else, each person thinks and feels in his own unique way. Even among the great Tzaddikim and Gedolei Torah each developed their own personalities and talents: some excelled in the power of their critical analysis; others are famous for their depth and breadth of knowledge; some are known for their ability to attract back to Torah those who have strayed, while others gained fame through the brilliance and soundness of their decisions.

 

Similarly, each talmid has his own personality and capabilities. There is just no point in comparing him with anyone else! Therefore, no-one should be intimidated by other people's accomplishments when evaluating his own progress. There are things which he can do that they cannot do.

 

Of course, kinas sofrim is a valuable incentive. If Reuven can learn the whole of Shass in 4 years and Shimon can learn for 5 hours straight without interruption, it shows that it can be done. Perhaps I can also do it! But only perhaps. Real kinass sofrim leads to aiming for higher goals and becoming more ambitious, but never to depression or despair.

 

A famous Godol complained to the Chazon Ish that his son was not able to grasp lomdos when he learned Gemora. Despite going over the reasoning many times, the boy just could not repeat the ideas. The Chazon Ish suggested that instead of aiming for depth, his father should try to develop the talmid's brof knowledge. The Godol accepted the advice and that son is now one of the world's greatest Torah authorities.

 

Here is not the place to discuss the importance and merit of those who devote their lives to learning Torah, of ambition to attain high social status. But certainly this aspect needs constant encouragement. However, to improve the avraich's self-image and to fill in any gaps in his knowledge, it is sometimes advisable to supplement the usual seder with a bekius program.

 

The talmid can adopt a topic which he can research and become a real expert. Or he can set out to write a book on a particular lomdische topic, or even just a popular one.

 

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Re-starproblems

Problem: Sometimes a bor married man returns to full-time learning iYeshiva after worin a job for several years. Such a talmid might find it hard to get back into Yeshiva routine of sitting, learning and davening all day. He might also find it hard to concentrate on his learning because he keeps thinking back to the old job. Grasping the entirety of a sugya might be very difficult. Even though his ability to translate might not be impaired, the Gemora might now seem fuzzy and imprecise.

 

Problem: A mature returnee who has already achieved distinction in his job or secular field of study might feel very uncomfortable about being put into the baby's class. Socially, too, he will be mixing with people who, even though they might be less intelligent than he is, are far more knowledgeable than he is and have been studying Torah for many years. Therefore he might find that people talk down to him and regard him as being ignorant (which might be well justified but is, nonetheless, uncomfortable). Similarly, someone who was regarded as being an important person and whose opinion was valued in the secular world might find that he and his opinion are now ignored, or, at the best, not very valued.

 

In general, someone who had an active, non-intellectual job will find settling into Yeshiva routine more difficult than someone who had a sedentary, intellectual job. Even so, there is no job which has the totality and single-purposeness of yeshiva life. Therefore the talmid should be patient with himself if he finds that settling into routine takes longer than he estimated.

 

Hints: An initial special program of learning which makes allowance for this restlessness may be advisable. This is best discussed with a relevant member of the Hanhola.

 

Another difficulty which the ex-businessman might face when first learning Gemora is the necessity to deal with information logically and intellectually rather than intuitionally. The feelings of commonsense and reasonableness which are so valuable in the world of marketing might now work against him and interfere with his ability to translate and deal with the literal meaning of the Gemora.

 

He must realize that when the Gemora describes a situation and discusses the legalities involved, it is irrelevant (at that stage) to protest, "But why should he do such a thing?" or, "Who ever heard of such a thing happening?" The Gemora needs to explore the limits of the application of dinim and so it will sometimes be forced to consider extreme situations in order to be able to define the precise scope of each law.

 

The process of starting again can certainly weaken a person's ego (which is not necessarily a bad thing and within reason might even be commendable!). But he should never lose sight of his past achievements nor his capabilities to which those achievements testify. He may feel that he has to prove himself again in his new field of Torah. But this is easier with the knowledge that since he has done it once before in the secular world, there is no reason why he should not be able to do it again in the Torah world.

 

Every talent and every facet of a person's character can be used in the service of Torah. Past achievements become enhanced by redirecting talents to Torah.

 

A famous contemporary Rosh Yeshiva used to be an accomplished artist whose paintings were hung in several public exhibitions. Someone asked how he now utilizes his talents. He replied that he now uses it to imagine, develop and describe situations in the Gemora so that they are vivid and alive

 

The talmid can work on a Torah project which makes use of his specialist knowledge.

 

 

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