This is the full text of a letter sent by HaRav Shimon
Moshe Diskin, zt"l, to a talmid advising him
how to study Torah and grow in avodas Hashem.
Studying Torah in depth is predicated upon the attainment of
maximum clarity, for clarity is the foundation of Torah
scholarship as well as that of man in general. We must
understand the topic under study so completely that we would
be surprised if someone else understands it differently. To
help us grasp the main point of the sugya we should
write concisely. The right choice of words helps us sharpen
distinctions and increase clarity.
Most people are inclined to learn Torah with only hazy,
abstract comprehension, whether they study inside or outside
a formal yeshiva framework. Vague ideas -- antitheses of
lucid thinking -- are undoubtedly more popular than precise
We must remember, however, that Torah study is not an
intellectual diversion. It has one and only objective: the
search for truth -- as opposed to following our innate
tendencies. When it seems to us that truth can be found in a
particular text or even in the most basic reasoning such as
of a novice, no additional sophisticated reasoning should be
offered. Our study is considered solely for the sake of the
mitzvah of talmud Torah only when our aim simply and
only is to reveal the absolute truth.
Paying Careful Attention to the Text
We need to ensure that our thinking conforms to that of the
gemora, the rishonim and our contemporary
Torah masters. It goes without saying that we should not do
the opposite: adapt the gemora to our way of
thinking. Our main interest should be the careful scrutiny
of the wording of the gemora and the rishonim,
for they chose their precise words with care. Chas
vesholom for us to attribute inanity to what they have
so meticulously written. Also, even the finest logic should
not be ascribed to the gemora or the rishonim
if it does not fit in smoothly with the text.
We should first pay attention to what is actually written,
and not to make deductions based on what may seem to us is
missing or superfluous. It takes tremendous effort to
accomplish this, and often following such effort we are
amazed that we did not see the text's true meaning sooner,
although we now see it clearly written. We can begin to
think about the logic behind the text only when we have a
complete grasp of the text itself. If we merit such a grasp
we are indeed fortunate, but if not, we must summarize both
what is clear and what is unclear to us (in the text),
realizing that we are, indeed, still uncertain if we have
indeed grasped its true meaning.
We must be mindful not to reverse the order; to first think
what seems to us to be correct, and later peruse the text,
trying to fit it in with our predetermined conclusions.
The wrong approach is: If the text agrees with what I have
previously determined as the correct understanding, I should
not write "the text is precise," and if it does not agree, I
should not write, "we have no choice other than to
understand the text in this way although the simple meaning
seems to be different." That is not characteristic of one
who searches for truth.
Our foremost duty is to delineate exactly where we find
difficulty for us [in the text] and what seems simple. No
Tosafos or Rashba should be passed over with our having
achieved only a vague comprehension. We must attain clarity
so that we are able to explain succinctly that the Rashba
says such and such, but I did not understand this point and
the other. This must be done concisely.
Of course, after the questions are well defined we must
devote some thought to their resolution, but no more than a
little thought. The basic principle we should follow is not
to express nor even to consider any vague reasoning.
Stay in Your Own Depth
Furthermore, we should not think about any line of reasoning
that is deeper than our own understanding. Each time we
should consider it in a slightly deeper fashion until, with
time, with Hashem's help, our thought process becomes more
refined. In this way, what seems to us today to be
incredibly deep will be clear, day-and-night distinctions
We should not offer any explanations to which we need to
add: "consider the matter well," or "it must be understood
like this," or "what I have written is sufficient for a
discerning person." What those phrases really show is that
you, too, do not understand -- which is the primary sin of a
lack of clarity and uncertainty.
While one may sometimes violate these limitations after deep
and sustained thinking into some matters, we must, however,
always reevaluate carefully all our conclusions. Clear
reasoning that even a bar mitzvah boy could understand is
the only thing that should ultimately remain.
But Is This Possible?
But this seems totally unfeasible. How can a bar mitzvah boy
understand chidushei Torah that only mature
talmidim can grasp? If a student confines himself in
such a way, he will be using only the most elementary
My true meaning in this is twofold:
1) The lines of reasoning must be clear and simple for the
person so that it must seem to him that anyone could easily
understand it. It happens often that a godol is
amazed when others do not understand what he has said; it
appears to him so elementary. This is because, at least to
the one who formulated the reasoning, it actually looks
simple, even when the truth of the matter is that it is not
simple at all.
2) There is another important point that does not contradict
the above. Every edifice of chidushei Torah consists
of numerous details, and even a single explanation can be
divided into several parts. A young boy is naturally
incapable of absorbing the whole span of the chidush,
but he is surely capable of understanding each point
Seforim such as the Ketzos HaChoshen and the
Sha'agas Aryeh should be perused, but not for
inordinate periods of time. Many times we find lines of
reasoning in seforim that do not sit well with our
intellectual conventions. This happens since the authors'
intellectual faculties are broader than ours and the
gedolim's perspectives are more comprehensive.
Our logic is superficial in comparison to that of the
gemora. When we happen to foresee the teirutz
of the gemora we should not fool ourselves into
thinking, "Aha, at long last the gemora reached what
I understood from the beginning." If we want to comprehend
what they have written and place it within our limited
powers of intelligence, the result will be inevitable
failure. We will always get to a compromise, which in any
case is not the real truth.
Even if we feel that their logic is unacceptable according
to the text of our gemora, we should nonetheless
accept it. With Hashem's help, with time we, too, will gain
new dimensions of logic. Just as we have become accustomed
to the dialectic of the gemora since we have
subjugated our minds to the reasoning we have received in
tradition (not, chas vesholom, the opposite, like
some who have only recently begun learning and use
scientific reasoning). We too, with Hashem's help, will
later understand that the reasoning that now seems strange
is totally true and accurate.
However, it will be a long time before we encounter this
problem. In the vast majority of cases, we have been brought
up with the type of reasoning found in the
Again I return to the abovementioned rule. We should take a
little time and make an effort to understand them, since
perhaps the understanding is within our capability but we
have simply not made enough of an effort. We should,
however, not analyze the topic too much when it seems that
we lack the capability to understand it.
Similarly, it is understood that the ability to distinguish
between novice logic and a genuine gemora sevora is
generally acquired from those who have already obtained this
talent: the ramim and kollel students who have
acquired the right way of studying Torah.
Scrupulous Study of the Text of the Rambam
I will explain why we are more careful when examining the
text of the Mishneh Torah than the text of the
gemora itself, although there is no doubt that the
significance of a difference in the gemora text
carries more weight than a difference in Mishneh
Here is a sharp instance of the issue I have been
discussing: We are incapable of understanding the
gemora well and are, unfortunately, amei
ho'oretz in our understanding of differences in text of
the gemora. [This is in contrast to the text of the
Rambam where we have more information and a better grasp of
the way in which he writes.] In our spiritually poverty-
stricken condition we lack both the competence and the tools
to fully understand the gemora properly.
In addition, the gemora and the Rambam have
completely different styles. Sometimes we can ask why the
Rambam wrote a certain detail at length, but we cannot ask
such a question about the gemora. According to the
Rambam's own rules -- done for many reasons; a subject too
lengthy to discuss here -- he should not have discussed a
particular point at length, for instance.
During in-depth study, a little imagination can fill the
chasm in our lack of proficiency of the gemora. We
should ask ourselves what other points adjoin this one; what
is the practical application for this reasoning and where
else can we possibly find more details. Not only do these
questions sharpen the intellect and increase our capability,
but in this way one begins to grow in Torah and becomes a
We should "appoint a rav for ourselves." It is extremely
beneficial to be like a peddler searching for people to tell
our chidushim. In this way, we also hear criticism,
and in its merit we change ourselves in many ways. When you
are afraid another person may possibly knock down your
reasoning, you quickly think ahead to protect your
chidush. The main principles of your chidush
should be examined by an eminent rav or exceptional
kollel student, who should be accepted as your rav.
Our attitude to his criticism should be like that of a
talmid to a rav. Although it is possible that you are
correct in what you have said to some degree despite his
criticism, in general he is correct and it is advantageous
to learn from him.
The Accepted Way of Studying Torah
The way of studying Torah has been conveyed to us through
the gedolei hador and the gedolei roshei
yeshivos. This is a recognized, unchanging system. We
have this method only, passed down to us from our mentors.
Adopting another way is only to our disadvantage.
The Torah that is the most sublime thing in the world and
the summit of spiritual life cannot be given over to every
thinker, no matter how talented he may be. We are dealing
with our cherished treasure, our Torah, the longing of all
hearts and of each Jew. It is the Torah of all Klal
Yisroel and of all generations: and nothing is equal to
it in importance. How can we, chas vesholom,
experiment with it? The danger involved makes one's hair
stand on end.
You may ask: how can we know what is the true dvar
Hashem? Who can say that the traditional way of Torah
study must go on forever? After all, in every period,
methods of Torah study have changed.
Undoubtedly I will not convince anyone about this through my
writing, but the answer is quite simple. Anyone who really
wants to know what is truly beneficial to him must first
understand that he cannot just decide for himself what is
First of all, a young person cannot make such a decision. To
decide about such matters one needs to be experienced:
experienced in the ways of Torah study.
Second, his current gemora ability is insufficient
for him to make such decisions.
The third factor is the loss of objectivity when others fire
him up about a certain way of reasoning or when he is
attracted to it himself. [The enthusiasm or attraction is
like a bribe to use that method of reasoning.] Furthermore,
social factors often influence his preferences and details
that are in reality minute may make a significant difference
for him. It is a great pity when such fateful decisions are
made under such influences.
In every neighborhood one can find a perceptive person whose
knowledge in Torah is both sound and stable. One should ask
this erudite person to listen to one's problems. The
talmid should scrutinize this person's character and
his way of studying Torah; then ask for his opinion.
Although it is usually possible to ask the advice of a
maggid shiur with whom one is acquainted (chas
vesholom for us to find fault with them and claim that
they are guided by personal interests; this is usually
nothing more than the complaint of talmidim lacking
practical experience in the ways of Torah study) nonetheless
[if he has no access to a maggid shiur], he can even
seek the advice of such a stranger, and it is surely to his
advantage if he has in his family a person who meets these
This is related to an additional widespread problem in
yeshivos: until a person reaches a certain age, he always
wants to look more mature. This is seen in his smoking
cigarettes and in the way he dresses, for example. There is
no reason to write at length about this since everyone goes
through such a stage in life. The same thing happens in
Torah study: a person has a strong desire to show that he
can study in a "mature" way and not be restricted by the
limitations of his shiur. One wants to soar and
"free" himself from the chains of what is taught in the
shiur: preparation for the shiur, review of
what was taught in the shiur, and discussion of it. A
person says to himself: "I want to be a ba'al habayis
of myself, to sever myself from such restrictions, and on
the contrary, to increase my independent study and thought
and develop originality."
These traits are most undoubtedly ingrained in each person.
After all, who wants to be a slave? It is surely better to
be a free man. Nonetheless, everything has its correct time.
Mature people looking a few years back understand the
necessity of a period during which a person receives
guidance and education. These may be acquired only through
clinging to our mentors. Understanding this, we will neither
wish nor have any reason to remove ourselves from this
system of studying Torah.
A person must gain practical experience in Torah and, "after
sowing with tears one harvests with joy." We should look
toward the future: not to the present. All is done with the
same objective in mind: developing into a godol
beTorah. The way life will show you is what is important
and there is no reason that because you later become
independent you will, chas vesholom, be ousted from
the true artzos hachaim. "Ask the zekeinim and
they will tell you."
Clarifying the Truth
Each sugya contains both fundamental points and less
important details. For each mitzvah, the Minchas
Chinuch cites the most fundamental problems involved;
concerning its details, he writes that he will return to
them when he has the time. Of course, our way of studying
Torah must also be to first clarify the fundamental points
and only later to discuss the details.
However, there is a difference between perusal of these
details and intense concentration on their clarification. We
must be aware of our own capabilities and not delve in these
clarifications either too little or too much.
It is not realistic for me personally to try to reach a
decision in a matter that all the gedolei acharonim
have already decided. Many times this is above my
capabilities. Since I am still young and incapable of
rendering such decisions, I must consequently accept what
they have concluded. Although these introductory principles
are important in every topic studied, there is no reason I
must decide them for myself.
The point is that sometimes not delving deeply into a topic
is better for my future Torah study. Although sometimes this
causes me to refrain from intense study where I might reach
the correct understanding, I must forgo such study, since in
most cases I would lose out from the effort. To expend such
worthless effort is not beneficial for either my capability
nor my common sense, and my way of weighing logic and
clarity could become obscured.
Let me explain about the study of beki'us. Its main
aim is to master many gemoras so that they become
etched in our memory -- it is well known that study in
iyun prevents this. The rule is that we must forgo in-
depth study for this. If I receive siyata deShmaya
and a new point or question occurs to me, I should jot it
down and look into it when I have time.
It is unnecessary to study subjects that do not interest us
because of our limited abilities. This rule applies even to
Tosafos. We should forgo studying anything too
complex. We should not be afraid of this. We must take into
consideration that our time is limited, and that perhaps if
we do not overlook the study of a rishon on this
sugya we will lose out in another place. Why is the
study of a daf in the first perek with
rishonim preferable to a daf in the last
perek with rishonim?
We must look at the total net gain. Even if we must skip
over an important bit of knowledge, we have gained other
important points instead. Although study with all the
commentaries surely adds to our Torah knowledge, delving
into them precludes the study of other topics. "Anyone who
adds [to the Torah, actually] diminishes [it]" is a rule
that relates not only to something that merely appears to be
like adding, but sometimes also to actual addition.
I will now give you some good advice. One should take a
sefer before going to sleep and study it
superficially until reaching a kushya that seems
worthy of thought, where it appears we will be able to
accomplish something with it, and to think about it until he
falls asleep. Besides the benefit itself of increasing
knowledge and sharpening of thought, we should not overlook
the kedusha involved.
Similarly, we should have a notebook divided either
according to some system of our own, or according to the
chapters of the Mishneh Torah or according to topics,
so that our every note will be preserved. This will motivate
us to add more notes and chidushim.
What is a Rav?
"Appoint a rav for yourself." Chazal are referring to a rav
who teaches us Torah and yir'oh, who educates us in
elevation in Torah and to understanding the ways of Torah;
that through him we will build the talmid chochom
within us, in both logic, Torah study methods, in wisdom, in
yir'oh, and in the proper outlook. The rule is that
everything in ruchniyus is built and polished through
Just as there is a rav for an individual, there is a rav for
the masses. Rabbon shel Yisroel is someone who
influences the entire generation through his greatness in
Torah and yiras Shomayim, motivates others in the
proper hashkofoh and ways of thinking, purges us from
improper ideas, guides us in the way that ascends to beis
Hashem, and teaches the generation's talmidei
chachomim that their Torah must be based on pure logic
and their method of study must be a continuation of the way
gedolei Yisroel have implanted within the nation in
the last generation. His depth of understanding and
perception must influence all talmidei chachomim.
A Ben Torah
A ben Torah is someone who has been elevated by the
Torah. He stands out as a ben Torah through his every
deed and thought. When someone goes in the way of the Torah,
its mitzvos and its ma'amorim determine his nature.
He does everything according to the dictates of the
There are two ways to reach such a level and to be properly
called a ben Torah: Torah study and living according
to Torah and pure halocho. One who wants to reach the
level of tzidkus in any other way will fall into the
category of, "an am ho'oretz cannot be a
chossid," and will eventually fall and deviate from
the ways of the Torah.
A person must implant within himself the awareness that all
he does should be measured with the yardstick of
halocho. Concerning some mitzvos, such as forbidden
foods, each one of us is accustomed to ask a chochom.
Concerning numerous other halochos, each person decides for
himself and does so even when he has not reached the level
Furthermore, his horo'oh itself is not done after
considering well the problem. He frees himself from
obligations with surprising lightheadedness and amazing
superficiality, and uses leitzonusdik reasoning.
It doesn't really matter if someone rules leniently or
stringently for himself. Even when a chumra is
improperly weighed by not looking at all sides of the
question but by acting stringently, a person can commit
severe aveiros, especially those of bein odom
Sometimes this applies even to momentous questions of
emunah or chillul Hashem. He nonetheless rules
for himself offhandedly, and even if he asks a
chochom, he chooses for himself the psak with
which he is most comfortable. It makes no difference whether
he is meikel or machmir: it is all the same
aveiroh. He has decided for himself and then looks
for some authority to claim he is relying upon. He decides
according to what is convenient for him or according to his
standing among his friends.
This has nothing to do with halocho. He has not
reached the level of horo'oh, although he does not
realize this. The halocho and Shulchan Oruch
do not oblige him to act in a certain way, but, rather, he
is controlled by his nature, desires and midos.
The Level of a Free Person
According to Chazal, the only ben chorin (truly free
person) is someone engaged in studying Torah. Only through
Torah study can we reach complete freedom and be called a
ben chorin. Until then we are slaves: slaves to our
desires, slaves to routine, slaves to acting like the
masses, slaves to the erev rav whose spurious beliefs
have harmed our way of thinking to some degree.
This slavery is the worst kind since we do not even realize
that we are slaves. It is slavery of the neshomoh,
the intellect and feelings. Today we have neither a Moshe
Rabbenu nor miracles that can free us from this slavery.
We do have one savior: occupying ourselves in Torah. Let us
rescue ourselves from the slavery of following the crowd,
from following the opinions of ba'alei batim, and
from false ideologies. Let us become truly free. This can
only be attained through engaging in Torah study. "The only
ben chorin is someone engaged in Torah." May we be
zocheh to become complete bnei chorin, to
extricate ourselves from darkness to light, from slavery to
HaRav Shimon Moshe Diskin zt"l was a rosh
yeshiva in Yeshivas Kol Torah of Yerushalayim. His second
yahrtzeit is 15 Tammuz.