My Dear Rabbi Talmudic Advice Column for November 2014: Is Skimming the Talmud Kosher?

Dear Rabbi: Your Talmudic advice column

Dear Rabbi,

My friend gets up early every morning to study a daily Talmud page. By doing this he will go through the entire Talmud in seven years. His daily lesson lasts 30 minutes.

I know the value Judaism places on Torah study, but I wonder about the quality of such hurried study. In my experience the contents of the Talmud are complex and nuanced. Of what benefit is it to rapidly recite passages and to speed-read through their meanings?

Skim Free in New Milford

Dear Skim,

You touch on a sensitive issue. Many Jews believe that learning Talmud is the epitome of studying Torah. In turn they consider that practice to be the apex of all the commandments. Torah-study is an enriched ritual because serious learning may lead to inner cognition, to increased knowledge, and even to expertise. The highest goal of Talmud study is to become a lamdan—a learned master of the Talmud.

With that in mind, let me pose a few pointed talmudic questions to extend your inquiry. Can anyone become a lamdan through Daf Yomi study alone? Unlikely. It often takes weeks of intensive study to get through the study of the Tosafot, Rishonim, and Achronim (i.e., the major commentaries) on a single side of a page of the Talmud.

And it is fair to ask, What is the content retention rate of the average page-a-day-Talmud student? Probably low. And so if they do not become lamdanim, what do they get out of the daily study? We can reason that after seven and a half years of plowing through every page of the Talmud, some of them do absorb a great deal, while others actually retain little and remain unenlightened about the bulk of the contents of the Talmud.

Does everyone who accomplishes the goal of going through the whole Talmud feel good about themselves? Probably yes. To use sports metaphors, even those who do not run the whole race can feel a sense of accomplishment just by participating in a marathon. Even those who go to the practice batting cage to hit softballs can imagine they are at bat in a major league game in Yankee Stadium.

Of this we can be certain. The extensive time allotted daily to Talmud study is quite a hefty way for people to say to themselves and their families and communities: these are my precious values and I invest a lot of my time and energy in them.

Yes, frequent attendance at daf yomi or at other adult education opportunities in synagogues and communities are worthy endeavors. Please do keep in mind also that becoming a learned Jew through deeper toil and study is an even more worthy undertaking.

Rabbi Dr. Tzvee Zahavy was ordained at Yeshiva University and earned his Ph.D. in religious studies at Brown University. He has published several new Kindle Editions at Amazon.com, including “The Book of Jewish Prayers in English,” “Rashi: The Greatest Exegete,” “God’s Favorite Prayers” and “Dear Rabbi: The Greatest Talmudic Advice” which includes his past columns from the Jewish Standard and other essays.

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