Teaching: An “Insider Job” – Part 2 | Rabbi Dovid Abenson

What kinds of errors are we talking about? As I have mentioned in these pages many times, students are simply not being taught fundamental skills of reading and translation. I was once giving a presentation to around 30 educators in the US. I asked for a volunteer to read and translate the first verse in Lech Lecha. No one put up their hands except a BT. He read and translated it. When he completed it I asked the audience if he translated everything correctly. The response from the room of some 30 mechanchim was a unanimous “yes”. I asked him to repeat it again. I asked the audience if he translated the verse correctly. They said “yes”. I started to feel maybe I was making a mistake. I asked him to read and translate it again but this time very very slowly word by word, then he realized his mistake. He completely missed out on the word “Lecha”. Without this word a person will not understand what question Rashi asks in this verse.

I call this “yeshivish learning”. You understand the verse fine as long as you get the gist. We do not need to be so particular about every word. Unfortunately, this is definitely NOT our Mesorah. Our meforshim on the Chumash are meticulous with the Hebrew words and grammar. The same principle applies to Gemara as well. Many boys do fine in Yeshiva as long as they can explain the Gemara outside and get good marks on the tests. That’s all that the yeshiva wants.

I see egregious inaccuracies in translation cropping up continually in otherwise intelligent and capable students. I will present a few examples here but they are just a taste of what I encounter on a daily basis. A bright 15-year-old girl who loves to read, translated Bereishis 12:4 (parshas Lech Lecha) וְאַבְרָ֗ם בֶּן־חָמֵ֤שׁ שָׁנִים֙ וְשִׁבְעִ֣ים שָׁנָ֔ה as “Avram was 527 years old” (it actually says he was 75).

The verse in Lech Lecha (Bereishis 13:7) reads וַיֹּ֨אמֶר אַבְרָ֜ם אֶל־ל֗וֹט אַל־נָ֨א תְהִ֤י מְרִיבָה֙ בֵּינִ֣י וּבֵינֶ֔ךָ וּבֵ֥ין רֹעַ֖י וּבֵ֣ין רֹעֶ֑יךָ כִּֽי־אֲנָשִׁ֥ים אַחִ֖ים אֲנָֽחְנוּ: (And there was a quarrel between the herdsmen of Abram’s cattle and between the herdsmen of Lot’s cattle, and the Canaanites and the Perizzites were then dwelling in the land.) A 17-year-old Yeshiva Bachur I recently worked with translated it as there were boundaries between the cattle of which Abraham acquired and between the cattle which Lot acquired

An 18 year old student translated (Bereishis 14:3)
כָּל־אֵ֨לֶּה֙ חָֽבְר֔וּ אֶל־עֵ֖מֶק הַשִּׂדִּ֑ים ה֖וּא יָ֥ם הַמֶּֽלַח:

“All their friends to the valley of Siddim. He is the king of the Sea”

The correct translation is “All these joined in the valley of Siddim, which is the Dead Sea”. He interchanged ח with ךָ, thus confusing “salt” with “King”.

These inaccuracies are not limited to the students, they extend even to maggidei shiur.

A New York Rosh Yeshiva from New York asked me if I can help his Maggid shiur, a 50-year-old man, who had been teaching for 30 years. The problem was that he would typically spend three days preparing his shiur. I went to New York and gave him a 4-hour crash course in Chumash and Gemara. The maggid shiur was shocked by his lack of basic skills. He had been struggling for years just “feeling the text”, understanding the general gist of the pesukim, not being able to read and translate the words accurately.

All the students and the rebbeim I mentioned here are highly intelligent students. They simply never got the foundation skills when they were younger and have been suffering in one way or another ever since. They are the lucky ones who got help. Many fumbles along for years or simply give up learning. They pursue courses online or go into business, in the worst cases they move away from Yiddishkeit altogether.

Institutions feel they are doing the right thing. Yet we see increasing numbers of children going to the resource room, put on medication, or requiring private teachers to teach them the gemara to prepare them for class. Most of the time the institutions blame students and parents. Rarely do they blame themselves. No one wants to question that perhaps the rebbe — a tzaddik, a gaon, with a large family to support, and so many decades experience — just cannot teach. Even if he really ought to be fired, they will not do that.

The foundation skills of the Torah are more important than anything else in learning. Students have to know how to read. They must be given the skills to be able to translate and comprehend clearly. They must know how to approach the text, adding in the extra words learned from the mefarshim, particularly Rashi, concisely and accurately. This is learning. Understanding the text outside, hearing the deeper lessons is important and inspirational. But “inside” is where it’s at.

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  1. Maybe you should open a school that teaches this way if you’re so concerned. Or maybe create this curriculum you speak of and market it to schools. Please don’t just knock. Our schools are doing a great job. They have shifted the curriculum a tremendous amount to move away from memorizing and better understanding in a tremendous way.
    Yes many kids today are being pulled out or on medications that’s probably from other causes.
    Why don’t you look into this a little more?

  2. I think it depends on the Yeshiva, My boys Yeshiva teaches the skills as a first, with a tremendous focus on skills and learning how to learn.

    On the other hand, my daughter’s school is all about memorization first and skills will be learned along the way.(Yes, my daughter doesnt enjoy!)

    I assume every school has a different method based on some model they follow!

  3. This article is 100% true the problem is far greater in the learning of Gemara

    There are people that have tried to address this sad reality.

    You are expected to learn the fundamentals through osmosis.

    Some do a large percent do not!

    Everyone would gain from a full blown curriculum that teaches skills.

    Learning on your own is extremely difficult and requires multiple skills.

    While everyone recognizes this issue schools are afraid to implement a new concept for the fear of being perceived as not high level etc.

    The school system is wonderful however there is always room for improvement.

    The smarter kids are fine the weaker kids are addressed the middle kids are somewhat neglected and would gain the most from these skills

    Thank you Rabbi Abenson

  4. I’m wondering if the year or two that bochurim and seminary girls spend in Eretz Yisroel learning and speaking the Ivrit language and learning more Hebrew texts inside give them the skills they were missing in school. I’d be curious to hear if these years helped them better understand the Lashon in Tanach. Just for that alone it’s worth it for them to go for that year. Israelis have a much higher level of understanding and retaining Tanach because of their hold of Lashon Hakodesh. There are Bais Yaakov girls today who would rather daven in English because they understand it better. I mean, the Tzena U’rena was in Yiddish and our Bubba’s read from it each week. But if the overall level of learning is higher and students are able to go for their masters degrees in their English studies, they should be able to keep that same level in Lashon Hakodesh as well in the educational systems. It’s all a matter of priority. What’s more important – understanding the words of davening or making a good living? It’s all a matter of chinuch from the source.

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