Wednesday 18 November 2015

064) Gemora Playing Second Fiddle?

I just love Rabbi Eliezer Melamed’s fourteen volumes of articulate and practical Halacha, entitled Peninei Halacha.

Now, I may be mistaken, but in his Laws of Torah Study[1], there seems to be a rather conspicuous absence of the word ‘Gemora’. This is surprising because Gemora usually forms the very backbone of any programme of Torah study.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting that he doesn’t believe in Gemora study, but look at the following extracts from his writing and see if you agree with me:


He divides the obligation of Torah study into two distinct segments:
PHASE 1: The first phase is known as Yesodei ha Torah (learning the foundations and fundamentals of basic Torah literature). This takes about twenty years to master, and ideally, the first twenty years of one’s life should be spent in pursuit of this rudimentary acquisition of Torah knowledge.
PHASE 2: The second category is known as Limud haTorah (the lifelong in depth study and expansion of the basic fundamentals acquired during the first phase). 

In defining which books are studied during the Yesodei haTorah phase, he mentions Chumash (Bible) with Rashi’s commentary, Nevi’im (Prophets), and Ketuvim (Writings). A child would begin these books at the age of five and complete them on a basic level by ten years of age.

Then from age ten to twenty, the teenager student would move on to Halacha by studying Shulchan Aruch (the Codes of Law), with special emphasis on learning the practical laws of daily life.  The other ‘impractical’ laws are just to be scanned so as to get a general overview alone. The practical laws are to be studied with the reasons and explanations as found in the Talmud.

This is amazing! Usually the order is reversed. One usually studies Gemora (a word he does not use in this chapter) as the primary text, and then only does one moves on to the Halacha as derived from the Gemora. More time is usually spent on Gemora than on Halacha.

Here, however, he clearly says that the primary study for a teenager is Halacha, which is only to be supplemented and elaborated upon by the relevant explanations as found in Gemora.[2]

In addition to Halacha as ‘supplemented’ by Gemora, the young student should also be exposed to an extensive[3] programme of Hashkafa (principles of theology and philosophy so as to integrate the theories and technicalities of law, with real life in the real world). Rabbi Melamed suggests the study of Kuzari, Maharal of Prague and even Maimonides’ Moreh Nevuchim as examples of this type of study, as they clearly define the parameters of Jewish belief. The student should also be allowed to choose the genre of philosophy that appeals to him or her (including Chassidus or Mussar).

This too is amazing! Usually these ‘philosophical’ issues are glossed over in favour of the more ‘important’ technical studies comprising primarily of Gemora.  And some of the books he suggests the students read are considered to be somewhat contentious in many circles!


As mentioned above, the Peninei Halacha strongly advises the student to strive to attain a basic general understanding of all practical Halacha, skimming the laws that are no longer relevant today. To this end, it is suggested that one studies works that are known to summarize all basic Halacha. Even the study of Talmud should, on this view, be Halacha based[4]. This means that only tractates dealing with practical issues should be carefully selected for study (as opposed to a random selection of Talmudic literature). Additionally these texts should be studied with the commentary of the Rosh, who is known to have summarized the views of all the Rishonim who preceded him. 

He makes an interesting point that in actuality, no book yet exists that has satisfactorily managed to summarize Halacha appropriately for the purposes of mastering Yesodei haTorah.[5]  Either way, extensive Talmudic study of general Gemora should only take place after a thorough grounding in the basics.[6]

Thus by around the age of twenty, the student would have acquired a thorough background to Halacha and theology, and should then be in a position to make an informed decision as to whether to remain in the world of Torah study, or to get involved with furthering a career of his or her choice. Rabbi Melamed strongly suggests that only exceptional students who show a great propensity for scholarship should remain in the world of full time study.


After completing the phase of yesodei haTorah, one moves into the second (adult) phase of Limud haTorah. The question now becomes; During this phase, how much time should be dedicated towards the study of Torah on a daily basis?

The undeniable truth (no matter what side of the spectrum we sit on and what we would like to believe), is that there remains two very distinct and contradictory viewpoints in this regard. And both are well rooted in Talmudic sources:

1)  Torah must be studied for the vast majority of the day, every day, and work is to be secondary - only occupying a fraction of one’s time. Rabbi Yishmael said; ‘Make Torah your permanent fixture. Study it for most of the day while work should consume a small amount of your time.’[7]

2) Many other sources, however, extol the value of work over study, requiring one to spend the majority of the day in pursuit of an honest livelihood. One such example is; ‘Engage much in work, and do business in good faith’.[8] Another source describes the life of a typical Jew in Talmudic times that would spend the best part of the day toiling in the fields and only return at night when he would study engage in a little study.[9]

Because of such contradictory statements on study policy, it is no surprise that the Torah world is greatly divided on the issue. Some believe that Torah must be studied all day and work is either discouraged or sometimes expressly forbidden. Others believe that only exceptional scholars should be afforded the opportunity to engage in full time and lifelong study, while the vast majority of all others should be participating in economic activity in order to sustain their families. 

The Peninei Halacha is firmly of the latter camp encouraging most religious Jews to support themselves with dignity and honour. Work is never considered bitul Torah[10] (taking away from Torah study time)!


Now, someone who find himself working most of the day, and only has limited time for Torah study, needs to know what type of learning to focus on during that precious time. In this regard, Rabbi Melamed unequivocally makes the most interesting statement; ‘The Poskim (Halachic authorities) write that those who only have a short period of time to study during the day, should not just study Gemora. 

Instead they should concentrate on practical Halacha with an emphasis of unravelling the reasons for and meaning behind those Halachot. During this time they should also engage in understanding Hashkafa (theology)’.[11]


According to my reading and understanding of the Peninei Halacha, it seems as if a vision emerges that radically differs from the common and popular approach to Torah learning  which seems to emphasize the overriding importance of Gemora study (with less emphasis on Halacha and little or no accent on theology). This less known view, surprisingly, does not seem to be unique to Rabbi Melamed, as his references are wide and numerous. This being the case, one wonders why more people do not seem to follow this approach to Torah study.

It is remarkable to discover an outlook that somewhat downplays the primary role of Gemora , whilst elevating the study of Hashkafa (theology and philosophy) to a place of importance, and at the same time requiring a practical and penetrating analysis and understanding of the reasoning behind Halacha.

Although this view is intended to apply across the board, perhaps educational systems could adopt some of these approaches, especially with students who show little or no real interest in Gemora.

UPDATE 22-11-2015:

A Rosh Yeshiva friend of mine pointed out three different approaches to this issue, and explained that as a general rule;

1) The Hungarians focused primarily on Halacha and ruled (paskened) directly from the Shulchan Aruch.

2) The Lithuanians focused primarily on Gemora and even ruled from Gemora, often bypassing the Shulchan Aruch itself.

3) The Sefardim ruled on almost any source that related to the question at hand, whether is was Gemora, Shulchan Aruch or even a view of a Rishon or Acharon.

Although I know there are exceptions to this, I found this breakdown enlightening as it shows the various approaches to what is considered the 'key' body of Torah literature.


Another friend of mine referenced an anomaly that has become somewhat prevalent today;

In some (neo-mystical?) groups, they rule directly from the Zohar. I know of people who are not as diligent with regard to kosher observances because they claim that mystically only meat requires extreme kosher diligence.  They would, for example, permit falafel to be eaten even in a non kosher venue, disregarding all auxiliary issues of kashrut (such as heat transference, vessels, knives and spices etc). Disconcertingly, many of them have the appearance and apparel of regular frum Jews.

This again emphasizes the importance and imperative of a solid grounding in the fundamentals of Yesodei HaTorah.

[1] Peninei Halacha, Likuttim 1, Hilchot Talmud Torah.
[2] Et kol haHalachot halalu, yes lilmod im hata’amim hayesodi’im shehem mevo’arim beTalmud.
[3] Limud rachav uma’amik.
[4] In note 2, p 9, we read that the great Rishonim and Acharonim espoused this view as well. They maintained that the very purpose of the mitzvah of Torah study is to know what do and how to act in practicality. The Vilna Gaon also encouraged the study of tractates that lean more to the side of practicality. See Hakdamat Biur HaGra on Shulchan Aruch, where he writes that the purpose of studying Shass is to learn practical halacha.
[5] Considering that a work that satisfactorily summarises all practical halacha, would have to be a modern book (in that it would have to contain rulings from halachic authorities up to the present day), I would venture to suggest that the Peninei Halacha would certainly come very close to being such a work. 
[6] See Peninei Halacha, Likuttim 1, p12.
[7] Berachot 35b.
[8] Nidah 70b.
[9] Berachot 4,b.
[10] Peninei Halacha, Likuttim 1, p. 19.
[11] Ibid.

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