Rediscovering Our Roots — The Necessity of Tanach in Yeshiva Studies
Recently, when chatting with my friend, our conversation shifted to the biography of an esteemed contemporary Rabbinical figure which lay open on the table facing him. I asked if I could recommend another Jewish biography to him, a request which he happily agreed to. He perked up excitedly, anxiously awaiting my selection. “You want to read a good biography?” I asked sarcastically. “Try Sefer Shoftim — it’s a real page turner.”
There is a staggering trend in the modern yeshiva that significantly deemphasizes the crucial role that Tanach plays within individual learning. Classically, Gemara is the cornerstone of the daily yeshiva experience, and rightly so; the process of in-depth study of Talmud forces its participants to flex a variety of sophisticated intellectual muscles in perfect synchronicity. The experienced learner’s repertoire is littered with vocabulary that makes the careful analysis of Jewish legality is possible: the distinctions between cheftzah (object-incumbent commands) and gavra (person-incumbent commands) and questions of d’orayta (biblical commandments) and d'rabbanan (rabbinic decrees) flow off the tongue of Talmudic veterans almost effortlessly. Learners can easily identify several types of legal acquisitions, kinyanim, Talmudic sages and personalities, as well as recurrent question/answer cycles throughout the gamut of Oral Law.
But something is lacking in the daily rotes of yeshivas. With the important exception of the Rabbinically mandated readings of the weekly parsha portions, the written Torah, consisting of the 24 books of Tanach, is notably absent in the majority of individuals’ studies.
Nearly all forms of learning encountered in yeshivas draw on the actual texts of Tanach. Although most people are familiar with the legal concepts expounded from the Torah and its basic narratives, almost none can say anything else of value about them. All topics which are deemed unnecessary to the study of Gemara are discarded and simply forgotten about until they somehow become relevant. The forebears of history, their stories, homiletic values and legacies are arbitrarily deemed unpopular and not given a second thought. Barely anyone can relay any information of substance about crucial figures in the development of Judaism, such as David, Shmuel and Elijah. Fewer can even recognize the names Ehud, Amnon, Zechariah or Yoav as even appearing in the Tanach. For the overwhelming majority of yeshiva students, the significance of these characters amounts to practically zero.
I am not suggesting that the morning learning of intensive Gemara should be replaced with intensive study of Tanach as a remedial measure. I am also not proposing that the nightly studies of Gemara be completely eliminated in favor of poring over the classical books of Tanach. This would be far too drastic a change and far too unpopular to be successful.
But while recognizing the centrality of Gemara in daily study, it is incumbent upon us to go “back to the basics” in a sense and begin our individual comprehensive explorations of books in Tanach. Revisit narratives that were learned on an elementary level in adolescence, enriching your comprehension with more nuanced and complex ideas of the classical commentators. Perhaps hone in on one sefer that you have always wanted to explore but have never gotten a chance to. Join a Nach Yomi group, learning one perek of a sefer in Nach daily, which requires a minimal time commitment. Regardless of how this is performed, this is the duty of the responsible, committed religious Jew — firmly grounding oneself in the ancient, yet enduring roots of the Torah SheBichtav.
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Photo Caption: A page of the Tanach
Photo Credit: Sammy Haber