June 23, 2024
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Studying Talmud: The Good, the Not-So-Good and How to Make Talmud More Accessible

Part: III Why Johnny Doesn’t Like Talmud, and What Can Be Done

This is the third part of a three-part series. We focused in Part I on the Talmudic essence. Part II considered the enormous growth in Talmudic study. In this Part III, we consider the barriers impeding greater Talmud study, and what can be done to remove them.


Tools and Resources

The ArtScroll edition, described in Part II, escaped many, but not all, of the criticisms hurled at Rabbi Steinsaltz. Firstly, it appeared years after the controversy engendered when the Steinsaltz Talmud was first published. By then people had gotten used to many of the innovations. Second, it printed the traditional daf on a page facing its commentary (thus accounting for its bulk; if its version took three pages, it would take up six, as the traditional page would be reprinted three times). Third, they took care to run a comprehensive PR campaign that included many approbations from well-known rabbis. It still is regarded by many as a crutch, however, and its use is rarely permitted in the yeshivot, except perhaps in the very elementary classes; its use is confined to home review and to balebatim (literally, homeowners, or heads of households, the term refers to lay people rather than scholars).

Tuvia Rotberg, owner of Tuvia’s Seforim, Judaica and Gifts, the noted Monsey, New York, bookseller, has been producing a standard edition of the Talmud, called Gemara Menukad, retaining tzurat hadaf but adding vocalization of the text, Rashi and Tosafot. To date, 26 of the most-studied tractates have been produced.

A charedi edition, the Metivta edition, published by the Oz ve-Hadar Institute, contains the full text in the same format as the Vilna-based editions, with a full explanation in modern Hebrew on facing pages as well as an improved version of the traditional commentaries.

Any of these tools is better for the student than merely relying on the pages from the standard Romm edition.

In any discussion about making the Talmud accessible, we would be remiss to ignore the groundbreaking 1952 publication of the Soncino Talmud (in English only), carefully edited by Rabbi Dr. Isidore Epstein, the dean of Jews College in London, and a team of scholars. Soncino Press never registered a copyright, and the entire text is available online at http://www.come-and-hear.com/talmud/, at http://halakhah.com/ and in a variety of formats at https://archive.org/details/TheBabylonianTalmudcompleteSoncinoEnglishTranslation and on a DVD-ROM at http://www.judaicapress.com/products/soncino-talmud. The Soncino edition was written in very British, legalistic English. It was originally published in English only; pirated editions added the traditional Vilna edition on facing pages and now a legitimate bilingual edition is available from the publisher. It too was banned in classrooms, but studied surreptitiously at home.

The late composer Andre Hajdu (1932-2016) even set a talmudic sugya to music.

The Association for Jewish Studies offers a useful web page of online Talmud study texts and tools at http://www.ajsnet.org/lern10fa.htm, maintained by Heidi Lerner, the Hebraica/Judaica cataloguer at Stanford University Libraries.


Still, Some Hate Talmud Study

It’s a fact that not all enjoy Talmud study, even when they are observant and committed Jews.

“I hate it,” one teen confessed to Michael Freund, a Jerusalem Post columnist and founder and chairman of Shavei Israel, about studying Talmud.

“It is boring and has nothing to do with my life… I don’t understand it. I can’t follow the text, and don’t see why we cannot just learn what the halacha is instead.”

Freund concluded that this situation arises (all too often) due to how Talmud is taught. “Clearly, a lot of tinkering needs to be done with how the Talmud is taught, especially to those who are more likely find it difficult,” he says.


Why Students Don’t Enjoy Talmud Study

The fact remains, however, that many students dislike Talmud study, all the luminaries who have studied it notwithstanding.

In a groundbreaking 1955 book, “Why Johnny Can’t Read: And What You Can Do About It,” Rudolf Flesch critiqued the then-trendy practice of teaching reading by sight, often called the “look-say” method. He was trying to combat the observable fact that many students were simply not learning to read. As a solution, Flesch advocated a revival of the phonics method, the teaching of reading by teaching learners to sound out words using rules. The book inspired Theodor Seuss Geisel (Dr. Seuss) to write “The Cat in the Hat” (1957).

The problems with Talmud study are not unrelated.

Moshe Abelesz, a teacher/administrator for the Lookstein Centre for Jewish Education and the Lookstein Virtual Jewish Academy, seriously studied the problems associated with Talmud study. He was advised by Rabbi Dr. Chaim Brovender. He reported his results in a 2000 paper, “Encouraging Successful Gemara Learning for Boys of Religious Zionist and Modern Orthodox Backgrounds in Israeli State Religious High Schools.”

Abelesz (who focused only on Israel) identified five problems that are really one:

Low per-hour pay rate for teachers and overall poor salaries.

Poor organization of schools.

Lack of structure within Israeli schools and the freedom they give their students.

Lack of a clear school ethos.

The problems can be summarized in two words: poor teaching.

Logically, Abelesz suggested these remedies: paying respectable salaries, while conceding that the schools need to be run effectively, with clear, unambiguous policies that ensure that both staff and pupils internalize the aims they are striving toward.

But I believe the more important and compelling part of his study was to identify the specific issues frustrating students when studying Talmud. He breaks these down into basic (internal) issues and external issues.

The internal issues include the:

Unfamiliar and often difficult language of the text.

Layout of the page and its lack of punctuation.

Brief nature of the “stam” (anonymous) portions of the Gemara, known as the Stam Gemara.

Structure of the Mishna, which can appear illogical to new students (it was intended for oral transmission, and so sometimes the arrangement is mnemotechnic.

Frequent tangents found in the Stam Gemara.

Significant required background information that must be understood prior to tackling each sugya (basic organizational unit).

Abelesz also identifies other, no less important, external issues, including:

Poor motivation due to the feeling that the Gemara is pointless and without value, as it is not a mandatory subject (in Israel) for the all-important matriculation examinations for entering Israeli universities (it is an elective).

The apparent hair-splitting and strange discussions that can make the sugyot (plural of sugya) sound “ridiculous” to the new student.

Time spent studying Talmud takes away from other subjects and their leisure.

Frustration over the small-volume pages of the Talmud that children cover each year.

Lack of external motivation, especially as parents are generally more interested in their children’s secular studies.

Talmud teachers’ own lack of familiarity with the text they are teaching.

A view that the Talmud is an elitist subject not meant to be studied by everybody, but universally required (at least for boys) in Jewish day schools and that this enforced democratization is harmful to some students.

Rabbi Dr. Avraham Walfish, renowned in the world of Jewish studies for his innovative studies of Mishnah and other classic rabbinic texts, has identified five major challenges that students face when studying Talmud:

Foreign language,

Unfamiliar writing style/mechanics,

A differing material and social environment,

A complicated logical system,

An unconvincing presumption of authority1

Thoughtful points all.

Prof. David Pelcovitz, a noted psychologist, called attention to this problem in the U.S., in an essay titled “The At-Risk Adolescent in the Orthodox Jewish Community: Implications and Interventions for Educators.”

So we have an apparent conundrum: The Talmud has been studied for 1,500 years by Jews and gentiles, some very famous, as we have seen. Talmud today is more studied (by far) than at any time in history. However, many students remain frustrated and dissatisfied; they walk away at the first opportunity.


Progress Has Been Made, but Problems Remain

Research is one answer.

In her 2016 Columbia PhD dissertation, “The Relevance of Text Structure Strategy Instruction for Talmud Study: The Effects of Reading a Talmudic Passage With a Road-Map of Its Text Structure,” Yael Jaffe investigated the effect of access to a visual outline of the text structure of a Talmudic passage on comprehension of that passage. She defined: “A text structure of Talmudic passages was designed by merging and simplifying earlier text structure systems described for Talmudic passages, following principles taken from research on text structure.” She then designed an experiment comparing traditional teaching with these same materials as well as with an outline of the text structure of that passage (the experimental condition). Her study concluded that the results provide evidence that awareness of the text structure of a Talmudic passage “helps readers when the passage is concrete and somewhat well organized.”

Tzvi Kanerk reached a similar conclusion in his 2002 study, “Teaching Talmud With Cognitive Maps in the Diverse Religious Public School System in Israel.” He found that “cognitive maps” that are based on a cognitive framework convey more information (think infographics) and increase retention. In fact, aides are found in the earliest printed editions of the Talmud. We can only hope that the use of proven visual aids will greatly increase.

While things aren’t perfect, much progress has demonstratively been made over the past 16 years since Abelesz’ study first appeared.

Some of the issues Abelesz raised have been addressed by the tools described above, especially punctuation, vocalization and on-page explanations.

These are not a panacea and more must be done. Most importantly, they can’t address bad teaching, which remains a big issue in many cases.

Deep content knowledge and excellence in teaching are the sine qua non, indispensable and essential. This is as true of Talmud education as in any serious education, and we can and must do better.

We acknowledge that some barriers Abelesz has identified still remain, and are close to intractable. It is unlikely that teachers’ salaries will ever be competitive with other professions requiring advanced study, such as finance, medicine, law and accounting. But the quality of teaching Talmud can be improved.


Improving the Quality of Talmud Education; Learning From Physics Education

The quality of education of future Talmud teachers can and must be improved.

There is proof it can be done successfully. For example, similar challenges exist with physics education. PhysTEC, a partnership between the American Physical Society (APS) and the American Association of Physics Teachers (AAPT) has as its mission “to improve and promote the education of future physics teachers.” In the 12 years since its inception, PhysTEC has had numerous, demonstrated successes. They have identified nine key elements that must exist within a supportive institutional context.

They include:




Institutional Commitment



Early Teaching Experiences

Pedagogical Content Knowledge

Learning Assistants

Induction and Mentoring

Some of the elements most obviously absent in preparing Talmud teachers are:

Pedagogical content knowledge (PCK) is subject-specific knowledge about teaching that includes student difficulties and prior conceptions, as well as content-specific instructional and assessment strategies. PCK has come to be recognized as a crucial element of what teachers need to be effective in the classroom. The best way for students to learn PCK is through a specialized course taught by someone who is an expert in PCK.

Subject-specific mentoring. Only an experienced Talmud teacher (not “scholar”) can help a novice teacher identify and address student difficulties and prepare appropriate lessons and activities. Subject-specific mentoring is critical in new teachers’ success in the classroom. In particular, Talmud training programs for teachers must lead to deep conceptual understanding of the Talmud and the ability to apply concepts to quantitative problems and real-life applications, bringing the Talmud pages to life.

Teacher-in-Residence (TIR). The linchpin of most successful teacher preparation programs around the country for physics is the teacher-in-residence, a master teacher responsible for recruiting, educating and supporting teachers of physics. The TIR is involved in nearly every aspect of the teacher-preparation program, and funding this critical position is one of the crucial challenges institutions face in building a successful program. TIRs for Talmud education are rare and vitally needed.


Studying Talmud Independently

We discussed the Daf Yomi in Part II. Studying the daily page is a wonderful and satisfying discipline. Experience shows that maximum benefit comes from attending a daily Daf Yomi group, led all over the world by a leader, the magid shiur. Often, Daf Yomi participants take turns at it; it may also be led by scholars. Learning in a Daf Yomi shiur is not a lecture but the best form of active learning. I have, in my travels, walked into such groups all over the world; I’ve always been warmly welcomed.

I realize this is not always possible. Next best is learning with a study buddy, a chavruta. I have previously written that the AMA determined that the chavruta system works best for medical study. Self-study is toughest and most likely to be abandoned. It requires tremendous discipline and persistence and, without the human interaction, is less satisfying. But it is possible. There are a myriad of pre-recorded Daf Yomi lectures. Some resources I have found helpful are RealClear Daf, Rav Adin Steinsaltz’ Today’s Daf; the Orthodox Union’s Daf Yomi Resources site redirects automatically to the current daf. DafNotes promises (and delivers) a “quicky” review of the daf in under 20 minutes a day. If you have the time, Shas Illuminated offers more in-depth study, delving into the main commentaries and super-commentaries. DafYomi.org, by Rabbi Dovid Grossman, rosh yeshiva of Yeshivas Hachaim of Los Angeles, a post-high-school beit midrash, offers the daily daf in a variety of online and downloadable formats. Chabad has a comprehensive website with classes, in-depth lectures, overviews and more on the Talmud to students with varying levels of proficiency.

Finally, there are dictionaries. “The Practical Talmud Dictionary” by Rabbi Yitzhak Frank is authoritative, well regarded and beautifully published by the Ariel Institute. I prefer the English and Hebrew edition, written with Rabbi Ezra Zion Melamed. Aryeh Carmell’s little book, “Siyyata LeGemara (Aiding Talmud Study)” contains key Aramaic words, phrases and abbreviations, with English translation. It includes Rabbi Shmuel haNagid’s “Introduction to the Talmud,” in English. The New Improved Gemara Tutor is a CD aiming to teach basic Talmudic vocabulary, and Dukhrana has an online and searchable version of Marus Jastrow’s venerable “A Dictionary of the Targumim, the Talmud Babli and Yerushalmi, and the Midrashic Literature.” It can also be downloaded in various formats. For me, the free Kindle version on the site did not work, but the one sold by Amazon did.


Closing Remarks

Talmud is not a one-and-done book.

Personally, I confess to a lifelong love of the Talmud. It’s been an enduring love affair that predates by more than two decades my ongoing romance with the love of my life, my wife Dr. Rachel C. Sarna. Since 1974, she has graciously consented to my sharing of affections.

In short, I admit I am passionate and not at all objective about Talmud study.

But I can also assure you that as François Rabelais (c 1483-1553) wrote in the satirical “The Life of Gargantua and of Pantagruel,” with Talmud study, the appetite comes with the food.

The author/essayist C. S. Lewis (1898-1963) wrote in “The Four Loves” (from a Christian and philosophical perspective, based on “thought experiments”), “Affection is responsible for nine-tenths of whatever solid and durable happiness there is in our lives.” For me, the Talmud, together with my wife and children, make up that 90 percent.

Of course, the world is not a perfect place, and much remains to be done to improve Talmud education to make it universal. But as Hillel famously said (Avot 2:16):

It is not incumbent upon you to finish the task, but neither are you free to absolve yourself from it. If you have learned much Torah, you will be greatly rewarded, and your employer is trustworthy to pay you the reward of your labors. And know, that the reward of the righteous is in the World to Come.

By David E. Y. Sarna

 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.


 1 (“Hermeneutics and values: Issues in improving contemporary talmud teaching,” in J.Saks, & S. Handelman (Eds.) Wisdom from all my teachers: challenges and initiatives in contemporary Torah education. (pp. 264-285) (Jerusalem, Israel: Urim Publications)

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