Jews seldom study Torah alone; the study of Torah is, more often than not, a social and even communal activity. Most commonly, Jews study Jewish texts in pairs, a method known as havruta (“fellowship”). In havruta, the pair struggles to understand the meaning of each passage and discusses how to apply it to the larger issues addressed and even to their own lives. Sometimes they study to prepare for attending a lecture, and sometimes they meet to delve into a text independently of any organized class.
Often, a havruta chooses to learn in the bet midrash, a study hall, together with other havrutot. Together, havrutot (plural for havruta) create the atmosphere of the beit midrash (study hall) where the sounds of discussion and debate fill the air.
How and why did study in havruta become such an integral part of the Jewish tradition? The Jewish tradition has always valued learning with others, whether with teachers or other students. Recent historical research, however, suggests that learning in pairs–havruta–only became the predominant mode of learning in the last century.
Some of the earliest references to learning in groups, and particularly in pairs, occur in the Talmud. The Talmud asserts that the Torah is only acquired in a group, haburah (Babylonian Talmud [BT], Berakhot63b). The word haburah derives from the same root as havruta–haver, or, in English, friend. The Talmud also particularly extols the value of learning in pairs: “Two scholars sharpen one another” (BT Ta’anit 7a)–two scholars, through discussion and debate, help to sharpen each other’s insight into the text.
The most frequently quoted saying in the Talmud relating to havruta is: “o havruta o mituta” (BT Ta’anit 23a), translated provocatively by Jacob Neusner as “Give me havruta or give me death.” Many Jewish scholars cite this phrase to illustrate the centrality of study in havruta. In context, however, the phrase has nothing to do with learning in pairs. Rather, the phrase means that the individual needs society and the respect of others, and without them life is not worth living. Still, the very fact that so many Jewish scholars take this phrase out of context and interpret it as referring to study in pairs shows the importance of havruta in the Jewish tradition.
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