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The Shy Student Learns Not

by David Bendory, January 1992

I wrote this when I began to learn Talmud for the first time.


A few weeks ago, I bought my first Masechet of Talmud. The bookman — he actually smelled of books — opened a box, and I reached in to take a volume from the top of the pile. Gold stamping on a brown cover. Talmud Bavli: Masechet Shabbat. Hundreds of pages thick. Why did it cost only 40 sheckels?

The book weighs heavily in my hands. The weight of Torah, of thousands of years of study, commentary, searching. Shehechiyanu v'kiyimanu v'higianu la-z'man ha-zeh. Amen. I turn to a page to explore the library inside. The Talmud. It has been threatening me for so long, since I first started learning Hebrew, since I first saw its insides and dreamed of reading it. Today I will open it for myself.

My Gemara teacher says we have to write in our books. Take notes in them. He says it is important so that wehen we look back over our old books, we can see what we have learned. Or what we once knew. Or what we have forgotten.

I look at the pages. The print is so crisp, black on cream pages. It is so new, so clean, that it mocks the bookman. I decide that I will write in pencil so that I can go back and correct my mistakes. There will be many. The margins are much too narrow to write in, but there is no other space available. As I squeeze in my first notes, I wonder if this is how Rashi felt when he wrote his first commentary. Will I look back at my notes someday and marvel at how little I once knew? Will I look back at my notes at all?

We begin by "reviewing" what is in an edition of the Talmud. Mishna and Gemara in the middle of the page. Rashi closest to the binding. Tosefot... Tosefot Y'shanim... P'sukei Tosefot... Rav Hananel... M'soret HaShas... Ein Mishpat... Ner Mitzvah. Chesed Avraham. Yosef ShmuelRabeinuAsherpeirushhamishnayotl'harambamtiferetshmuelyafeheinayim... And the Rif. The table of contents boasts over 140 commentaries. Somehow I am not quite sure that I will ever be able to use them, or even to identify them.

It is time to study. We leave the classroom for the Beit Midrash. I sit opposite my chevruta, as each of the commentators must have done. I want to say the tefillah for entering the Beit Midrash, the prayer before study, but I don't know it. I dare to ask my chevruta; I am both relieved and disappointed to find that he doesn't know it either. I think of Rabbi Nehumia (Mishna Berachot, 4:2), and hope that my ignorance will not be the butt of jokes. And so we begin.

He reads, I read. He reads, I read. We try to understand. The logic is complex, the language unintelligible at times. We turn to Rashi for help. Halfway through the day's material. Three-quarters. Our teacher comes over to see how we are doing. He asks a question about the first line of the Gemara. We flounder, unable to answer. We try again, from the beginning.

It is a relief to return to the classroom to go over the material we fought with in chevruta. Things begin to make sense. The words that whirled in confusion in the Beit Midrash fall together into sentences, ideas, and arguments. The logic becomes clear, then evident, crisp like the printed words on the page. It's not so threatening when laid open before me. I gain enough confidence to ask a question. My teacher points to Tosefot for the answer. I reassure myself. It must have been a good question, a wise question, if the commentaries ask it as well. Must have been.

When I can't understand the answer, I'm not quite sure I believe that.

Lo ha-bayshan lomed. The shy student learns not. Amen.


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