From Alef to Tough: How To Approach a Difficult Sugya (Torah Study Topic) – Part I

Studying Torah can be challenging for you and me…but how about for the Tanaaim?

Part 1

What to Expect When You’re Expecting

K’neged Kulam – Of Supreme Importance

Torah study is absolutely central in Judaism. This fact cannot be overstated; it is a positive commandment that rivals no other. Diurnally, we declare the phenomenal significance of Talmud Torah (Torah study) in both the morning and evening prayers. In the beginning of Shacharis (the morning prayer) we pronounce, “Talmud Torah K’neged Kulam –Studying Torah parallels the rewards of all mitzvos.” Similarly, as part of the evening liturgy we assert, “Ki heim chayeinu – They are our very life.” Torah study is central to Judaism.

Nonetheless, Torah learning is a demanding intellectual endeavor that is often extremely challenging. Phraseology, ideas, and concepts can be complicated and tough to grasp. Therefore, many individuals – novice high school students, seasoned yeshiva students, and veteran Torah scholars – find that when they embark on a journey studying Torah, they don’t fully comprehend what they are learning.

Difficulties, challenges, and hurdles are part of the experience of life, as much as we might prefer that they not be. Yet, as difficult as life’s normal – or abnormal – ordeals are, difficulties in the realm of religion pose their own complexities. Since Torah learning is the sine qua non of Judaism, some interpret their lack of success as a sign of their own spiritual or intellectual shortcomings. Even small failures in the process of learning can open up a Pandora’s box of negative emotion. It is common for those involved in Torah study to articulate or cogitate, “Nebach. If I had a better kop, I would chap the sugya better – Woe is to me! If I had a better head I would grasp the topic better” Sometimes this thought process can lead to a lack of enthusiasm or motivation for learning Torah, or to a lesser opinion of oneself – either as a human being, or as a religious Jew.

The jump from lack of success in Torah study to personal deficiency is something that might be traced to multiple experiences and encounters that one has had, and which he might benefit from exploring. Sometimes, the most helpful approach is for a person to recognize that he is making that leap and take practical steps to confront it. Two complementary steps are sometimes able to help assuage those serious concerns. Today’s post will focus on the first aspect – to normalize the challenge of Talmud Torah (Torah study). The next post will describe the second part – to arrange one’s Torah study appropriately for success.

Anguish and Delight

Serious Torah study is a formidable experience and requires tremendous effort. It is typical and expected for any person to find it difficult to succeed. This is highlighted by a phenomenal Talmudic statement at the end of Tractate Taanis which discusses what one is permitted to study on Tisha B’av (the Ninth of Av – the day of mourning for the destruction of the Temple).  The Tanna (Mishnaic sage) Rabi Yehudah prohibits all Torah study because Torah is described in Psalms as “delighting the heart.” The dissenting Tanna mostly agrees, with one exception; one may study an area of the Talmud that he is not familiar with. Rashi (the foremost medieval commentator) elaborates that studying new material causes mental anguish instead of happiness, and is in concordance with the sadness of the day. The Aruch Hashulchan (R. Yechiel Michel Epstein of Novardok, 1829 – 1908) highlights that both sages maintain that studying an unexplored area of Torah is challenging and it will cause the one who is studying mental pain and anguish. Rabi Yehudah, who still prohibits study on Tisha B’av, merely holds that the objective joy of Torah study, “Misamchei Lev – they delight the heart” overrides the distress of studying different matter.

The discussion seems extraordinary. Even the Tannaim, like Rabi Yehuda, understood that when one is exploring a new area of Talmud it is challenging, and maybe somewhat unsatisfying and demoralizing. They vividly described that encounter as one of “tza’ara – anguish.” It is clear that for everyone, even Tannaim who are communicating the privilege and delight of studying Torah, emphasize that it can be accompanied by struggle and adversity. It is evident that the intellectual challenge of Torah study is not necessarily correlated with individual shortcomings, but it is a normal and expected part of the enterprise of Torah study.

For some people “new material” is defined as a topic they never encountered in their life. For others it might mean the fine points in the section of Talmud they have been studying for the past month which still challenging to grasp. “Misamchei lev – they delight the heart” does not mean that it is always easy to learn.

This plainly evident from the myriad of terms Chazal (the Sages) use to describe learning Torah, including “esek – toil,” “ameilus – strenuous work,” and  “yegiyah – difficult labor.” The nature of studying Torah is that it is a labor of love and beauty, but it is not expected to come easily. It seems like they are declaring:

Delve into the words of Torah. No matter who you are, presume it is going to be tough, as well as rewarding. Expect, embrace, and enjoy the challenge!

Are you ready for it?

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