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The Conceptual

Approach to Jewish
edited by
Yosef Blau
Robert S. Hirt, Series Editor



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The Role of Lomdut in
Jewish Education
Jeremy Wieder

I. Introduction
A discussion of the role that lomdut and specifically the “conceptual
approach” (Brisker lomdut), should play in various educational
contexts presupposes a generally favorable attitude on some level
towards the enterprise itself. If one is opposed to Brisker lomdut
under all conditions,1 the discussion is obviously moot. As the scope
and validity of lomdut is the topic of other speakers at this forum,
this paper takes as its premise the position that the conceptual ap-
proach has a place and time.
The difference between lomdut and an approach which might
be defined as a careful and nuanced analysis of a text requires ex-
plication. A viable alternative to lomdut must be something more
than the mere translation of the questions and answers in the flow
of a sugya with a minimum of explanation. If this were the case, no
one could reasonably oppose the enterprise itself or question its

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146 Jeremy Wieder

relevance to education. Let us assume for the moment that the alter-
native approach to lomdut is one which focuses primarily on the text
and that which can be clearly extracted from the text. The Brisker
lamdan seeks the broader ideas to be found in the topic and assumes
that alternate conceptual models solve all problems, whereas the
student of the alternative approach resorts to extra-textual abstract
conceptions only when other methods fail.2
The appropriateness of the conceptual approach to a particular
context depends upon three factors: The ability and experience of
the students,3 the goal of the study of Torah in the given context and
the suitability of the material for conceptual analysis.
With the consideration of ‫טעם וסרת יפה אשה חזיר באף זהב נזם‬
(Prov. 11:22) in mind, it should be acknowledged that lomdut may
be appropriate for one group but not for another. The discussion
here will be confined to two distinct arenas. The first is the formal
education of students in yeshivot in the junior high school and high
school years (approximately from twelve to eighteen years of age).
Among younger students, with extremely rare exceptions, one rarely
finds the abstract thinking necessary for a basic understanding of
lomdut. By the end of this stage, the student has hopefully acquired
most of the necessary knowledge and skills to apply, with appropri-
ate guidance, whatever method of analysis desired.4 The second
arena is adult-education, which typically involves an intellectually
mature audience, which has not the time or perhaps the inclination
to prepare for a shi’ur.
As far as subject material, the discussion relates to the appli-
cation of conceptual analysis to the study of Gemara. The study of
Mishnah, while theoretically lending itself to a similar form of lom-
dut, aims primarily at equipping the students with a broader base of
knowledge and the spending of extended periods of time engaged in
lomdut can only undermine that goal.5 Similarly, the study of Hal-
akhah in the formal educational context under discussion aims to
impart to the student a large volume of practical information. Hence,
a significant amount of energy dedicated to conceptual analysis im-
pedes the necessary progress. Finally, it is obvious that lomdut has
little relevance to the study of Torah she-Bikhtav, unless one wishes

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The Role of Lomdut in Jewish Education 147

to create a new genre of midrashic interpretation for Scripture and

make it the focus of one’s labors in hinnukh.6 Legal passages in
Scripture have already been subjected to “lomdut” in the Midreshei
Halakhah, and any serious attempt at forcing lomdut into narrative
violates the obvious literary structures and simple intent of text.

II. The educational philosophy of Hazal

Educational endeavors, focusing now only on the cognitive and in-
tellectual aspects, generally aim at one of two goals and sometimes
at both. These are the conveying of information7 and the stimulat-
ing of thinking skills, i.e., the ability to manipulate and process the
knowledge imparted. Clearly one without the other will produce an
undesirable educational product. One who is brilliant but possesses
little or no textual knowledge of Torah can do nothing with his
brilliance. In the parlance of Hazal, he has no mountains to uproot
and grind against one another. At the same time, the student with a
memory but no analytical capabilities is mocked by Hazal:

‫ אתו ואמרו ליה‬.‫ההוא דהוי תני הלכתא ספרא וספרי ותוספתא ושכיב‬
‫ אמר היכי נספדיה הי צנא דמלי סיפרי‬.‫לרב נחמן בר יצחק ליספדיה מר‬
(:‫ )מגילה כח‬.‫דחסר‬
There was a certain man who used to repeat halakhot, Sifra
and Sifre and Tosefta, and when he died they came and said
to R. Nahman, Sir, will you deliver a funeral oration for him,
and he said, How are we to deliver over him an address: Alas!
A bag full of books has been lost!8 (Megilah 28b)

Clearly the ideal lies somewhere in between, with the dilemma

being how to balance the two desiderata. Different personalities
found their own balances in their own ways:

‫ רב חסדא מרתען שיפוותיה‬,‫רב חסדא ורב ששת כי פגעי בהדי הדדי‬

‫ ורב ששת מרתע כוליה גופיה מפלפוליה דרב‬,‫ממתנייתא דרב ששת‬
(.‫ )עירובין סז‬.‫חסדא‬
Whenever R. Hisda and R. Sheshet met each other, the lips
of the former trembled at the latter’s extensive knowledge of

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148 Jeremy Wieder

mishnayot, while the latter trembled all over his body at the
former’s keen dialectics. (Eruvin 67a)

As a whole however, knowledge was favored over sharpness

in thinking. In fourth century Babylonia, there emerged a question
as to whom to appoint as head of one of the academies. On the one
hand, was Rabbah who, while obviously well-versed in Tanaaitic
literature, was renowned for his penetrating analysis. On the other
side was R.Yosef who, while not as incisive a thinker, was an ency-
clopedia of Tannaitic literature. The Talmud records the following
the resolution:

‫ סיני עדיף‬:‫ סיני ועוקר הרים איזה מהם קודם? שלחו להו‬:‫שלחו להתם‬
(.‫ )ברכות סד‬.‫שהכל צריכין למרי חיטיא‬
They [the collegiates] sent there [to Palestine] to ask, As be-
tween ‘Sinai’ and an ‘uprooter of mountains’, which should
have the preference? They sent answer: Sinai, because all
require the owner of wheat. (Berakhot 64a)

One might posit three reasons to explain the primacy of knowl-

edge over analysis. First is the need to preserve a heritage, particularly
in an oral society in which written texts are rare if not non-existent.
Logic is something which need not be preserved, for if valid, it
should be replicable or extractable from the texts. Lost traditions,
however, are difficult, and sometimes impossible, to reconstruct. In
this light, one can understand the following account:

‫ כי מטא למערתיה דרבי חייא איעלמא‬,‫ריש לקיש הוה מציין מערתא דרבנן‬
‫ רבונו של עולם לא פלפלתי תורה כמותו? יצתה‬:‫ אמר‬,‫ חלש דעתיה‬.‫מיניה‬
‫ כי הוו‬.‫ תורה כמותו לא ריבצת‬,‫ תורה כמותו פלפלת‬:‫בת קול ואמרה לו‬
‫ בהדי דידי קא‬:‫ אמר ליה רבי חנינא לרבי חייא‬,‫מינצו רבי חנינא ורבי חייא‬
!‫ אי משתכחא תורה מישראל מהדרנא לה מפילפולי‬,‫מינצית? חס וחלילה‬
‫ בהדי דידי קא מינצית? דעבדי לתורה דלא‬:‫אמר ליה רבי חייא לרבי חנינא‬
,‫ וגדילנא נישבי‬,‫ אזלינא ושדינא כיתנא‬,‫תשתכח מישראל? מאי עבידנא‬
‫ ואריכנא מגילתא וכתבנא חמשה‬,‫וציידנא טבי ומאכילנא בשרייהו ליתמי‬
‫ ומתנינא‬,‫ וסליקנא למתא ומקרינא חמשה ינוקי בחמשה חומשי‬,‫חומשי‬

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The Role of Lomdut in Jewish Education 149

‫ עד דהדרנא ואתינא – אקרו אהדדי‬:‫ ואמרנא להו‬,‫שיתא ינוקי שיתא סדרי‬

:‫ היינו דאמר רבי‬.‫ ועבדי לה לתורה דלא תשתכח מישראל‬,‫ואתנו אהדדי‬
(:‫כמה גדולים מעשי חייא! )בבא מציעא פה‬
Resh Lakish was marking the burial vaults of the Rabbis. But
when he came to the grave of R. Hiyya, it was hidden from
him, whereat he experienced a sense of humiliation. ‘Sover-
eign of the Universe!’ he exclaimed, ‘did I not debate on the
Torah as he did?’ Thereupon a Heavenly Voice cried out in
reply: ‘You did indeed debate on the Torah as he did, but did
not spread the Torah as he did.’ Whenever R. Hanina and R.
Hiyya were in a dispute, R. Hanina said to R. Hiyya: ‘Would
you dispute with me? If, Heaven forfend! the Torah were
forgotten in Israel, I would restore it by my argumentative
powers.’ To which R. Hiyya rejoined: ‘Would you dispute with
me, who achieved that the Torah should not be forgotten in
Israel? What did I do? I went and sowed flax, made nets [from
the flax cords], trapped deers, whose flesh I gave to orphans,
and prepared scrolls [from their skins], upon which I wrote
the five books [of Moses]. Then I went to a town [which con-
tained no teachers] and taught the five books to five children,
and the six orders [of the Talmud] to six children. And I bade
them: “Until I return, teach each other the Pentateuch and
the Mishnah;” and thus I preserved the Torah from being
forgotten in Israel.’ This is what Rabbi [meant when he] said,
‘How great are the works of Hiyya!’ (Bava Metzi’a 85b)

Second is the primacy of text over logic.9 In Talmudic discourse,

logic plays a great role, but when confronted with a conflict between
text and logic, the text prevails. The following Talmudic discussion
highlights this issue:

.‫ שבקיה ואזיל לרב ששת‬,‫רב יצחק בר יהודה הוה רגיל קמיה דרמי בר חמא‬
‫ משום‬,‫ אלקפטא נקטן ריחא אתי לה ליד‬:‫ אמר ליה‬,‫יומא חד פגע ביה‬
‫ מר כי‬,‫ לאו מש״ה‬:‫דאזלת לך לקמיה דרב ששת הוית לך כי רב ששת? א״ל‬
‫ רב ששת‬,‫ כי משכחנא מתניתא פרכא לה‬,‫בעינא מילתא פשיט לי מסברא‬
‫ דכי נמי משכחת מתניתא‬,‫כי בעינא מילתא מיניה פשיט לי ממתניתא‬

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150 Jeremy Wieder

‫ בעי מיני מילתא דאיפשיט‬:‫ אמר ליה‬.‫ מתניתא ומתניתא היא‬,‫ופרכא‬

‫ טעון מריקה ושטיפה או‬,‫ בישל במקצת כלי‬:‫ בעא מיניה‬,‫לך כי מתניתא‬
:‫ והא לא תנא הכי! א״ל‬.‫ מידי דהוה אהזאה‬,‫ אינו טעון‬:‫אין טעון? א״ל‬
‫ אף כלי אינו‬,‫ מה בגד אינו טעון כיבוס אלא מקום הדם‬,‫מסתברא כבגד‬
,‫ מי דמי? דם לא מפעפע‬:‫ א״ל‬.‫טעון מריקה ושטיפה אלא במקום בישול‬
‫ וחומר במריקה‬,‫ חומר בהזאה ממריקה ושטיפה‬:‫ תניא‬,‫בישול מפעפע! ועוד‬
‫ שהזאה ישנה בחטאות החיצונות ובחטאות‬,‫ושטיפה מבהזאה; חומר בהזאה‬
‫ מה שאין כן במריקה ושטיפה; חומר במריקה‬,‫הפנימיות וישנה לפני זריקה‬
,‫ שהמריקה ושטיפה נוהגת בין בקדשי קדשים בין בקדשים קלים‬,‫ושטיפה‬
!‫ מה שאין כן בהזאה‬,‫בישל במקצת הכלי – טעון מריקה ושטיפה כל הכלי‬
(:‫ )זבחים צו‬.‫ אי תניא תניא‬.‫א״ל‬
R. Isaac the son of R. Judah used to attend Rami b. Hama[‘s
lectures]. He left him and attended R. Sheshet[‘s lectures].
One day he [Rami b. Hama] met him, and observed: The
noble has taken us by the hand, and his scent has come into
the hand! Because you have gone to R. Shesheth, you are like
R. Sheshet! That was not the reason, he replied. Whenever I
asked a question of you, you answered me from reason, [and]
if I found a teaching [to the contrary], it refuted your answer.
[But] when I ask a question of R. Sheshet, he answers it from
a teaching, so that even if I find a teaching which refutes him,
it is one teaching against another. Said he to him: Ask me a
question, and I will answer you in accordance with a teach-
ing. [Thereupon] he asked him: If one boiled [the sacrifice] in
part of a vessel, does it require scouring and rinsing, or does
it not require [them]? – It does not require them, he replied,
by analogy with [the] spurting [of blood]. But it was not
taught so, he protested? – It is logical that it is like a garment,
he replied; just as a garment needs washing only in the place
of the blood, so a vessel requires scouring and rinsing only in
the place of boiling. How can you compare them, he objected:
blood does not spread, whereas boiling spreads. Moreover, it
was taught: [The] spurting [of blood] is more stringent than
scouring and rinsing, and scouring and rinsing are more
stringent than spurting. Spurting is more stringent, since [the
law of] spurting operates in respect to outer sin-offerings and

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The Role of Lomdut in Jewish Education 151

inner sin-offerings, and it operated before sprinkling, which

is not so in the case of scouring and rinsing. Scouring and
rinsing are more stringent, in that scouring and rinsing are
required for most sacred sacrifices and for lesser sacrifices;
[again] if one boiled [the flesh] in part of a vessel, the whole
vessel requires scouring and rinsing, which is not so in the
case of spurting! – If it was taught, it was taught, he replied.
(Zevahim 96b)

Third, from a pedagogical perspective, large edifices require

solid foundations to support them. To be able to build creatively
on what one has learned requires a broad base of knowledge from
which to draw. The student who lacks knowledge in one area may
be confronted with problems that may easily be understood in light
what is unknown to him.
The first of these three considerations, it might be argued, is
not particularly relevant in an era in which even Torah she-Be’al
Peh is committed to writing. The preservation of traditions can be
accomplished through the written word and does not depend upon
human memory.10 The latter two, however, remain salient.
One would expect that the system of education advocated by
Hazal reflects these considerations. Indeed, the Mishnah advises:

.‫בן חמש למקרא בן עשר למשנה בן חמש עשרה לגמרא‬

At the age of five, a child studies scripture, at ten the Mishnah
and at fifteen the Talmud.

The early focus is on the ‘what,’ and only later moves to analysis
of the data. Rav Yeshaya Horowitz, in his work on Shavu’ot, elabo-
rates on this theme:

‫ לא יזוז עד גמר תורה נביאים כתובים היטב‬,‫הנער כשיתחיל ללמוד מקרא‬

‫ ולא יזוז משום‬,‫ רק זה אחר זה‬,‫ לא ידלג מפרשה לפרשה של שבוע‬,‫היטב‬
‫ דהיינו ביאור‬,‫פסוקים עד שידע הנער פירוש המלה עם הפעולה והחיבור‬
‫ שאז כתובים‬,‫ וגם חלק גדול מחכמת הדקדוק טוב ללמוד בעודו נער‬.‫הפסוק‬
‫ אחר כך משניות כולם מן שיתא סדרא שיהו‬.‫על לוח לבו והם לזכרון תמיד‬

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152 Jeremy Wieder

‫ ואז ׳מלאה הארץ‬,‫ ואחר כך התלמוד באורך ורוחב ופוסקים‬,‫שנונים בעל פה‬
(‫ט‬:‫דעה׳ )ישעיה יא‬
When a child begins to learn scripture, he should not alter
his course of study until he has learned Torah, Nevi’im and
Ketuvim very well. He should not skip in his study according
to the weekly portions but rather learn sequentially, in order.
He should not move on from studying any verse until he has
understood the meaning of the words together with the action
described and their context, that is, the meaning of the verse.
It is also wise to learn a large portion of grammar while still
young, as then it will be ‘written upon his heart’ and always
in his memory. After scripture he should learn all of the six
orders of the Mishnah by heart then the Talmud in its length
and breadth with the proper Halakhic rulings and then “the
land will be filled with knowledge” (Isaiah 11:9).

Painstaking efforts must be made to insure that the student

learns to read the text meticulously and absorbs not only informa-
tion, but develops the textual skills to be able to study on his own.
Obviously, there is another consideration that underlies this
approach and that is the tailoring of the curriculum to the intel-
lectual faculties of children, which grow gradually over time. The
overwhelming majority of younger students do not have the capacity
to appreciate properly the logic and flow of Gemara and certainly
lack the sophistication to truly comprehend ‫זה וטחינתן הרים עקירת‬
‫בזה‬. The goal is to instill as large a database as possible in younger
students, the girsa de-yankuta, while fostering the development of
textual skills and to allow the more sophisticated processing to be
done at a later age. Hence the Talmud states:

‫אמר רב כהנא כד הוינא בר תמני סרי שנין והוה גמירנא ליה לכוליה הש״ס‬
?‫ מאי קמ״ל‬.‫ולא הוה ידענא דאין מקרא יוצא מידי פשוטו עד השתא‬
(.‫ )שבת סג‬.‫דליגמר איניש והדר ליסבר‬
R. Kahana said: By the time I was eighteen years old I had
studied the whole Shas, yet I did not know that a verse can-

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The Role of Lomdut in Jewish Education 153

not depart from its plain meaning until to-day. What does
he inform us? – That a man should study and subsequently
understand. (Shabbat 63a)

iii. Contemporary education

In the contemporary period, it would seem then that the Torah
curriculum should still be modeled upon that of Hazal. The earlier
years of study should be dedicated primarily, if not solely, to the
acquisition of a working knowledge of substantial tracts of Torah
she-Bikhtav and Mishnah along with textual skills and, as the student
enters his high school years, the emphasis should be shifted to the
study of Gemara. The study of Gemara itself should also initially
focus on the basic interpretations of texts along with the acquisition
of textual skills and only later, as the student approaches full intel-
lectual maturity and has acquired meaningful amounts of knowledge,
should it shift to a more penetrating and thorough analysis of the
concepts underlying the texts or whatever other form of lomdut
would be chosen. Hazal comment in Masekhet Soferim:

‫אשרי אדם שישים עמלו בהש״ס ולא שיהא דולג במקרא ובמשנה ויבוא‬
‫להש״ס אלא על מנת שילמד מקרא ומשנה ויבוא להש״ס על זה נאמר ״הון‬
.(‫יא‬:‫ וכחומה נשגבה במשכיתו״ )משלי יח‬,‫עשיר קרית עזו‬
Praiseworthy is one who places all of his efforts in Shas. Not
that he should quickly peruse scripture or Mishnah so that he
begin to learn Shas, but rather to learn scripture and Mishnah
well and only then learn Shas. On this it is written, “The rich
man’s wealth is his strong city, and as a high wall in his own
conceit” (Mishlei 18:11).

The high-level study of Torah she-Be’al Peh is recognized as

the ultimate goal, but at the same time, it must be preceded by the
appropriate preparations.
This ideal curriculum however, can realistically only be carried
out to its final stages with more capable and interested students.
Many, if not a majority, will probably never be ready for the most

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154 Jeremy Wieder

advanced forms of Torah study, whether because of a lack of ability

or absence of interest. A sense of this, perhaps in somewhat exag-
gerated form, is conveyed by the Midrash:

‫״ בנוהג‬,‫״אשר עוד בקשה נפשי ולא מצאתי אדם אחד מאלף מצאתי‬
‫ יוצאין מהן‬,‫שבעולם אלף בני אדם נכנסין למקרא יוצאין מהן ק‘ למשנה‬
.‫ הה״ד אדם אחד מאלף מצאתי‬,‫ יוצא מהם אחד להוראה‬,‫עשרה לתלמוד‬
(‫)קהלת רבה פרשה ז‬
“That which my soul seeks, I have not found; one man among
a thousand, I have found.” Normally, one thousand people
study scripture and out of them one hundred study Mishnah.
Of those, ten study Talmud, and of those, only one goes on to
teach the Law. As the verse says “one man among a thousand
I have found.” (Kohelet Rabbah 7).

Older students without the requisite preparations can be taught

to ‘talk the talk’ of lomdut much as a parrot can be trained to speak,
but a serious appreciation of the possibilities within the texts and of
their relationship to the texts will always elude them.
This ideal, as should be obvious to any contemporary observer,
is far from the reality of Modern Orthodox yeshivot.11 The study of
Torah she-Bikhtav begins around the age of six, of Mishnah around
the age of nine and of Gemara between the age of ten and twelve.
Before the student has completed more than a small fraction of
Tanakh, he begins the study of Mishnah (with a simultaneous re-
duction in the attention paid to the former). Before the student has
studied more than a small portion of even one order of the Mishnah,
attention is focused on the study of Gemara. This is enigmatic, since
my own experience teaching eleven, twelve, and thirteen year-olds
over the past six years indicates that it is the rare student who can
achieve a genuine appreciation for the flow and analysis of mishnayot,
not to speak of Gemara.
The problem in its general form is not a new one. The Maharal
of Prague waged a long campaign, with little success, against what
he perceived as a system of education whose focus and priorities
were misaligned. He was greatly disturbed by two issues: first, that

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‫‪The Role of Lomdut in Jewish Education‬‬ ‫‪155‬‬

‫‪students never established a proper foundation of basic knowledge,‬‬

‫‪and that they were being taught material which was unsuitable for‬‬
‫‪their age. In his Gur Aryeh he writes:‬‬

‫ועתה בדור הפחות הזה עניותא בתר עניותא אזלא‪ ,‬סרו מן הדרך הישר מיד‬
‫שיבא הנער להשקיד בתורה עד שיזקין הם נוהגים כמו אדם הסכל אשר‬
‫יראה אומן אחד בונה חומה חופר יסוד עמוק לחומה עד שיהיה קיום לחומה‬
‫והסכל חושב כי דבר זה מעשה הבל כי למה יחפור מתחת לארץ ואין צריך‬
‫לו רק יעמיד החומה על קרקע שוה ואין צריך ליסוד החומה וגורם בזה‬
‫שהחומה קודם שתבנה ראשון ראשון מתרוסס‪ ,‬וכך בארצות אלו כאשר‬
‫היה בדורות הראשנים נתנו גבולים ועתים לחנך נער על פי דרכו‪ :‬בן חמש‬
‫למקרא בן עשר למשנה בן ט״ו לתלמוד‪ ,‬והכל כדי לתת לנער משא כאשר‬
‫יוכל שאת לפי טבעו ומה שהוא לפי טבעו מקבל הנער…‬
‫וכן סדרו והגבילו חכמים את הנער לפי טבעו בן ה‘ למקרא‪ ,‬ודבר‬
‫זה יקבל הנער לפי טבעו ויגדל את שכלו גם כן ומה שלמד קבל אותו קבל‬
‫חזק עד שיגדל יותר‪ ,‬ואז יתחיל המשנה דבר שהוא לפי ערכו וכבר התחיל‬
‫ליסד הבית בלמדו במקרא עיקרי הדינים על דרך הבנה מה והוא לו יסוד‬
‫למשנה‪ .‬וכאשר כלה מלאכת הקודש במשנה שהיא היסוד הגדול ועמוד‬
‫ברזל לכל התורה כאשר יקרב אל התלמוד‪ ,‬אז יוכל לבנות מגדל ראשו‬
‫בשמים לא יפול צרור ארצה והכל על היסוד הקיים הוא המשנה שהיא לו‬
‫יסוד מוסד ואחר כך אם יקרב ידו לקרב לישא וליתן במלחמתה של תורה‬
‫אז ידיו רב לו…‬
‫אך הטפשים בארצות אלו דרכיהם הפך זה…ויש שמעתיקין אותו אל‬
‫הגמרא מיד‪ ,‬יצפצף הנער בקול דברים בלבד ותמונת הפשט לא ידע להבין‬
‫אף דבר מה ממנו ולא דמסיק ממנו דמסיק תעלא מבי כרבא רק כדמסיק‬
‫זבוב מאבן שיש‪ .‬וכאשר יגדל הנער ואז יתגבר קצת שכלו מעתיק אותו‬
‫אל למוד התוס‘ ובסכלות דעתו כי למוד הגמרא וההלכה הוא הועיל לו‪.‬‬
‫והאנשים האלו הכו בסנורים אין זה רק כי שכל הנער גדל מעצמו‪ ,‬אבל‬
‫שיהיה מוסיף בשכלו מה שהלעיטו דבר שאין ראוי לו‪ ,‬ואינו לפי ערך שכלו‬
‫זה אי אפשר ואין ספק שאם היה הולך בלא תורה והתחיל ללמוד בזמן מועט‬
‫יגיע מה שעסק זה מהתחלתו ואז יעסוק בתוספות ומי יתן והיה לו העיקר‬
‫ולא יבקש תוספות…)גור אריה פרשת ואתחנן‪’ ,‬ושננתם לבניך‘(‬
‫‪And now in this lowly generation, poverty leading to poverty,‬‬
‫‪they have strayed from the straight path. Immediately from‬‬
‫‪when a child comes to delve in Torah until he becomes elderly,‬‬
‫‪they act as a fool who sees an artisan dig a deep foundation‬‬

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156 Jeremy Wieder

before erecting a wall so that it will have support; the fool

thinks that this is an act of vanity, since why would somebody
dig below the ground when it is unnecessary? He should just
erect the wall on level ground without any foundation – the
causes the wall to begin to crumble even before it is com-
pleted. In these lands in former generations, there where
limits and times to educate a child according to his path: at
age five he begins learning Scripture, at ten, Mishnah and at
fifteen, Talmud. All this to give the child a burden that he
can bear according to his nature; whatever is according to
his nature, he retains…
With this in mind, the sages organized the child’s study
according to his nature: at age five he should start learning
Scripture. This he will retain according to his nature and it
will expand his mind as well. And that which he learns, he
will learn well so that he grows. Then he should begin to learn
Mishnah, that which is appropriate for his age. He has already
begun to lay the foundations in studying Scripture with and
understanding of the basics of the Laws – this is the founda-
tion for the Mishnah. When he has completed the holy work
of studying Mishnah, which is the great foundation and iron
pillar for the entire Torah as he approaches the Talmud, he can
begin to build a tower with its apex in Heaven, and nothing
will fall down below. All this is build on the existing founda-
tion of the Mishnah, which is his basic foundation. Then if
he can bring himself to delve into matters within the ‘battle
of Torah,’ then “his hands are sufficient for him…”
However, the fools in these lands have adopted the
opposite approach…There are those who bring a child im-
mediately to Talmud study. The child will merely repeat the
words but will not understand the meaning of those words,
not anything, and does not even learn from it “what a fox ex-
tracts from a[n unsown but] plowed field” (cf. Yoma 43b) but
rather like what a fly extracts from marble. When the child
gets older and has a more mature mind, they instruct him
directly to study Tosafot, as if in the foolishness of his mind,

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The Role of Lomdut in Jewish Education 157

his previous Talmud study had benefited him. These people

have been stricken with blindness. A child’s mind develops
naturally and his mind will not expand by teaching him stud-
ies that are inappropriate for his nature and present age. There
is no doubt that had he gone on without studying Torah and
only began to study later that he would have reached the same
level and still want to study Tosafot. It would be far better if he
studied the basics and not search after Tosafot…(Gur Aryeh,
Va-Ethanan, s.v. ve-shinantam le-vanekha)

Many after the Maharal complained bitterly about the problems

in education, but also to no avail.
As things stand, the emphasis on the early study of Gemara is
misplaced. Emphasizing or introducing lomdut into the curricu-
lum at an early stage simply exacerbates the problem by distracting
students from the focus appropriate to the first stages of studying
Gemara, regardless of age and by confronting students with material
which they are not yet ready to handle.
As students advance through their high schools years, with the
concurrent intellectual maturation, they reach a stage where they are
intellectually capable of appreciating the subtleties of lomdut. Even
at that juncture, however, most have still not completely mastered
the skill of reading texts, particularly the texts of those Rishonim,
which are the basic building blocks of most contemporary forms
of lomdut. It is quite easy to get a student to recite a hakirah, but to
coax out from him a reading of a Milhamot is quite another story. As
the latter is a pre-requisite for the creative exercise of the former, it
hardly makes sense to spend much precious time even at this stage
in the exercise of lomdut.
When the discussion turns toward adult education, some of
the above considerations and concerns remain pertinent. Certainly
by that point in their lives most people have reached full intellectual
maturity and have developed more sophisticated thinking skills.12
Yet, the question of the background and knowledge of the partici-
pants very much remains an issue. Many adults have received a weak
yeshiva education and in some cases little at all and even those who

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158 Jeremy Wieder

have had a relatively stronger education, are products of a system

which has not provided them with the solid foundations spoken of
earlier. The adult yeshiva product who is thoroughly familiar with
even a moderate range of knowledge of both Mikra and Mishnah
and possesses skills and wide exposure to Shas represents a very
small percentage of the population. While the basic study of Gemara
might sometimes be deemed appropriate and beneficial for the larger
community, it is very difficult to see the productivity of lomdut in
many circumstances.13
In addition, many considerations restrict severely the time
which most adults can dedicate to the study of Torah. In light of
this constraint, an evaluation of the goals of the study of Torah
ought to weigh heavily in the prioritization of what should be
studied and how it should be taught. The commandment of Tal-
mud Torah functions simultaneously on two levels – study of Torah
lishmah, for its own sake and study for practical benefits, primar-
ily performance, ‫( ולמדתם אותם ושמרתם לעשותם‬Deut.5:1). The former
consideration will be satisfied regardless of subject or approach.
The consideration of performance of the commandments, however,
militates in favor of topics that have practical halakhic implications
and a methodology, which while meticulous and encouraging of
thinking, should tend to not get bogged down in the excessively

iv. A push for lomdut?

Wherein, then, lies the powerful push in general for the study of
Gemara, and for some, the involvement in lomdut? First, there is a
sense that one should pursue the ultimate goal in the study of Torah
as soon as possible, that is to say the in-depth analysis of Torah she-
Be’al Peh. The Talmud notes:

‫ לא כרת הקב״ה ברית עם ישראל אלא בשביל דברים שבעל‬:‫א״ר יוחנן‬

‫ )שמות ל״ד( כי על פי הדברים האלה כרתי אתך ברית ואת‬:‫ שנאמר‬,‫פה‬
(:‫ )גיטין ס‬.‫ישראל‬
R. Yohanan said: God made a covenant with Israel only for
the sake of that which was transmitted orally, as it says, For

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The Role of Lomdut in Jewish Education 159

by the mouth of these words I have made a covenant with thee

and with Israel. (Gittin 60b)


‫ במשנה – מדה ונוטלין עליה‬,‫ העוסקין במקרא – מדה ואינה מדה‬:‫תנו רבנן‬
(.‫ בתלמוד – אין לך מדה גדולה מזו )בבא מציעא לג‬,‫שכר‬
Our Rabbis taught: They who occupy themselves with the
Bible [alone] are but of indifferent merit; with Mishnah, are
indeed meritorious, and are rewarded for it; with Gemara –
there can be nothing more meritorious; yet run always to the
Mishnah more than to the Gemara. (Bava Metzi’a 33a)

Unquestionably, a deeper understanding of Torah she-Be’al Peh

remains the Everest of traditional Torah learning. However, not ev-
eryone is capable of reaching the lofty summit and no one can scale
the peak without climbing the mountain below. The inexperienced
climber who rushes towards the peak is destined to plummet into
a crevasse, or to suffocate due to a rapid depletion of oxygen in the
air. The Talmud continues in the above passage:

‫ בתלמוד‬:‫ אמרת‬,‫ הא גופא קשיא‬.‫ולעולם הוי רץ למשנה יותר מן התלמוד‬

‫ ולעולם הוי רץ למשנה יותר מן‬:‫ והדר אמרת‬,‫אין לך מדה גדולה מזו‬
,‫( אמר רבי יוחנן בימי רבי נשנית משנה זו‬:‫התלמוד! )בבא מציעא שם‬
‫ ולעולם‬:‫ הדר דרש להו‬.‫שבקו כולא עלמא מתניתין ואזלו בתר תלמודא‬
.‫הוי רץ למשנה יותר מן התלמוד‬
run always to the Mishnah more than to the Gemara!’…Now,
this is self-contradictory. You say, ‘with Gemara – there can be
nothing more meritorious;’ and then you say, ‘Yet run always
to the Mishnah more than to the Gemara!’ – Said R. Johanan:
This teaching was taught in the days of Rabbi; thereupon ev-
eryone forsook the Mishnah and went to the Gemara; hence
he subsequently taught them, ‘Yet run always to the Mishnah
more than to the Gemara.’

In those days as well, there was a rush for the glory, but R. Judah

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160 Jeremy Wieder

the Prince recognized the dangers involved and tried to reverse the
One could also argue that the focus on lomdut helps stimulate
interest in learning and helps make the end product more appeal-
ing for the student. Indeed, listening to a lecture focused on lom-
dut, one often walks away with a sense of great of intellectual and
emotional satisfaction on seeing how everything has fit together so
neatly. There is a magical quality to the hakirah which lines up so
many different disputes so nicely around one issue.15 The beautiful
impression, however, generally ignores the subtleties of the underly-
ing issues. As the Talmud observes:

(:‫ )מגלה ו‬.‫אם יאמר לך אדם לא יגעתי ומצאתי – אל תאמן‬

If a man says to you…I have not laboured but still have found,
do not believe him. (Megilah 6a)

To appreciate lomdut properly, one has to have painstakingly

worked through the shittot and issues and to have recognized alter-
native solutions. Once one is properly engaged in those exercises
and understands the other possibilities, and recognizes that each
position can only be asserted with a certain degree of probability, the
beautiful radiance of the lomdut may evaporate rapidly. Superficial
analysis of shittot to produce a hakirah is hardly the ultimate goal
in the study of Torah.16
Unquestionably, captivating the imagination of young stu-
dents in a highly stimulative and sensory culture is difficult, but an
approach needs to involve more than smoke and mirrors. Honing
textual skills and building large databases of knowledge are tedious
and sometimes boring processes, certainly in comparison to con-
ceptual analysis, but nonetheless they need to be the focal point of
education for most students. Alternative teaching methods or subject
materials may be necessary to motivate many students, but skipping
steps in the developmental process is ill advised.17 Many of these
considerations pertain as well to the discussion of adult-education.
Yet others have argued that in a world which adult Jews are
well-educated and in which students are receiving a sophisticated

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The Role of Lomdut in Jewish Education 161

secular education, there is a need for analogous sophistication and

creativity in Torah so as not to lower the standing of Torah, ‫תהא ולא‬
‫שלהם בטלה כשיחה שלנו שלמה תורה‬.18 The justification falls short on
two counts. A realistic assessment undermines this evaluation of
contemporary culture and society. Most of the activities that profes-
sionals engage in and most of the academics pursued by students
(dare we say even, regrettably, on the collegiate level) hardly qualify
as sophisticated. In the broader culture in which education, ideas
and academic pursuits have been enslaved in the name of unfettered
economic progress, there is less and less intellectual sophistication
or creativity of which to speak. Furthermore, this approach presup-
poses that the only creative and intellectually challenging approach
to Torah study is lomdut. The presentation of the questions raised
by Tosafot or Rashba and the elucidation of the obvious premises
in the questions and answers can be quite complicated and chal-
lenging without the involvement of conceptual analysis. Creativity
in Torah study is not limited to the newly discovered; independent
origination of an observation previously made qualifies as well, as
Hazal observe:

‫ ר‘ יהושע בן לוי אמר עליהם‬.(‫ י‬:‫ויתן ה‘ אלי את שני לוחות )דברים ט‬

‫ מקרא‬,(‫ א‬:‫ דברים הדברים )שם( מצוה כל מצוה )שם ח‬,‫ כל ככל‬,‫ועליהם‬
‫משנה תלמוד תוספת הגדה ואפילו מה שתלמיד ותיק עתיד לומר לפני רבו‬
‫ שנאמר יש דבר שיאמר ראה זה חדש הוא חבירו‬,‫כלן נאמרו למשה בסיני‬
(‫ )ויקרא רבה פרשה כב‬.(‫ י‬:‫משיב עליו כבר היה לעולמים )קהלת א‬
“And Hashem gave me the two tablets” (Deut. 9; 10). R.
Yehoshu’a the son of Levi said…scripture, Mishnah, Talmud,
Tosefta, Aggadah and even that which a senior student will
say in front of his master were all revealed to Moshe at Sinai,
as it says, “Is there a thing whereof it may be said, See this
is new?” Its friend responds, “it has already been in the ages
before us.” (Eccles. 1; 10) (Va-Yikra Rabbah, sec. 22)

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162 Jeremy Wieder

V. Conclusion

.…‫ מימי לא נצחני אדם חוץ מאשה תינוק ותינוקת‬:‫אמר רבי יהושע בן חנניה‬
‫ וראיתי תינוק יושב על‬,‫תינוק מאי היא? פעם אחת הייתי מהלך בדרך‬
‫ זו קצרה וארוכה‬:‫ באיזה דרך נלך לעיר? אמר לי‬:‫ ואמרתי לו‬.‫פרשת דרכים‬
‫ כיון שהגעתי לעיר מצאתי‬,‫ והלכתי בקצרה וארוכה‬.‫וזו ארוכה וקצרה‬
‫ הלא אמרת‬,‫ בני‬:‫ אמרתי לו‬.‫ חזרתי לאחורי‬,‫שמקיפין אותה גנות ופרדיסין‬
‫ ואמרתי‬,‫ ולא אמרתי לך ארוכה! – נשקתיו על ראשו‬:‫לי קצרה? – אמר לי‬
.‫ מגדולכם ועד קטנכם‬,‫ אשריכם ישראל שכולכם חכמים גדולים אתם‬:‫לו‬
(:‫)עירובין נג‬
R. Joshua b. Hananiah remarked: No one has ever had the bet-
ter of me except a woman, a little boy and a little girl…What
was the incident with the little boy? I was once on a journey
when I noticed a little boy sitting at a cross-road. ‘By what
road’, I asked him, ‘do we go to the town?’ – ‘This one’, he
replied: ‘is short but long and that one is long but short’. I
proceeded along the ‘short but long’ road. When I approached
the town I discovered that it was hedged in by gardens and
orchards. Turning back I said to him, ‘My son, did you not
tell me that this road was short?’ – ‘And’, he replied: ‘did I not
also tell you: But long?’ I kissed him upon his head and said to
him, ‘Happy are you, O Israel, all of you are wise, both young
and old’. (Eruvin 53a)

Torah education has many conflicting goals that create the need
for a balancing act. Producing an educated laity while stimulating
the unidentifiable future rabbinic leadership; filling the student’s
mind with Torah knowledge while teaching critical analysis; trans-
mitting skills acquired through hard work while developing a love of
learning to last a lifetime are dichotomies that sometimes pull and
push educators in opposite directions. A strategy which addresses
one issue may be glaringly lacking with respect to another.
Approaches which present students with material that they are
not genuinely capable of appreciating, or which skip over necessary
stages, may appear to the eye to be in the category of derekh ketzarah,

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The Role of Lomdut in Jewish Education 163

but in fact are actually derakhim arukim. The Maharal, in belittling

the accomplishments of students who were educated improperly,
opines intuitively:

‫ואין ספק שאם היה הולך בלא תורה והתחיל ללמוד – בזמן מועט יגיע‬
(‫ )גור אריה שם‬.‫למה שעסק זה מהתחלתו‬

A method which finds a way to focus on what is difficult and

tedious, but essential, appears as a derekh arukah, but ultimately is
the shortest path to the gates of Torah.

I would like to express gratitude to those whose aid was very helpful
in my work on this paper: To Dr. Judith Bleich and Rabbi Ari Berman
(as well as other participants in the Forum) for their insights and sug-
gestions; to my students whose insightful comments and questions
have helped me refine some of the definitions; to Professor Moshe
Bernstein for the many insights he has, in the course of numerous
discussions, given me in and for many corrections and helpful sug-
gestions made while editing the paper; and, ‫אחרון אחרון חביבה‬, to my
wife for all of her assistance in editing and filling in gaps in some of
my arguments.

1. The ‘Brisker Derekh’ was met by much opposition in Volozhin when it was first
introduced. While it has gained widespread acceptance over the past century
(cf. R.Hanoch Eigus’ introduction to his Marheshet), there is still much to be
criticized. Forcing ideas into the text, ignoring more obvious answers (e.g.,
‘balebatish’) when they legitimately and simply solve the problem and ignoring
scholarly methods (already utilized by earlier sages) of analyzing the text (e.g.,
‘girsah’ changes) are among the valid objections which could be raised against
much which passes for Brisker lomdut today. In fairness, those who are not
skilled in a method will likely produce poor results, but these criticisms can
often be leveled, if to a lesser degree, even at those who ply their trade with
greater skill.
2. The reader may find the precise distinction hard to follow. In a certain sense, refer-
ring to the Brisker derekh as ‘the conceptual approach’ is misleading. One would
assume from the term that other approaches ignore abstract conceptualization.
This is obviously not the case. Any serious discussion of civil or ritual laws requires
at times probing of underlying abstract concepts. The Talmud itself occasionally

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164 Jeremy Wieder

engages in (pardon the anachronism) Brisker lomdut, e.g., the “heftza / gavra”
distinction between oaths and vows. The difference is emphasis and focus; abstract
ideas or texts. Unfortunately, it is easier to paraphrase Justice Potter Stewart and
say ‘I can’t describe it exactly, but I know it when I see it.’
3. I should note here that throughout the paper I refer to the student(s) in the mas-
culine gender. This is done primarily for convenience and should not be taken to
mean that I believe that the curriculum should be different for men and women.
Since the teaching of Torah she-Be’al Peh to women, in accordance with the posi-
tion of the Rav ‫זצ״ל‬, is generally accepted in the Modern Orthodox community, I
believe that the discussion pertains to men and women equally.
4. Certain aspects of the discussion, however, may be pertinent to many advanced
yeshiva students, due to the unfortunate contemporary phenomenon of so many
students waiting to begin serious learning until they study in Israeli yeshivot after
high school. The discussion of solid foundations as a pre-requisite to meaningful
lomdut, may very well pertain to many older students.
5. The study of Mishnah, given the typical absence of explanation for the laws, may
in fact lend itself to conceptual analysis more easily than Gemara. One can only
imagine the multiplicity of possibilities for many mishnayot had the Amora’im not
suggested a scriptural decree (gezerat ha-katuv) as the basis of a law or disputed law,
or confined it to a narrow set of circumstances. Contemporarily, Mishnah is used
primarily with younger students as an introduction to the basics of Torah she-Be’al
Peh and for basic knowledge, but is usually relegated to the back burner once the
study of Gemara has begun.
Partially due to the difficulties encountered by so many students in the study of
Gemara, many Modern Orthodox schools have reduced the amount of time dedi-
cated to the study of Torah she-Be’al Peh. Serious consideration should be given to
increasing the hours and emphasizing Mishnah more than Gemara. The flexibility
of Mishnah with respect to conceptual analysis along with the ease of its language
(certainly relative to Gemara) might prove for many students to be more fruitful
than an equivalent time spent on Gemara.
6. I leave for another place and time the larger issue of whether such an enterprise
might be considered productive and intellectually honest in any context. An initial
observation would be that Scripture, as well as the interpretation of aggadah (when
understood in its proper context – see Rambam, Perush ha-Mishnayot, Sanhedrin
10:1), does not lend itself to any of the contemporary forms of lomdut.
7. Within the rubric of ‘basic information,’ I also include the textual skills necessary
for the reading of texts. In theory Torah she-Be’al Peh requires no textual skills, as it
should have no texts. Historically speaking however, it has had formal texts (written
or orally transmitted) for at least 1800 years. As a result, textual skills have become
a sine qua non of any serious learning.
8. All translations from the Talmud are adapted from the Soncino Talmud in English.
Translations of all other materials were prepared by the editor.
9. “Text” here refers not necessarily to a formalized text which has been written

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The Role of Lomdut in Jewish Education 165

down, but rather to received “traditions” whose form may be somewhat more
fluid. (Although it is clear from many Talmudic passages that even before texts
were actually recorded, their content was already formalized).
10. For the limitations of written preservation of oral traditions see Hiddushei Rabbeinu
Kraskes, Gittin 60b s.v. ha keitzad.
11. It is my impression that the structural distance between the ideal and reality in the
haredi world may be even greater than in the Modern Orthodox world, but I do
not feel comfortable addressing the issue about which my knowledge is limited
and more second-hand.
12. This, it should be added, is probably a generous characterization of the general
population. Without any intent of negative evaluation or judgment, contact with
the general population of many (although certainly not all) Modern Orthodox
communities, or any other adult communities clearly indicates that while a majority
may be capable of understanding most conceptual analyses, the kind of intellectual
sophistication which instinctively demands conceptual analysis is the province of a
minority. I believe that some of the push for Brisker lomdut stems the belief that it
is the ideal form of learning, rather than from any instinctive gravitation towards
13. One might well suggest in light of these arguments that the basic study-text for
adult education should be the Shulhan Arukh, which would produce maximum
efficiency in a pragmatic sense. The suggestion falls short because in order to de-
velop a serious appreciation for Halakhah and the halakhic process, one needs to
be able to follow its development from the Mishnah through the Shulhan Arukh.
Furthermore, to study the Shulhan Arukh without the original sources leads to a
superficial understanding of the law and often, God forbid, to mistaken extrapola-
14. Within this episode, one sees perhaps a prelude to the Lithuanian system of edu-
cation that aims at finding the one or two potential gedolim and which therefore
tailors the curriculum around this goal. In America, this approach has been tragic
on several fronts: 1) The number of casualties who have had little success in Gemara
as taught and who have been turned off from learning or lost interest in it is fright-
eningly large. ‫( כי רבים חללים הפילה ועצומים כל הרוגיה‬Prov. 7:26). 2) The system, at
least in Modern Orthodox circles, has rarely seen one of its products reach the
level of a gadol ba-Torah. 3) It is unclear if any gedolim who have come from this
system were produced because of, or in spite of it. A serious system modeled upon
that of Hazal combined with careful tracking would probably be more efficacious
in producing the desired product. The nuts-and-bolts of learning, Tanakh and
mishnayot, might be described as a derekh arukah she-hi ketzarah.
15. One of my brightest students commented (not complained) to me on the difference
between his shi’ur in the previous year (which focused on lomdut and fitting the
pieces together perfectly) and my shi’ur, that the latter was “interesting” whereas
the former was “awesome.”
16. Two personal anecdotes, illustrative and perhaps representative, are worthy of men-

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166 Jeremy Wieder

tion. The first involved a student in the Beit Midrash who engaged the author in a
discussion about a topic in one of the published collections of the Rav ’s lectures.
The student used the fancy catchwords of lomdut over and over, but clearly had
the not the slightest understanding of what he was talking about. Lomdut and its
terminology provided a way in which he could ‘talk in learning’ without actually
engaging in ‘learning.’ The student is obviously a poor exemplar for a lamdan, but
what he chose to try to fake is fascinating.
The second occurred when a student (a bright, interested and serious one who
had been heavily exposed to Brisker lomdut in his summer learning program)
suggested making a hakirah (which I assume he had heard as being a major ha-
kirah in our masekhta) which was indeed a classic hakirah, but could not explain
why it mattered one way or the other. (Does the obligation to pay for damages
one’s animal causes stem from the fact that he was careless in guarding it, or from
the fact that his property did damage [with the proviso that he did not watch in
properly]?) Regardless of one’s inclination towards conceptual analysis, it seems
to me that lamdanim have always started with disputes between earlier Torah
scholars or fundamental problems in individual opinions before creating pilpullim
or hakirot. (R. Hayyim’s novellae on the Rambam usually begin with an apparent
contradiction between two passages which is then resolved with his classic con-
ceptual analysis.)
17. Hazal often note that aggadah is “‫( ”מושכת את הלב‬cf. Hagigah 14a), or that “‫אין אדם‬
‫”לומד תורה אלא במקום שלבו חפץ‬. (Avodah Zarah 19a). An individual’s personal pref-
erence for a specific subject as well as his ability to deal with its difficulties usually
determine whether he will succeed in its study. The success rate in hinnukh would
probably be much greater if there were an alternative curriculum that emphasized
Torah she-Bikhtav and mishnayot (or something similar in nature) for the student
who lacks the interest or ability to succeed in Gemara.
18. Cf. Bava Batra 116a.

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