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Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Impending Siyum

I can’t believe I’m actually typing this, but there is a good chance that by next Tuesday night I will have finally finished learning Tractate Baba Kama. That means I’ll have to make a siyum. It will be my first.

I’ve been working on this masechet for a few…years now. But I’m proud to say that I read every word and every Rashi myself. Well, there may have been a few nights where I was so pooped out that I couldn’t figure out if I should read left to right or right to left, and let the rabbi read a few lines. But that was infrequent. I don’t say this out of pride or masochistic tendencies. I’ve come to the realization over the years that I’m not a good passive learner. I zone quickly. If someone is sitting across the table reading to me, my mind will begin to wander almost instantly. The only way for me to keep on task is to do all the reading and teeth cutting on my own. And that’s especially true with something as complicated as Talmud.

A typical section of Baba Kama will have a 4 way argument about 3 different cases with 6 people, and halfway through this, everyone will take the opposite position. Then they’ll refer to a case from 4 pages ago and take a 3rd set of positions. Without benefit of charts or pictures. Why, even typing this up right now is giving me a headache.

So it’s probably not a secret that I really don’t enjoy learning in the Kollel. The Kollel is a community institution where a group of young rabbis commit to spend their days and evenings learning Torah. And they make themselves available to the community at large as a resource for others who want to do some learning with a knowledgeable partner. There’s always somebody learning something over there. I like to look at it as a fireplace in a big cold house. You want to keep that fire going all the time, and eventually it will warm the rest of the place up.

For whatever reason, I just haven’t really gotten into it. I started there 12 or 13 years ago, after the Rosh Kollel (head guy) asked, “Nu, Mark, how come I don’t see you in the Kollel?” and I couldn’t come up with a good answer for him. He paired me up with a sweet guy, a young rabbi, which in retrospect was a mistake, because I didn’t push him and he didn’t push me. We had to find something that was easy enough for me to be able to read on my own and translate, but juicy enough to make me care about what the words were actually saying. And to be honest, that was very hard.

We started with the laws of Shabbos, and I found myself dreading each upcoming paragraph. Because, unfiltered by local custom, the laws of Shabbos are pretty severe, and the more I read, the less I wanted to know. What? I can’t use a sponge to wash dishes? What, no hot water? Huh, I can’t brush my teeth?? After a while I just had to switch to something else.

At one point we were learning a book called Yaaros Devash, which was written by an ancestor of mine, and which the local rabbi had given to me as a present for…well, it’s a long story. This is basically a book of sermons and mussar, or ethics. It is written in beautifully elegant Hebrew, but if you’ve spent time reading these types of books, you know that despite being in a language that is readily translatable, the structure is such that it seems to be a series of really long run-on sentences, with large subordinate clauses, and you really can’t get from the subject to the predicate for a good half a page or so, and by the time you do finally reach the end of the sentence (all the while translating in your mind (and verbally) from Hebrew to English, maybe with breaks to look up the occasional esoteric word) you have forgotten what the beginning of the sentence was about, and, to be honest once again, you no longer care, because you’re so glad to have finally found a period.

So I found learning this and other sforim, like Michtav Me’eliyahu, to be interesting in the sense of the translation challenge, but I didn’t care much about the content. And it gave me neck pain, because often I had to share a book with my chevrusa (partner). And often, by the time we did finally finish some section that my chevrusa found particularly profound, I would just look at him and say, “Eh.”

Eventually we settled on Talmud. We picked Baba Kama because at the time, my son was in 6th grade and he was learning it. He’s in 10th grade now. So week by week I’ve been plugging away at it. I can’t say that I am necessarily interested in it, or that I enjoy it. I occasionally get some satisfaction when I figure out a particularly tricky bit on my own. But do I enjoy it...? By the time I get to the Kollel, I have been up for 14 hours and spent almost all of that time seeing patients back to back. What I really want to do is sit back and play some video games. But I don’t, I go to the Kollel. Because I want to set a good example for my kids. And because I’m afraid that if I stop I will never restart. And because somewhere deep down I’m hoping that eventually I will get turned on to this stuff and like it and look forward to my weekly chevrusa.

So, about the siyum, waddayah think, donuts?

34 comments:

torontopearl said...

Yeah, right! Donuts and a couple of shots of Glenfiddich ought to prepare you for the next masechet you plan on learning. Doesn't a siyyum call for a seudah, or at least a kiddush?

Kol HaKavod...or more likely, I guess you'll get a mazel tov upon completion.

Ger Tzadik said...

Yay me, confusing which blog I was on. Sorry PT! Anyway, congratulations, and I hope this is just one of many more for you.

Ger Tzadik said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Doctor Bean said...

Dude. Dude. Dude.

Is there anything so unrewarding that a tightly knit orthodox community couldn't force someone to do for a few years? This is the most eloquent argument for video games I've ever read.

Ezzie said...

By my count... shouldn't your sons both be learning Bava Kamma next year? What a perfect time to finish! (Of course, you made a siyum, something a student there could never really relate to... ;) )

A Simple Jew said...

Mazel Tov! I too share your feelings about learning Gemara.

I wrote about it here

As for the siyum, how about some Chantillys!

Essie said...

Mazel Tov on the siyum! Kol Hakavod for your determination and persistence. Very admirable.

Air Time said...

Mazel Tov. I say scrap the donuts and go for the BBQ siyum.

PsychoToddler said...

I think it would be a fire hazard in the Kollel.

GregoryT said...

Mazal Tov. Even though I still don't understand learning Gemara by those who haven't learnt Mishna (I started mesechet Shabbat - Mishna is hard enough for me without going into the Gemara).

dilbert said...

Mazel Tov. Go for something special, bring your family, invite some friends, make it the simcha and seudat mitzva its supposed to be. You deserve it.(I'll send some sushi if you want....)

I know how you feel, going on 10 years myself. I, however, have gone for the shorter, easier massechot and would reccomend the same, especially some with more aggadah and interesting stories. Unfortunately, we just started Shabbas(I cant say gemara Shabbat) and projected siyyum date is somewhere in 2042.

PsychoToddler said...

Sushi? do you mean it? OK, you're hereby invited for next Tuesday night at 7:30 at the Mke Kollel. Bring sushi!

dilbert said...

email me the address. I probably cant make it, but I can see if some sushi can....wonder how it travels... hmmmmmmmmmmm

tuesdaywishes said...

Mazal Tov, yeyasher kokacha, kain yirub... all the good stuff. It would be nice if you could make a meal out of it, maybe Mrs Balabusta could volunteer a platter of those salmon-pattie things she does and a few rolls to go with the donuts (In case the sushi doesn't get there.)

Have you considered a small but thoughtful gift for the rabbi who has been learning with you?

Want to give Daf Yomi a try? You could finish Shas before you turn 50!

Ralphie said...

For your next masechet, may I recommend Megillah? It's relatively short, has lots of good aggadata about Megillat Esther (duh), and some interesting explanations of the shmoneh esrei.

As for the learning itself, don't shoot me, but I use ArtScroll. I had to admit to myself that I didn't grow up with any Talmud learning - so I just don't have the foundation for it. Hence, I use the Artscroll's translation and focus on the learning itself, not the learning-how-to-learn part.

In any case, a hearty yasher koach for you for sticking with it.

Bean - I hearby challenge you to a once-a-week chevruta with me. 30 minutes tops.

PsychoToddler said...

Ralphie, I use the artscroll also, but I try very hard not to look at the English unless I'm really stumped. Usually between me and the chevrusa, we don't have to (the guy is actually a genius, which I don't like because it makes me feel like I'm wasting his time).

And, lest you think that reading the English side makes it too easy, trust me, it does not. It's still almost impossible to understand, even with the footnotes, unless you understand everything that came before it. It's all connected.

We're probably just going to move on to Baba Metziah next, because I already have that one.

Doctor Bean said...

Ralphie: Why? I mean it sounds like a perfect idea if you want to learn Talmud...

Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...

Bava Qama? Definitely need some beef for that siyum!

dilbert said...

bava kama, bava metzia, then bava batra, then bava dilbert. I will try to have rashi and tosfot all ready for you by the time you get there.

how can I get sushi to you if I dont have an address?

Jen Taylor Friedman said...

Doughnuts and VIDEO GAMES.

Sefer learning isn't objectively good. Someone is not a bad person if they don't go to kollel. If you're mostly doing it to be an example for the kids: if they like it or are good at it, they'll do it, and if not, they'll just feel horribly guilty that they're not living up to your standard. If it's not doing all that much for you, kick it in.

Ralphie said...

I don't know if it's objectively good but it's certainly objectively a mitzvah. If one doesn't want to do Gemara, fine, but one should learn something...

As for the idea of not setting an example for your kids lest they feel guilty for not living up to it... I wonder, what else does this apply to? Not cheating on taxes? Giving charity? Volunteering?

Ralphie said...

Bean - doesn't have to be Talmud- whatever you want. (No, science-fiction doesn't count)

parcequilfaut said...

Admittedly, I had to go to the link to know precisely what I was congratulating you on, but...congratulations! That's hardcore and I salute you.

I'm having so much trouble with my Sanskrit that I have been tempted to give up for a summer to give my brain a break, but in light of your example, I'll soldier on. (Yes, I know it's a different type of learning that you do. But learning = good, no?)

On the subject of Latin, my friend LadyA and I are taking the "chevurah model" (studying in pairs) when she does Latin this summer...I've been wanting a refresher since I haven't touched it in nearly a decade, and she's learning it for the first time, so we're going to do it together, in addition to her actual college course. We learn languages better together...we've kept each other somewhat fluent in French by, of all things, chatting in it over AIM.

Mazel tov!

PsychoToddler said...

herring, there are a lot of things out there that aren't doing it for me. If I kicked them all, I'd be living in a van by the river eating non-kosher sushi and playing video games all day.

Sometime you just gotta do it, comprende?

Parcefahuquagads: Thanks. It's a lot like taking the thickest volume of the Encyclopedia Britannica and reading it cover to cover. Except that it's in Aramaic and makes very little sense.

PsychoToddler said...

Oh, and Bean and Ralphie--go for it!

Man, first Shatnez, now learning. I am good!

Doctor Bean said...

Ralphie: You're on. I vote for either math or American history.

PsychoToddler said...

D'Oh!

Ezer K'negdo said...

Mazal Tov! I read your blog a lot, but this is my first comment. I agree with Steg - go with thematically appropriate food! BBQ siyyum! :-) seriously, though a huge mitzvah and huge effort - MAZAL TOV!

ps: like the "Matt Foley" reference. sometimes, when Mr. Ezer is annoyed with me, he tells me he is going to set me up "in a van, down by the river". Chris Farley was a genius.

Rafi G said...

mazel tov on the siyum.. they say mitcoch shelo lishmah ba lishmah - if you keep going to the kollel just for the impression it leaves on your kid, eventually you will have reached the point that you are going because you love it and the learning..
Hatzlacha

PsychoToddler said...

EK: Thanks, glad somebody got that one.

Rafi: It's more than that. I know that if I stop I won't restart and I have this thing about momentum keeping the world going round...

yaak said...

Mazal Tov!

Bava Kamma is my favorite mostly Halachic Mesechta. Sanhedrin's a close second.
Megilla, Berachot, and Sota are my all-time favorites.

parcequilfaut said...

Learning the Sanskrit feels that way, PT, not least because every other adjective has about five different possible and non-exact English approximates. (Sample question: "Is that "beautiful" or "giving radiance" in this one, Bill?")
And now Bill wants to teach me Esperanto. Which would be much, much fricckin easier.
But I love Bill, and I love learning, and you get a big thumbs-up of love too.

DovBear said...

What, a really good post. On so many levels.

Oh, and Mazal Tov on the siyum.

Just Passing Through said...

Great and inspiring post! I just came across it via Heimishtown. I posted a little something on it.