Beyond the Daf: Why Learning on Your Own Is Not Enough

Last Sunday, thousands of Jews celebrated the Siyum Hashas – completing the Talmud, a task accomplished by studying one page of Talmud every day for seven years. Some of us have heard stories of non-Jews who were deeply impressed by this study of the “daily page”. All of us admire the diligence and effort that goes into such a task.

But when we think about what the Talmud really is, celebrating a diligent study of the “daf yomi” is actually a little strange. For over a thousand years, the study of Talmud was oral – there was no daf to study. In fact, the whole point of this part of the Torah is that it was not written down, but studied through intensive memorization, review and discussion. So what should we really be celebrating?

As someone studying curriculum design and obsessed with Torah study, I often look at our sages to understand their pedagogical example. Over the past two years, I have embarked on a study of the preliminary text to the Talmud – the Mishnah. In the process, I have discovered something potent about Jewish instructional methods.

Even though the Mishnah was written down, it is practically impossible to study as a written text. I discovered this part way through Masechet Demai, when I realized that I could not understand what the Mishnah was talking about on my own. I sidled over to my husband and asked him to talk it out with me. We read and discussed the commentary together. Suddenly, the highly detailed discussion of different kinds of tenant farmers and how they apportion their terumot and ma’serot became clear. It wasn’t inscrutable – it just needed to be talked out.

One pedagogical choice of Chazal in their recording of the Mishnah and Gemara as a series of questions, stories and discussions is clear  – they wanted to keep the oral Torah, even when written down, as oral as possible.

Why is this important? We live in an age of increasingly isolated learning environments. Because online learning is so convenient to deliver, it is often the medium of choice for instruction – whether for individual courses, work-related trainings, or full-on degrees. And if it isn’t online learning, then it’s hundreds of promising new books that we have to read, turning our heads inward, and spurring us toward knowledge accumulation.

While these learning methods are not bad, they pose a threat to our attitude toward learning. When learning is an isolated activity, we can feel as though we are conquerers – always trying to acquire greater knowledge. Learning becomes a competition. How much can I cover? How much do I know?

Learning in the Jewish tradition sets a radically different example. Though we have a written section of the Torah, the vast majority of our tradition was transmitted from person to person. You could not have learned it on your own, and arguably still cannot. In this model, learning becomes enmeshed with the relationships surrounding it – from student to teacher, parent to child, friend to friend.

This kind of learning engenders humility, as our teachers or partners expand our minds with their different viewpoints and background knowledge – something completely absent in the isolated learning model.

Perhaps even more importantly, when we learn from other people, we learn not just from their words, but from their being. My best teachers were not just bastions of knowledge, but living examples of what they taught. A good Torah teacher is not someone who just knows a lot, but one who lights a spiritual fire in their pupils by virtue of their own integrity and devotion to God. The living example of a set of values and traditions will never be replaced by a book.

So I propose that as we reflect on this completion of the daf yomi cycle, we pause to appreciate the thousands of shiurim, chavrusas and discussions that no doubt were had during this cycle. The bonds of friendship that were created, the teachers who were sharpened by their students, and the students who were inspired by their teachers. May it remind us that learning is not just about what we know, but whom we have learned from and with.

About the Author
Emunah Fialkoff is a writing trainer at Worktalk Communications. She is keenly interested in the intersection between religious life and mental health.
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