“Shiur Hadash” II

Our doors are barely hanging on their hinges after being almost knocked down with overeager requests for the second part of Ben Greenfield’s article, due to come out next issue.  We heard you loud and clear!  Here’s the second part.  Please stop your bombarding.



Devarim she-Yesh la-Hem Shiur, or a Case of Sheer Opportunity

 BY: Ben Greenfield


So: good or bad?  Until this point, I attempted some semblance of neutrality, refraining from normative statements.  True, I claim the centrality of shiur is innovative, but that betrays neither commendation nor condemnation — the question of merit remains.  The answer, I believe, hinges on two broader questions: why shiur and why now? In other words, what motivates the radically central position of shiur and what vaulted it into our particular time period?  I imagine  that even the slightest exposure to shiur answers the first query: we like it.  More specifically, shiur provides for a learning experience easier and more enriching.  It supplies a guided structure for one’s learning, converts discussion from Aramaic to the vernacular, organizes the covered material, supplements it with brilliant and erudite insights, and fosters an “on the same page” intellectual community providing ideas and support.  Talmud Torah without shiur shifts  the burdens of planning a course of study and organizing the fruit of a day’s learning from teacher onto student.  Why accept that yoke when a seasoned veteran volunteers to help? Furthermore, few students would consciously  eschew the insights of a maestro or the creative dialogue of peers: Shiur as the principle form of Talmud Torah makes good sense.


Yet, shiur’s allure only intensifies the next question: why only now? First and foremost, we can afford it.  A modern economy and the establishment of the State of Israel grant Jewish communities unprecedented wealth.  Besides financing myriads of Torah learners – more perhaps than all previous generations combined – we can even equip them with maggidei shiur.  Fashioning a shiur requires time and effort, which our generation is uniquely situated to sponsor.  Second, changes in the student population make shiur more necessary.  Expanding the palace of Torah study – surging from yeshivot of three hundred to three thousand - engenders  a lower standard of student.  The elite corps of yore may have enjoyed less of a need for shiur or, as tomorrow’s knights of Torah were expected to struggle through without it.  In contrast, the contemporary yeshivah scene embraces a class of talmidim fully capable of high-level learning, yet still relatively dependent upon the succors of shiur.[1]  Lastly, and on a different note, the task of Talmud study has changed over the years, finally landing upon a mission that encourages the prominence of shiur.  Today’s assignment differs from our ancestors: Rashi’s generation struggled over the plain meaning of the text, a noble assignment we now take for granted.  The Tosafists identified and addressed talmudic inconsistencies – so succesfully, in fact, that if a modern student “discovers” a new contradiction, he can presume it is addressed in the aged literature or, alternatively, begin questioning his assumptions.  Various Rishonim tendered competing readings of the Gemara, until a new duty emerged – selecting one approach as halakhically authoritative.  The popularity of the Shulhan Arukh satisfied that need, but produced a demand to critique or modify controversial rulings.  The sheer effectiveness of our predecessors, combined with a conservative[2] esteem for precedent, means no one today considers rewriting Rashi or challenging an accepted article of Shulhan Arukh. 


We face a new challenge – an immense and expanding corpus of texts in dire need of sorting. Ours is to organize.  Ours is the age of the Entseiklopedia Talmudit, the Kovetz Hakirot, and the shiur.  Just as Rambam catalogued Shas in his Mishneh Torah, we are embarking on a mission to organize Shas and its commentators.  From a Gemara, a Ramban, a Rif, and a Shakh emerges – in the hands of a skilled lecture – one concise but thorough shiur.[3]  Curious once again about the topic at hand, a student can dispense with the search for relevant sources, with the struggle to understand each opinion, and with the question of if and how each document relates to the other: He simply “learns” his shiur notes.  Numerous and unorganized texts have finally become one complete whole.  The current mission of talmud Torah lends itself to the shiur format, where we rather proudly intend to create a new primary source.


The question of good or bad is really one of how successfully we accomplish this epic task.[4]  Writing a new Torah text is an ambitious project with powerful repercussions. Future generations depend on us: We bequeath to the tinokot shel beit rabban an exciting new text and, for the glory of the Torah and sanity of its lovers, let it be a Mishneh Torah 2.0 and not a re-invention of the Mordekhai. If inadequately organized or poorly written, then anticipate disregard for our creations, or, more tragically, much energy wasted on a wave of “Shiurei Rav X al Shiurei Rav Y.”   We must recognize our mission and appreciate our opportunity: We must “write” shiur well.  On the most micro of levels, a Ram’s presentation of a particular sugya must be clear and engaging.  Announce and summarize each new step, repeat key sentences, clearly name all citations,[5] encourage clarifying questions.  To aid in preparation, include in the daf mekorot the exact questions to be addressed.  In former times, when shiur served a less central role, students might suffer filtering and decoding the words of their master.  If anything, they could rely on at least understanding the texts studied in hakhanah.  However, with shiur playing the principal part in today’s Torah study, proper pedagogy is paramount.  A barely intelligible shiur means a sugya lost forever.  It means an hour of talmud Torah sublimating into near bittul Torah. On a personal note, I rarely confront an iyyun idea utterly beyond my comprehension or a secular class so complex as to stymie a significant percent of its audience.  Unfortunately, I have experienced shiurim that do just that, wrapping already difficult ideas in a delivery that begs improvement. 


Apart from clear conveyance of specific points, shiur must also be organized.  In other words, even an excellent and explicit speaker should order his items in a smooth, logical progression.  All too often, shiurim include fascinating but tangential discourses, inspired by a brief reference or partial similarity.  If reduced to an outline, the bullet points would resemble a conversation instead of an essay.  This past summer, I transmuted the contents of three shiurim into Wikipedia pages. (They have since been removed.) Despite the clarity of their original presentation, I was surprised by the quantity of material that only indirectly related to the lecture’s topic. New stages in the argument were introduced with loosely related discussions; foundational notions were reserved for the shiur’s end; independent themes were homogenized under one heading – in sum, it took hours to untangle the knotty web of information and convert it into a Wikipedia page.  But it should only take minutes; they should have the focus and organization necessary to pass this “Wikipedia test.”


Lastly, on the broadest plane, individual shiur sessions should link together in a semester-long chain.  Many shiurim – even those particularly clear and well-organized – arrange their topics in accordance with their sequence in the Gemara.  Within the span of a few weeks, the lectures  cover a range of unrelated and randomly ordered topics.  However, an ideal shiur “text” erects an elegant semester-long structure, with daily shiurim forming weeklong sub-units that all connect with a larger whole.  It might commence with a broad introduction to the semester’s grand topic and proceed to explore pivotal aspects of the subject, before finally engaging detailed cases in a pre-arranged progression.[6] In other words, shiur should include a syllabus, guiding the student towards an ever more detailed knowledge base and contextualizing each day’s learning into a complete picture. He should be able to peer back at weeks passed, recalling the slow development of a truly impressive, truly cohesive acquisition of Torah.  Clarity on three counts – pedagogical lucidity, cogent outlines, and a syllabus – galvanizes shiur’s latent powers and enables it to fuel the next revolution in talmud Torah.


These are monumental times.  We are witnessing a break from previous modes of Torah study, a metamorphosis in method and emphasis.  This nontraditional approach belies a more radical and philosophical transformation, where the construct we call Torah is reassembled and redefined.  We are uniquely suited to nurture this revolution, ready to accept a new mission in the chain of Torah development.  Hundreds, if not thousands, of paid professionals devote their hours to organizing and elucidating the enormous corpus we call Torah she-be-Al Peh.  If we fail in our duty, they and their students will still produce the greatest quantity of talmud Torah ever to grace this planet.  But if we embrace our awesome responsibility, if we accept our role as the Torah’s organizers and approach her as such, we do ourselves and succeeding generations an immeasurable kindness.  The Torah, too, delights in our triumph, rewarding our service with the only gift she knows.  For if we succeed, we enter that pantheon so mythic and most high, placing our lot with those sweet scholars of Israel, melting ourselves into the very text of her being, and achieving an immortality as ancient and mysterious as He who created her.


Ben Greenfield is a junior at YC majoring in Jewish Studies and Mathematics and is a Staff Writer for Kol Hamevaser. 


[1] Once established – and with yeshivot built around them - even elite students would have little reason to not attend shiur.


[2] Definitely lower case.


[3] One might even define the ּBrisker program as just that – no more production of Rishon-like opinions, no more critical evaluation of them, no more clarifying their depths through the use of pilpul: Come, let us organize.  Let us use the tool of hakirah-abstraction to connect disparate sources into a single line of thought or summarize multiple arguments into one grand debate.


[4]  For an increasingly desperate appeal to greater digitalization and group cooperation in this process, see the author’s article entitled “WikiTorah” in Kol Hamevaser 1:5.


[5]   Personally, my notes are riddled with citations like “Bava Kamma 20a (or was it 120a?)”


[6]  For convenience’s sake, Mishneh Torah supplies ample organizational inspiration.  On yet another personal note, I have begun studying sugyot based on their order in the Yad ha-Hazakah; it is refreshing, to say the least.