Studying Torah

In Jewish practice, Torah study often takes on a ritualized role similar to that of prayer.  A specific place—the beit midrash, or “house of study”–is a designated room set aside in many Jewish communal buildings. Many Jews carve out set times during the day or week for Torah study. Torah study may begin with the recitation of a prayer thanking God for “commanding us to occupy ourselves with the words of Torah” and another asking God to enable us and our descendants to enjoy knowledge of God through the study of Torah.  The Talmud even records specific prayers for entering and leaving a beit midrash.

Jewish study focuses not on simple absorption of material, but on a dialogue among students and between students and text. This dialogical mode of study is exemplified by the standard page layout of many classical texts. Generally, the focus text–which may be Talmud, Bible, midrash, or a law code–stands at the center of the page and is surrounded by two or more levels of commentary: one or more commentaries on the text, and sometimes a later commentary on those commentaries.

A page of Babylonian Talmud, for instance, includes the commentary of Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo ben Yitzchak), an eleventh-century rabbi and the pre-eminent talmudic commentator, and of his grandchildren, collectively known as the Ba’alei Tosafot, or colloquially, Tosafot (“Additions”).  While Rashi is primarily interested in explaining the text at hand, the Tosafot attempt to reconcile disparate sections of Talmud. In the course of their discussions, they often expand on and/or challenge Rashi’s explanations. Later commentators, in turn, expand on and challenge the Tosafot.

The traditional mode of Jewish study maintains an emphasis on dialogue and disagreement. Jews often study in havruta–in pairs–with each member of the havruta challenging and asking questions of the other. A person who walks into a traditional beit midrash is struck immediately by the noise level—havrutot (plural of havruta) read the text aloud and often argue at some volume, pushing one another to come to a better understanding of the text at hand.

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