Returning to Tradition in Derekh ha-Limmud:
Careful Analysis of Torah She-Bikhtav as a Prerequisite to Studying Torah She-B'al Peh

Ami Hordes

At a time when, thankfully, so many people are learning Torah and Jewish bookstore shelves continuously display newly published sefarim, the serious study of Tanakh often is neglected – both in how it is learned or whether it is even learned at all. This is true, for example, in many yeshiva high school classrooms, where too often, Tanakh students will be sent to the mefarshim before “critically examining” a text themselves, and then will be asked a question like, “What was bothering Rashi here?” A related phenomenon occurs in many yeshivot, where the start of a new Masechet of Gemara is rarely preceded by analyzing the relevant passages of Tanakh. This approach is backwards. Instead of jumping straight to the Gemara or running to Rashi after a cursory reading of the text, students should be encouraged to read the text carefully themselves, so they can uncover difficulties in the text – and maybe even the same question that was bothering Rashi – before reading a commentary on that text.

This is the approach of the Mishnah Avot 5:21, “בן חמש שנים למקרא בן עשר למשנה”, "[The Jewish child] should begin studying Tanakh at 5 years old, and Mishnah at 10 years old." The Mishnah's derekh has two components. First, Torah She-Bikhtav must be the starting point in studying Torah and second, the student must invest significant time studying it thoroughly, before moving on to Mishnah. This is logical, given that Torah She-B'al Peh is based on and rooted in Torah She-Bikhtav, and the best way to understand an interpretation of a text is to understand that original text first.

Thus, familiarity with Tanakh is a prerequisite for the student to truly appreciate and understand Torah She-B'al Peh. Putting Torah She-Bikhtav at the center, however, means more than simply being familiar with the text; it requires active learning. This involves thinking logically, asking questions, proposing answers, imagining situations under which the laws come into affect, and rereading the section in light of each new idea presented to see if it is true to the text. It means critically examining the chosen text and assessing the impact that other sections of Tanakh have on it.

There are many advantages to this approach beyond its fundamental logic. It challenges students to be more actively involved in the learning process, and thus is more intellectually stimulating for them. It sharpens the students’ understanding of the text, enabling them to identify problematic passages and search for creative solutions. It aims to parallel the same thought processes through which past Torah scholars must have gone, allowing students to anticipate issues that will be raised in Torah She-B'al Peh and thereby putting them in a position to better appreciate the commentaries and interpretations therein. Finally, it is much more gratifying for the student. There is no comparison between the feeling the student gets from reading a nice question in Rashi versus the one he gets upon discovering that Rashi’s nice question is the very same question the student himself raised while preparing the text beforehand.

Given my background in law, I decided to develop this derekh for my ATID project with respect to legal texts in general, and chose to examine Parshat Nazir, Bamidbar 6:1-21, in particular. The derekh involves four stages of analysis and the body of the paper walks the reader very carefully through the first three. The first level is a critical examination of the text and introduces various techniques through which the student can raise questions. This includes defining the parameters of each law as precisely as possible, imagining hypothetical situations in which the laws are put into effect, and rearranging the parsha in outline form. The second level looks at the impact of the rest of Chumash on the parsha. The student will use the same analytical techniques as above here, but will be looking for, among other things, additional treatments of the laws applicable to the nazir, conflicting laws, passages similar to that of Parshat Nazir and narratives which apply its laws. This analysis opens the door to exploring the hashkafic implications, and the conceptual framework, of the halakhic section being studied. The original text is then outlined, and the questions raised by the first two levels are incorporated into that outline in preparation for the final two levels, which shift focus to Torah She-B'al Peh. The third level then looks at Mishnayot Nazir and puts the derekh to the test, by asking: To what extent do the Mishnayot deal with the issues raised in the first two levels of analysis? To what degree did those analyses prepare the student for studying the Mishnah? In addition, some Mishnayot are examined to see which fit in with the text and which seem problematic and will require further explanation at another level of Torah She-B'al Peh. The paper concludes by briefly introducing the fourth level, which adapts the type of analysis applied at the third level for use with mefarshim.

This derekh is still under construction, and I suspect that it may not stop developing. But even at this stage, I believe this approach provides a good starting point from which the student can analyze Biblical texts and develop a personal style of learning Torah – with Torah She-Bikhtav at the center.

Download Article (MSWord 156K) Back to Journals 98-99 Bio

Copyright © 2000-2010 ATID. All rights reserved.