Book review: Bright Beginnings Gemara workbook

Imagine a fifth-grader and telling them that they are about to start studying Beowulf in depth. If the 11-year-old would protest that they don’t fully understand the language, they might be told that the West Saxon dialect of Old English is just an earlier version of modern English. An issue is that such an approach is quite challenging for most students.

For many students in American yeshivas today, often starting Talmud (Gemara) study as young as age 10, their experience may be similar. With the text in a foreign language (Mishnaic Hebrew and Babylonian Aramaic), no initial semblance of organization, complete lack of modern punctuation; that and more make for a challenging introductory experience.

The point was articulated by Rabbi Yehuda Brandes, president of Herzog College in Gush Etzion in the Summer 2016 issue of Hakirah. There Brandes presented a method of teaching and studying Talmud, beginning with the most basic steps of reading and understanding the text and ending with strategies for more in-depth study. Brandes astutely noted that an in-depth study without basic understanding of the text is flawed, that study that does not also set as a goal knowing and remembering the material is unstable and weak, and that study based only on reading and reviewing the text is unsatisfactory.

A solution to the problem is found in the first volume of the Bright Beginnings (ISBN-13: 978-0996349734 and also available as an eBook) series of Gemara workbooks. The first workbook in the series is for the fourth chapter of Tractate Brachos, which is produced by Rabbi Yakov Horowitz and authored by Rabbi Aaron Spivak. The workbook is meant for the student new to Gemara study (be they 10 years old or 50) such that after mastering the basics, will find it to be an enjoyable, yet challenging experience, as opposed to a bewildering one.

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Those in technology may know of the Missing Manual series; called the book that should have been in the box. When it comes to Talmud study, there’s no shortage of commentaries on the text or books about the text. But there is a dearth of books on how to learn the text. Such books are a challenge to write; given that the author must be an expert writer and pedagogue, in addition to master of Talmud.

For example, the Reference Guide to the Talmud by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz is an invaluable resource that provides a lot of the macro information about the Talmud. This includes historical and biographical information, text-based assumptions, logical structure and more. But it’s most effectively used as reference about the Talmud, not a method how to learn it in the first place.

Bright Beginnings takes a structured approach and slowly and gently introduces the student to the world of the Talmud. The authors break topics into short and manageable lessons. Their goal is not to overwhelm the student with too much information. Each chapter focuses on a core set of terms and by the time they finish volume 2, the student will be proficient in 100 of the most common talmudic words. The words are listed in flashcard style to facilitate easier study.

Most of the chapters have a section “put it all together,” where the topics and logic are reviewed and the student is given an opportunity to read, translate and explain the talmudic passage learned. This logical and procedural approach ensures that the students knows the text, and won’t advance until they have mastered it.

While the book is geared for the late-elementary and middle-school student, it’s also a good resource for the high-school student or adult who commences Talmud study later in life. Those who teach introduction to Talmud would be derelict not to consider this workbook in their curriculum.

The importance of a book like this can’t be overstated, as a student who commences Talmud study on the wrong foot and wrong direction will find their path fraught with frustration. While the study of Talmud may not be for everyone, the workbook ensures that for those who it is, that they’re not left behind.

About the Author
Senior information security and risk management professional. I speak at industry conferences, and write on information security, social media, privacy and technology. My book reviews are on information security, privacy, technology, and risk management. Here for Times of Israel, book reviews on religion and philosophy.
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