Sunday, December 25, 2005

Teaching and Learning Halacha

This is definitely one of my peeves, and l'shitasi, it is the lack of thinking skills that gets me. Lets first face up to a basic fact: to live as an observant Jews involves knowing a myriad of detailed laws. No way around that. Can someone therefore explain why no one has yet come up with a concise and basic English language text that will give the needed laws to kids in a readable and understandable format? There is no reason why students cannot be given simple handouts of a page or two with just basic halachos that can be reviewed in 15 minutes of call time and students can then read and review at home. Since the only goal is retention of fact, no reason not to do this in English. What schools seem to try to do is cover fact, but do it from a Hebrew text (e.g. Kitzur Shulchan Aruch) so the barrier of language interferes with learning and slows things down. Let them learn keriya and ivrit elsewhere - it is not part of the goal of a halacha curriculum. But the far worse crime is stopping there and thinking that is what learning halacha is. And horror of horrors - most adults think this way as well!Halacha means "asukei shmaytza aliba d'hilchisa" - learning a "sugya" (topic) with the goal of practical application. In other words, we have to start from the gemara with understanding the theoretical background. We have to understand the variant views of Rishonim. Finally, we get to what we do. I know a well meaning Rav who spends a halcha shiur mostly summarizing tshuvos of R' Moshe. His ba'alei batim can tell you on a topic that R' Moshe says X or Y or Z, but cannot tell you how R' Moshe got there or even tell you what the basic sugya in gemara is all about. Unless you are a talmid muvhak of R' Moshe and unquestionigly accept his psak, that is not what halacha is all about. Start with the gemara, understand the topic, and you will eventually see that tshuva seforim usually fall into a range of opnions, and in light of your understanding of the sugya will take on new meaning. Are the poskim debating sevara or metziyus? Is a tshuva predicated on a specific Rishon or Achron's understanding that is not unanimously accepted? Is a sevara well established by precedent, or a radical chiddush? Without the background of the sugya, there is no way to begin to approach these questions. All of my Rebbeim preferred the Aruch HaShulchan to the Mishna Berura, and if you have learned the two, you can see why. The M.B. lists opinions, but gives very little background on each or why a conclusion is valid (other than it is the consensus view). The A.H. uusually starts with gemara and rishonim, and follows through to analysis and conclusion. You don't just know the law, you know why it is so. But, you argue, what difference does it make - the facts are still the facts? No they are not! Halacha recognizes that there are different circumstances that warrant different approaches, e.g. hefsed merubah, sha'as hadechak, bdi'eved, etc. If you understand principles and not just a collection of facts, then you have a much better chance and applying those ideas correctly. An e-mail list just had a question posted by someone who wanted to know what to do if stuck on a train late on Friday. If all you have is a collection of facts, and the needed fact is not in your collection, you are stuck. But if you understand principles, e.g. you know what bein hashemashos is, you know about techumin, amira l'aku"m, you probably can at least come to grips with many of the issues before even asking the question. R' Chaim Brisker was once challeneged on a Tos, and R' Chaim claimed Tos did not say what the questioner insisted it did. The questioner cited daf and amud, but R' Chaim was not convinced. Finally, someone grabbed a gemara to check, and R' Chaim was right. The audience was convinced R" Chaim knew every Tos by heart, but R' Chaim explained that really he didn't need to - he knew how Tos thinks and therefore knew the assrtion had to be wrong. We have to teach not just the facts of halacha, but how halacha things, what the principles are, what the issues are. So spend 15 minutes a week feeding students facts - what proper brachos are, what the 39 melachos are, etc. But once a week send an hour teaching a topic. Delve into a few lines of gemara, a machlokes Rambam and Tosfos, a dispute among later poskim. Teach the halachic process, not just the halachic facts.


  1. Happy Chanukah to all the readers and writers

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