Monday, June 20, 2005

How much Gemara can you learn in a year?

I made a comment the other day in front of a few yeshivah guys saying that if a guy goes to Israel for a whole year for the express purpose of learning Gemara I would expect him to learn around half of Shas. But they said I was way off and a couple even got upset at me for even suggesting it.

Now, half of Shas is less than 3000 pages (1500 dafim). If a person is taking a whole year to study it why is that such a huge task? Suppose it's not for a whole year but for ten months (typical length of time for a guy who comes home for Pesach) which is about 40 weeks long and he studies for maybe 50 hours a week. Not very strenuous, especially as learning Gemara doesn't exactly require physical exertion. That calculates into 2000 hours of learning time.

Is it so absurd to think that a dedicated person can't finish at least one daf (double page) an hour? For Daf Yomi they manage to run through it in about ten minutes. Granted, the depth of a Daf Yomi is hardly an optimum for learning, but not all pages are equally long and much of the Gemara are stories which really don't require a whole lot of concentration. The whole of Shas does not read like Bava Metzia. I really don't think a total rate of a daf an hour is so outrageous.

And especially since I gave a rather easy schedule. If I were to take the year off to study Talmud, I would go to it full gear and do 14 and 16 hour days. I have to admit that I probably wouldn't deal much with the Aramaic though, except for important and choice terms. Sorry, but I want to know the content, not learn how to understand a dead language. I'd try to finish Shas entirely. I mean, I'd have a whole year dedicated to just that purpose.

It just seems to me that those who go to Israel and come back after only having finished a mesechet or two have basically taken the year off. I certainly am not very impressed.

I also think that those yeshivah guys who got upset at the very idea that I suggested only responded so to preserve their collective egos. It hardly sheds them in good light if someone asserts that they went to Israel and wasted most of their time instead of doing their express reason for going in the first place.

22 comments:

Orthoprax said...

Keep in mind too that when I go to do something like that I really do go full steam. Two summers ago I decided that I wanted to learn Tanach. I went through the whole of Tanach in ten days.

It wasn't easy and I slogged through a lot of boring stuff (Psalms drags on forever) but I still did it. I think every Jew should at least read through it once.

avi said...

in truth there are 2711 Daf(blatt)hence 5422 sides. (happens to be the exact same amount of markers at the German Holocaust Memorial

Mississippi Fred MacDowell said...

Something tells me that you were trying to be a bit more provocative rather than really think that an 18 or 19 year old (or 40 year) can learn half of Shas in a year.

It's often said that a standard Shas edition is about the size of Encyclopedia Brittanica (don't know if that's true: EB has 44 million words -- but they're in English, not a strange Aramaic that seems to be missing lots of words). You should read "The Know-It All" by A.J. Jacobs, a very entertaining book by an Esquire Magazine editor about how he read the entire Encyclopedia Brittanica in one year, on a quest of sorts. The amount of information in it is pretty mindboggling and you will see that reading so much material is NOT an easy task. That's just reading it.

In other words: I think you know that even just reading half of Shas in a half of year would be something of a moderately difficult task; more so if you read it with a translation, and much more so if you try to learn it in any sense.

Jewish Atheist said...

I think yeshivas are going more for the totally-immersed-in-torah experience than the imparting of knowledge. Teach a man to fish vs. give a man a fish and all that. When you're trying to teach the love of learning for its own sake, you don't rush to the end. Rushing to the end implies that you have somewhere to go afterwards, that the learning was a means to the end.

Orthoprax said...

Avi,

"in truth there are 2711 Daf(blatt)hence 5422 sides."

Yes, that I knew. But I didn't want to deal with such unround numbers. ;-)

"(happens to be the exact same amount of markers at the German Holocaust Memorial"

Was that intentional or a coincidence?

Mississippi Fred,

"Something tells me that you were trying to be a bit more provocative rather than really think that an 18 or 19 year old (or 40 year) can learn half of Shas in a year."

Maybe a little, but I really do think that a serious, dedicated person should be able to do that much. That's why they went to Israel. That's _all_ they should be doing.

"It's often said that a standard Shas edition is about the size of Encyclopedia Brittanica (don't know if that's true: EB has 44 million words"

Shas is significantly smaller. The total Soncino English translation of Shas has 5 1/2 million words. So if this guy was able to read the entire EB in one year, kal v'chomer, a dedicated person should be able to do Shas in a year. (And still go eight times slower.)

JA,

"I think yeshivas are going more for the totally-immersed-in-torah experience than the imparting of knowledge."

That's likely. Which is why they don't just do Talmud all day. They have speakers and mussar and events of all sorts.

But I guess that's the difference between how I would study Talmud and how a yeshivah in Israel would teach it. I would want to apply my knowledge, not just learn indefinitely.

Mississippi Fred MacDowell said...

"Shas is significantly smaller. The total Soncino English translation of Shas has 5 1/2 million words. So if this guy was able to read the entire EB in one year, kal v'chomer, a dedicated person should be able to do Shas in a year. (And still go eight times slower.)"

Good point, but I think the estimate must include Rashi, Tosfos and all the accumulated meforshim in the standard printed editions of the Shas. Even then, its probablt smaller. But its totally unrealistic to expect boys in yeshiva (or anyone, really) to learn Gemara and ignoring the meforshim. And even were one to do that and read directly from Soncino it should be obvious that not very much understanding of what is being read is going to happen. In other words, it would be quite useless.

Orthoprax said...

The biggest slowdown for learning Gemara is that it's in a foreign language. While I do think that it's important to understand Aramaic in a general sense, one doesn't need to know every word and to tease out meaning when it's so much easier to read it out in full and understand the content in English.

Meforshim are important, but they are not irreplaceable, especially as the English translation reduces much confusion that would usually be the case of incomplete Aramaic sentences. And big chunks of Talmud are not argument-dense text. Aggada is fun to read and not hard to understand.

I really do not think half of Shas is such a big effort given a whole year of time dedicated to just that purpose.

Enigma4U said...

Orthoprax, you raise a very good question, one to which I have no answer.

I've often wondered why it is that girls, over the course of 12 years or so of school, learn Chumash at least 5 times over, even having to memorize whole sections by heart, with weekly reinforcements by the weekly parsha, and yet, most come out knowing precious little of it. And we're not talking Talmud here -Chumash is basically comprised of interesting stories. Makes you wonder about the ineffective way it's being taught. Maybe that's your answer, too.

Orthoprax said...

Enigma,

The problem with how many educators teach these religious subjects is that they don't put them in any context. They're just taught as a bunch of random facts but without any reality to ground them in, they are quickly forgotten.

If they taught Tanach as part of a larger whole, I think you'd get a much better rate of retention.

Imagine studying Malachim with archeological studies. Imagine studying Job within a whole philosophical discussion on the problem of evil and other philosopher's views on the issue.

It makes the text come alive.

Sarah said...

Daniel,

put technically, you're probably right - it should be possible. But you do have to remember that people are all different, and I'll tell you honestly, most don't really have your drive. I can tell from experience that I tried the Tanach thing last summer, but couldn't do it because I would get so bogged down in specific paragraphs or stories that I needed to go into them further. Just reading through didn't really get me anywhere.

Also, I don't think a year in Israel should be dedicated solely to Talmud. That's probably one of my biggest pet peeves. There's absolutely no reason for guys yeshivas to be neglecting tanach and halacha and philosophical discussions that are so integral towards developing ones Jewish identity. Taking that year in Israel to finish half of shas is what I would call a huge waste of a great opportunity.

Even further, not everyone is interested in rushing through shas as you suggest. many may want to work on their analytical skills by working through a few mesechtot and analyzing them. Ipersonally, i hate translations, esp. artscroll, so i tend to side with those that stick with aramaic) Some may want to explore the halachic process by really going deep beiyun. Speaking from doing Mishna Bekiut (I'm on track to finish in 3 yrs), it is a completely different experience and one that I think tends to end up becoming rushed, leading to the person not getting a good picture of whats really going on. (Altho to get a good picture of whats going on you also seem to need to know it all, so either way you lose)

Orthoprax said...

Sarah,

"...most don't really have your drive."

Then why are they taking a year off for? If they were one of the few who would really accomplish something in that time, that's one thing. But if you can't handle it without interruptions then you should do it around your regular life.

"Taking that year in Israel to finish half of shas is what I would call a huge waste of a great opportunity."

Maybe, but that's the reason they go to Israel. If you want to talk about the merits of the reason itself, that's a whole different discussion.

"Even further, not everyone is interested in rushing through shas as you suggest."

I really don't think it's a rush. It's a whole year dedicated to one project. One should expect significant productivity.

"many may want to work on their analytical skills by working through a few mesechtot and analyzing them."

My view is that I'd rather understand the object in total and only afterwards look at the details. You can study cellular biology forever and never understand how it turns into a person. But once you see a human body, cellular biology has a context of meaning.

Mississippi Fred MacDowell said...

"The biggest slowdown for learning Gemara is that it's in a foreign language. While I do think that it's important to understand Aramaic in a general sense, one doesn't need to know every word and to tease out meaning when it's so much easier to read it out in full and understand the content in English"

The problem is not only that its written in Aramaic, but that its written in an Aramaic that is wholly confusing, that leaves out words, uses unusual syntax etc. If your argument is that Soncino or whomever has already done the work, putting aside the fact that we don't want to have a translator's interpretation of the text set in stone as THE meaning when there are other ways of understanding it, reading an English translation of the Gemara, even assuming there is decent comprehension, just creates a generation of people who will never be able to study Gemara on their own.

Sarah said...

"Then why are they taking a year off for?"

Many, for no good reason ... but there are some who come not to finish shas but to figure out what they want out of Judaism before they start college. It's hard to know what you want to do with the rest of your life, if you don't even understand the focal point of it. whether this is really accomplished in the year isn't an easy question ... but i think you have to recognize that the goal is sometimes more philosophical than textual.

"My view is that I'd rather understand the object in total and only afterwards look at the details."

i havent learned enough gemara to know whether this is true or not (in terms of being like cellular biology) ... but from the little i do know, it seems to me that it would be very hard to do it all when you really don't even get how gemara works by really working at small sections for awhile (which is why revadim is so appealing to me, but thats a whole other story)

Orthoprax said...

Mississippi,

"...just creates a generation of people who will never be able to study Gemara on their own."

That is the difference between an expert and a layman. A big percentage of people who have learned Gemara in school cannot do it on their own already without aid.

Not everyone needs to be an amazing Talmud scholar and teaching everyone as if they should be is actually counterproductive. You turn off half the kids that way.


Sarah,

"...but i think you have to recognize that the goal is sometimes more philosophical than textual."

Maybe for you and six other people that's what they'd do there. But I think most guys do it to take an easy year before college and look frum for the community.

"...it would be very hard to do it all when you really don't even get how gemara works by really working at small sections for awhile"

If you're already in the yeshivah system (which most guys would be if they're going to Israel) you've _already_ been doing the small section stuff for 8-10 years.

Sarah said...

"But I think most guys do it to take an easy year before college and look frum for the community."

Coming from the people I've met when I was there, I'd put it a lot closer to 50/50. Of course the 50 who are thinking may not be intellectually honest about what they're thinking, but they are going there searching for something and trying to form a concrete path within Judaism, which I have to admire regardless of the conclusions theyve come to.

"If you're already in the yeshivah system (which most guys would be if they're going to Israel) you've _already_ been doing the small section stuff for 8-10 years."

Ah this is true ... for those who actually did take advntage of the yeshiva system they were in. And for those people especially, I've found that gemara may not be of complete, prime importance. But for those who didnt give a crap in HS and went to Israel for whatever reason and then decided to actually learn, it does become necessary to start almost from scratch because all those years before were nothing to them.

On the overall premise that people waste a lot of time in the Israel year, I would definitely agree. But from what I've seen, in reality, the cross section of people who actually go to Israel to learn serious gemara while already being fairly dilligent in it from beforehand is a lot smaller than you might think.

avi said...

An article in the Arizona Republic on the new Holocaust memorial in Berlin (“Memorial divides Berlin,” Sunday May 8, 2005) reports: “The memorial is a maze of 2,711 unadorned concrete rectangles, or steles….Organizers said the number of steles had no symbolic significance but was dictated by the size of the site.”

D.C. said...

I agree that beki`ut is indespensable for one who wants to become a talmid chakham, but I completely disagree with Orthoprax's assertion that this is what one should seek to get out of time in yeshivah. You can finish half of Shas sitting in your living room, or in your local beit midrash. I would think that the point of yeshivah is to develop a derekh ha-limud -- to learn how to properly learn be-`iyun.

In an ideal world, perhaps we would all finish Shas before coming to yeshivah, and would then get a lot more out of it. But given the reality of the situation, I think that yeshivot are acting correctly in using their students' time there to expose them to the depth of Torah. Hopefully, they will then be inspired and realize the need to acquire the breadth on their own.

In high school, one year I had Rebbe A, who taught us a piece from R' Chaim (al ha-Rambam) the first day of the year, and that was just a taste of things to come. Another year, I had Rebbe B, who refused to even discuss other rishonim beyond Tosafot as long as he felt that we hadn't yet mastered the skill of reading the Gemara properly. In a sense, Rebbe B was right, and he had a good point. But it was Rebbe A who got me excited about talmud torah, and that inspiration eventually led to the recognition that I would need to plug away at Shas before I could ever come up with stuff like that on my own.

In any case, this debate is very old. Think "Sinai" vs. "`oker harim" (Berakhot 64a and a bunch of other places).

Anonymous said...

Do you honestly think that someone who learns 16 blatt a day (which is what you say you would do) would have any kind of comprehension, or be able to spend any time actually analyzing what the gemarra is saying? Youve gotta be joking. Do an experiment- learn a blatt in an hour, and see how much of it you can remember four hours later. Sixteen blatt a day wouldnt give you anything- no textual skills, and no understanding of the content in any kind of serious way. Whats the point of finishing shas in six months, if you dont know any of it anyway?! (this has nothing to do with being frum, there is not a secular university academic in the world who would advocate what youre suggesting!)

Orthoprax said...

Anon,

"Do you honestly think that someone who learns 16 blatt a day (which is what you say you would do) would have any kind of comprehension, or be able to spend any time actually analyzing what the gemarra is saying?"

Yes. Yes I do. For the most part it really isn't that complex, it's just mixed up. The arguments themselves are not complicated once you understand the type of logic used in the Gemara.

You don't think a law student needs to understand hundreds of complicated court cases and precedents? They often study that much content and more in any one sitting. 32 pages of talmudic material (some of which are likely just stories) just doesn't seem very overwhelming compared to hundreds of pages of legal documents.

I'm sure lots of people would, in general, have difficulty putting in those hours, hour after hour, and continue doing productive work. I think I could hack it though.

I am going to medschool, after all.

Orthoprax said...

D.C.,

"...but I completely disagree with Orthoprax's assertion that this is what one should seek to get out of time in yeshivah."

I think you've misunderstood my comments here. I'm not necessarily saying that is what one should do in _yeshivah_ stam, but if you're setting aside a year of your life for the express purpose of learning Gemara, you ought to have a nice chunk of Gemara under your belt by year's end.

Anonymous said...

Prax-

Ok. I still dont think that cramming 16 blatt a day is going to leave you with the kind of knowledge you can use, or that will stay with you for any length of time. That probably goes for the case studies in law school also.

But even if that were true, reading and translating the gemarra is only the first step. The fact is, that a beiyun shiur can spend two weeks on a single amud. The fact that people dont go through whole masechtas, is not (necessarilly) because theyre lazy or wasting time. A lot of people do put in the hours youre talking about, theyre just learning in a different way. Again, no one, from yeshiva students to academic professors, learns in the way youre suggesting.

Also, for what its worth, someone who goes through all of kiddushin with tosafot, and looks up all of the gemarras tosafot quotes, will end up knowing about 25% of shas.

Anonymous said...

Prax, and pretty much eveyone else,

This isn't a new argument, f you look at Orchos Tzadikim, i think the last or second to last chapter, i dont have the sefer in front of me now, the author (an unkown Rishon) clearly states that first one must go through as much gemara as possible, just understanding basic pshat, much like you, prax says one should do. But the problem arose that for the most part people dont have the wherewithall to stick it out, and also people don't really know how to think anymore, thats also what iyun learning does. It stimulates the mind, gives a love for Torah, and it sharpens the mind, which is needed nowadays more than ever.
So while ideally you may be right prox, although not necessarily over such a short amount of time, really each person at his own pace that remains challenging, early achronim (most Notably R' Chaim Soloveitchik, Av Beis Din Brisk)felt that nowadays, Due to Yeridas Hadoros we need that iyun. (bear in mind that R' Chaim also said that one cannot have any opinion in any sugya in learning until they have gone through shas). So to see all of you debating, and to even make such a coment is nothing new, so just save your time, sit and learn. Whatever you want. (A rebbi of mine once responded to the complaint that shiur only finished a very limited number of blatt over one zman by saying that we did nearly 5 times that amount, we did rashis blatt, Tosfos' blatt, the Ritva's Blatt, The Rashba's blatt, etc. etc.)

Bottom line is, your never done learning, so you should try to do it all, finish shas, and also really understand it.