Dear Rebbe – by Rabbi Dovid Abenson

rabbi dovid abensonDear Rebbe, Yom Tov is over and winter is fast approaching. Perhaps PTA has taken place and you have met your talmidims’ parents. By now, you will have begun to zone in on your talmidims’ strengths and weaknesses; the brighter students, the ones requiring extra patience, those who pick up what you are saying as the explanation rolls off your tongue, and those talmidim who need it explained 100 times plus. As an esteemed rebbe, you have been entrusted with initiating your precious talmidim into Gemara study for the first time in their young lives. This is a daunting task, and carries with it a tremendous responsibility, but one where success can be achieved. I would like to layout three basic principles below, in order for talmidim to build the skills they need, resulting in success and joy in their learning.

There is the reality that not all your talmidim may be reading Hebrew effectively and effortlessly when they reach your class. For thirty years in teaching talmidim and talmidos who are underachieving, I’ve often found this to be the case. Therefore, it is important to check out your talmid’s kriah level before assigning any translations, and certainly before you start teaching the Gemara itself, without relying on the talmid’s previous rebbe’s recommendations. You may pick up issues that the rebbe has overlooked ( even where the previous rebbe has ascertained that his talmidims’ kriah were adequate). It is important to remember that it is not only the under achievers who may have a problem; sometimes it’s the outstanding ones, as well. A Rosh Kollel once confided to me that he could not read Hebrew proficiently, and he was always hesitant of being called up to read the Haftarah. When I asked him how he had sidestepped this problem all these years, he replied that after hearing the words so many times, he could identify them easily by just looking at them.

Therefore, when reading text, make sure that your pronunciation matches that of your talmidims’ pronunciation, as this can lead to confusion. This happens a lot. Bear in mind that what you take for granted as one who has been learning for many years, is novel and new to these children who are learning this text, perhaps for the first time. When talmidim have to exert mental energy on deciphering the words because they can’t identify them due to alternate pronunciation, this is energy not spent on reading the Gemara within the text.

Once the talmidim are reading the words properly and fluently, only then start translating the words. It is imperative that translations be precise – not translations that almost mean the same thing within the context; even if the text does not make sense to them yet. I’ve seen numerous sheets filled with poor English translations, “Yinglish” translations, incorrect punctuation, and spelling errors. When photocopying the Gemara, make sure the pages are not blurred.

Translate the words yourself; don’t rely on someone else’s translations; make sure that their meaning is clear in your mind, and present them clearly to the talmidim. Children should not write out these translations in class, as it wastes time taken away from your teaching; also, perhaps the child is not so proficient in hand writing or their writing is not so eligible. Have your translation sheets checked over by the menahel or another professional.

As a rebbe, you have been given the awesome task and responsibility to make Gemara enjoyable and exciting for your talmidim. Being animated and walking around the classroom whilst engaging the students, is more effective than sitting behind the desk for the whole morning. Understandably, youngsters can burn out easily after only a few weeks of Gemara learning, if its appeal is lost on them. (It goes without saying that no cell phone should be used during class, or leaving the classroom for a coffee or to photocopy material which should be prepared before hand.)

Suffice to say, if a student cannot read properly, he cannot achieve his full potential, or even succeed on a basic level, leading to giving up on learning (and sometimes unfortunately on Yiddishkeit, as well.) Therefore, only after you’ve ascertained that all your talmidim are reading effortlessly and are translating the words correctly; you can begin teaching the Gemara. By way of introduction, talmidim should be explained to that the Gemara’s sentence structures are not the same as English sentence structures. Therefore, children may not be able to grasp the Gemara right away, which takes years of work; so a talmid should not feel badly if it doesn’t come to him easily. You may have to add English words to fill in the meaning for them which is fine as long as they know that is your intention, and that they are not under the mistaken impression that those added words are written in the Gemara text.

A perek should not be rushed through. Rather, the focus should be on reading, translation and defining terms according to their grade level. Thereafter, the comprehension skills should be addressed without added pressure on yourself or your class to accomplish more than they are able to. Your goal as a rebbe is to make sure that, by the end of the year, each talmid will be able to read, translate and understand the Gemara – inside and outside the text; and to feel excited by the challenge.

Inevitably, some children will advance a lot quicker than others. But it goes without saying, that when a talmid falls behind, don’t immediately assume that he is “lazy,” or has a “shavcha kop.” Maybe the Gemara needs to be more clearly explained to him.

Implementing these three steps takes patience and time. It would appear to be much easier to just jump in and start teaching the Gemara within the text on Day One, with the assumption that the students will eventually catch on. But this is not the case. The above formula though, will create a platform for building talmidim to grow to be, b’ezras Hashem, proficient in reading, translating, understanding and deciphering Gemara properly. Hatzlacha raba in your avodas hakodesh!

Rabbi Dovid Abenson an international speaker, is the founder, director and author at Shaar HaTalmud, a unique yeshiva based online program, featuring evaluations and remediation. He works with students in upgrading skills in Hebrew reading, Chumash/Rashi and Gemara studies, consulting with school principals worldwide to improve their ability to help students who possess underdeveloped skills. Also available for in house training for schools and yeshivos. He can be reached at [email protected] or 1-877-HATALMUD (428-2568)


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  1. This is a great article. I believe all of this to be true. It would be great if schools actually asked the author to speak at schools for teachers on an in-service day. I look forward to reading more from the author.

  2. Honestly, while these are all essential “ingredients” for long term success, this is NOT the main focus for beginner Gemara. The main focus is to develop the abstract skills of Shakla Vetarya by focusing on one step at a time. An excellent workshop can be found here:
    However, if the Rebbi teaches Gemara very text-based and the boys are expected to read/translate the Gemara flawlessly, then this is the way to go. But that is the wrong approach. So although all these are vital skills, this is not the correct order of priorities.

  3. Yawn. Duh. Every Rebbe knows this. The problem is, a class has 25 kids on 25 different grade levels. The Rebbe’s job in those grades is absolutely impossible. It’s time we realized it’s an open Nes our boys come out reading and understanding Gemara after 8th grade. And the Rebbe’s across the world are absolute heroes.

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