As another school year begins, I would like to share some thoughts regarding how we teach Gemara in Modern Orthodox high schools. Some of these insights are certainly relevant beyond a Modern Orthodox high school and are not exclusive to the teaching of Gemara, however I speak to the topic I am most familiar with and have the most experience teaching. Feel free to disagree, but hopefully this will at the least get you thinking. Here we go:

1) Give Reading Assessments. Our number one goal should be to give our students the ability to become independent learners. The number one skill that will allow our students to become independent learners is the ability to read a Gemara. While we would love all students to graduate remembering every machloket we taught between Abaye and Rava, this is not realistic. The reason it is unrealistic is because an accumulation of facts that don’t build upon each other are simply hard to remember over time. This is true for all people, it is not unique to our students.

While this may be unrealistic for the details of each Gemara, it is not unrealistic regarding a skill. The words, phrases, format and flow of the Gemara is quite similar from mesechta to mesechta. A senior should be using the reading skills he gained in freshmen year.

Unfortunately what happens for many students though is year after year they are tested on the facts of the Gemara but are not constantly assessed on the skill of reading the Gemara! This is an unfortunate reality. I am not proposing students should not be assessed on the knowledge (and analytical skills that are often on tests), however I believe the main form of assessment needs to be focused on reading skills. [I am aware of the major challenge of giving reading assessments in class to individual students while having to manage an entire class and I hope to address this is in a later post.]

I have heard the argument that we live in an Artscroll generation and we should be thrilled if our graduates will do daf yomi with an Artscroll Gemara every day. Therefore, we should not focus on reading skills which are so difficult and only lead to students being more turned off from learning Gemara.

I have three responses to this argument. First of all, as adults we experience the challenge of learning Torah every day and we should be thrilled if a student graduates to be koveya ittim each day learning daf yomi. At the same time, our goal can’t be to graduate students who can only learn Gemara in an Artscroll! We need to strive for more. Second, from my own personal experience of learning Torah, the real joy in learning takes place when one can analyze the words of the Gemara carefully. Therefore if we don’t try and teach the reading skills we are not exposing our students to the true sweetness of Torah. Finally, and possibly most importantly, I strongly believe a focus on reading skills will actually make students enjoy learning Gemara more. I can speak from many firsthand experiences where students told me at the beginning of the year “I can’t read Gemara,” and by the end of the year they felt amazing by the growth they made and the skills they had acquired. It feels good to see one’s own progress. Students feel a great sense of pride in becoming more proficient Gemara readers.

2) Teach sugyot. I strongly believe that even with all our technological advances, each student should receive a physical Gemara. There is something powerful, even if hard to put into words, about the affective advantage of a student having his (or her) own Gemara. With that premise, while one would be technically limited to one mesechta, within that mesechta I see no benefit in going straight within one perek (unless a teacher has a realistic plan to finish that one perek).

As all Gemara teachers know, we are often fighting an uphill battle with getting our students engaged in learning Gemara. Having students break their teeth over very difficult and technical Gemarot (that don’t have the overarching benefit of feeling relevant) often wastes precious time that we have in class and drives students further away from learning in the future. While certainly there is value in teaching students that every single piece of Torah is important, it is more important to first expose students to the more exciting sugyot and keep them engaged.

The notion of teaching sugyot does not and should not run contrary to a focus on advancing reading skills. Within the mesechtot we teach, many of the sugyot are robust. For example, in Baba Kammah, the topic of zeh neheneh v’zeh lo chaser is not only interesting and important but spans almost an entire blat of Gemara. Similarly, in Berachot, the topic of kavod habriyot is an entire amud of Gemara. These are just two examples of important, relevant sugyot that don’t sacrifice on the aspect of building reading proficiency.

3) Teach B’Iyun to All Students. Our schools put a strong focus – rightfully so – on the intellectual gain of learning Gemara. We emphasize to students the notion that learning Gemara is a highly intellectual activity that sharpens one’s mind.

At the same time, much of the depth of Gemara study comes not just from understanding the shakla v’tarya, but from analyzing the Gemara based on the Rishonim and Achronim. While students may struggle through the technical reading of a sugya, they may not always receive the intellectual stimulation of analyzing a sugya. For example, teaching students the concept of a chakirah and nafkah minot will lead to more engagement and more interest in the learning. These concepts are complicated, but I believe can be successfully taught to (almost) all students.

When I teach the concept of a chakirah and nafkah minot, I spend the first day having the students create a chakirah with nafkah minot regarding modern issues that have no connection to Gemara. This helps the students understand the concepts and more importantly see the relevance of these global concepts. This teaches students a way of thinking that they will appreciate and actualizes the notion that learning Gemara sharpens one’s mind.

4) Teach through relevant examples. This last idea will hopefully be obvious to most readers, but is often lost in the shuffle. No matter which mesechta we are teaching, we always have the ability to make the learning directly relevant to the students’ lives.

Relevant should not be misconstrued as practical. The topic of rodef is (hopefully) not practical in any student’s life, however it is very relatable and relevant. It is easy find online a crazy story that is relevant to the laws of rodef. If you start the topic through a news story, students are immediately engaged and more invested in the learning.

If we are teaching the laws of Berachot, it may seem trivial and insignificant, but starting the topic by giving out a scenario to the students and asking “What Berachot should Shmuely make?” will change the way students engage in the lesson.


I share all these thoughts based on my personal experience. I invite everyone to share feedback, criticisms and additional comments.