Rabbi Yitzchok Etshalom
Talmud Torah 4:4
4. If the teacher taught and the students failed to comprehend, he should
not be upset with them and act angrily, rather he should review the
lesson again, several times if necessary, until they understand the depth
of the Halakha. Similarly, the student should not say: "I understand" if
he didn't understand, rather he should inquire - even several times. And
if his teacher becomes angry with him, he should say: "Rebbe, it is
Torah, I need to study and my comprehension is weak."
Q1: Isn't all of this obvious?
JB: Not necessarily - there are other approaches.The students could (on
his own or at the teacher's request) go and study on his own so the class
can proceed, or study with a friend, or spend time after class going over
YE: Notice that in both this Halakha and the next (see question 1 below)
R advises each party how to feel and how to react. There are several
ways to understand this:
a) R is giving us an approach to the learning process which, if
internalized, will lead to proper reactions to failure: The teacher won't
get angry and the student won't feel embarrassed by his slowness.
b) R is obligating those around to behave in a way which supports the
proper reaction (as Jay suggests below).
In any case, anger is quite normal and to be expected here - since the
teacher, we hope, is doing his best to share the information and guide
the students. In most work situations, the worker is operating on an
object (crafts, artisans etc.) - and it is quite natural for him to be
angry and vexed if, after putting his best work in, the object does not
perform as expected. R is reminding the teacher that the students are
subjects to be taught ("thou") and not objects upon which to perform
In addition, the teacher is, we would hope, involved in his or her own
learning. As such, it may be frustrating to have knowledge on one level,
yet have to teach on a less sophisticated level. R is reminding the
teacher that his job is to teach, not to use the classroom as an
opportunity for his own "learning-growth". Also, see my answer to Q3 on
Halakha 5, below.
Q2: Note that R says that the teacher must keep reviewing until the
students understand the "depth" of the Halakha. What does this mean ("the
depth") and why is this a necessary level of comprehension for everyone -
or is it?
JB: "In depth" probably implies that the student should not learn it by
rote, because even the thickest student can repeat what he hears. The
teacher's goal is to make sure the students know the material to a point
that he can understand it, apply it, question it, etc.
YE: Absolutely! This is certainly consistent with R's attitude towards
the Mitzva of TT - that the ideal form is depth (see TT 1:12 and our
discussions there). The highler levels of the taxonomy of learning -
analysis, application, synthesis and evaluation - are the hallmarks of
"depth" learning. Also, see my answer to Q3 on Halakha 5, below.
Q3: How does the formula of "Rebbe, it is Torah..." work to allay the
teacher's anger? Or is that its purpose?
JB: This is not R's formulation. It comes from a story in Gemara Megillah
28a where Rabbi asks Rabbi Yehoshua Ben Korcha how he lived so long. He
gets a sort of "leave me alone" reponse, and answers with this quote,
leaving off the last 2 words "v'da'ati K'tzara". Basically, R found a
source for continuing to hound a teacher for the sake of learning even if
it annoys him!
YE: The formula shows up in Berakhot 62a; where stories are recorded of
students who followed their teachers into private situations to observe
their behavior - when found out, their response was "It is Torah and I
must learn it". The efficacy of the statement is a refocusing of the
goal - "Rebbe, what can I do? I am obligated in this endeavor and must
study" - and a deflection of the blame - Perhaps the reason that the
teacher is angry is because the student's failure translates into his
failure as a teacher ->"my comprehension is weak".
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