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The Niche (And Necessary) Assumptions We Make

Eliana Fromer
February 2, 2024

My personal experience of listening to vastly different Daf Yomi shiurim has opened my eyes to the assumptions that teachers may hold about learners. When I began learning Daf Yomi in eighth grade I was a thirteen-year-old girl who had barely learned Gemara before. Someone recommended that I listen to a recorded shiur of a major talmid chacham in the Yeshivish world. His shiurim were engaging and not too long so I enjoyed learning from him. But after a little while I realized that I was missing so many fundamental concepts that he mentioned all the time; his shiur was just not accessible enough to me at first. Core ideas or logical systems that he would mention in shiur were a given for his audience. The intricate laws of tumah and taharah terms like תני ושייר and חסורי מחסרא and important biological context about Rav Yosef being blind are a few examples of the ideas he used without explaining or translating at all.

Because of the people typically sitting in front of him, any sort of explanation of these ideas would be superfluous. His regular attendees were almost all over the age of 30 and were exclusively men. He would never assume that someone was missing this fundamental base of Gemara knowledge nor would he be aware of a reality where a young girl would care for, but perhaps lack, this fundamental information.

We can certainly imagine a world in which this rabbi decided to make his shiur informationally accessible to any Modern Orthodox Jew, even those who are less learned. This shiur would become a beginners’ shiur because most of the time would be spent reviewing fundamental ideas and language, thereby lacking the sophistication his listeners expected from him. This would entirely shift his listenership from older Yeshivish men to less learned listeners. It would not expand his listenership but instead it would make different assumptions and therefore attract a different (perhaps similarly sized) crowd. This imaginative exercise helps emphasize the reality of the world: one must always make assumptions or have certain expectations for their audience. It is not possible that everyone will always understand everything, and so to expect that would be absurd or unrealistic entirely. Each educator will cater to the audience they know based on the background from which they came because this is what they are most acutely aware of and what the bulk of their audience needs from them.

We need not imagine much further before we find a real version of this other shiur, which operated with an entirely different set of assumptions. At a certain point in my learning, I switched, in what I thought to be a most perfect match, to a more foundational Daf Yomi shiur. With clear introductions to new concepts and extra time dedicated to fundamentals, this shiur was open to any and all listeners, regardless of gender or learning background. This initially seemed ideal to me because the teacher explained everything so clearly, started each day fresh, and was aware of certain complicated issues that arose in the Gemara that I had wondered about as well.

I loved listening to this shiur, for about six months. After three masechtot, I felt like I was reviewing the same thing too often. The teacher frequently redefined terms for listeners, introduced concepts we had recently learned, and stopped for questions from the participants learning in person. For example, at the beginning of Yevamot, we relearned what a “tzara” was as though we had not learned it recently. Similarly, we would frequently review the logic of a kal v’chomer, along with a hekesh or any other pieces of the shakla v’tarya of the Gemara. It was clear that this shiur catered to a changing and expanding group of learners who had picked up intense Gemara learning later in life. Therefore, it made sense to regularly review new terms and ideas.

This teacher had a keen audience awareness, holding certain assumptions about the learners’ background and upbringing. But because the teacher assumed that the shiur’s listeners lacked certain Gemara skills, I soon felt that this wasn’t the right shiur for me either.

These two examples clarified for me that every kind of learning will always rely on assumptions, whether about the listeners’ lack of knowledge or their familiarity with the material. These assumptions will be based on the educators’ backgrounds and their (pretty accurate) expectations for the core of their audience. But it is impossible to create an educational system where one shiur, book, podcast or class can address everyone from all walks of life.

As I begin to approach the adult world of learning, I find myself in a niche category of learners. The education system in which I grew up holds women’s learning of Gemara in high regard and pushes girls to learn at a high level. SAR is among a small group of schools that push the girls in the same way as the boys, helping us advance our Gemara skills. However, after leaving the SAR “bubble,” girls in my situation face an interesting predicament. There are multiple seminaries that emphasize high-level Gemara learning, but I have been told that they nevertheless may not be geared towards the amount and depth of Gemara I have had the opportunity to learn. The (accurate) assumption there is that the girls have generally not learned a lot of Shas by the time they are eighteen. However, I do believe positive changes in this area will come with increasing awareness by educators in their efforts to create inclusive spaces. That is, we all can be more mindful of those who may not fit into narrow assumptions with the hope of creating welcoming change in the future.