Skip to main content

Why Learn Gemara?

Text file

Early in his essay, “Why Should I Be Moral?” F. H. Bradley takes issue with the usual formulation of its topic. “But here,” he observes, “the question seems strange. For morality (and she too is reason) teaches us that, if we look on her only as good for something else, we never in that case have seen her at all. She says that she is an end to be desired for her own sake, and not as a means to something beyond. Degrade her, and she disappears; and, to keep her, we must love her and not merely use her.”[1]
The question, that is, seems not only strange but unethical. The implication that morality can be subservient to any other end contravenes the essence of ethical idealism. Analogously, the quest for a raison d’etre par excellence for Torah study may be regarded as an anti-Torah initiative. Hazal, we recall, incorporated the aspiration that Torah be learned lishmah into the central birkat Ha-Torah, the blessing over Torah study recited daily by an observant Jew.
In one sense, to be sure, the query is perfectly in order. We use the term “why” in two distinct modes. At times, we ask it with respect to a phenomenon we fully accept (if indeed it requires acceptance), but whose causal base we seek to discover. We might ask why Wilson entered the First World War or why rainbows only appear after rain. Alternatively, however, we pose the question in a spirit of challenge and demand, perhaps even of reproach, on the implicit assumption that at some level, the reality ought to be different, and requires vindicating exposition. A mother who wants to know why her adolescent daughter’s room is so messy is not seeking information; she is remonstrating. The taxpayer who asks why his bill is higher than his neighbor’s is, in effect, challenging the assessor; and he is demanding relief rather than reasons. Sadly, however, “Why learn gemara?” is asked by many of its students today, explicitly or subliminally, in both senses, even in certain segments of the yeshiva world.
What is even more disturbing, many find no satisfactory answer. Of these, some drop out, others plod on, but both groups cry out for some response. Perhaps someone like myself, steeped from childhood in the world of Abbaye and Rava, passionately devoted to exploring and explicating it, is not equipped to provide the response. Camus apart, what would we answer if asked, “Why live?” But then again, perhaps it is precisely those who have never truly wrestled with the issue who are best suited to allay such concerns.
Like Mah Nishtannah, this simple single query is reducible to at least four distinct questions. First, why study extensively at all, rather than do something more productive or enjoyable? Second, if intellectual pursuit, must it be Torah? Third, assuming that one is committed to talmud Torah, ought not priority be assigned to scriptural devar Torah or even to mahshavah? Finally, allowing for the primacy of Halakhah, why focus upon gemara, relatively arcane and abstruse, rather than upon Mishnah, Mishneh Torah, or Mishnah Berurah? For my present purposes, however, I shall assume an audience impervious to Philistinism and normatively committed to Torah study – and hence unperturbed by the first two issues. I shall focus, therefore, upon the last two questions, distinct and yet interrelated, of the centrality of Halakhah and gemara, respectively.
The preeminence of the study of Halakhah is indeed surprising, if not anomalous. A priori – and certainly, in light of comparisons with the derivative and kindred Christian and Islamic cultures – one would have expected primacy to be assigned to other areas. These might include such disciplines as theology and philosophy, grounded in the critical issues of religious thought, or scriptural and liturgical texts, which presumably stir passions and elevate the soul. With reference to general education, particularly in the vein of וכל בניך לימודי ה', whether on the adolescent or the adult plane, we might have assumed that it would be oriented to the existential and experiential needs of homo religiosus, and that institutions of learning would be tailored accordingly. Who but a scholarly legist would wrinkle his brow over the niceties of canon law or the sharia?
Nevertheless, our traditional emphasis upon the study of Halakhah is thoroughly understandable. It is fully consonant with the nature of Jewish religious experience and rooted in our collective existence. Without doubt, the Jew, like other people, confronts the Ribbono shel Olam as redeemer, benefactor, and judge. Primarily, however, he encounters Him as commander. Jewish sensibility is pervasively normative. The Jew is, first and foremost, a summoned being, charged with a mission, on the one hand, and directed by rules, on the other. The message addressed to him ranges from the comprehensive to the minute; but whatever its scope, it is normative in character.
In one sense, Judaism has brought this perspective to bear upon universal human existence. Moreover, it has done so even with reference to presumably neutral areas. The point is strikingly illustrated by a sequence of several pesukim in Bereshit. Having concluded the account of the creation of man with the statement that he was positioned in Edenלעבדה ולשמרה , “to till it and to superintend it,” the Torah continues:
ויצו ה' א־להים על־האדם לאמר מכל עץ־הגן אכל תאכל. ומעץ הדעת טוב ורע לא תאכל ממנו כי ביום אכלך ממנו מות תמות.
And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, “Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat; but of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, you shalt not eat of it; for in the day that you eat thereof you shall surely die.”[2]  
Prima facie, the command relates only to the prohibition against eating from the tree of knowledge, with all other trees remaining beyond the pale of command. And yet the license to partake of them is subsumed under va-yetzav in order to emphasize that such indulgence is not the exercise of some natural right within a normative vacuum, but the subject of express permission granted by a commanding Taskmaster, whose directives relate, albeit in different ways, to the plane of reshut as well as that of mitzvah.
Nevertheless, both quantitatively and qualitatively, the normative aspect figures far more prominently in Jewish existence; and this with respect to the realm of mitzvah. The normative realm is, of course, the very stuff of Halakhah. Small wonder, then, that study of Halakhah, defined by Hazal as the quintessential devar Hashem,[3] has figured so prominently in collective talmud Torah.
On Hazal’s view, this relation to Halakhah lies at the heart of our covenantal existence. On the basis of a fine inference from a command issued to Mosheh Rabbenu after the reconciliation culminating in the issuing of the second luhot, Rav Yohanan states:
לא כרת הקב"ה ברית עם ישראל אלא בשביל דברים שבעל פה, שנאמר "כי על פי הדברים האלה כרתי אתך ברית ואת ישראל".
The Holy One, blessed be He, established a covenant with Israel only due to the oral matters, as the verse states, “For on the basis of these words I have established a covenant with you and with Israel” (Shemot 34:27).[4]
These “oral matters” are essentially halakhic. Whereas the written text is an amalgam of the literary and the legislative, with narrative and normative sections interlaced, Torah she-be’al peh, whether as interpretation or as accretion, is overwhelmingly halakhic. And it is this component that Rav Yohanan defined as the basis of our covenantal relation to the Ribbono shel Olam.
A well-worn midrash, familiarized by the opening Rashi on Bereshit, goes remarkably further:
אמר רב יצחק: לא היה צריך להתחיל את התורה אלא מהחודש הזה לכם שהיא מצוה ראשונה שנצטוו בה ישראל, ומה טעם פתח בבראשית?
Rabbi Yitzhak stated: The Torah ought to have begun with “This month shall be unto you” (Shemot 12:2), which is the first mitzvah that was commanded to Israel. Why does it open, then, with “In the beginning”?[5]
The answer – that this opening, and the entire first quarter of the Torah, was incorporated for forensic purposes, in order to fend off Gentile critics by providing the legal, moral, and theological rationale for our occupancy of Eretz Yisrael – has radical implications. Clearly, Rabbi Yitzhak assumed that Torah, as guide and directive, is intrinsically confined, by definition, to Halakhah.[6] Whatever else is included – cosmology, history, philosophy – requires an ancillary rationale. This startling thesis troubled the Ramban, who modified it with the suggestion that the thrust of the inference was that non-halakhic elements, while essential, could have been encapsulated in the text in general outline, with their amplification to be transmitted orally for the cognoscenti.[7] Rashi, however, presumably accepted the thesis in its bald form; and at the very least, we are left with Rabbenu Bahye’s formulation:
והכוונה לומר כי כיון שהמצות הן עיקר התורה לא היה ראוי להיות פתח דבריה של תורה כי אם במצוה.
The intent is that inasmuch as the mitzvot are the main part of the Torah, it should have opened with nothing else.[8]
The emphasis upon the study of Halakhah has these objective and subjective aspects. The Rav zt”l, in the early sections of Ish Ha-Halakhah, understandably focused upon the former. Drawing upon an analogy to mathematical thought, he portrays halakhic man as building a comprehensive ideal construct that serves, inter alia, as a theoretical model for a correlative halakhic order relating to every aspect of mundane reality. To this end, he cites a striking comment from the Tanya:
כשאדם מבין ומשיג איזה הלכה במשנה או בגמרא לאשורה על בוריה הרי שכלו תופס ומקיף אותה וגם שכלו מלובש בה באותה שעה והנה הלכה זו היא חכמתו ורצונו של הקב"ה שעלה ברצונו שכשיטעון ראובן כך וכך דרך משל ושמעון כך וכך, יהיה הפסק ביניהם כך וכך, ואף אם לא היה ולא יהיה הדבר הזה לעולם לבוא למשפט על טענות ותביעות אלו מכל מקום מאחר שכך עלה ברצונו ובחכמתו של הקב"ה שאם יטעון זה כך וזה כך יהיה הפסק כך הרי כשאדם יודע ומשיג ותופס ומקיף בשכלו רצונו וחכמתו של הקב"ה דלית מחשבה תפיסא ביה.
When a person properly and soundly understands and grasps any Halakhah from the mishnah or the gemara, his mind grasps and comprehends it – and at the same time is enveloped by it. For this Halakhah is the wisdom and will of the Holy One, blessed be He, as it has been established by His will that, for instance, when Reuven shall claim such-and-such, and Shimon such-and such, that the decision shall be such-and-such. And even though it never has and never shall come to pass that such a case, with respect to these claims and demands, shall be adjudicated, nevertheless, since it is the divine will and wisdom that if one shall contend such, and the other such, the decision shall be such, [then] when one knows and grasps this decision with his mind as a Halakhah set forth in the Mishnah, the gemara, or the poskim, he grasps and seizes upon and comprehends with his mind the will and wisdom of the Holy One, blessed be He, who is beyond [human] thought.[9]
The prospect is exhilarating, the claim possibly audacious; and yet, in a sense, the Rav’s approach is limited in scope. The demiurgic enterprise is clearly the provenance of master-builders, and it is of them that the essay speaks. Can its categories be readily applied to an adolescent struggling to master recalcitrant texts, or even to the average Kollel student wending his way through Yoreh De’ah? On the subjective plane, however, the experience of hearing the magisterial commanding voice and of responding to its normative call is open to all. Given the requisite intellectual commitment and emotional relation, every student of Halakhah is exposed once again to his Master’s commanding presence. Each page is a potential source of regenerative Antaean return to Sinaitic roots.
The point is amply illustrated by a singular exposition of the Rambam, drawn, perhaps surprisingly, from Hilkhot Hagigah. Explaining the mitzvah of hakhel, he writes:
מצוה עשה להקהיל כל ישראל אנשים ונשים וטף בכל מוצאי שמיטה בעלותם לרגל ולקרות באזניהם מן התורה פרשיות שהן מזרזות אותן במצות ומחזקות ידיהם בדת האמת.
It is a positive commandment to convene all of Israel, men, women, and children, at the conclusion of the Sabbatical year, when they make their festival pilgrimage, and to read in their ears from the Torah, portions that quicken them with respect to mitzvot and which strengthen them with reference to the true faith.[10]
Subsequently, he enumerates the portions to be read – all from Devarim:
מהיכן הוא קורא? מתחילת חומש אלה דברים עד סוף פרשת שמע ומדלג לוהיה אם שמוע וגו' ומדלג לעשר תעשר וקורא מעשר תעשר על הסדר עד סוף ברכות וקללות עד מלבד הברית אשר כרת אתם בחורב ופוסק.
From where does he read? From the beginning of the humash of Devarim until the end of the portion of Shema [1:1–6:9]; he then skips over to the portion of Ve-hayah im shamo’a [11:13–21]; and he skips to Asser te’asser [14:22], and he reads, consecutively, from asser te’asser until the conclusion of the Blessings and Curses, i.e., until “Apart from the covenant which He had made with them at Horeb” [14:22–28:69], and then he stops.[11]
Given the purpose posited by the Rambam, this list may seem surprising. The inclusion of the earlier and later segments is self-evident, as they deal directly with major theological cruces and the fundamental covenantal relation of Knesset Yisrael and the Ribbono shel Olam. By far the largest item, however, is the section from asser te’asser until the Blessings and Curses – roughly, the middle third of Devarim, and unquestionably its halakhic core. Are detailed accounts of the laws concerning tithes, firstling sacrifices, judicial appointments, and pawnbroking the optimal vehicle for quickening observance and reinforcing commitment? But that is precisely the point.
The Rambam’s view is elucidated and sharpened in a subsequent Halakhah, in which he explains how hakhel is to be experienced.
וגרים שאינן מכירין חייבין להכין לבם ולהקשיב אזנם לשמוע באימה ויראה וגילה ברעדה כיום שניתנה בו בסיני. אפילו חכמים גדולים שיודעים כל תורה כולה חייבין לשמוע בכוונה גדולה יתרה ומי שאינו יכול לשמוע מכוין לבו לקריאה זו שלא קבעה הכתוב אלא לחזק דת האמת ויראה עצמו כאילו עתה נצטוה בה ומפי הגבורה שומעה.
And strangers who are not knowledgeable are obliged to prepare their hearts and bend their ears to hear, with tremor and fear, and with joy in trembling, as on the day that it [i.e., the Torah] was given at Sinai. Even great sages, who know all of the entire Torah, are obligated to listen with very great interest. And whosoever cannot hear shall attune his heart to this reading, for Scripture has instituted it only in order to strengthen the true faith. And he should envision himself as though he had just now been commanded it, and as if he were hearing it from the Almighty.[12]
Admittedly, perhaps neither the tremor nor the joy is felt with such force upon opening a gemara or a Shulhan Arukh. We are dealing, after all, with a septennial event. And yet, as a testimony to the direction in which proper study of Halakhah can and should lead, the Rambam’s formulation is impressive.
Realization of this potential is often predicated upon faith. And this in two senses. First, there must be faith – not mere verbal assent to dogmatic propositions, but genuine conviction and relation – in the Ribbono shel Olam and in Torah as His word. Contact with Him and with it must be sought and appreciated as a critical desideratum. Second, there should be a measure of faith in oneself – in personal readiness and openness to let the power of divine law instill, directly or osmotically, both knowledge and love. It is the weakness of this dual faith which lies at the heart of much of the malaise concerning intensive learning of Halakhah and gemara.
This, in turn, raises the question – critical in its own right, independent of our topic – of how the necessary faith can be intensified. With an eye to the dying David’s counsel to Shelomoh – ודע את א־לקי אביך ועבדהו בלב שלם ובנפש חפצה, “Know the God of your father, and serve Him with a whole heart and with a willing mind” (I Divrei Ha-Yamim 28:9) – one may suggest, with the utmost brevity, two directions. The first, in our context admittedly somewhat circular, is through deepening and enriching the study of devar Hashem – zeh Halakhah. Obviously, however, this approach presupposes a degree of sensitivity lacking in many, and hence is not always applicable, even to a committed populace. The second, then, is a range of intellectual and experiential elements that can speak more directly to a questing Jewish soul. The need, at times, for the latter, whether as complement or substitute, was recognized by no less ardent an advocate of halakhic study than Rav Hayyim Volozhyner, and that recognition is surely far keener today. Nevertheless, this is still radically different from any overall questioning of the spiritual value of the intensive study of Halakhah.
The implications for setting the priorities in Torah education are clear. To be sure, aggadah, too, is an integral aspect of Torah she-be’al peh. As students or educators, we are mindful of the Sifre’s admonition:
שלא תאמר למדתי הלכות די לי ת"ל כי אם שמור תשמרון את כל המצוה הזאת כל המצוה למוד: מדרש, הלכות ואגדות וכן הוא אומר למען הודיעך כי לא על הלחם לבדו יחיה האדם כי על כל מוצא פי ה' יחיה האדם אלו הלכות ואגדות.
Lest you say, “It is sufficient that I have learned halakhot,” Scripture states, “For if you shall diligently keep the whole of this commandment” (Devarim 11:22): “The whole of this commandment” – learn midrash, halakhot, and aggadot. Likewise, it is stated, “That He might make known to you that man does not live by bread only, but by every thing that proceeds out of the mouth of the Lord does man live” (Devarim 8:3): these are halakhot and aggadot.[13]
The study of aggadah is vital both as an essential facet of Torah per se and as a stimulus to religious commitment.
רצונך שתכיר מי שאמר והיה העולם, למוד הגדה שמתוך כך אתה מכיר את הקב"ה ומדבק בדרכיו.
“If you wish to know Him who spoke and the world came into being,” the Sifre counsels subsequently, “study aggadah, for thence you know God and cleave unto His ways.” And, of course, a significant segment of Shas is accordingly composed of aggadic materials.[14]
Nevertheless, the primary thrust of Torah she-be’al peh, far more than of written Torah, is clearly halakhic, and the normative imprint is broad and deep. Hence, its study constitutes an encounter with its magisterially commanding Giver even more than with the Creator of the cosmos.
We have heretofore focused upon doubts concerning the study of Halakhah. A second dragon remains to be slain, however. Why gemara? Why not, one repeats, Mishnah, Mishneh Torah, or the Mishnah Berurah? Why the convoluted dialectic of intermediate texts, and why not the alpha and omega of Torah she-be’al-peh, either its pristine core or current pesak?
The question is exacerbated by the difficulty entailed in learning gemara. This was already recognized by Hazal.
אמר רבי זירא אמר רב: מאי דכתיב "כל ימי עני רעים" זה בעל גמרא, "וטוב לב משתה תמיד" זה בעל משנה.
Rabbi Zera said in the name of Rav: What is it that is written, “All the days of the poor are bad” (Mishlei 15:15)?[15] This refers to a person of gemara. “But he that is of a merry heart has a constant feast” (ibid.). This refers to a person of Mishnah.[16]
As the Rashbam explains, the privation of the ba’al gemara derives from the strain entailed in mastering halakhot and their attendant difficulties: שממית עצמו לכוין הלכות ולתרץ הוויות,[17] “He kills himself in order to get the halakhot right and to resolve cruces.” In the post-talmudic era, however, far more rudimentary obstacles abound. Simply coping with an unwieldy, rambling, allusive, and convoluted text began to pose a formidable challenge. Consequently, much of the literary energy of the Gaonim and the early Rishonim, from the Ba’al Ha-She’iltot to Rashi and the Rashbam, was devoted to surmounting these obstacles, to bringing the gemara and its contents within reach of a wider audience – whether through systematization, contraction, explication, or recourse to simpler Hebrew.
Both the difficulties and the efforts to overcome them were noted by one of the most prominent of the Ramban’s disciples, Rav Aharon HaLevi. Sketching the background for his commentary on the Rif’s redaction of several massekhtot, he writes:
וגם עליה (=המשנה) יצאו עסקים סברות רבות ודקדוקים נבנה עליה התלמוד הבבלי שהם מים עמוקים דברים נעלמים וארוכים עד שקראוהו חכמים מחשכים ורוב הרוצים להכנס מצאו דלתותיו נעולות זולתי יחידים בדורות סגולות והתלמידים יעפים יצאו דחופים תחלוש דעתן מרוב המשא והמתן ואני בראותי כי היגיעה רבה והגמרא סוגרת ומסוגרת ואין יוצא ואין בא חברתי ספר קראתיו נזר הקודש על דרך הגמרא ועם כל זה דרכי התלמוד נעלמים בחותם צר סתומים וכל הדברים יגיעים ואין הכל זוכים להיותם יומם ולילה קבועים ומפני טרחות הזמן למדים תורה לשעות ולרגעות ויש רבים צריכים דברים קצרים ופסקים מסודרים ישאו חן בעיניהם יאירו כספורים.
And upon it [i.e., the Mishnah] many claims were made, numerous thoughts and fine inferences out of which was built the Babylonian Talmud, which is deep water, consisting of obscure and lengthy matters, to the point that the sages denominated it as “[a place of] darkness.” Most of those who have sought to enter have found its gates shut, except for individuals in favored eras.… And students venture forth both fatigued and pressured, their thoughts sapped by the extensive dialectical discourse. So when I noted that the labor was great and the gemara [nevertheless remained] closed and shut, access and exit being generally barred, I composed a [commentary] work called Nezer Ha-Kodesh, following the order of the gemara.… And yet the ways of the Talmud are obscure, closed with a tight seal, and its matters are wearying, and not everyone is fortunate enough to have fixed daily and nightly periods [i.e., of Talmud study], and, because of their temporal travails, [most] learn Torah by hours and moments, and many need short summaries and orderly codes, such as find favor in their eyes, like radiant sapphires.[18]
For the average modern student, these problems have, if anything, worsened – all the more so because the gemara’s sequence and syntax are so different from his usual well-groomed intellectual fare. Why, then, the yeshiva world’s continued commitment to gemara?
In response, I believe we may single out at least four distinct and yet confluent factors. The first is its status as a primary – in a sense, in the world of Torah she-be’al peh, as the primary – text. On the one hand, in contrast with much of Mishnah, the gemara is not a compendium of inchoate factual or normative data. It is the arena within which raw material is analyzed and molded, within which bare bones are fleshed out and information transmuted into knowledge. On the other hand, at no point does it convey a sense of systematized accretion or summary digest. On every daf, one feels the freshness of virgin birth, the angular edge of rough terrain plowed and yet unplowed, the beck of meandering paths charted and yet uncharted. There is nothing distilled, nothing lacquered. The sense of challenge and concomitant invigoration is pervasive.
Contact with the terra firma of primary texts is of significant educational and intellectual value in any serious discipline – and, by and large, sorely lacking in the current academic climate. How many law students have ever seen Justinian or Coke – or, for that matter, surveyed Marbury vs. Madison? It is incalculably important, however, with respect to talmud Torah, whose study is enjoined as a religious experience rather than as a mere intellectual exercise. On the experiential plane, recourse to secondary or tertiary texts may simplify; but it almost certainly dilutes.
[The second factor:] Relation to the primary source is felt not only with respect to the text or its content. It is felt, in a personal vein, with regard to Hazal. To open a gemara is to enter into their overawing presence, to feel the force of their collective personality – and not as in a historico-critical mode, in order to pass judgment upon them, but so as to be irradiated and ennobled by them. It is to be exposed, with a sense of intimacy, not only to their discourse, exegesis, aphorisms, or anecdotes, but to themselves – at once engaging and magisterial, thoroughly human and yet overwhelming. To be sure, a sense of access to its masters could be attained from the texts of any given period. Intensive study of medieval poskim or of the Shulhan Arukh and its appendages would link us to the worlds of the Rambam and the Rama, respectively. But the gemara is clearly special. This is due, in part, to its structure as an arena within which the mind encounters a panoply of personages spanning successive generations. Primarily, however, it is attributable to Hazal’s unique stature. On the textual plane, they are, in a real sense, the alpha and omega of Halakhah, both primal fount and ultimate authority. We acknowledge them by dint of their being, with an eye to Justice Jackson’s distinction, both final because right and right because final; by virtue of the conjunction of their distinctive greatness and their historical position. For an aspiring ben Torah, linkage with them has particular significance; and it is best attained by learning gemara. Mishnah, which precedes, is relatively sparse and tentative; and whatever follows is relatively ancillary. It is not a question of limning biographical portraits. We obviously know far more of the Rama’s curriculum vitae than of Rava’s. At issue is feeling the pulsating presence of our masters in the primal forge of Torah she-be’al peh.
This point dovetails with a third factor, the substantive nature of gemara. We are accustomed to distinguishing between Torah she-bi’khtav as a fixed datum – graven in stone, inscribed upon parchment, its sanctity invalidated by the accretion or deletion of a single letter – and Torah she-be’al peh, sinuous, efflorescent, developmental. Asher natan lanu Torat emet, “Who has given us a Torah of truth,” explains the Tur, refers to the former, while, ve-hayyei olam nata betokheinu, “and eternal life He has implanted within us,” refers to the latter.[19] There is a further and parallel distinction pertaining to Mishnah and gemara within the world of Torah she-be’al peh. Defining the respective terms, Rashi explains, “Mishnah: as they [i.e., the texts] are formulated with no reason set forth in them.” Gemara, by contrast, he identifies with hokhmah, explaining that it expounds: סברת טעמי המשנה ולהבין שלא יהו סותרות זו את זו וטעמי איסור והיתר והחיוב והפטור והוא נקרא גמרא, “the rationale of the Mishnah’s reasons, [enables us] to understand them in such a manner as to not contradict one another, and the reasons for what is proscribed and licit, obligatory and exempt.”[20]
As such, it was defined by Hazal and the Rishonim as a reliable guide to practical observance, “the rationale of the Mishnah’s reasons, from which instruction issues forth.”[21] Comparably, the Rambam contrasts the term Torah she-be’al peh – in his usage, the equivalent of Mishnah – as denominating a delimited corpus, with its elucidation and analysis in gemara. The student of the latter is actively engaged in an intellectual enterprise, both analytic and synthetic.
יבין וישכיל אחרית דבר מראשיתו ויוציא דבר מדבר וידמה דבר לדבר ויבין במדות שהתורה נדרשת בהן עד שידע היאך הוא עיקר המדות והיאך יוציא האסור והמותר וכיוצא בהן מדברים שלמד מפי השמועה. וענין זה הוא הנקרא גמרא.
He shall understand and perceive a conclusion from its inception, will extract one matter from another and compare one to another. He shall further understand the hermeneutic principles through which the Torah is expounded, to the point that he will apprehend the essence of these principles and how to extract the prohibited and the licit, and the like, from matters he has learned from the tradition. And this subject is that which is called gemara.[22]
In a word, Mishnah is the given Torat emet of the oral tradition, and gemara its implanted hayyei olam.
The ramifications for personal talmud Torah are obvious – and far-reaching. Relatively speaking, the study of Mishnah per se is passive, at times even submissive; that of gemara is vibrant. To open a sugya is to gain access to a world in ferment. It is to enter a pulsating bet midrash, studded with live protagonists; to be caught up, initially as witness and subsequently as participant, in a drama of contrapuntal challenge and response, of dialectic thrust and parry; to be stimulated by the tension of creative impulse; to be charged by the Sturm und Drang of milhamtah shel Torah. Once formidable textual barriers are surmounted, one is animated by a sense of movement and anticipation. Very little is pat. Learning becomes, in great measure, a quest for a captivating but frequently elusive truth that must be sought, and at times molded; and the student of gemara – alongside amoraim, Rishonim, and Aharonim – is privy to the process and part of the process. Gemara is quintessential hayyei olam; that is the crux of the difficulty and the glory of its study.
Admittedly, the term “gemara,” as derived by Rashi and the Rambam, need not refer to a specific text. It denotes a mode of study that is presumably also applicable in the course of learning Mishnah; and conversely, one could certainly transmute the Talmud into a clearly defined textual corpus, to be mastered and integrated as such. Nevertheless, there is a clear correspondence between the respective concepts and the texts. The apodictic character of a code encourages one intellectual mode, and the expansive record of its analysis and interpretation stimulates another. A context within which anecdote and proverb jostle with rigorous textual and legal analysis; within which the excitement of confrontation takes precedence over the lucidity of exposition, discourse over conclusion, debate over resolution – such is the fabric of the gemara. Hence, it exudes vitality and imposes a charge upon its students. More often than not, a sugya “ends,” as T. S. Eliot said of Henry James’s novels, like life itself: unfinished. Hazal themselves perceived the Bavli as a potpourri; and there is no question but that its structure can be the cause of frustration and confusion. “ ‘He has placed me in darkness like the world’s dead’ (Eikhah 3:6)” במחשכים הושיבנו כמתי עולם – “this,” commented Rav Yohanan, “refers to the Babylonian Talmud.”[23] Its very amorphousness also serves as a source of challenge and fascination. These are not, to be sure, ends in themselves. We fasten upon gemara not out of a quest for intellectual stimulation, but out of cleaving to devar Hashem. But to the extent that we are gripped and animated by its vitality, the stimulus attains religious significance.
This, in conclusion, brings us to the fourth element. Traditionally, Yahadut has stressed that talmud Torah is not to be perceived as a purely intellectual pursuit. It constitutes, rather, a dialogic encounter with Ribbono shel Olam. This is a truism of the yeshiva world and axiomatic to the existence of every serious ben Torah. Clearly, however, the nature of the encounter is a function of the character of one’s learning. When Rabbi Halafta ben Dosa Ish Kefar Hananyah spoke of the immanence of the Shekhinah in this context, he focused upon its presence among those who are yoshevim ve-osekim ba-Torah, “those who are sitting and engaged in Torah”[24] – not simply studying Torah but caught up by it. To the extent that one is more deeply and intensely involved, insofar as one’s being is more fully charged, one is more powerfully engrossed by the encounter, and presumably worthier of divine grace.
This engagement is optimally provided by gemara qua both text and method. As opposed to the relatively more passive nature of Mishnah, the dynamic character of gemara vibrantly energizes the student. The activated self is then more open to a more intensive relationship, religious as well as intellectual. I grant that the reverse is sometimes true. Rather than reinforce the dialogic element, milhamtah shel Torah may become a diversionary substitute for encounter. Properly pursued, however, the challenge of the enterprise can serve as a powerful engine to profounder kabbalat pnei Ha-Shekhinah.
On a practical plane, admittedly, much of the foregoing is not always applicable. Whatever the ideal priorities may be, we cannot be oblivious, in planning and implementing educational policy, to the differential concerns of varied populations. There are students who are turned off by the niceties of halakhic discourse and who thirst for the more direct confrontation with gut existential issues afforded by mahshavah or aggadah. Moreover, for some this is no mere predilection. The sustenance, or even the very continued existence, of their religious commitment may hinge, genuinely and perhaps desperately, upon dealing with these issues in extenso and in depth. Others, while attuned to a normative wavelength, may find the formidable barriers entailed in learning gemara virtually insuperable. Surely, it is arguable that for a certain student population – in some cases, sufficiently exposed to gemara to resent it but not given the wherewithal to appreciate it – a Mishnah-oriented curriculum would be preferable.[25] At the other end of the spectrum, there are segments of the Torah world for whom the primacy of gemara is so securely established that they suffer from a reverse imbalance – a paucity of experiential encounter which may result in spiritual desiccation; and were I addressing them, I would present a very different thesis. We ignore these elements at our peril. Nevertheless, it is important that ideal traditional priorities be understood and defined, so that we can perceive which course to prefer and, optimally, encourage.
“Why learn gemara?” Would that the question did not arise, we might respond, at least not in its currently prevailing form. Would that the amalgam of confusion, drift, discouragement, and frustration that frequently animates groping students were not part of our educational scene. Inasmuch as these elements do lamentably exist, however, they need to be forthrightly addressed, so that rabbanan and talmideihon alike would be better equipped to cope with them.
Finally, in a more positive vein, the question may also be asked by bnei Torah who are fully committed, intellectually and emotionally, to the study of gemara, and yet seek to define the basis of their aspiration. Even when there is no felt need for an apologia or raison d’etre to shore up personal learning, a richer understanding of its import may very well enhance it. For those who are fortunate enough to experience the power and glory of havvayot de-Abbaye ve-Rava, there may still be benefit in a more perceptive insight into how and why they are, preeminently, hayyenu ve-orekh yameinu.
[This essay originally appeared in Rav Lichtenstein’s Leaves of Faith: The World of Jewish Learning (Jersey City, 2003), pp. 1-17, and is reprinted with permission.]

[1] See his Ethical Studies (New York, 1951), p.3 (reprint: Oxford, 1988, p. 58).
[2] Bereshit 2:15-16.
[3] See Shabbat 138b. It should be noted, however, that the gemara there also applies the term
to prophecy and, much to Rashi’s surprise, to eschatalogy.
[4] Gittin 60b.
[5] Bereshit 1:1. The midrash appears in several places. See the note in A. Berliner, Rashi al Ha-Torah (Frankfurt, 1905), p. 424.
[6] See, however, in contrast, Midrash Tehillim 78:1:
שלא יאמר לך אדם אין מזמורות תורה אלא תורה הם ואף הנביאים תורה לפיכך משל האזינה עמי תורתי ולא הדברות בלבד אלא אף החידות והמשלות תורה הם וכן הקב"ה אמר ליחזקאל בן אדם חוד חידה ומשול משל וכן שלמה אמר להבין ומליצה דברי חכמים וחידותם.
ויש לשאול בה כי צורך גדול הוא להתחיל התורה בבראשית ברא אל־קים כי הוא שורש האמונה ושאינו מאמין בזה וחושב שהעולם קדמון הוא כופר בעיקר ואין לו תורה כלל (בראשית א, א).
See also his derashah, “Torat Hashem Temimah,” in Kitvei Ha-Ramban (Jerusalem, 1963), 1:144–150.
[8] From the introduction to his commentary on the Torah, in Rabbenu Bahye: Be’ur al Ha-Torah, ed. Rabbi C. B. Chavel (Jerusalem, 1982), p. 12.
[9] Cited from Likkutei Amarim, chap. 5, in איש ההלכה – גלוי ונסתר (Jerusalem, 5739), p. 33. It may be worthy of note that in the sentence preceding the citation, the Rav points in another direction: גם בעל ההלכה וגם המתימטיקאי חיים בתחום אידיאלי ונהנים מזיו יצירתם. This formulation focuses upon the gratification of the creative mind rather than the religious impulse of the questing soul.
[10] Hilkhot Hagigah 3:1.
[11] Hilkhot Hagigah 3:3.
[12] Hilkhot Hagigah 3:6.
[13] Sifre, Ekev 12, on Devarim 11:22. In this context, as in many others in Hazal, the term “midrash” does not have its later homiletic connotation, but refers to hermeneutic exegesis.
[14] Ibid., sec. 13.
[15] The Jewish Publication Society version renders רעים as “evil.” This seems to me to be excessively sharp. In any event, it is certainly inconsistent with the gemara’s discussion in this context, and I therefore prefer the milder epithet, “bad.”
[16] Bava Batra 145b.
[17] Bava Batra 145b, s.v.זה בעל גמרא .
[18] Pekudat Ha-Levi’im (reprinted, Jerusalem, 1962), p. 11.
[19] Orah Hayyim 139. Cf., however, Sefer Ravyah 1:181, who argues that ve-hayyei olam refers to שאר מצוות וגמילות חסדים שישראל עוסקים בהם תדיר, and rejects the view that the phrase refers to Torah, as in that case it would be redundant. See also Beth Ha-Levi al Derush u-Milei de-Aggadata, p. 130, who regards the berakhah before Keri’at Ha-Torah as referring to the Written Torah, and that which follows as referring exclusively to Torah she-be’al peh.
[20] Bava Mezia 33a, s.v. mishnah and she-limmedo hokhmah. Here Rashi speaks of gemara as dealing with both primary and secondary questions, i.e., with the exposition of rationale as well as the resolution of contradiction. Subsequently (ibid., s.v. gemara) he emphasizes the latter.
[21] Rashi, Berakhot 5a, s.v. zeh gemara. See, however, Bava Batra 130b. It should be emphasized, however, that in some contexts the term “gemara” is juxtaposed to “sevara.” In these, it refers to the base material of tradition, as opposed to its analysis and interpretation. See, e.g., Sanhedrin 36b.
[22] Hilkhot Talmud Torah 1:11.
[23] Sanhedrin 24a.
[24] Avot 3:6. Cf., however, ibid. 3:2, which speaks, more amorphously, of the mediating presence of Torah: אבל שנים שיושבין ויש ביניהם דברי תורה שכינה ביניהם.
[25] I have dealt with some of these issues in במשך היובל: חמישים שנה למדרשית נועם (Tel Aviv, 5756), pp. 160–167 [translated in Notes from ATID: Talmud Study in Yeshiva High Schools (Jerusalem, 2007)].

This website is constantly being improved. We would appreciate hearing from you. Questions and comments on the classes are welcome, as is help in tagging, categorizing, and creating brief summaries of the classes. Thank you for being part of the Torat Har Etzion community!