"Moshiach is ready to come now-our part is to increase in acts of goodness and kindness" -The Rebbe

Monday, May 31, 2010

Covering ground in learning Torah

Different people learn differently.

My personal inclination while learning is to learn slowly and carefully, reviewing once or twice at the end of each paragraph, or every ten lines or so when learning unbroken text, and then reviewing again at the end of several paragraphs or ten lines, and then several times again upon completion, and then sometimes yet again several months later, and so on. I think often of the (decidedly chilling) statements of
Chazal (Sanhedrin 99a) that one who fails to review his studies is akin to “one who sows but does not reap” and to “one who bears a child and then buries it” (G–d forbid), and this spurs me to review often.

The advantage of this approach is that what I learn, I generally remember well, and the Chassidus that I learn is accessible to me for use as material for hisbonenus.

The problem with this approach, however, is that I don’t cover much ground.

Others have the opposite inclination. I remember how several of my chavrusos (learning partners) were simply incapable, or at least unwilling, to delve into one topic, and any request that we pause to analyze the matter or study commentaries would be met with resistance. They were running, running, to the next topic and the one after that, and they wouldn’t slow down. (Unsurprisingly, those chavrusos did not last for long ... )

Of course, in Yeshivah I couldn’t get away with going to either extreme, because Tomchei Temimim (the Chabad Yeshivah) is set up (as are most Yeshivos, to my knowledge) to combine both styles of learning. In Yeshivah circles, these different approaches are known as “iyun”—in-depth study and “girsa”—learning in order to cover ground (as I understand, the non-Chabad world refers to this as “beki’us”). In seder Nigleh, the portion of the day devoted to studying Gemara, the morning and early afternoon (typically 10:45 am-2:00 pm, depending on the Yeshivah) is typically devoted to iyun, while the late afternoon (from approximately 3:30 pm-7:00 pm) is devoted to reviewing the morning study, and to girsa.

It seems that
Chassidus was traditionally studied in a way of iyun, until the Rebbe changed this and introduced girsa to the study of Chassidus, as the following letters from the early years of the Rebbes leadership testify:
As for your question concerning the study of Chassidus: ... in all Lubavitcher Yeshivos there should be ... broader knowledge of the teachings of Chassidus. To my sorrow, a tremendous deficiency can be sensed in this area. Even students who have been learning Chassidus for several years, and know several topics in depth, only know very, very few concepts. If only I could accomplish it, I would introduce in every place the study of Chassidus not only in a manner of iyun, but a special session of study also in a manner of girsa. Although in general Chabad demands pnimiyus[“internalization,” nevertheless, this study is necessary in order to] become familiar with [many] concepts.

Igros Kodesh, Vol. 4, p. 95.

For the same reason that you write that it is beneficial to study a tractate of Gemara in a way of girsa—for one gains knowledge of an entire tractate, albeit superficial—for this very reason, if I had my way, I would introduce the study of Chassidus in a manner of girsa, despite the fact that Chassidus in particular requires that one study with pnimiyus. An example [of subject matter that it is recommended be studied in this way] would be the “Chassidishe sedra” [the section of Torah Ohr or Likkutei Torah corresponding to the weekly Torah portion].

ibid., p. 158.

I have already stated that one should strive for both—not only to study several concepts in depth, but also to gain, to a significant extent, superficial knowledge of many concepts. This can come through studying Shaar HaYichud Veha’Emunah and Igeres HaTeshuvah in Tanya, several [discourses explaining the] Mitzvos in the Tzemach Tzedek’s Derech Mitzvosecha, and some of the manuscripts [the Rebbe is referring to discourses that have since been published]. However, which particular manuscripts should be studied will depend upon the type of student and the way that he learns, and this the mashpia on hand must decide.

ibid., Vol. 5, pp. 312-313.
As the Rebbe makes clear, there was always an extra emphasis on pnimiyus and iyun when studying Chassidus. Thus, advocating a girsa mode of studying Chassidus (in addition to the iyun mode) means changing the way that Chassidus Chabad was traditionally studied.

To illustrate this, there were some great chassidim for whom iyun was everything, in a way that we would perhaps consider extreme.

Reb Zalman Moishe HaYitzchaki was a great chossid of the Rebbe Rashab, of the Previous Rebbe, and towards the end of his life, of the Rebbe (I wrote an article about him several years ago that can be viewed here). His approach to Torah study was extraordinary:
For many years he [Reb Zalman Moishe] maintained a fixed schedule to study Chassidus: Every day he would wake up very early in the morning and learn for six consecutive hours. Upon finishing, he would mark the place that he had reached in his studies with his pencil. It turned out that during these numerous hours he would learn only three lines! The bulk of the time went to internalizing the concept—making it enter him and affect him.

Anoshim Chassidim Hoyu p. 32.
For Reb Zalman Moishe there was only iyun. However, he learnt so much that despite his slow pace in terms of quantity, he probably amassed vast amounts of girsa knowledge as well.

In any case, regardless what was done in previous generations, or by great chassidim of former times, the Rebbe has made clear to us what is appropriate for our time: a combination and balance of iyun and girsa. This means that although the statement of Chazal that “One should always study in the place that ones heart desires (Avodah Zara 19a) may imply that those those inclined to iyun may focus primarily on iyun, and those inclined to girsa may focus primarily on girsa, at the same time, one must maintain a balance: The former should set aside time for girsa as well, and the latter should set aside time for iyun as well.

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