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“Making Sense” of Gemara in a High School Classroom

Rabbi Tully Harcsztark
July 10, 2023
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1Thank you to the following colleagues who read and shared their insights and critiques of the paper: Shmuel Hain, Nati Hefgot, Richard Hidary, Binyamin Krauss, Jonathan Kroll, Jeffrey Rubenstein, Lisa Schlaff, Gillian Steinberg, and Shlomo Zuckier.Over the past two years, Machon Siach at SAR High School has convened a Gemara Faculty Beit Midrash committed to developing a shared language and pedagogy around teaching Gemara. The group seeks to develop a consistent approach to the study of Gemara that supports the following idea in our mission statement as we:

Guide students to see the Talmudic process as an expression of Modern Orthodox thinking- i.e. an attempt to balance commitment to texts, values and real world issues in the hope of internalizing not just the content but the approach itself as a model of living one’s life as a Jew.

As part of this commitment, we strive to help students experience the sugya as exemplifying the dynamic process that brings the Rabbinic text into conversation with the interpretive tendencies of the Sages, and their lived realities. This, in turn, can help students extend these strategies to their own experiences where interpretive tensions arise in the rabbinic application of Jewish texts, values and practice to contemporary situations.

Joseph Schwab’s “four commonplaces” set a useful framework for us as we consider how best to teach a sugya in a Modern Orthodox high school. Schwab, a professor of education at the University of Chicago, describes the four commonplaces that constitute every educational setting: the teacher, the students, the subject matter, and the milieu (the community and culture of the particular school). To educate properly, all four commonplaces must be considered.2Schwab, J.J., The Practical 4: Something For Curriculum Professors To Do. Curriculum Inquiry 13. (1983): 239-265; ibid, Science, Curriculum and Liberal Education, (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1978), pp. 287-383.  All teachers are not the same — not in disposition, educational philosophy, nor temperament — and, of course, each student is unique as well. In the same vein, each community is distinctive. To teach is to consider the subject matter in light of all of these commonplaces and to balance each in the context of the lesson.

Consider the implications of questions such as “how does this make sense?” or “wasn’t life different two thousand years ago?” Are such questions legitimate? It is natural for the students in our school to probe in this way. But from the perspective of the halakhic system – of a Torah of eternal meaning – such questions are challenging. If we acknowledge a gap between ‘then’ and ‘now,’ we need strategies to tackle those questions.

In our Faculty Beit Midrash program, teachers learn together, and we engage the sugya with our students in mind; our understanding of their dispositions informs our own learning. Anticipating the questions that our students will have when learning the Gemara shapes the way that we learn the Gemara and what we must understand in order to explain the Sugya to ourselves and our students. In other words, the task of teaching Gemara impacts the way that we study Gemara in preparation for that teaching.

Six principles guide our group’s learning of the sugya. Each of them reflects a particular decision about how to decipher and what to draw from the sugya.

  1. Focus on the text of the Gemara
  2. “Make sense” of each line
  3. Identify the larger essential question of the sugya and ask them all, even the seemingly basic questions
  4. Compare parallel sources through intertextual reading
  5. Determine the intergenerational conversation in the sugya
  6. Draw on contemporary theory to make the concepts accessible

In the following sections, I will elaborate on each of these steps. Many of the examples derive from Masechet Kiddushin, which I have taught to tenth graders for over a decade.

1. Focus on the text of the Gemara 

My years of yeshiva study trained me to focus primarily on conceptual questions related to the Gemara, and this conceptual method formed the core of my teaching to advanced students. That was what my students expected to learn, and that was what I taught. Often, that meant reading through the Gemara relatively quickly, overlooking some of the complexities and oddities of the text in order to arrive at the “more interesting” conceptual understanding that came from reading the Rishonim or resolving an apparent contradiction in the Mishneh Torah.

Over the years, I have increasingly marveled at the dynamism of the sugya, investing more deeply in identifying the arc of the sugya, the questions that it raises, and the way that Amoraim or the sugya itself struggle to resolve their commitment to the Tannaitic text when their own interpretive intuitions seem to lie elsewhere. Two factors increased my focus on the text of the Gemara. First, through my exposure to more academic approaches to Talmud study, I understood that the sugya has a history filled with layers, moves, and countermoves that developed over generations. Perhaps more significantly, in my classroom, I saw that high school students are curious about so many details of the Gemara that I had previously overlooked. While the Gemara does indeed “think in its own way” and many students love learning Gemara for precisely that alterity, much can be gained by attempting to “translate” the text so that it can speak to our contemporary mindset. In fact, many high school students want the Gemara to “make sense” in a natural way, although most students do not believe that it will meet that expectation. Often students become frustrated when a drasha or a line in the Gemara seems arbitrary or defies logic. Over time, they come to abandon their hopeful expectation altogether. In many respects, the Gemara “thinks” in its own way, a manner different from my own.

More than anything, I want my students not to abandon that expectation. As teachers, I would like us to work as hard as we can to help students understand the wisdom and dynamism of the sugya. With this in mind, I began to prepare every line of Gemara by trying to anticipate the questions that my students might ask. Doing so requires careful focus on every line of the sugya, not allowing glib movement through the less intuitive derasha or okimta. In order to answer my students’ questions, I need to deploy a broader range of methods, including literary strategies, historical analysis, and analogy, which, I have found, not only make the Gemara more accessible and enriching to students but have also deepened my own understanding of many sugyot. The experience of teaching has helped me develop pedagogical insight about how best to present a sugya to my students. But the shift in how to teach Gemara also generated a change in my understanding of the method of the Gemara itself. I began to feel that, in general, the style and construction of the sugya expressed a worldview, a way that texts and the real lives of people interact with each other over generations. Our Machon Siach Gemara group seeks to further develop this strategy, bringing religious and socially meaningful understanding to the interpretive moves, the questions and answers, the mix of halakha and aggadah, and the overall arc of the sugya.

Our commitment to focusing on the text of the Gemara is rooted in another important assumption. We read the Gemara with the assumption that the Talmudic sugya often raises important questions that affect the way that we interpret the social and cultural worlds in which we live. It does so against the background of generations of texts that serve as ground for Jewish values and practice. When we study the sugya, we bear witness to rabbis across time grappling with textual interpretation – both the internal challenge of explaining their interpretation of a Mishnah or Beraita with integrity as well as the challenges that the texts might present to the Amora or Stam’s3The anonymous “editors’ voice” in the Gemara  intuitive understanding or set of values. Identifying the essential question that the sugya raises and the various strategies of the Amoraim or the Stam in tackling the question can help us connect to the content of the sugya, but it also models the balancing of commitments to intersecting texts and values. Quite often, the conceptual issues raised in the later commentaries can be uncovered in the text of the Gemara itself when properly explored.

The lomdus of the sugya and a close reading of the sugya are often complementary. But one can obscure the other unless we develop a practice that ensures that we focus on the Gemara itself. For example the opening sugya of the third chapter of Kiddushin is classically referred to as עני בחררה המהפך based on the detailed deliberation of Tosfot and other Rishonim regarding the limits of competitive business practice. However the sugya itself is focused on an entirely different and quite significant topic of רמאות מנהג whether something can be halakhically permissible yet ethically problematic. The sugya works hard to reinterpret these sources and introduce others in order to make its claim that such behavior can be legally valid while still being unethical. It is striking that even the naming of the sugya how we refer to it in common parlance reflects our focus and prioritization. In this instance the shiurim on this sugya often focus on the very important issues raised in the Rishonim. But in doing only that we miss an extremely important question regarding the relationship between halakha and ethics – a question that Rav Lichtenstein and others famously addressed4R. Aharon Lichtenstein, “Does Jewish Tradition Recognize an Ethic Independent of Halakha? https://www.etzion.org.il/en/philosophy/great-thinkers/harav-aharon-lichtenstein/does-jewish-tradition-re cognize-ethic (accessed November 30, 2022).  – that is directly discussed in the Gemara itself. A careful reading of the sugya is vitally important for understanding the argument and identifying how the sugya is using its sources to make its claim.

2. “Making Sense” 

In attempting to identify the essential question of the sugya and the dynamic debate in the Gemara, we enact a commitment to making the Gemara “make sense.” This commitment is important in the study of the sugya and of the Rishonim as well. In our internal departmental discussion, the phrase “making sense,” has become pregnant with meaning. That became part of our terminology after I recalled a conversation with a friend who was learning with his son with the goal of making a siyum at the son’s bar mitzvah. I asked him how it was going. He said, “it’s going great. The only problem is that my son expects the Gemara to make sense.” He said it seriously, and it has stayed with me. When we study Gemara, should we expect it to make good social and logical sense? Perhaps Gemara has its own internal logic, and our responsibility is to understand that logic: perhaps when we study the Talmud, we enter a world distinct in its thinking, its ethics, and its goals. Some Rabbis believe this to be fully the case. At the same time, it can also be true that the ability to uncover the arc and logic of the sugya itself reveals a Gemara that deals with questions of ethical, social, and religious importance that can speak directly to our students today.

The difficulty in making the Gemara “make sense” has habituated us, as teachers, to often slide through the details of the Gemara despite a nagging interpretive or ethical question. We should not allow the drive to “cover more ground” to relieve us of the obligation to reasonably explain what the Gemara is saying to our contemporary minds. We therefore make a collective commitment to focus on the Gemara text, using all the resources available to “make sense” of the sugya. We work at it even if it seems elusive at first. Committing to this goal and working hard to achieve it can produce results.

Below is a brief example of a text that, upon first reading, is difficult to comprehend. The sugya focuses on the laws of Yichud, a category of halakha that, in a broad sense, can resonate with students even as they struggle with some of its applications. In the instance below, the Gemara quotes a derasha as a source for the Yichud prohibition that stretches the imagination. And yet, a commitment to making sense of the text yields important religious and social meaning. Kiddushin 80b states,

א״ר יוחנן משום ר׳ ישמעאל רמז ליחוד מן התורה מנין שנאמר כי יסיתך אחיך בן אמך וכי בן אם מסית בן אב אינו מסית אלא לומר לך בן מתייחד עם אמו ואסור להתייחד עם כל עריות שבתורה

Rabbi Yochanan said in the name of Rabbi Yishmael: From where is there an allusion in the Torah to the prohibition of seclusion with a woman? As it says, ‘ If your brother, the son of your mother, entices you’: [Devarim 13:7] but does then only a mother’s son entice, and not a father’s son? Rather, it’s to tell you: A son can be secluded with his mother, but not with any other women forbidden by the Torah.

R. Yishmael’s “allusion” derives from the extra “the son of your mother.” This interpretation is extremely difficult. These extra words do not indicate anything about yichud or a sexual encounter. In fact, the verse is teaching about the prohibition of meisit (convincing someone to commit idolatry) and is not referring to sexual matters at all! In the classroom, this type of drasha is often met with cynicism. We now have two problems: the laws of meisit are quite distant from our students’ worlds, and our sugya uses this distant and seemingly unlikely exegesis to serve as a source for the Yichud laws. How can we ‘make sense’ of this derasha? As educators, we must do the work to make the text speak meaningfully to our students.

In this instance we are in good company. R. Yehoshua Falk (ad loc) author of יהושע פני notes that he struggled with understanding this drasha for thirty years before finally arriving at his remarkable insight.

לכאורה כל הרואה ישתומם על זה המאמר וזה לי כמו שלשים שנה שהתבוננתי בזה

The יהושע פני then instructs us to read the complete verse rather than just the section quoted in the Gemara. When we do the idea becomes clear and relatable to students:

ועניתי ואמרתי דעיקר ילפותא דייחוד מהאי קרא לאו מרישא דקרא דבן אמך אלא מכולה קרא ד”כי יסיתך דכתיב ביה או רעך אשר כנפשך בסתר” ופרש”י ז”ל בחומש ש”דיבר הכתוב בהווה” שאין הסתה אלא בסתר

The complete verse in Devarim 13:7 states:

כי יסיתך אחיך בן אמך או בנך או בתך או אשת חיקך או רעך אשר כנפשך בסתר לאמר נלכה ונעבדה אלהים אחרים אשר לא ידעת אתה ואבתיך׃

If he will incite you – your brother, son of your mother, or your son or your daughter, or the wife of your bosom, or your friend, who is like your soul – secretly, saying, let us go and worship other gods that were unknown to you and your forefathers

After many years, the P’nei Yehoshua realized that the Torah uncharacteristically describes the scene of the meisit in great detail: two people who are very close to each other – relatives or very close friends – have a conversation in secret that results in questioning God. For high school students, this seemingly distant idea becomes much more relatable. That is exactly how it happens! Kids, late at night, in conversations about life and about belief, raise questions and uncertainties; they talk with each other about life’s larger questions. The verse, with some ‘interpretive translation,’ is describing a scene that is precisely the space where these conversations happen, even today. And the Torah teaches the reader to be wary, even of those closest to you, when they are attempting to bring you to question your faith. The Torah is warning us: be careful at those intimate moments. They are potentially of great consequence.

At the same time, the Torah asks, how can such conversations happen? With whom is one permitted to be alone in secret at such intimate moments? The verse uncharacteristically provides an extended list of relationships describing with whom one might actually find him or herself alone. R. Yishmael infers the contours of the yichud prohibition from a descriptive segment of a verse in an entirely different unit of the Torah!

This insight of the יהושע פני models the struggle and hard work that can be necessary to draw insight from a derasha. In this instance the interpretation helps us recognize the intimacy of those late night conversations makes the meisit law more accessible and sheds light on the nature of the remez (hint) for the Yichud laws. The Gemara itself notes that this is a remez and not the peshat or simple meaning of the verse.

3. Essential Questions and Basic Questions 

We have emphasized the commitment to a close reading of the Gemara itself in an attempt to ‘make sense’ of each line of the sugya. Interrogating the sugya is key to achieving this goal. Broadly speaking, we distinguish between two types of questions, both of importance for our learning: essential questions and basic questions. I will explain each in turn.

We noted that identifying the essential question of the sugya helps make the dynamic exchange of the Amoraim or the Stam meaningful in today’s world. What exactly are essential questions? Grant Wiggins says, “Essential questions foster the kinds of inquiries, discussions, and reflections that help learners find meaning in their learning and achieve deeper thought and better quality in their work. They stimulate ongoing thinking and inquiry.”5Grant Wiggins, https://www.ascd.org/el/articles/how-to-make-your-questions-essential. Accessed 4/11/2022. 

Identifying the essential question of a sugya broadens the Gemara’s discussion from, for example, one about “jars and pitchers in a public space” to one about whether “public space means that anyone is free to use the space as they wish or everyone is responsible to make sure that others are able to safely use the space.”6Bava Kamma 27a. See Yaakov Blau and Lisa Schlaff, Academic Talmud in the High School Classroom; A Dialogue, https://traditiononline.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/10/Blau-Schlaff.pdf. (Accessed November 30, 2022). 

As Wiggins describes essential questions:

● They’re arguable, with multiple plausible answers.

● They raise further questions.

● They spark discussion and debate.

● They demand evidence and reasoning because varying answers exist.

● They point to big ideas and pressing issues.

● They fruitfully recur throughout the unit or year.

● The answers proposed are tentative and may change in light of new experiences and deepening understanding.7Ibid

Identifying the essential question of the sugya allows students to connect to the issues across generations and cultures. It is an act of educational translation that allows the values of the Gemara to speak to our current selves and makes the wisdom of the Gemara transferable to contemporary life.

An essential question is an overarching, guiding question of the sugya. But not every sugya will have an essential question that feels motivating or interesting to the students.8In the high school classroom, we tend to select sugyot that more easily lend themselves to the formulation of an essential question. This helps spark the interest of students. Many sugyot are not easily translatable in this way.  Nonetheless, there are other important questions. Classroom energy is grounded in the ability to ask any and all questions. As mentioned above, anticipating the more basic, natural questions that our high school students will ask serves as an important catalyst towards successful meaning-making of the sugya. How do we make sense of this derasha? Why does the Gemara care about this seemingly picayune question? Why is the sugya veering from the topic to a side issue? How can the Amora interpret a Mishnah in a manner that veers from its simple meaning? These are all basic questions that should be taken seriously.

There is room to debate what makes for a good question when studying Gemara. One can view the Gemara as a closed logical system with “insider” concepts and values or an open system; alternatively, one can read the sugya as being in dialogue with our contemporary language and world. In our group’s approach, we assume that both perspectives should be maintained in artful balance.

R. Boruch Ber Leibowitz, famed student of R. Chaim Soloveitchik in Volozhin, addressed this issue as recorded by his son-in-law, R. Reuven Grozowski, in the introduction to the second volume of his collection of shiurim, Birkat Shmuel. R. Boruch Ber believed that one does not understand Torah using standard logic; the study of Torah has a logic of its own. One does not bend the Torah to accord with logic; rather, one bends one’s logical thinking to accord with the Torah. R. Boruch Ber specifically addresses “what makes a good question,” teaching that there is a mesorah, a tradition, of what makes a good question. The same is true regarding valid proofs or raising a proper chakirah. The logic of Torah is internal, requiring training. The tradition of how to ask a proper question is passed down from one generation of scholars to the next. The Gemara has its own logic, and we have a strong mesorah of questions, analyses and commentaries on the Gemara. These must be preserved. But if we adopt this approach alone, many basic, intuitive questions can be dismissed as unsophisticated or as distractions from important conceptual work that needs to be done.

In contrast Rav Shagar describes what he calls “The Forties Syndrome” (הארבעים שנות תסמונת (in Talmud study: graduates of high level yeshivot who have pursued professional careers in law medicine and engineering and continue to study Talmud in chavruta or through daf yomi. He notes the compartmentalization to which we have become accustomed. One can study a chapter in Bava Metzia that could directly impact how one understands the law or business ethics not solely in terms of the practical halakha but in terms of the larger question that the sugya raises. And yet maintaining a commitment to the idea that the Talmud has an internal logic of its own creates a compartmentalization that separates the ideas and values of the Gemara from the practical life of the professional. While the alterity of the Talmud strengthens the sense of sanctity of the text and makes Talmud study into a strong identity marker such separation prevents the discourse of the Gemara from integrating into the ways that we think about our everyday lives. Rav Shagar advocates for breaking down these barriers.9Shimon Gershon Rosenberg (Shagar), In His Torah He Meditates, (The Institute for the Advancement of Rav Shagar’s Writings: 2008). Pp 17-18. 

Both of these approaches are valid and positively contribute to aspects of Talmud Torah. In the spirit of Rav Shagar, I try to anticipate and consider the basic, intuitive questions for two reasons. First, the classroom should be a space where students can freely air what is on their minds and know that their teachers feel responsible for engaging seriously with their questions. Equally important, we believe that those questions, which have in the past been deemed “baale batish,” often point precisely to the tension points in the sugya, the places where the interesting moves are taking place.

In this instance I will use a Tosfot as an example that highlights the importance of asking intuitive questions to strengthen one’s understanding of both the Gemara and the Rishonim. This exemplifies how the commitment to “making sense” applies to our study of the Rishonim as well. The first Tosfot in both Kiddushin and Ketubot raises the same question: why does the first Mishnah in Kiddushin begin with the word האשה including the definite article ה״א while the first Mishnah in Ketubot begins with בתולה without the definite article ה״א ?This seemingly insignificant question is raised by Tosfot following the example set by the opening sugya in Kiddushin which asks why the Mishna uses the word שלש rather than שלשה and דרכים rather than דברים. Many students do not immediately find these questions significant or meaningful. They will wonder why the Rabbis concern themselves with this level of detail. For these students there are two options: take the risk of expressing that feeling or suppress that feeling and assume that the Gemara has its reasons for asking those questions. Too often students choose the latter.

When we learn this sugya in my class I treat the Gemara’s questions and Tosfot’s question as bringing to light two distinct issues. Following R. Yehuda Brandes’ explanation of the nature of “פתיחה סוגיות “the opening sugyot in a Masechet I show how the overall sugya in Kiddushin seeks to make a larger point about the nature of marriage. In doing so it sometimes asks strong textual questions. At other times the Gemara might ask weaker questions in order to set up the its point similar to what each of us might do when delivering a dvar Torah.10Yehuda Brandes HaMeshucha HaRishona in Al Derekh HaAvot: Shloshim Shana L’Mikhlelet Yaakov Herzog (Hotza’at Tevunot: Alon Shevut 2011) pp. 33-41. Rashba Kiddushin 3b הכא וניתני ד״ה.  This offers an opportunity to highlight the distinction between types of sugyot. Sometimes we read a dialogue between two amoraim; sometimes the Stam works through the interpretation of a Beraita in light of a Mishna. In this case, in the opening sugya of Kiddushin, there is no dialogue; the sugya is an introductory essay to the Masechet.

Following the Gemara’s example, Tosfot asked a detailed question regarding an extra letter in the Mishnah. The Meiri (ad loc) reacted severely to Tosfot’s (and even the Gemara’s) questions. The debate between the Tosfot and the Meiri raises a crucial essential question about the lesson we should learn from reading such a sugya: should we read Mishnah as we read the Torah? Is every word, even every letter, significant? At first blush, the Gemara seems to think so. It pokes at every word of the Mishnah. This initially trivial question of Tosfot actually raises a deeply significant interpretive question: should we read all of our sacred texts, even the Mishnah, “as though they were given at Sinai” (the Meiri’s words in critique of Tosfot), or is that approach reserved for the Torah itself? The seemingly narrow question, properly understood, raises a broader essential, thought-provoking question that prompts meaningful debate among students. In this example, it is all too easy to read through the Tosfot and not see the richness of the content or the depth of the question. When we commit to finding the essential questions, we develop strategies and become better equipped to find them.

This orientation can guide us in reading the sugya as a whole. Aryeh Cohen refers to this as reading the sugya “against the grain,” which means finding the inconsistencies in the flow of the sugya. For Cohen, this is often where the action is in the sugya. Rather than gloss over those tension points or see them as distractions, we should lean into them as keys to the sugya’s argument. In this way, those “basic” student questions are often those very elements that bring the dynamism of the sugya to light. In fact, as shown above, Cohen proposes that the questions that Tosfot raise help identify these moments in the sugya, although they have a different approach to answering such questions.11Aryeh Cohen, Rereading Talmud: Gender, Law and the Poetics of Sugyot, Brown Judaic Studies Vol. 318 “Making Sense” of Gemara in a High School Classroom, Page 11 Such close reading takes time. Sometimes it fails. As in the case of the P’nei Yehoshua, it can sometimes take years to discover the meaning in a particular line. Often, lomdus or the discussion of the Acharonim can shed light on the debate within the sugya. Focus on the text of the Gemara in order to have it ‘make sense’ will increase our own understanding and our ability to help students connect to the Gemara.

4. Intertextual Reading 

When we read intertextually, we see the text before us in dialogue with other texts that explore the same material or the same question. If the sugya quotes a statement of a Tanna, we must check its parallel in the Midrash Halakha, the Tosefta, the Yerushalmi and other places in the Bavli. What are the differences in the text, and are they significant? How do the different sugyot use those sources? Reading this way, we expose the dynamism of the sugya. On the one hand, we must read our sugya linearly, seeing the beginning, middle, and end. On the other hand, when we read intertextually, we are better able to see how a text was used or understood elsewhere. That, in turn, sheds light on how the source is used in our own sugya. Intertextual reading can also help compare parallel sugyot with related content.

For example, the third chapter of Kiddushin begins with the following case:

האומר לחבירו: ״צא וקדש לי אשה פלונית״ והלך וקדשה לעצמומקודשת

A man who says to another: Go and betroth so-and-so to me, and the latter went and betrothed her to himself, she is betrothed to the second man.

The Mishnah teaches a law regarding betrothal and proxy. The first Mishnah of the second chapter of Kiddushin teaches that it is possible for both parties to a betrothal to appoint shlichim to perform the respective roles of kiddushin. This is valid because כמותו אדם של שלוחו the proxy stands in place of the person. How far does this rule extend? Our Mishnah teaches that if the proxy chooses not to complete the task but instead performs the precise transaction on his own behalf it is valid. The proxy has apparently not “become” the sender; he still retains the agency to reject the task and act on his own behalf.

.תנא ״מה שעשה עשוי אלא שנהג בו מנהג רמאות״ (4:6 Yevamot (Tosefta a quoting by begins sugya The The Tosefta agrees that the Kiddushin is valid but adds that this is an unethical thing to do. Reading the full text of the Tosefta Yevamot we find

האומר לחבירו צא וקדש לי אשה פלונית הלך וקדשה לעצמו צא וקח לי ]מקח פלוני[ והלך ולקח לעצמו מה שעשה עשוי אלא שנהג דרך רמיות

One who says to his friend “go and betroth this woman for me”. He went and betrothed her for himself; go and purchase this object for me.” He went and purchased it for himself. What’s done is done, but he acted in the manner of tricksters.

The Tosefta brings two cases, one regarding marriage and the other a business transaction. Each is determined by the Tosefta to be legally valid but unethical. Reading the complete Tosefta sheds light on the arc of our sugya. While the Gemara does not say so explicitly, the sugya raises the question of the relationship between law and ethics. The Tosefta clearly distinguishes between law and ethics while our Mishnah does not explicitly raise the ethical issue. Does the Mishnah not consider the behavior unethical? Or perhaps the Mishnah agrees with the Tosefta’s critique of the proxy’s behavior but is simply focused on the legal outcome and not on the ethics.

The Gemara suggests that one can infer from the implicit language of the Mishnah that it agrees that the behavior is unethical but legally valid. The second half of the sugya then brings three stories, two of which seem to conflict with the initial assertion of the sugya that criticizes the unethical behavior of the proxy.

רבין חסידא אזיל לקדושי ליה איתתא לבריה קידשה לנפשיה.
רבה בר בר חנה יהיב ליה זוזי לרב אמר: זבנה ניהלי להאי ארעא. אזל זבנה לנפשיה

Ravin the Pious was appointed an agent and went to betroth a woman to his son, but in the end he betrothed her to himself…Rabba bar bar Ḥana gave money to Rav and said: Purchase this land for me. Rav went and purchased it for himself.

The two stories parallel the two categories in the Tosefta: betrothal and business transactions. Each story is in violation of the ethics described in the Tosefta. The sugya proceeds to provide an okimta to each of the stories, explaining why the Rabbi involved was ethically permitted to behave as he did.

Reading our sugya in light of its Toseftan parallel, we can see the sugya’s agenda and the way it uses its sources. Taking the three sources on their own (the Mishnah and the two stories), we might safely conclude that the actions are legally valid and therefore also ethically unproblematic. The sugya, however, introduces the Tosefta that teaches that something can be halakhically valid but still unethical. Rather than conclude that the Rabbis did not accept this Tosefta as the final word (R. Yehuda HaNasi did, after all, exclude it from the Mishnah), the sugya works to reorient its sources to align with the Tosefta. The sugya works to maintain the distinction between law and ethics; something can be halakhically valid and yet unethical. In order to do so, the Gemara must read the Tosefta into the language of the Mishnah and also add detail to two of the stories in order to support the distinction between law and ethics.

Seen from this perspective, students can consider how the Gemara uses its primary sources and how they might have used those same sources to arrive at a different conclusion. The Mishnah and the first two stories, on their simple reading, all support the legitimacy of the proxy’s self-interested decision. Together, these would combine to make a substantial argument in support of the legal validity of the action. This ‘path not taken’ shines a light on the argument that the sugya is making; the Gemara suggests an unusual okimta, adding detail to the narrative, in order to help the sources conform to the sugya’s argument.

5. Intergenerational Reading 

Just as it is important to read intertextually comparing versions of the same source one also gains insight into the argument of the sugya by reading with sensitivity to the generational layers within the sugya. The second chapter of Kiddushin begins with a Mishnah permitting both the man and the woman to perform betrothal via proxy ובשלוחו בו מקדש האיש. The Gemara suggests that the word בו is unnecessary as it is obviously permitted to perform the kiddushin personally. The Gemara responds,

אמר רב יוסף מצוה בו יותר מבשלוחו כי הא דרב ספרא מחריך רישא רבא מלח שיבוטא

Rav Yosef says the mitzvah is greater when done personally than via a shaliach, just as Rav Safra would char the animal head and Rava would salt the fish (for Shabbat).

What did Rav Yosef say? One might suggest that Rav Yosef said the entire sentence, both the principle and the examples from Shabbat preparation. Two reasons suggest otherwise. First, the rule is stated in Hebrew while the examples are in Aramaic. Second, one would expect that a broad principle regarding ideal mitzvah performance would be found often in the Talmud, but this apparently sweeping principle appears nowhere else in the Talmud. Therefore, one can suggest the following alternate reading: Rav Yosef stated the principle here regarding marriage, and the Stam, later, drew the comparison to Rabbis who do their own preparations for Shabbat rather than have others do the work on their behalf.

According to the latter reading, we understand why this principle appears only in Kiddushin 41a. Rav Yosef taught the importance of direct contact between the husband and the wife. Kiddushin is personal and not transactional; it should not be impersonal and distant. The Gemara, in turn, draws a comparison to an entirely different example where it is similarly important to perform the action personally in order to stress its importance, that of preparations for Shabbat.

The generational factor subtly shifts the meaning of Rav Yosef’s statement. Read on its own, Rav Yosef’s teaching might specifically apply to marriage, a mitzvah bein adam l’chaveiro, a fulfillment of loving one’s neighbor as oneself, as the Gemara itself mentions. Reading the Hebrew and the Aramaic together, the Gemara gives guidance about the importance of personally performing God’s mitzvot, referring to any mitzvah.12Rashi 41a (מבשלוחו יותר בו מצןה ד״ה (reads the two parts of the statement as one. However see Rambam Ishut 3:19 and Shabbat 30:6.  Sensitivity to the intergenerational possibilities can shift the meaning of the texts that we read in small but significant ways.

6. The Grand Conversation – Interdisciplinary Comparisons 

A central element of our school’s mission statement is “The Grand Conversation.” Among other commitments, SAR High School is a community of learners committed to

● Immersing themselves in a culture of learning and service as participants in the Grand Conversation between Torah and the world

Jewish communities can be distinguished from each other through the degree of integration that they propose between Judaism and the broader world. Some communities seek to create as complete an insularity as possible. The Modern Orthodox world is committed to Torah and halakha while also participating in the world of ideas and culture. That position, too, has distinct models. For some, those are parallel pursuits: one should study Torah and observe halakha while also receiving a secular studies education and pursuing the professions. The Grand Conversation proposes that our understanding of Torah shapes the world and that the world informs the way that we understand Torah. Applied to the study of Talmud, SAR’s mission suggests that, just as intertextual reading enriches one’s understanding of the sugya through comparison with parallel texts, cross-cultural or interdisciplinary reading allows us to explore how the topic raised in the sugya is discussed in other legal systems or cultures.

The Grand Conversation – in this application, cross-cultural or interdisciplinary reading – can bring the essential question to life, making the issue more accessible for the contemporary reader of Gemara through cultural translation. When preparing a sugya, the teacher can ask herself: what is the Gemara exploring? Do I have an example that can make the question more accessible to my students? While teachers often try to find a relevant contemporary case in the news, the Grand Conversation is pushing for something deeper. Has the essential question that the sugya is raising been explored in our contemporary world? We can draw on legal theory, sociology, psychology, anthropology, and other disciplines in order to find these connections.

For example, the Mishnah in Sanhedrin 73a states that a pursuer who is attempting to kill or to rape in violation of a capital crime must be stopped by a third party even to the point of killing the pursuer. Rashi and Rambam dispute the interpretation of the Mishnah: is the goal to save the victim or prevent the pursuer from commiting the crime? Students intuitively assume that the goal is to save the victim although they also are able to see that the language of the Mishnah might suggest that the goal is to prevent the pursuer from commiting the crime.

It seems odd that the sugya of rodef begins with a short sugya regarding the minor rodef in Sanhedrin 72b prior to the Mishnah on 73a, which introduces the sugya of rodef. Must a third party prevent the minor from committing a crime even to the point of death? The sugya then raises the question of whether hatra’ah, warning, is necessary in the case of a rodef as it is in other capital cases. What might be the reason for this unusual placement of the case of the minor rodef? Drawing an analogy to contemporary self-defense theory can shed light on this question.

In 1973, George Fletcher wrote a seminal article regarding the case of the psychotic aggressor, where an aggressor who is not fully aware of, and therefore not fully culpable for, his actions endangers another person. The psychotic aggressor serves as a test case, exploring the aspects of the pursuer’s actions that make him liable to the point of death.13George Fletcher, Proportionality and the Psychotic Aggressor: A Vignette in Comparative Criminal Theory . Israel Law Review, Vol. 8, pp. 367-390. July 1973.  Acts of self-defense on one’s own behalf or on behalf of a third party require reasonable justification. A common approach in general legal theory requires that the response be proportional to the crime. Another theory proposes that a person has a right to extreme acts of self defense, even to the point of killing someone, whenever his rights have been violated. May a property owner kill a trespasser? What of the case of a driver whose car veers out of control where there is no intent to harm but the victim is being pursued? Each of these cases can be argued from a range of perspectives. Fletcher proposes that the psychotic aggressor case serves as the litmus test for self-defense theory.

The case of the psychotic aggressor can help explain why the Gemara might introduce the case of the minor pursuer prior to the Mishnah that discusses the case of rodef. The case of the minor pursuer can serve as a test case to highlight the conceptual aspects of the case of rodef just as the psychotic aggressor highlights the conceptual aspects in contemporary self-defense theory. Is a minor who endangers the life of another person classified as a rodef who must be stopped even to the point of killing him? If one must kill the rodef to save the victim, then the age of the rodef does not matter. If the pursuer is killed because we “punish” the pursuer prior to the crime, then we may only do so when the pursuer is legally culpable. The contemporary legal analogy highlights the theoretical and literary aspects of the Babylonian Talmud sugya. Since the Gemara does not fully explain its thinking, we must decipher its meaning. The modern explication of a related case gives us language and a point of comparison through which we can discover an explanation for the arc of the sugya.

7. Charting the Questions 

With the goal of concretizing and systematizing this approach, our Gemara department developed a chart through which to identify those elements of the sugya that we would need to more clearly understand in order to properly teach it to our students. Through a close reading of the Gemara, we identify phrases, derashot, and concepts that require our attention. By comparing parallel texts and the way that the sources are used in our sugya, we are better positioned to identify the arc of the sugya and the argument it makes. When beginning a new sugya, we read the Gemara and Rashi and fill out the chart below.

Alongside the chart, our worksheet delineates the assumptions and tasks that guide us as we read through the sugya. With continued practice, the assumptions become habits of mind, and the reading tasks become second nature.

1. Assumptions

a. The sugya has a narrative arc (beginning, middle and end) and is making a point. The sugya has an agenda.

b. The Gemara is saying something that ‘makes sense’ and should be read with charity.

2. Tasks

a. Read the sugya simply, attempting to uncover the tensions in the text reflected in how the sugya uses and explains its sources and note anomalies. Ask the basic questions!

b. Read the sugya with the goal of identifying patterns, structures, or its overall direction.

c. If appropriate, identify the essential question that the sugya is raising. Is there a legal or cultural analogy that can help “translate” the question into contemporarily accessible language?

d. Identify the “intertexts” of this text (Midreshei Halakha, Toseftaot, Baraitot, Yerushalmi, other Gemarot) to create a group of texts that might deal with the same issue and compare the approaches.

e. Read against the grain: find the inconsistencies in the flow of the sugya and the spaces where the sugya might have gone in a different direction – especially when the Gemara shifts between generations.

i. Consciously consider what alternative path you might have imagined the sugya would take.

ii. Rishonim and Acharonim are very helpful in identifying these inconsistencies. Often, the questions that Tosfot ask highlight these tension points in the sugya.14These assumptions and tasks help in reading the Gemara and identifying the challenges. More work is necessary to articulate teacher strategies for finding solutions to the problems, either in classical sources or in other fields of theory. 

Use the chart in Appendix I to guide you as you read through the sugya.

9. Conclusion 

Learning Gemara can be a deeply meaningful experience. Sometimes it can be meaningful precisely because the learner leaves one’s usual environment behind and enters a different world, an eternal world of Torah, one that sometimes defies logic and the common constraints of time and space.

Learning Gemara can also be deeply meaningful in a this-worldly way, shaping our experience of the religious-social world. We try to read the Gemara as “an attempt to balance commitment to texts, values and real world issues,” a Grand Conversation of Torah learners across space and time. In this sense, the Gemara is an eternal source of wisdom and meaning precisely because it is situated in the real world of our daily lives.

Appendix I is available for download on this page.

  • 1
    Thank you to the following colleagues who read and shared their insights and critiques of the paper: Shmuel Hain, Nati Hefgot, Richard Hidary, Binyamin Krauss, Jonathan Kroll, Jeffrey Rubenstein, Lisa Schlaff, Gillian Steinberg, and Shlomo Zuckier.
  • 2
    Schwab, J.J., The Practical 4: Something For Curriculum Professors To Do. Curriculum Inquiry 13. (1983): 239-265; ibid, Science, Curriculum and Liberal Education, (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1978), pp. 287-383. 
  • 3
    The anonymous “editors’ voice” in the Gemara 
  • 4
    R. Aharon Lichtenstein, “Does Jewish Tradition Recognize an Ethic Independent of Halakha? https://www.etzion.org.il/en/philosophy/great-thinkers/harav-aharon-lichtenstein/does-jewish-tradition-re cognize-ethic (accessed November 30, 2022). 
  • 5
    Grant Wiggins, https://www.ascd.org/el/articles/how-to-make-your-questions-essential. Accessed 4/11/2022. 
  • 6
    Bava Kamma 27a. See Yaakov Blau and Lisa Schlaff, Academic Talmud in the High School Classroom; A Dialogue, https://traditiononline.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/10/Blau-Schlaff.pdf. (Accessed November 30, 2022). 
  • 7
  • 8
    In the high school classroom, we tend to select sugyot that more easily lend themselves to the formulation of an essential question. This helps spark the interest of students. Many sugyot are not easily translatable in this way. 
  • 9
    Shimon Gershon Rosenberg (Shagar), In His Torah He Meditates, (The Institute for the Advancement of Rav Shagar’s Writings: 2008). Pp 17-18. 
  • 10
    Yehuda Brandes HaMeshucha HaRishona in Al Derekh HaAvot: Shloshim Shana L’Mikhlelet Yaakov Herzog (Hotza’at Tevunot: Alon Shevut 2011) pp. 33-41. Rashba Kiddushin 3b הכא וניתני ד״ה. 
  • 11
    Aryeh Cohen, Rereading Talmud: Gender, Law and the Poetics of Sugyot, Brown Judaic Studies Vol. 318 “Making Sense” of Gemara in a High School Classroom, Page 11
  • 12
    Rashi 41a (מבשלוחו יותר בו מצןה ד״ה (reads the two parts of the statement as one. However see Rambam Ishut 3:19 and Shabbat 30:6. 
  • 13
    George Fletcher, Proportionality and the Psychotic Aggressor: A Vignette in Comparative Criminal Theory . Israel Law Review, Vol. 8, pp. 367-390. July 1973. 
  • 14
    These assumptions and tasks help in reading the Gemara and identifying the challenges. More work is necessary to articulate teacher strategies for finding solutions to the problems, either in classical sources or in other fields of theory. 
Rabbi Tully Harcsztark

Rabbi Tully Harcsztark

Rabbi Harcsztark is the Founding Principal of SAR High School and Dean of Machon Siach. He is the recipient of the 2017 Covenant Award for Excellence in Jewish Education.

Other Work by this Educator