Creative Responses to Educational Challenges: A sample Talmud lesson
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Creative Responses to Educational Challenges: A sample Talmud lesson

January 13, 2019 10:19AM
This semester I’ve had the privilege of teaching a shiur to a group of future teachers. The goal of the shiur, titled LILMOD AL MENAT LELAMED, is to integrate iyyun and pedagogy, and show how better and deeper understanding of the texts and topics can lead directly to better teaching. I thought LOOKJED readers might be interested in a written sample.

The fourth chapter of Bava Kamma opens with two Tannaitic positions separated by the formula
דברי רבי מאיר ורבי שמעון אומר. This formula generally establishes that the two positions directly disagree, and that they are part of an integrated literary unit.

The Talmud’s analysis of this chapter begins by asking whether Rabbi Meir’s position follows that of Rabbi Yishmael or rather that of Rabbi Akiva (as their dispute is presented in a beraita cited and interpreted by the Talmud in the previous chapter). At first glance, it seems to follow neither!? Rava therefore introduces an okimta, and on the basis of that okimta determines that Rabbi Meir follows Rabbi Yishmael. This seems to make a specific element of Rabbi Meir’s position difficult to read – so Ravina offers a paraphrase of that line that radically changes its meaning. But, the Talmud then asks, how can Rabbi Meir be following Rabbi Yishmael, since Rabbi Shimon’s position clearly follows that of Rabbi Akiva!? The solution is provided by Shmuel telling Rav Yehudah that the two positions are not part of a literary unit at all, despite the Mishnah’s formal presentation; rather, the two positions must be analyzed separately.

In many Talmud classes, the Mishnah is not the subject of independent investigation; it is read simply as background for the Talmud. Students therefore experience the sugya as follows. Rava introduces an okimta with no textual basis. Ravina defends that okimta via a radical rereading. On the basis of that okimta, Rava aligns Rabbi Meir with a position that is not mentioned anywhere in the text, or indeed anywhere else in the Mishnah. On the basis of that alignment, Shmuel claims that the Mishnah is incoherent. In other words, students experience the sugya as a series of increasingly implausible interpretive events.

Our shiur, however, began with an independent literary analysis of the unit of Mishnah. We discovered that:
1) Rabbi Meir and Rabbi Shimon outline separate fact-patterns.
a. Rabbi Meir’s opening refers to an ox that gores four or five others, while Rabbi Shimon presents an outcome in a case where three are gored.
b. Rabbi Meir’s presentation does not mention the value of the oxen, whereas Rabbi Shimon’s assigns a specific value to each ox
2) Rabbi Meir’s concluding line is acharon acharon niskar, but in Rabbi Shimon’s presentation, the last-gored also receives the most compensation.
3) Rabbi Meir frames payments as ישלם, whereas Rabbi Shimon frames them as נוטל.
In other words, literary analysis strongly indicated that Rabbi Meir and Rabbi Shimon’s formulations did not relate to each other. Were it not for the bridging formula, there would be no reason to assume that they disagreed. (I offered a speculative reconstruction in which Rabbi Meir’s formulation was originally part of a literary unit with sections found in each of the first three chapters of Mishnah Bava Kamma.)

On the basis of this analysis, students related to Shmuel’s statement as rooted in a close reading of the Mishnah, rather than the result of freewheeling eisegesis.

We also analyzed the content of the Mishnah briefly before turning to the Talmud. Students had some difficulty offering an account of Rabbi Meir, but immediately recognized that Rabbi Shimon’s position was based on a partnership model.

The Talmud presents the dispute between Rabbi Yishmael and Rabbi Shimon as follows: Rabbi Yishmael believes that the owner of an ox gored by a shor tam becomes a creditor of the owner of the goring ox, whereas Rabbi Akiva believes that the owner of the gored ox becomes a partner in the goring ox.

Students therefore immediately realize that Rabbi Shimon must be following Rabbi Akiva, whereas it is unclear whom Rabbi Meir is following. They accordingly understand that the Talmud knew this from the start. Therefore, they understand that the Talmud was not surprised to discover that having Rabbi Meir follow Rabbi Yishmael creates incoherence. Rather, the Talmud was recreating Shmuel’s thought process.

Here it is helpful to note that Shmuel’s statement is chronologically the first element of the sugya. His position cannot in fact be the result of Rava’s okimta or Ravina’s paraphrase. Rather, their okimta and paraphrase must have been developed to explain his okimta! The Talmud’s literary order is not chronological. However, Rava and Ravina may be perfectly recreating Shmuel’s thoughts. It is also possible that they were responding to difficulties that Shmuel never directly addressed.

I want to stress the pedagogic outcome here. In my experience, many students emerge from a sugya like this – which may well be their first exposure to Talmud – fully convinced that Talmud is an intellectual game with little regard for interpretive truth, and the Talmudic Rabbis were Humpty Dumptys who made texts mean whatever they wanted. This outcome damages their belief in the integrity of halakhah, and ultimately their commitment to the halakhic system.

The mode of presentation above, by contrast, enables students to see the Talmud as intensely devoted to the text and original intent of the Mishnah and of the Amoraim. It inoculates them against seeing even apparently radical interpretive moves as arbitrary or lacking in integrity.

Tangentially, it also enables students to see interest in history and literary analysis as enhancing respect for the Talmud rather than diminishing it.

This semester, we covered the positions of Rabbeinu Chananel, Raavad, and Baal HaMaor, before turning to Rashi, Tosafot, Maharsha, Pnei Yehoshua, and Netziv. Next week we’ll cover R. Shimon Shkop and the Rav as exemplars of Telz and Brisk, and the final shiur of the semester will be devoted to participant presentations. The order and choice of commentaries studied reflected pedagogic decisions along the lines of those modelled above.

(LILMOD AL MENAT LELAMED is a program of the Center for Modern Torah Leadership. It is hosted by Yeshivat Chovevei Torah. Participation (at this point for next semester) is open to men and women, in person and online (auditing only), with my permission and that of YCT Dean Rabbi Jon Kelsen.)



Edited 1 time(s). Last edit at 01/13/2019 10:20AM by mlb.
Subject Author Posted

Creative Responses to Educational Challenges: A sample Talmud lesson

Aryeh Klapper January 13, 2019 10:19AM

Re: Creative Responses to Educational Challenges: A sample Talmud lesson

Sara Wolkenfeld January 13, 2019 10:29AM



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