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3 Ellul 5761 - August 22, 2001 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








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Opinion & Comment
Studying Be'iyun

by HaRav Boruch Shmuel Hakohen Deutsch

The correct way of learning beiyun has almost been forgotten nowadays, and many people are confused about it. I have therefore found it necessary to explain at length the derech of our rabbonim regarding this topic:

1. It is of fundamental importance to the understanding of a sugya to have a crystal-clear picture of all the stages (shakla vetarya) of a sugya and the various shittos contained therein. A lack of clarity and confusion between the shittos prevents a proper understanding of the sugya. It is heartbreaking to watch talmidim working hard at understanding concepts and sevoros, before having acquired a clear enough picture of the sugya.

It is essential for you, as you go through a sugya, to summarize separately each shittah in the gemora and rishonim. Some disputes are "local" ones (on one specific point), others run through the whole sugya. This is admittedly no easy task, but it is the most important and fundamental aspect of learning, and the main component of omol haTorah.

If a sugya is not sufficiently clear in your mind, and you have not studied the shittos of the rishonim in a satisfactory manner, you may end up hearing a wonderful elucidation of one of the rishonim and use it to explain the shittah of another rishon who, unbeknownst to you, actually has a different mahalach in the whole sugya. If, on the other hand, you have an accurate and detailed grasp of the shittos, you should also be able to work out the sevoros and concepts underlying each shittah, because a sevoro is intimately connected with a specific shittah in the sugya. The sefer Nachalas Dovid may serve as your model in this regard: he explains the mahalach of each sugya in a detailed and clear manner.

2. You should also know that a sugya usually has a part that is difficult to understand. Some people notice this when they first start learning a sugya, and devote a lot of time and energy to it. It is obvious, though, that the proper approach is to concentrate your efforts on the clearer sections of the sugya, analyzing and clarifying them. This in itself also requires a lot of time.

You should do the same when learning the rishonim. There are those who spend a lot of time trying to understand a difficult section in a rishon before having adequately understood the main text of the commentary and his specific shittah on the sugya. We must certainly try to understand the difficult parts in the commentaries of the rishonim, but not spend too much time on them. The best thing is to make a note of a difficult part and come back to it after having completed the rest of the material, at which stage you will, besiyato diShmayo, manage to understand the point properly.

However, even if you will not understand it properly do not be upset, and always remember that the main thing is to feel, after having completed a sugya, that you have a clear understanding of the mahalach of the sugya. We must realize that we cannot expect to understand everything very deeply; we are not on the level of being able to learn every sugya with all the shittos in depth. As an indication of this, consider how many people today are able to follow the complicated reasoning of the Maharam Shif? Our only duty nowadays is to concentrate on the important points relating to a thorough understanding of pshat.

3. Before starting to learn a perek in a masechta, you must acquire at least a superficial familiarity with its contents. This will prevent unnecessary mistakes as you go along. If you really have a burning desire to learn Torah properly, and not just to engage in intellectualism, you must realize that this is a prerequisite for success. There can be no doubt that every ben Torah has the ability to learn ten daf of gemora, Rashi, Tosafos in about ten hours. The only reason people do not do this, is because they are led astray by their yetzer.

This principle is a conspicuous example of something that was taken for granted by lomdim in previous generations, who realized that you could not hope to understand sugyos without first having gone through the material. In our times this has, quite unjustifiably, been forgotten. Until not long ago, it was customary to learn a masechta several times over and hear shiurim on it, before learning it with the yeshiva.

The Brisker Rov zt"l once told his talmidim to prepare themselves for learning Erechin beiyun by going through the whole masechta first. Two days later, he asked them how much they had managed to cover. When they replied that they were up to daf kaf, he was surprised and said that he had assumed that they would already have finished the masechta by then!

4. After you have completed studying gemora, Rashi, Tosafos, you should concentrate on one of the works of the rishonim. Anyone attempting to learn several shittos at the same time is bound to get confused. You should, therefore, focus on one sefer, and learn that shittah thoroughly throughout the sugya.

In my humble opinion, there are no hard and fast rules about which rishon to choose to learn from. Nowadays, we are fortunate b"H to have published editions of the rishonim which have been thoroughly proofread. Find out which is the main rishon whose commentary can be followed easily for all the masechta's sugyos. Nearly every masechta has such a rishon. Of course, if you have not yet learnt a masechta, you cannot be expected to know which is the most appropriate sefer to use. You must therefore consult with an experienced talmid chochom about this.

5. In our generation many of the shiurim of the roshei hayeshivos have b"H been published. However, use them only as aids to understand the sugya better, and not to go through them systematically. In the past it was almost unheard of to spend a lot of time on these shiurim. In our generation too, even though we are fortunate that so many shiurim from the previous generation have been put into print, we must be careful to spend the right amount of time on each area of study.

It is not wise to read up everything these seforim have to say about a sugya; I have my doubts whether the roshei hayeshivos themselves actually said during their shiurim everything which has been printed in their names in these seforim. The only aim of perusing them is to help you find out about the fundamental aspects of a sugya and which main points you should be spending your time on. I think that the most useful development in our times has been the appearance of references and footnotes on the commentaries of the rishonim. They provide the student with the tools to become familiar with the main points of a sugya and to choose a topic to delve into further.

6. The purpose of attending a shiur on the sugya -- especially the daily shiur -- is for the student to acquire the correct derech in learning a sugya. After hearing a shiur and understanding the main aspects of the sugya, you should try to clarify further on your own those points which you are still unclear about after the shiur. However, you must prepare for the shiur by learning the sugya thoroughly, because the purpose of the shiur is to elucidate the sugya and clear up any difficult points you may have encountered while preparing the sugya. You will obviously not derive any benefit from the shiur if you do not have a detailed mastery of the sugya.

7. The fundamental component of toiling in Torah is the study of the sugya with Rashi and Tosafos, trying to understand on your own the various sides of the argument, and what lies at the root of the disputes between Rashi and Tosafos. To get used to this is a most difficult task, and if you have mastered it by the time you are in your twenties, you may consider yourself fortunate.

At first, enlist the help of others to get the basic picture, then use your own resources to get further into the sugya. It is certainly difficult to pick up the deeper points of a sugya without receiving some guidance from one of the great acharonim who talk about the sugya, but once you have the basic tools, you should be able to work out the rest by yourself.

8. If you think you have understood a certain point on your own and wish to know whether your reasoning is sound, simply look up one of the accepted works of the acharonim to see whether your reasoning accords with theirs. There is no other way to check whether your logic is valid. After many years of Torah study, you will acquire an instinctive feeling on your own for discerning a straight sevoro.

You should also know that the simpler a sevoro is, the straighter it is. Many people make the mistake of thinking that if something is understood simply, it cannot be a good sevoro, but this cannot be true, because most of the material in Shas can be understood literally and simply. You must be very careful not to read your own sevoros into what the gemora says. To comprehend the words of the gemora must remain our main aim.

9. It is well known that one of the major obstacles to success in omol haTorah is the feeling that you do not remember what you have learned. This feeling is of course very frustrating, and we ask Hashem every day that "we should not toil in vain," but forgetfulness is not our predetermined fate, nor has an Angel of Forgetfulness come to afflict this generation!

Why do talmidim forget what they have learnt? You must realize that it is impossible to remember a whole sugya in all its details, from the hava amina until the maskono together with all the questions of the rishonim and explanations and sevoros of the acharonim. Therefore, once you have finished learning a sugya, determine which elements lie at the heart of the sugya by distinguishing them from those of secondary importance, and clarify and repeat them several times in your mind until you are satisfied that you have totally absorbed the material. Some people say that you should summarize everything in writing.

In any event, it is obvious that you must at least have everything crystal clear in your mind. This holds true for the shakla vetarya of the actual sugya, as well as the explanations of the rishonim and acharonim on it, and one of the acharonim on each sugya, who clarifies the mahalach of the material. You should go over everything so many times that you will not easily forget what you have learnt.

One of the gedolim once wrote, as part of his advice to a talmid, that the most effective chazoroh on the sugya is to review the Rambam on it, because his work contains all the essential ingredients for the memorization of material: clear language and methodology, as well as concentration on the main aspects of every topic at the expense of issues of secondary importance.

10. Another point to bear in mind in this context is Chazal's principle that "a person only learns things which appeal to him," and you cannot dictate to someone how he should learn or what he should learn; everybody has his own subjective preferences. One person will derive the most enjoyment from learning a rishon, another person's main pleasure may be the works of Rabbi Akiva Eiger zt"l, the sevoros of the Ketzos or the shiurim of the roshei hayeshivos. At a young age, talmidim do not yet know what their preferences are; they only discover this in the course of time as they devote themselves more to their studies.

You should learn what you enjoy most, from beginning to end, in a pleasant tune, reviewing the material several times together with the sugya and a summary. This way everything that you learn will remain engraved in your heart. If you feel that you have succeeded besiyato deShmaya in studying a sugya with the required depth and clarity, you will be motivated to learn more and more, all the time reaching new heights of Torah awareness.

It goes without saying, that even after acquiring intellectual knowledge, and following the system of study that has been outlined here, the most fundamental point is always to feel that your life has no value without the study of Torah. If your mind and activities are bound up with the outside world, the Torah will not find a place and take root inside you.

11. If you really love Torah, you do not derive enjoyment only from sharp points of conceptual sophistication and beauty. Every new detail or novel point should be a source of great pleasure. Learning a sugya with the intention of resolving doubts you have regarding an analytical inquiry mentioned in one of the works of the acharonim or which you thought of yourself, is a distortion of the correct way of learning. You must pay attention to the total structure of a sugya with all its details and ramifications. The sugya must be so clear in your mind, that in the future when you are learning something else, you will remember this sugya well enough to resolve a query which will arise then.

This is the authentic way of studying Torah. If you will be fortunate enough to complete a masechta learning this way, that will be quite an acquisition, and you must realize that whatever you manage to achieve while you are still young, will remain a part of you throughout your life. May Hashem yisborach help us to climb the rungs of the ladder leading to the House of Hashem, omen.

Written by A.C., based on talks to bochurim in Kol Torah Yeshiva.

Next week: HaRav Deutsch discusses "bekiyus."

Leilui nishmas Eidele o"h bas Rav Shmuel.

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