Monday, July 18, 2005

The amount of knowledge needed to be a Talmid Chacham

Recently I have heard people comparing learning gemara to a Phd program and saying that if people can learn nuclear physics in college and graduate school why not Torah.

IMHO, the answer is that there is much more to learn in Torah then other disciplines. The reason being, that these days there is so much knowledge no one even attempts to learn it all, everyone specializes in their own niche. Nuclear physicists for example, specialize in nuclear physics but know little or nothing about other branches of science. However, in Torah, a person is supposed to know kol hatorah kula. You aren't supposed to specialize, you are supposed to know it all. The gedolim throughout the generations until today have done just that. They know kol hatorah kula. Therefore, the amount of knowledge needed to get even a Phd is a fraction of the knowledge needed to master Shas and Poskim, Chumash, etc. You can ask a Gadol a question anywhere in Torah from Kodshim to taharos, to nezikin to zeraim and he can answer you. That is the equivalent of 1 person being the expert in chemistry, biology, physics, etc. That person doesn't exist in the secular world.

Let's think about a typical day for some who really wants to master Torah. Let's say you have 12 hours a day to learn (which is much more then the average Phd student will put in).

To learn 1 daf well with all the rishonim etc. on average let's say 4 hours.

Chazara on what you learned, at least 2 hours a day.

Mishnayos - 1 hour a day

Chumash, Nach 2 hours a day

Mishna Berura - 1 hour a day

Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh Deah, Choshen Mishpat, etc.) 1 hour a day

Miscellaneous - 1 hour a day

At this pace you will finish Shas in 8-9 years (Daf Yomi is 365 days a year, this schedule is clearly not, shabbos , yom tov, chol hamoed no one is learning 12 hours a day) and maybe remember some of it. In other words after almost 10 years of intense studying you will have finished Shas once and hopefully know Chumash and some halacha.

You will still not have learned any Talmud Yerushalmi, Zohar, every Sidrei Tahara in Hilchos Nidda, read all of R' Akiva Eigers or the Chasam Sofer's teshuvas, know all the Midrashim, etc. In other words, you would still have a long way to go to knowing kol hatorah kula.


Anonymous said...

You are comparing a Torah study program, where the goal is knowledge, vs. a PhD program, where the goal is knowledge and creativity. To be creative you have to specialize a bit more.
Also, the goal for scientists used to be to know "kol hascience kulo", but that era is over. I guess you hinted to this yourself in your posting, and that something similar has happened in Torah learning.
Actually many PhD students in the sciences and engineering do work for 12 hours a day. It's surprising that they can achieve this level of "hasmadah" for doing something they're not even promised olam habah for.

bluke said...

I heard from RHS many times in shiur that the different sedarim are very different and they have their own internal logic. Each one has tro be learned in a different way. I think that they are comparable in many ways to different branches of science.

I don't think there are any multi-discipline experts in the secular world who are considered the authority on multiple disciplines. They may know a lot in different disciplines but they are not the top person in any 1 discipline.

R' Moshe for example was the Godol Hador in America and he was considered to be the expert on every part of torah. There was no question you couldn't or wouldn't ask him or you would think that there was someone who could answer better then him.

bluke said...

The goal of Torah is creativity as well. RYBS was amazingly creative as was/is very other Gadol.

Anonymous said...

I would think that there would me much more time in gemara than you have. The hour of halacha (Tur ShA) would probably be on the same sugyos as the gemara. but even if you add in the extra hour of misc learning into gemara, i dont think there is enough time to properly learn shas with a well rounded view of teh rishonim in 8 hours a day.

From what i understand, the gedolim sit and shteig in gemara all the time, with chumash and nach not taking 2 hours a day.
I also would think that MB for an hour a day is too much.

and you forgot 15 mins of mussar :)

bluke said...

I don't think that anyone is saying that. What I am saying is that in the secular world the idea of one person knowing it all is gone, no one thinks that, it is impossible and therefore the amount of knowledge needed even for a Phd is relatively limited.

On the other hand, in Torah we still believe that a person should know kol hatorah kula, that is a huge amount that takes decades to master.

bluke said...

I was talking about a program for someone who is starting from a not so great background, e.g. taking the college/phd approach. Someone like that would need to spend more hours on chumash/navi, Mishna berura then the gedolim.

In any case, I threw out the numbers off the cuff. I had another additional 2 hours of gemara review (reviewing what you learned last week) which made it 6 hours of gemara.

Anonymous said...

You forget - no one learns an hour of Mishna berurah a day for 8-9 years straight

Also, if you learn mishna for 1 hour a day, you can be an expert (remembering it all and reviewing it all) in about 3-4 years.... from there on in, you review 18 perakim a day, finishing it every month

bluke said...

18 perakim even if you really know it will take at least an hour.

Reagarding Mishna Berura, maybe maybe not. There is a tremendous amount to know.

Rebeljew said...

re: complexity

I knew kids in Yehsiva that got rewards for MEMORIZING mesechtas, like Gittin, shabbos, Kidushin. One year, a particularly smart kid memorized TWO mesichtas. Presumably, these guys were farhered on Rishonim as they went through the mesichtas.

Has anyone ever heard of someone who has memorized all of biology?

Anonymous said...

Learning Torah and pursuing a PhD are very, very different. I think it is disingenuous to try to compare them. The major point of a doctoral program is not to "acquire knowledge" and certainly not to memorize facts. Creativity and highly critical thinking are valued above all.

Anonymous said...

One point overlooked in the comparison of Talmudic vs. scientific learning, it that scientific learning grows through increasing levels of abstraction - no one has to read the minutiae of Newton's 'Pricipia' to understand basic physics - just an easy to read college Physics text like Resnick & Halliday. There are those who do learn 'Pricipia' as it is, and they are usually called historians. A better comparison would be to someone in the humanities, with broad and deep knowledge of the Western Canon, like Harold Bloom or Umberto Ecco.

Also, science is work in progress. So scientists learn in order to work to further a specific area of concentration. Talmud is NOT a work in progress, as a matter of fact its ossification is one cause of the problems which are discussed on these blogs. A RY can sit for years and do nothing but learn, while scientist must publish or perish.

Anonymous said...

"A better comparison would be to someone in the humanities, with broad and deep knowledge of the Western Canon, like Harold Bloom or Umberto Ecco."

exactly and there are very few such people, and they arent produced in phd programs.

Rebeljew said...


Valid points all.

Talmud is supposed to be fluid, albeit, in a different way than science. With science, there is no target "truth" that we are trying to identify. The study of Talmud is more akin to the study of literature, i.e. trying to get into the authors mind, through his limited words.

Mississippi Fred MacDowell said...

"Has anyone ever heard of someone who has memorized all of biology?"

It's an entirely different genre. There is no point in memorizing specific wordings in "all of biology". But there are certainly people who can answer any question you may have on any topic in biology, who have "all of biology" at their fingertips. The idea of al peh is something that simply doesn't apply to something like biology.

But are there people who could quote you all of Shakespeare b'al peh? You betcha.

Anonymous said...

You could ask R' Moshe Feinstein a question on any area of Torah and he could give you *his opinion*. Other poskim might disagree with him on that issue. In contrast, when you ask a physicist a question you're asking a factual question. It would be like asking RMF a factual question about Torah - say, the position held by a particular rabbi. RMF would very likely be right, but he wouldn't need to know that obscure fact in order to be a great posek; he would just need to be able to look it up if it was relevant.

If physicists were held to the same standard they would have to be able to answer any practical question on science, given time to research it where necessary. That's a big task ("What's the compressional strength of concrete cured under seawater at zero centigrade?") but it's not impossible.

Anonymous said...

"But are there people who could quote you all of Shakespeare b'al peh? You betcha."

Yeah, but what proportion of English lit majors can do so? A very low proportion. Much fewer than those who know large chunks of tanach bal peh!
And of those shakespeare specialists, how many can quote The Iliad and Doestoevsky? or even have them at their fingertips.
Serious proficiency in the literature takes a lot of time.

In addition, proficiency in gemara requires deep familiarity with the structure and style and language, and it is much easier to gain competence at a younger age than later on. It is always harder to pick up language later, and it's harder to memorize at an older age also.

The real issue is that those who advocate less gemara at a younger age are really OK with relatively few talmidei chachomim - they see only a need for a small group of rabbis - and are OK with the average Joe not being learned. Whereas the torah requires everyone to make the attempt, and it requires parents to teach their children, not to say "Ok, if he really wants, he'll pursue learning when he's an adult."

Anonymous said...

I made this point on Gadol Hador's blog and was completely ignored, so now I have a chance to be ignored twice (but I'm correct in any case):

The proper comparison isn't between Torah and science; it's between Torah and law (limiting the discussion to the legal portions of Torah). That's because the Talmud is--guess what--a law book!

But in secular law, there's no need to know the entire history of the law, and everything that's been said on a topic since that particular legal system began. (Every law school faculty has one guy who knows those things, but most people don't care.) What's important is to know the law that applies in the present time and place. That's because the law, unlike the Torah, has no sanctity and there's no obligation to know it for its own sake (compare Torah leshmah). It's simply a practical endeavor.

On the other hand, scholars of law are constantly analyzing law using tools from outside of law (e.g., economics), in order to find better solutions to legal problems. This activity doesn't occur in the realm of Torah, since the Torah is presumed to be perfect. We don't critique the Torah; rather we delve into it to try to find its deeper meaning.

bluke said...

The analogy still apllies. Lawyers specialize. There is no Godol Hador in law who is the expert on Constitutional law, Criminal law, Tax law, etc. In Torah there is. To get to that point takes a lot of time.

TMK said...

First, if a person knows all about the Torah, it is like a person that knows all about a nich in physics. the point is that they know all about one thing. the Torah does not include many aspects of our current lives (e.g., internet, science, sports), therefore one who knows the whole Torah, only knows the Torah and not other things, just like someone who knows physics may not know history.
second, in terms of quantity of reading and depth of knowlege within the field, there is definetly room for comparison between PhD and Talmid Chacham. It would be silly to think otherwise. However, I think PhD has aspects that Talmid don't have- for example, creating something new rather than interpreting the existing. science foster creativity of though and the Torah does not. Finally, a person who "knows the whole Torah" many times acts as if they know everything, but as i pointed above, knowning the Torah Kula, does not mean you know it all. failing to see that is the greatest downfall of Jewish Aorthudox.