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13 Tammuz 5761 - July 4, 2001 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








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Opinion & Comment
Advice on How to Study Torah

by HaRav Shimon Moshe Diskin

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 ones.

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 later on.

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 reasoning.

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 separately.

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 seforim.

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 Torah text.

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 godol beTorah.

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 beneficial.

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 requirements.

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.

Good Advice

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 a rav.

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 Torah.

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 of horo'oh.

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 lechavero.

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 redemption.

HaRav Shimon Moshe Diskin zt"l was a rosh yeshiva in Yeshivas Kol Torah of Yerushalayim. His second yahrtzeit is 15 Tammuz.

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