Thursday, October 1, 2009

Teaching Torah - It and About It

Steve Brizel wrote here about his rebbe, Rav Moshe Besdin zt”l, and his emphasis on learning the substance of Torah rather than talking “about” Torah, as in developing philosophical or analytical or meta concepts.

That’s a sentiment I have also heard, with a bit of a different take, regarding the various kinds of classes found in a Jewish community: Some classes teach Torah itself, and some classes teach about Torah.

The distinction is not necessarily about text vs. commentary, lecture vs. discussion, law vs. philosophy, or intense material vs. fluff, or any other simple dichotomy. Perhaps a good definition is that “It” is a class that focusses on presenting Torah itself, and “About It” is a class or program that is meant to talk about what Torah believes, or to help people feel closer to Torah.

That isn’t to say that the “About It” programs are devoid of substance; I often teach classes that mix both.

Example: Today I taught a class entitled, “Challah: Because the greatest thing IS sliced bread.”

We talked about three lessons to be learned from the way we slice and distribute challah:
1) The host should cut, in order to ensure that the bread is cut and distributed generously;
2) The cut should be from the finest part of the bread, displaying gratitude to Gd by using the best part for the berachah;
3) The bread should not be thrown, as a matter of respect. (Yes, I know that sephardim throw bread, but I don’t know why this should be permitted.)

For all of these items, we brought serious sources (various passages from Tanach, as well as Berachot 46a, Sefer haManhig 223, Sanhedrin 102b, Derech Eretz 4, Shulchan Aruch haRav Orach Chaim 167, Hagahot Maymoniyot to Hilchot Berachot 7:3, Aruch haShulchan Orach Chaim 167:1, Berachot 50b and Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 171:1), as well as some lighter material. The lessons themselves were substantive and practical, too.

But, overall, I’d call the session “About It” rather than “It.”

Another example: I had a meeting today with a community professional and I floated several programming ideas, including bibliodrama and a class which would incorporate study of Tanach and midrash with creative writing. These would involve studying core texts – but would they be “It,” or “about it”?

This split of It/About It has been on my mind for the past week or so, since I presented a class on “Lessons from Addictions Counseling for Teshuvah” (audio available here - .wma file).

To me, that program was dedicated to three purposes:
(1) Helping people with their pre-Yom Kippur teshuvah process,
(2) Raising awareness of JACS and addictions in the Jewish community, and
(3) Attracting people who might come to future classes as well.

Certainly, (1) is an “It” goal, but I didn’t see this as a class teaching about teshuvah itself, and I didn’t present it that way. This wasn’t meant to be my Minchat Chinuch class on technical aspects of the mitzvah of teshuvah/viduy. So I was taken by surprise when an elderly gentleman accosted me afterward and challenged me to explain why I had not presented the Rambam’s steps of teshuvah in the class. “Don’t these people need to know that?” he asked me. “Do you think they know it already?”

My gut reaction was defensive, but I don’t know that he was wrong; I could have included the steps of teshuvah without taking away from the addictions element of the class. On the other hand, the “It” ”About it” balance is subtle, and not something to be taken lightly.

Don’t know; צריך עיון.


  1. 2) The cut should be from the finest part of the bread
    Defined as? (IIRC the gemara talks about the well baked or first baked part?-at work without sfarim)

    delicate balance-also remember you need to first get them in the room!

    imho there are too many people talking about it without the basic knowledge of it to really allow them to intelligently draw conclusions about it other than regurgitating what they've heard from others about it.

    Joel Rich

  2. Hi Joel,

    Menasheh says היכא דקרים בישולא (or דקדים). The poskim discuss the particulars of the spot, and each gives his own view based on his local bread. The Aruch haShulchan discusses bagels, for example. But the trend throughout - as stated explicitly in Shulchan Aruch haRav, for example - is to choose the "best" spot.

    Re: Regurgitators - Agreed.

  3. I can think of a very good reason for throwing the bread, though I do not know if it is the reason Sephardim do so. Throwing the bread reduces the time between the Bracha and the consumption of the bread (for those who rely on the Bracha of the one slicing the chalah). Not only does the bread get to the destinations faster, but it also avoids confusion when the ba'al habayis intends to distribute the bread in a certain order that the guests are not aware of. In many places I have been the ba'al habayis eats first, gives to his wife, the guests in descending order of age, male children in descending order of age, and female children in descending order of age. In other places the chalah is distributed according to how close people are to the ba'al habayis. The "nu"ing that can ensue when someone of one custom is not aware of the other can be a bit annoying.

  4. "3) The bread should not be thrown, as a matter of respect. (Yes, I know that sephardim throw bread, but I don’t know why this should be permitted.)"

    it's because of
    Exodus 16:4

    and knives are taboo because they represent the sword.

  5. Marc-
    Seems like a bit of reach to me.

    Anonymous 2:06 PM-

    Throwing because the manna rained down from the sky? Seems unlikely to me; do you have a source linking the two?

    Re: Knives - Yes, some eschew knives, and apparently for that reason, but this is a matter of custom.