Reviewing: “Bright Beginnings Workbook Eilu Metzios Vol. 1” by Rabbi Aaron Spivak/Rabbi Yakov Horowitz. Israel Book Shop. 2018. Paperback. 128 pages. ISBN-13: 978-0996349765.
Imagine a fifth grader and telling them that they are about to start studying Beowulf in depth. If the 11-year-old would protest that they don’t fully understand the language, they might be told that the West Saxon dialect of Old English is just an earlier version of modern English. An issue is that such an approach is quite challenging for most students.
The experience may be similar for Many students in American yeshivas today, who often start Talmud (Gemara) study as young as age 10. With the text in a foreign language (Mishnaic Hebrew and Babylonian Aramaic), no initial semblance of organization, a complete lack of modern punctuation, and more make for a challenging introductory experience.
A solution to the problem is found in the first volume of the Bright Beginnings series of Gemara workbooks. The first workbook came out in 2016 and is the fourth chapter of Tractate Brachos, produced by Rabbi Yakov Horowitz and authored by Rabbi Aaron Spivak. The workbook is meant for the student new to Gemara study (be they 10 years old or 50) such that after mastering the basics they will find it to be an enjoyable, yet challenging experience, as opposed to a bewildering one.
An edition just out in the Bright Beginnings series is the first volume for the second chapter of Bava Metzia (Bright Beginnings Publishing ISBN 978-0996349789) on the topic of Yiush She’ lo Mida’as. Like the previous volume, it takes a structured approach and slowly and gently introduces the student to the world of the Talmud.
The authors break topics into short and manageable lessons. Their goal is not to overwhelm the student with too much information.
Most of the chapters have a section called “put it all together,” where the topics and logic are reviewed, and the student is given an opportunity to read, translate and explain the Talmudic passage learned. This logical and procedural approach ensures that the students know the text, and won’t advance until they have mastered it.
While the book is geared for the late elementary and middle-school students, it’s also a useful resource for the high school student or adult who commenced Talmud study later in life. Those who teach introduction to Talmud would be derelict not to consider this workbook in their curriculum.
For most students learning Gemara for the first time, it is an overwhelming experience. They are flabbergasted by multiple foreign languages, texts without apparent organization, and the built-in assumptions that the Gemara expects them to already know. It’s no wonder that many students are turned off to Gemara.
In the Bright Beginnings series, the authors do a remarkable job of removing the overwhelming feeling to make the text much more enjoyable. The effective use of pictures, diagrams and flowcharts enables this.
The importance of a book like this can’t be overstated, as a student who commences Talmud study on the wrong foot and the wrong direction will find their path fraught with frustration. This series ensures that when it comes to Gemara study, no one is left behind.
Ben Rothke lives in New Jersey and works in the information security field. He reviews books on religion, technology and science. @benrothke