July 20, 2024
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Medical Discovery: Talmudic Study Methods Work Best

Modern medicine has made an amazing discovery: Medical students who team up have a better chance of making the right diagnosis.

As MedPage Today reported, medical students who worked in pairs to solve diagnostic problems were more likely to arrive at the correct diagnosis than those who worked alone.

In a research letter published in the prestigious JAMA, The Journal of the American Medical Association, a team led by Dr. Wolf E. Hautz and Juliane E. Kammer, PhD reported that those who worked together arrived at the correct diagnosis 18 percent more often. “Collaboration may have helped correct errors, fill knowledge gaps, and counteract reasoning flaws,” they wrote. “The results showed that pairs were more accurate than individuals—67.78 percent versus 50 percent, for [a] difference of 17.78 percent. The study also measured time to diagnosis and the students’ confidence that they had arrived at the correct answer. The pairs needed 2:02 minutes longer than individuals to reach a diagnosis, but the tests they selected would have taken 6:15 minutes less time.”

The physicians have “discovered” the Chavruta, the ancient Jewish reciprocal peer-guided buddy system for studying Talmud. The Aramaic term chavruta means friendship or companionship from the Aramaic form of haver. It is commonly used to refer to two people studying Jewish texts together. The objective is not to “be right,” but to establish the truth. Ideally, chavruta learning is preparatory or for review.

The Talmud is in favor.

“Two scholars sharpen one another” (Babylonia Talmud Ta’anit 7a).

Even more provocatively, the Tannah Honi ha-M’agel (the Circle-maker) said, in the first century BCE, “O havruta o mituta” (BT Ta’anit 23a). Paraphrasing Patrick Henry’s “Give me liberty or give me death,” said in a speech he made to the Virginia Convention on March 23, 1775, at St. John’s Church in Richmond, Virginia, Dr. Jacob Neusner imaginatively renders Honi’s phrase as “Give me havruta or give me death.”

“When two scholars of Torah listen to one another, God hears their voices,” says the Talmud (Shabbat 63a). Conversely, the Talmud (Makkot 10a) interprets “Cherev el habadim v’no’alu,” (Jeremiah 50:36) “a sword should be taken to the sorcerers (liars) who become fools” as a curse on those who study all alone.

Rav Ashi said: “Anyone who loves to learn in public, that is his reward.” And this is [similar to] what Rabbi Yose bar Rabbi Hanina said: “What is that which is written, ‘The sword on the sorcerers (badim), that they be made fools of!’ (Jeremiah 50:36)? A sword on the necks of those who hate the students of the Sages who sit and busy themselves with Torah alone (bad ve-bad). And that is not all, for they are foolish! It is written here ‘that they be made fools of’ (Jeremiah 50:36), and it is written there ‘that we have done foolishly’ (Numbers 12:11). And that is not all, for they are sinners! As it says, ‘and that we have sinned’ (Numbers 12:11).”

Chavruta (peer teaching) can be traced back to Aristotle’s use of archons, or student leaders, and to the letters of Seneca the Younger. It was first organized as a theory by Scotsman Andrew Bell in 1795, and later implemented into French and English schools in the 19th century.

There is a long history of approval of the Chavruta method.

Don Isaac Avravenel (1437–1508), the famous rabbi, financier and diplomat, interprets the imperative “Make for yourself a rabbi and acquire for yourself a friend” (Mishnah Avot1:6) as meaning that one should learn both with a teacher and with another student as a chavruta. He explains that everyone has doubts at times or is confused regarding how to interpret the text. However, sometimes one is embarrassed to bring his questions to his rabbi. At these times, one can bring these questions to another student. Another student can clarify and sharpen one’s understanding of the text and can provide a different valuable perspective on that text.

Ovadiah Seforno, a 16th-century Italian rabbinic commentator, interprets verses in Kohelet (Ecclesiastes 4:10-11) “For if they fall, the one will lift up his fellow; but woe to him that is alone when he falls, and has not another to lift him up” as referring to study in pairs. “Two are better off than one, in that they derive greater benefit from their efforts. Two people learning together are better than one learning alone, because if one makes a mistake, the other will correct him, whereas if one learns alone there will be no one to correct him,” Rabbi Ovadya notes.

Lately, chavruta learning is not just for Jews. Congregations Magazine, a publication of Duke Divinity School ran an article about “Our Practice of Havruta,” two-hour weekly practice of “Christian havruta” in Boston, which they call “doing havruta.” They believe it is “a practice that is spiritually sustaining for clergy and laity who together are transformed into a community of interpretation.”

But why has Chavruta learning endured the test of time? After all, it is recommended, but not in the Torah, and not mandated by the rabbis.

One learned answer has been given by Orit Kent who published “A Theory of Havruta Learning,” a scholarly analysis of the benefits of learning b’chavruta. Together with Dr. Elie Holzer of Bar Ilan, she has also written a whole book on the subject, A Philosophy of Havruta: Understanding and Teaching the Art of Text Study in Pairs (Jewish Identities in Post-Modern Society).

I think the main reason it has endured is that it works.

Here’s why:

Repetition helps. Practice (deliberative practice in scientific terms) hastens and deepens the engagement of the learning process. It is enhanced greatly by repetition. As Hillel notes in the Talmud, (Haggigah 9b): but there is a great difference between one who has reviewed his learning 100 times to one who has reviewed it 101 times. The classic learning method is to prepare with a chavruta and learn from the Magid Shiur (the person who gives the lecture in the Bet Misrash), followed by a hazara shiur (review) with the chavruta afterwards.

Skills fade from non-use. The phenomenon is often referred to as being “out of practice.” Practice is therefore performed (on a regular basis) to keep skills and abilities honed. This was one of the insights of Rabbi Meir Shapiro who invented the daily Daf Yomi cycle for page-a-day daily Talmud study in 1923. With 2,711 pages in the Talmud, one Daf Yomi cycle takes about 7 years, 5 months. We are now in the middle of the 13th cycle. The innovation inspired similar programs such as daily study programs for key texts of Judaism. These include Mishnah Yomit (the daily study of Mishnah), Nach Yomi (the daily study of Nevi’im and Ketuvim) and Mussar Yomi (the daily study of Mussar literature). In 1980 the Gerrer Rebbe introduced Yerushalmi Yomi, a daily schedule for completing the entire Jerusalem Talmud, and in 1984 the Lubavitcher Rebbe introduced Mishneh Torah Yomi, a daily study schedule for Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah, Sefer Yad ha-Hazaka, which covers all the material in a yearly cycle.

Such programs and the chavruta method are successful because human beings, by nature, are social animals, as Hashem observed in Genesis 2:18: “The Lord God said, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.’” Learning in pairs or small groups is provably more effective than learning by oneself. It is not for nothing that chavruta is derived from chaver, a friend. As one blogger wrote, “One of my favorite parts about having a chavruta is I get to disagree and argue with him. What makes this argument special is neither of us want to be ‘right’ because we both want the truth. So when we disagree we ask each other ‘why?’ and then we end up learning from each other as we explain why we think what we think, and explore the strength and weakness of our reasoning, and come to new understandings through our minds coming together.”

I opened with medical learning b’chavruta. There is a connection to this use of chavruta in the Talmud (Moed Katan 27b). The reference is to groups (societies) visiting the sick and burying the dead. Our term Chevra Kadisha, the society for burying the dead, derives from this Talmudic reference.

Learning and studying (in pairs or groups) is indistinguishable from other communal obligations such as caring for the sick, giving tzedaka and burying the dead, and should be practiced communally rather than in splendid isolation, when community members reinforce each other, even in the “we’re all connected” internet age.

David E. Y. Sarna is a writer and retired entrepreneur. He has eight published books including Evernote For Dummies, V2, hundreds of articles, and has nearly completed his first novel, about the Jewish treasures in the Vatican’s secret archive. He is hard at work on a book about the Internet of Things and also on a book on the Talmud for general readers. He and his wife, Dr. Rachel Sarna, are long-time Teaneck residents.


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