A Healthy Learning Diet:
Hitting All the Food Groups (Part 1)

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What Should I Be Learning?

What should I be learning over my time in Yeshiva? An important goal-oriented question, but one which often doesn’t get asked. The Yeshiva/Seminary day usually imposes a basic structure, leaving a few slots open for you to fill on your own. In Yeshiva, that’s two or three Sedarim, usually of Gemara. In Seminary, it could be a couple of longer or more consistent classes. What should I do with the rest of the time?

A Delicious Buffet

Rav Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook, one of the most influential personalities and Rabbanim in recent Jewish history, writes about Torah as if it’s a sumptuous buffet prepared for you to enjoy. The only way to really find the foods you’ll like best and to maximize the experience, he suggests, is to first sample everything. After you have an idea of what the full spread has to offer, what was good and what didn’t appeal to you, you can choose what to get more of. After an initial tasting round, you can go back and load up on the foods you especially liked while passing over the ones you didn’t. The same, he suggests, goes for learning. A person who doesn’t take the time to sample different areas of Torah might be stuck with a section that doesn’t speak to them as strongly. By first getting acquainted with all areas of learning, he can later choose to focus on that which he feels a strong connection to. This idea is expressed by the Gemara in Avoda Zara 19a: “Rebbi said, a person only learns (Rashi explains that it means will remember) learning that his heart desires – Mah SheLibo Chafetz.”

So what are the areas available? We’ll go subject by subject:

Gemara

Gemara has three subcategories: Iyun, Bekius, and Aliba D’Hilch’sa. Iyun and Bekius are usually covered through the regular Yeshiva schedule. Morning Seder is often dedicated to Iyun, while the afternoon is used for Bekius. The goal of learning Gemara B’iyun is to understand the Gemara in a deep way. What exactly that means depends on the approach (aka the Derech HaLimud) employed by the Rebbi. For example, a Brisker/conceptual approach to a Sugya looks to understand the concepts being discussed, rather than deal with technical issues between two similar Sugyot.

The goal of a Bekius Limmud is to pick up Yedios throughout Shas. Rav Hershel Schachter explains the importance of this by comparing Torah to any other area of knowledge. The same way physics and mathematics have their own internal logic that you understand by learning as much as possible within the discipline, Torah too is a self-contained discipline with it’s own system of logic. Once you’ve seen all the ‘data points,’ you’ll be able to comprehend the content from its own perspective. As Torah is Hashem’s instructions for us to live our lives by, the importance of seeing as much as possible is paramount. Broad Bekius knowledge is also important to facilitate learning B’iyun, as familiarity with a concept in different contexts will be important for understanding a deeper discussion of that topic. For example, seeing Hefker Beis Din Hefker throughout Masechet Gittin is important for crafting a definition and explanation broad enough to fit each instance.

Becoming a Baki

There’s another Bekius Limmud which is helpful. Learning Shas Bekius can take years to cover all the topics. Learning something like Mishnayos or the Rambam’s Yad HaChazaka is a much shorter way to gain exposure to many of the foundational ideas and areas of Halacha, albeit with less detail and discussion. The strength of the Rambam is his organization; he brings everything relevant to a specific topic, previously scattered across Masechtot, together into one section of the Yad. The strength of learning Mishnayos is that you’re learning the primary sources, which pays off more directly when the topics come up in learning Gemara. Both are easily divided into bite-size sections which can add up significantly over time. One Perek of Rambam a day brings you through the entire Yad HaChazaka in three years; a Perek of Mishnayos a day brings you through Shas in a year and half!

Learning Gemara Aliba D’Hilch’sa means learning with an eye to the practical Halachic conclusion of a Sugya. This is one style employed in Iyun Shiurim, more often practiced by Israeli Ram’im. Rav Aryeh Leibowitz (BKNW/YU) attributed his love for this style to one of his Rebbeim in Kerem B’Yavneh encouraging him to learn Halacha this way, starting with the Gemaras and continuing through the Tur, Beis Yosef, and finally Shulchan Aruch. It is often surprising, engaging and enlightening to track a Sugya from start to finish this way.

Chumash

Chumash can also be learned in a few different ways. On the most basic level, you want to make sure you’re doing Shnayim Mikra, covering the Parsha each week (Orach Chaim Siman 285). Using Rashi instead of Onkelos will introduce you to many Maamarei Chazal and Halachos that you wouldn’t have seen otherwise, adding depth to the Pesukim.

Additionally, you can choose to focus on one Mefaresh, learning selected pieces each week. For example, the Ramban is known as a repository of Hashkafas Yisrael on many basic topics, such as Hashgacha Pratis and Divine justice. There is even a booklet out there with key Rambans in each Parsha, organized by Perek/Pasuk. Other popular Mefarshim are the Netziv’s HaEmek Davar, Rav Samson Refael Hirsch’s Peirush Al HaTorah, and the Sfas Emes.

Finally, putting together a Dvar Torah, either once or on a weekly basis, is a very different experience. You can either start from the beginning, the middle, or the end. Starting from the beginning means to explore the Parsha looking for an idea that resonates and feels relevant to your life. Starting from the middle means you have a question and are looking around for Mefarshim who address the question. You can either choose one approach and flesh it out, or aggregate a few approaches to the same question. Starting from the end means you know what idea you want to speak about or what personal challenge you want to address, and the goal is to find something in the Parsha which can be applied to that topic. All three are good approaches, although the last one can be challenging to find a source that fits your idea naturally; you need to be open to revising your idea to reflect the Chochmas haTorah, rather than the other way around.

This post covers Gemara, Bekius and Chumash. Part 2 will cover Nach, Halacha, Mussar, and Hashkafa.

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