What Do They Study At Yeshivas?
By Elon Gilad
Roughly one in six Israeli Jewish men aged 20-24 is a full-time student at a Jewish academy or yeshiva. In fact, more Israeli men are studying in yeshivas and kollels (Jewish academies for married men as opposed to yeshivas whose students are unmarried) than in Israeli colleges and universities. A friendly rabbi invited me to visit his yeshiva and attend class so I can see first-hand what it was they were studying.
This yeshiva was one of several in a neighborhood in north Jerusalem. The building is small and decrepit, with no sign indicating what function the unassuming building serves or what the institution it houses is called. Once we entered the edifice I could see that the narrow maze-like hallways were abuzz with activity. Young men 19-22 all dressed the same – black leather shoes, black slacks, a white button-down shirt, and black yarmulka – were walking to and fro, up and down the stairs, and in and out of doors. The rabbi ushered me into the yeshiva’s main study room. It looks a lot like a smallish synagogue – tight rows of benches filled with students pouring over books – invariably copies of the Talmud’s Yevamot tractate. It is the “Beit Midrash” meaning roughly “study house,” the yeshiva’s communal study room.
This is nothing like the university libraries I’m accustomed to. The room is not silent and still sprinkled with solitary scholars reading through stacks of books. This hall is VERY LOUD and packed with rows of students studying in pairs, discussing different aspects and pages of the talmudic tractate they had just begun, Yevamot, considered one of the most difficult in the Talmud.
“This actually never takes place nowadays,” my rabbi friend tells me as we take our seats and open our books to the first page of the tractate. Yevamot deals with practice of yibum, a law that requires a Jewish man to marry his brother’s widow if they couple doesn’t have children. He explains that the rabbis will not permit a marriage like this to take place, instead a special ceremony to release the man from his duty is performed: The woman removes sandals from his feet, spits in his face and denounces him for not marrying her in front of three rabbis using a prescribed text. Concerned that this sounds rather primitive out of context, he explains “there is much symbolism to each step, critical of the man for his selfishness, refusing to continue his brother’s line.”
We read the first page together. He explains different complexities and terms with which I am unacquainted in order to prepare me for the class we would go to two hours later. As we read and discuss the subject matter, a number of questions arose of which my rabbi friend was unsure of the exact answers. So, he turned to the students around us and they answered with such detail and precision, knowing by heart the page numbers and the like, that one couldn’t but be astonished. They just started studying the tractate and they already seem to know it by heart. I’m truly impressed. After a couple of hours going over the subject, we leave the beit midrash and reenter the hallway labyrinth, and down into the building’s bowels through its narrow unadorned walls, until we reach a tiny classroom.
As the rabbi enters the room the students all rise in a formal show of respect, while some stragglers run in and grab their seats. The room is tiny and packed. There are about 20 of us. The rabbi, wearing black shoes, black slacks, a white button-down shirt with a black jacket, a tie and a black rimmed hat, holds a microphone in front of a bookshelf full of copies of commentaries he had authored. He shouts with excitement as he presents the subject of the lesson, a comment made by an anonymous 12th or 13th century European rabbi to the effect that while the Talmud mentions the sister of a man’s wife as one of the 15 categories of women which one does not need to marry even if they were married to his dead and childless brother (others being his granddaughter, aunt and other relatives), this does not mean that menstruating women should also be included.
At first it seems that this question comes from nowhere – what does the impurity incurred by a woman due to her menstrual cycle have to do with anything? But familiarity with later sections in the tractate reveals the connection – being one’s wife’s sister could be temporary, and the Talmud teaches that if two brothers are married to two sisters, and one of them dies childless, he does not practice yibum, since being married to two sisters is not only forbidden it’s impossible. But if the wife of the surviving brother later dies, then her sister is no longer his wife’s sister, despite this change he does not suddenly need to marry her. What that anonymous statement is saying is that the fact that the widow of one’s childless dead brother happens to be menstruating at the time he died, does not exempt him from the requirement to perform yibum. There is a distinction. From this starting point the rabbi begins to analyze the nature of the distinction between the two, which quickly goes beyond any discussion of impurity or incest, and drifts into abstract principles, terms and categories underlying Jewish Law.
The class is fast-paced. The students are very much involved. They are asked questions and voluntarily answer. They are very prepared, bringing up complex arguments and citations from different sources, sometimes surprising the teacher “Did he really write that there?” sometimes leading to his dismay “No. No. That has nothing to do with the matter we are discussing. I will explain to you why after class.” It is by far the best lesson I have ever seen, rhetorically and pedagogically speaking, and I have been to many classes in the more than a decade I have studied in university. The students hang on every word (they also record them), participate, think. It’s really impressive.
I admit that I didn’t follow everything that was discussed. A lot of technical jargon and abstract concepts with which I am not well acquainted were used. But what I did learn from the experience is that they were not at all studying what I thought they were. The goal of their study was not to learn what the particular laws are, in this case under what circumstances does a man have to marry his brother’s widow. The assumption is that the practical rules are already well-known and have been set out systematically in codicies such as the Shulchan Aruch. If you want to know what the rules are just check in one of those. What these people were doing was something else entirely, they were attempting to reverse-engineer the will of God.
According to orthodox Jewish belief prophecy ceased to exist at the very beginning of the First Temple period, with the death of the last prophets Haggai and Malachi. Since then God has been silent, and Jews have had to rely on the laws he had already given us through revelation, the Bible and the Oral Law given together with the Torah atop Mount Sinai. This Oral Law was then transmitted from generation to generation, as the Mishnah has it: “Moses received the Torah from Sinai and transmitted it to Joshua, and Joshua to the Elders, and the Elders to the Prophets, and the Prophets transmitted it to the Men of the Great Assembly.” Once the Temple was destroyed and the Great Assembly was no more, the transmission of the Oral Law fell to the rabbis.
The rabbis taught their students the laws, which they memorized together with their teachers’ quotations. Later when they became rabbis, their students memorized these laws and quotations together with quotations of their own rabbis. Then the next generation submitted to memory what they had learned from their rabbis adding more quotations of their teachers and so on and so on until the fifth century C.E. when new quotations stopped being added to the already massive corpus. This continued to be transferred by memory for many generations until eventually, possibly in the eighth or ninth centuries, it was put to ink, which resulted in the Talmud.
This Oral Law includes many things that are not spelled out in the Torah itself. For example, the Bible says the Jews must perform kosher slaughter of animals “thou shalt kill of thy herd and of thy flock, which the Lord hath given thee, as I have commanded thee” (Deuteronomy 12:21). But nowhere in the Bible are particular instruction on how exactly this is to be carried out are given. This, it is believed, was one of the things given to Moses in the Oral Law and transmitted over the generations. More importantly though also transmitted was a method of reading the Torah and uncovering its hidden meanings.
The rabbis of the first centuries whose work is codified in the Mishnah and Talmud had, it is believed, the ability to learn laws from the Bible in methods that are no longer available to us today. For example, a rabbi in the Talmud could derive a whole set of rules based on the fact that a biblical verse has a word that could be removed without changing its meaning. Or a whole law can be derived by a rabbi based on the use of a particular spelling of a word in some verse. Rabbis since the time of the Talmud don’t take these liberties with the text found in the Bible, they rely on the analysis already done by the rabbis of the Talmud. This is why the Bible itself isn’t studied at the Yeshiva, you can’t learn anything more than what the rabbis of old have learned from it. What is left ever since is to study the law as it appears in the Talmud and based on it, reconstruct the underlying structure and meaning behind the God’s laws which are found in it.
The Oral Law as it is recorded in the Talmud is seen as a giant coded message to the Jewish people, ingeniously designed by God to unfold over history and provide answers to questions as they come about. Overtime and with rigorous study by brilliant students the meaning of this message will unfold and the nature of God will be revealed in a complex dialectic process.
An example is in order. It is understood in Jewish Law that fulfilling a mitzvah by way of sin does not fulfill that mitzvah. The oft repeated example of this being shaking a stolen lulav on Sukkot. Jewish Law says that doing this does not fulfill the mitzvah of netilat lulav. But then some clever soul found written in the Jerusalem Talmud that tearing your shirt on the Sabbath, a sin, does fulfil the requirement of tearing your clothes as a sign of morning after the passing of a close relative, a mitzvah. This may seem like a contradiction, but it obviously isn’t since both Talmuds are a message from God. In fact this apparent contradiction was intentionally placed there to be discovered. From it we learn that there are subcategories of mitzvahs, some of which are fulfilled even when carried out by way of sin and others that are not.
By analyzing the different cases of mitzvahs being fulfilled through sin discussed in the rabbinic literature, the precise definition of which kind of mitzvot are fulfilled when done by way of sin and which are not. In this case it was determined that when the mitzvah lies in the object such as in the case of the lulav it doesn’t count but when the mitzvah is only achieved by using the stolen object but the object is only incidental to the mitzvah it does count. For example blowing a stolen shofar on Rosh HaShanah does fulfill the mitzvah, because it is the sound of the shofar that is the mitzvah and not the shofar itself. This has revealed a previously unknown distinction in mitzvahs. This distinction is not believed to have been invented, rather it was was already there in God’s mind and hidden in the Oral Law, what the rabbis did was uncover it from there. Now this new knowledge can be used in the study of other matters, and will hopefully lead to more revelations and so on and so on.
This process of analyses and conceptual definition and reconfiguration has been going on for centuries, with each generation building on the work done by the generations that had come before it. It is based on sound and logical principles or as my rabbi friend has it “We study rational principles. It is the logic that is godly. No argument is accepted without absolute proof. When the conclusion is reached, the logic is compelling, unassailable and demanding. The principles are absolute.” This is in fact not too dissimilar from what theoretical physicists do, when they conceptualize particles and processes in order to explain the underlying workings of the universe based on observation. The difference, of course, is what observations are being analyzed and studied: While theoretical physicists may be using the data gleaned from experiments in the Large Hadron Collider, yeshiva students are observing the Talmud, which they believe is a message from the creator of the universe.
Elon Gilad is a language and Judaism writer for the Israeli daily newspaper Haaretz and a master’s student at Tel-Aviv University’s Hebrew and Semitic Languages Department.