I. TO THE EDITOR: Rabbi Zobin's article about burn-out was
very thought- provoking and presented the problem very
clearly, but it did not give us any help in the way of
treating or heading it off. The problem is so widespread, it
really makes us, as parents, very worried. Do we really have
to sit back and watch our children burn out? Isn't there
anything we can do now, while they are still young and
II. TO THE EDITOR: Regarding Rabbi Zobin's article about
burn-out, I recognize many of the symptoms in myself and in
many of my colleagues in kollel. What can we do to get
ourselves back into learning?
Many of the roots of this problem have become enmeshed so in
our society that even if we know what to do, it is very
difficult to put it into effect.
For example, in prewar Europe, the regular style of learning
was for children to master Chumash and
mishnayos in cheder. When they began to learn
gemora, they went through whole tractates, learning a
minimum of commentaries until they were through the entire
The modern style of teaching gemora in depth with
rishonim and acharonim before the student has
mastered Shas was introduced after World War II. In
those days, a regular student went to yeshiva for one year.
If he was highly motivated, he would stay for a second year.
If he decided to go into rabbonus or related fields,
he would stay even longer. One famous rosh yeshiva
explained then that because they had only one or two years
to work with a boy, they needed to try and instill in him an
appreciation for the depth of Torah and a desire to continue
learning even when he left the yeshiva and went out to work.
Therefore, the shiurim encouraged delving into
rishonim and acharonim.
Consequently, the post war generation grew up on this style
of learning and assumed that this was the way to teach
gemora. That generation became the parents and
teachers of the following generation; so now we have the
situation where cheder-children are expected to learn
gemora in depth and be proficient in rishonim
and acharonim. Furthermore, the measure of success of
the various educational institutions has become the extent
to which they can push children into levels of intellectual
achievements which are really, as discussed by Seder
Hayom, beyond their capability.
Unfortunately, the Torah institutions are forced to relate
to the demands of parents and so, until parents revise their
yardstick for deciding which style of learning is `in
fashion,' there is little we can do. The usual fate of a
school which tries to reverse the trend is for it to become
labeled as `special' and it does not find favor in the eyes
of the general public. Often, even if the parents feel such
a place is better for their children, the children
themselves see it as a non-regular school and feel insulted
and resist going.
There does seem to be a gleam of light on the horizon
because I have heard of one community which appealed to its
rav to set up a `healthier' school system, which he did.
However, unless we are prepared to go back to the old
European system, in which parents got together and hired
teachers for their children and learned in rooms (hence the
name `cheder'), then setting up a new school entails
the usual top-heavy arrangement which demands an emporious
building costing many times more than the staff.
One spin-off from teaching a child to an intellectual level
beyond his capability is that the child learns to
accommodate and compensate but loses contact with his
ability to really understand. This actually deforms the
neurological development of the brain and lays the
foundation for future burn-out.
Another consequence is that the student develops an
unrealistic attitude to learning. As one famous contemporary
rosh yeshiva commented, "If you teach a child
acharonim when he is in cheder, by the time he
gets to yeshiva gedola, he feels that there is
nothing left for him to learn." But, of course, it is in the
yeshiva gedola that a student begins to really learn
how to think.
So, an important stage in rehabilitation is to teach the
student how to begin to attain true clarity at his mature
level of understanding. For example, Rabbi Dovid Abenson of
Manchester is becoming famous for his courses which
reprogram bochurim and kollel members to rejuvenate
their learning. As one student comments, "You mean I have to
stop learning and start thinking?"
Furthermore, many students never appreciate the reality of
learning nor do they learn how to develop their own approach
to learning. Some see their rebbeim zoom through the
gemora and then go straight into the commentaries,
and they think that they should be doing the same thing --
but they did not observe their rebbi when he was staying up
late the night before, preparing for the lesson and breaking
his head trying to understand the gemora.
Another aspect of the problem, especially in Israel, is of
the "poverty trap" preventing kollel members from branching
out and supplementing their income through engaging in
outside work. Such work often disqualifies them from
receiving aid and subsidies and once someone becomes
disqualified, it is almost impossible to become relisted.
This means that in order for a kollel member to "make the
jump," he must have a guaranteed, permanent job with a
starting wage which will be high enough to compensate him
for the losses caused by his starting to "go to work."
However, even if all these financial conditions are
fulfilled and a young man is told by his posek that
he needs to spend at least part of his day working,
sometimes he and his wife become beset with intense guilt
feelings because they feel that by spending part of day in a
job, the young man is no longer a "ben Torah." The
guilt feelings can be strong enough to force them to reject
the ruling of that posek.
Sadly, the result of this rejection of the ruling can lead
to the building up of intolerable pressures within the
family which can lead to health and marriage problems and be
passed down to the next generation.
There are some types of positions available within the
kollel sphere but these are limited, so many young kollel
students are faced with the sad realization that they will
never be able to develop and channel their creativity and
A regular office job is also often not conducive to
developing and channeling creativity and individuality. But
the regular office worker resigns himself to this because
the job is primarily a means for earning a wage. If he
desires greater fulfillment, he can seek it after office
hours. However, the kollel is an environment demanding
continual intensive intellectual and personal development.
Therefore, unavailability of outlets for channeling talents
can lead to much higher levels of frustration.
A third aspect to the problem is that we are living in an
era in which we take pride in customizing our cars and
houses, but are scared to customize ourselves and our
We are so used to mass production that we are losing the
concept of individuality. We read books and hear
pronouncements intended for general application. Many people
feel that they can rely on these general pronouncements for
their own personal development, the development of their
children and as strict guidelines for running their family
and in formulating their relationships with others. We see
what everyone else is doing and assume we must do the
There were twelve (or thirteen) tribes and in the desert,
and for many hundreds of years, each had their own style of
prayer and customs. Chazal mention how each tribe has its
own personality traits. We need to be comfortable with the
fact that different is not a synonym for wrong.
On the contrary, when a person forms a personal relationship
with a posek, he will see how the posek varies
his ruling according to the nature and circumstances of each
For example, even if someone seems to be learning
diligently, sometimes that learning itself needs to be
`customized.' Someone who is learning intensively only
because he feels it is the right thing to do, but does not
enjoy the actual learning, will soon `crash.' Such a
talmid needs to learn how to enjoy his learning.
Another student might be enjoying learning so much that he
is pushing himself too much and is risking burning himself
out. He needs to be told to relax and get more rest.
It is clear from these points why, by definition, no
specific advice can be given in a public forum such as a
newspaper article. Each individual needs to seek guidance
for his unique combination of personality and circumstances.
And he needs to begin this process, for himself and for his
children, at the earliest stages. This was the way it was in
the past, until the formation of the impersonal mega-
kehillos which have led us to lose sight of the
Rabbi Zobin can be contacted at his e-mail:
Rabbi Dovid Abenson can be contacted in England at 0161-740-