Program Review: Fundamentals of Talmud

It’s been a little while since I’ve posted a book review; it will likely still be a while longer, not because I’m not reading books, but because I’m not reading things in which I have enough expertise to provide a useful review. But I do retain an interest in studying rabbinic texts, and I’ve always been intrigued with how we can teach people to work with them. So I do have a review for you in that vein.

R. Ayson Englander, presently a sofer stam in Baltimore, developed a program called Fundamentals of Talmud while working as an educator in various schools around the country. I’m always interested in how independent Talmud study skills can be taught to those without ready access to chevruta (partnership-based learning) and/or in-depth, in-person learning opportunities, so I decided to give his program a look after seeing it mentioned in a conversation thread on the “Mi Yodea” area of StackExchange. (For those unfamiliar, StackExchange was developed in part by Joel Spolsky of Fog Creek Software, and is a kind of peer-rated discussion exchange, divided into particular topics–many of them not at all STEM oriented. Mi Yodea is aimed at Torah-observant Jews.)

The Fundamentals of Talmud program covers about six dapim (pages) of Talmud–the fourth chapter of Berakhot from the Talmud Bavli. The full materials include:

  • Vocalized Hebrew and Aramaic text of the chapter
  • Aworkbook that goessugya-by-sugya (essentially, a chunk of substantive argument), providing
    • An English introduction to the concerns of the sugya the student is about to work with
    • Translations of Hebrew and Aramaic words in a vocabulary list, requiring the student to read and gloss the text for themselves
    • Prompts to outline the sugya in English and in Hebrew
    • Tables for phrase-by-phrase restatement and translation of the text
    • Review questions to test understanding
    • Unvocalized Hebrew text with a punctuation exercise (forcing you to look at unvocalized text and provide the commas, periods, quotation marks, etc.–a nice final check to make sure you know where a baraita starts, the argument structure, etc.)
  •  Audio files that provide sugya-by-sugya shiurim (a shiur is a lesson; shiurim is the plural)
  • A two-page suggested approach to using the set

I’m fond of the approach the system uses, though I have some quibbles. More of that in a minute.

To be sure, the program is relatively costly. It’s presently about $150 for the whole program, about $60 for a third of it. You could buy volumes of the Steinsaltz or Artscroll Talmud translations for considerably less and get “more content”–which is to say, more raw volume of translated Gemara.

But if you buy Steinsaltz or Artscroll, you won’t get audio lessons aimed at beginners, and you won’t be deprived of an English-language crutch on the page. (I’m about to tell you why deprivation is a good thing; let’s all bask in the irony.) The on-page English is one of the great fallbacks of Artscroll and Steinsaltz for those attempting to seriously crack into using the Vilna edition (or more recently re-typeset Vilna-alikes) as a study source. It’s easy to slip over onto the English side of the books, and I think not having to wrestle with the texts makes it more likely that the student won’t retain the information or develop the analytical skills required to really engage in Talmud study. R. Englander’s program takes all that away–there isn’t a single sentence from the studied sugyot that appeared anywhere in English translation.

(It’s easy enough to buy the corresponding volume from Koren or Artscroll; some of the Koren Steinsaltz volumes are $9.99 as PDFs. Some of the old Soncino translations seem to be moving into a sort of public-domain status. And I have the entire Bavli on my iPad in Hebrew, with an English translation, which set me back only $25. R. Englander didn’t need to provide the English in any case.)

Following the program as set out by R. Englander is much more likely to develop skills for successful further studies than simply sitting with Steinsaltz or Artscroll–but it sets a high bar for the very basic student. R. Englander’s program doesn’t seem particularly well-suited to someone who doesn’t already know at least a smidgen of Hebrew (as in, ability to comprehend written Hebrew–not just the ability to sound out letters). I would imagine even a single semester of biblical or modern Hebrew in college would do the trick, but that’s more than most people have.

R. Englander sets the program up thus: first, the student should read the English introduction for background and some guidance on the concerns of the sugya. Then, read the vocalized Hebrew and Aramaic text, using the vocabulary list as guidance. Review a bit until you can’t comprehend any better. Then listen to the shiur and do the exercises in full–and listen to the shiur until you “get it.” Finally, pop open a Vilna printing and read the sugya on the actual Talmud page (which forces you to learn the abbreviations and rashei tevot, the shorthand way of reproducing phrases of text with just a few letters).

Let me be clear: the student should do this. As in, really, if you plan to use the program, do this. Why?

Starting with the English introduction is essential because, to crib a line from Rabbi Benay Lappe of Svara, “Rashi is your friend.” The content of what R. Englander put into those English paragraphs? It’s largely summary of the results of the glosses from Rashi’s commentary, along with some content from Tosafot and other Rishonim. Working through Gemara without Rashi is generally a pretty bad idea when you’re starting out, but reading Rashi without being able to work through Gemara is pretty difficult, too. R. Englander helps here by giving the student the salient portions of Rashi’s information up-front, without the sometimes-excessive (for a beginner) depth of the comments found on the typical Artscroll page. (Steinsaltz’s comments are not as broad in their scope, whereas the Artscroll footnotes are often vast discourses on all manner of Jewish topics–they are amazing resources, but not always so helpful if your goal is to decode the Gemara itself.)

The audio shiurim are quite good. I have a few quibbles: R. Englander talks a bit too fast and uses a bit too “yeshivish” a way of pronouncing Hebrew words for those of us educated in schools that insisted on using the Modern Israeli pronunciation of Hebrew (i.e., most of those who attended supplementary school programs and mainline Hebrew day schools). But it’s clear that R. Englander genuinely loves the material and enjoys teaching. Like many good teachers, R. Englander often repeats points, and this helps alleviate the problems with his speed and helps with the teaching process.

I think the speed may also be connected to the fact that the audio was originally recorded on cassettes. So when he recorded the shiurim, R. Englander only had so many minutes to a side of the tape before having to stop, flip the tape, and start again. The transfer from tape to digital doesn’t make for stellar audio quality, but that’s what the volume control is for.

In other words, none of these complaints should deter students from using the program.

My only complaints about the materials are: 1) relatively early on, the tapes stop reviewing the exercises in the workbook, so that students don’t have a “check” on their work; and 2) the page numbers R. Englander calls out on the audio are different from the pages of the materials as presently constructed.

I like the written materials, and find them useful. The vocalized Hebrew and Aramic text is relatively large in size and is helpfully color-coded to show key terms in the give-and-take of the argument: when an outside source is introduced, when a question is raised, when an answer or a proof is posed, etc.

The glossaries are good, though not great. Key argumentative terms aren’t necessarily given full definitions in the written materials, and some of the definitions require a preexisting facility with the underlying languages to be able to shape the definitions provided into coherent English. If the goal of a student is to start to learn those elements–also necessary to work with Gemara in serious study–the student should probably also use R. Yitzhak Frank’s “The Practical Talmud Dictionary” and/or the Steinsaltz Reference Guide, which both give relatively thorough definitions, explanations, and examples for key argumentative terms. Jastrow’s Dictionary would also be advisable at some point as the student’s language skills progress. R. Englander provides some of this material in the audio shiurim, explaining when a term raises a simple halakhic question or an attack or elucidating a key concept, but it’s not 100% present.

Around the eleventh or twelfth lesson, R. Englander starts incorporating Rashi and Tosafot, using vocalized Rashi script to represent those commentators on the page. Vocalized Rashi script always kind of throws me for a loop when I see it, but I understand its importance here.

The addition of the major commentators on the Talmud page is key, I think, to enabling continued learning, and it’s an area where the Steinsaltz and Artscroll translations can’t really take the student. It’s not that Rashi and Tosafot aren’t presented through the translations; you couldn’t really provide these translations without looking to Rashi and Tosafot. But no one really translates these commentaries separately, and you won’t develop the skills to use Rashi and Tosafot if you’re doing the Talmud in translation.

I would say that the greatest downfall of the program is that it takes time; but the reality is that it has to take time. As with attending law school, part of what happens in learning Talmud is that there are cognitive processes that change: as we used to joke in law school, “it breaks your brain.” The work of changing your cognitive processes–how you approach problems, what questions you ask, how you connect disparate pieces of information, etc.–doesn’t happen overnight.

My only substantive complaint is one that I think is a result of my particularly “mechanical” approach to looking at things. As some background, part of what I took away from law school is that many professional disciplines are about taking a framework of knowledge and skills–law, medicine, engineering physics, etc.–and using that to decode sets of facts to reach a solution. It is rare, however, that the process itself is unpacked for beginners. At the very early stages, this makes sense–you can tell someone how to write a law school exam or read a case, but they have to do this stuff a few times to figure out what it feels like to do this before what you tell them about the activity makes any sense.

Once you’re past this initial stage, however, I think it’s extremely profitable to stop, step back, and review what’s been gone over–but to do so with an eye toward how the process actually worked, and the twists and turns it took. I think this is the something that’s missing from R. Englander’s program (though, to be fair, I’ve never seen much in the way of self-study Talmud material that does this, either). Ideally, I imagine this would look like a separate shiur that presented the Vilna page, with technical terms indicative of turns in the argument highlighted or otherwise set in relief, and with the various sugyot divided up so that the student could “see” the various argumentative points.

Put another way–those who have studied Talmud know that the sugyot have structure to them, but it doesn’t always become apparent to a new student, who may take a couple of years to “get it.” I’d like to see more work to enable independent learners to have that “get it” event earlier on.

But R. Englander’s program is an excellent step in that direction.