Experiencing Chalishas Ha'daas
by Jonathan Rosenblum
February 19, 2004
Recently I received a call from one of Jerusalem’s leading young activists, who asked if I would like to join him for a tour. When I inquired where he wanted to take me, he replied that he did not want to lessen the impact of what I would see by describing it in advance. My interest piqued, I agreed to accompany him.
He picked me up one rainy night, together with a group of bochurim from a yeshiva ketana in which he teaches, and off we went to a chareidi suburb of Jerusalem. There my friend took us into a building housing both a yeshiva ketana and a yeshiva gedolah. We entered the former, and barely a head turned to view the strangers walking through their study hall. Shades of the Bais Talmud of Kelem, where they trained themselves to never be distracted in the midst of learning or prayer.
We went upstairs to the yeshiva gedolah, where the rosh yeshiva sat at a table with nine tractates, learned regularly in the yeshivos, placed before him. Around him were about twenty bochurim from the yeshiva gedolah. The rosh yeshiva called on one of the visitors to place his finger wherever he wanted on the cover of the tractate on top of the pile and name any page in the tractate. As soon as the page was called out, the bochurim gathered around the table began calling out the words directly under the finger on that particular amud.
In that fashion, they went through all nine tractates. It did not make any difference whether the finger was placed above the Gemara itself, Rashi, or Tosofos, except that when it fell on a Tosofos, the bochurim would also mention every other Gemara cited and the questions posed.
When that cycle was completed, the nine tractates were again placed on the table, and the rosh yeshiva called on the various visitors to turn up the bottom corner of the page for identification. Again, the bochurim moved successfully through the entire pile, even though they saw less than an eighth of the amud.
Next my tour guide started asking the bochurim to name all the common topics between randomly chosen pairs of tractates – e.g., Gittin and Baba Kamma – which they quickly did. The rosh yeshiva told me afterwards that at the end of a long, intense winter semester, he told the bochurim to relax one day by sitting down with a study partner and writing out from memory all the verses quoted in Baba Kamma. One pair outperformed a computer, which missed one verse where the Torah Ohr failed to place a little circle by the verse quoted.
I MUST CONFESS that I experienced real chalishas ha’daas for the first time in my life witnessing this demonstration of mastery of so many pages of Gemara. No doubt some of the bochurim were blessed with great talents, but the rosh yeshiva told me in a private conversation afterwards that he accepts to the yeshiva ketana applicants with only average abilities, as long as they are eager to learn.
The first lesson I learned from these bochurim was the enormous potential that we each have stored within us and how much of that potential goes untapped. Like anyone who has learned many years in yeshivos, I had, of course, heard of the entrance requirement for admission to Yeshivas Chachmei Lublin: 300 blatt Gemara b’al peh. And I had recorded in Reb Yaakov the comment of Rabbi Yaakov Kaminetsky that of the 300 Lithuanian rabbonim of towns and cities there was not one who could be caught on a Tosofos anywhere in Shas.
But I must confess that I was never really convinced that there was no trace of exaggeration in any of these stories, at least as they have been passed down from generation to generation. Or else I comforted myself that these stories were only about a group of select geniuses. Now my doubts about the stories of such prodigious feats of learning have disappeared. But along with the disappearance of my skepticism, so have my excuses for remembering so little disappeared.
The enormous potential of the human mind is but one of the lessons to be learned from these bochurim. They also demonstrate the importance of valuing every moment. When one views one’s time in learning as unlimited, it is too easy to console oneself that if one did not learn well today or failed to accomplish one’s goals, that one will make it up tomorrow.
The learning schedule in the yeshiva I visited does not allow for such false consolation. In the five-hour night session, for instance, two hours are devoted to reviewing the previous year’s tractate, and another two to review of the tractate learned two years earlier, with fixed quotas for each. Those daily quotas do not allow the illusion that time lost can somehow be recouped on the morrow or the day after that.
The next lesson is the importance of goals in learning. The rosh yeshiva told me that his goal is that every one of his students will reach the point that he will be able to answer halachic questions in every area of Shulchan Aruch. In other words, each of his students has a concrete goal in mind.
But the most important lesson that I took away from this visit was the power of the Torah itself to inspire those who dedicate themselves to its study. The bochurim that I met did not come from the major centers of Torah learning. Most of them come from Ashkelon. Nor did they grow up in environments in which the highest value was Torah learning. Amazingly, not one of them has a father who learned even one day in a mainstream yeshiva.
In short, their love of learning can only be explained by the joy that they find in their own learning and in mastering entire tractates. They are living proof of something I once heard from Rabbi Simcha Wasserman, "The Torah doesn’t need any salesmen. The Torah is its own best salesman."
The astute reader will have noted that I have not mentioned the name of the yeshiva that I visited or its rosh yeshiva. The rosh yeshiva told me it was pointless to hold up his bochurim as an exemplar of anything. "You will hear a thousand different reasons why what you saw here is nothing," he told me. "Those kind of bochurim are made for memorization. They will never develop into lomdonim. And the like."
I tried it, and he was right.
Never mind that the greatest lights of the yeshiva world in our generation – the Steipoler Gaon, HaRav Elazar Menachem Man Schach, and others – have publicized letter after letter urging bochurim to complete entire tractates and to make sure that at least one study session a day is devoted to learning at a pace that will ensure the completion and review of entire tractates. Never mind that one of those close to HaRav Aharon Leib Steiman told me that he was filled with joy for days after testing and speaking in learning to the bochurim in this yeshiva. Never mind that HaRav Avraham Gurwicz, Rosh Yeshivas Gateshead, spent nearly three hours in milchemes haTorah with them in all the "yeshivish masechtos."
And that is the final lesson I learned from my visit: the power of the yetzer to push away all the other lessons to be learned from these bochurim and impetus they might provide to our own spiritual growth.
Related Topics: Chareidim and Their Critics
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