The Purpose of the Yeshiva

An Interview with the Rosh Yeshiva of Chevron, Rav Avrohom Farbstein zt”l

Introduction: Rosh Chodesh Shevat marks the 23rd yahrtzeit of Rav Avrohom Farbstein, rosh yeshiva of the Chevron Yeshiva. Rav Avrohom was born in Eretz Yisroel in 1917. His father, a talmid of the Imrei Moshe of Brisk, was one of the founders of Bnei Brak. Rav Avrohom learned in the Chevron Yeshiva, and when Rav Eliezer Yehuda Finkel, rosh yeshiva of the Mir, came to Eretz Yisroel before the war, he met Rav Avrohom and saw a bochur with tremendous potential. He insisted on taking him back to the Mir, and Rav Avrohom spent two years in the 1930s in the Mirrer Yeshiva in Poland.

He later returned to Eretz Yisroel and the Chevron Yeshiva, where the rosh yeshiva, Rav Yechezkel Sarna, chose him as a husband for his daughter Chana. After Rav Chatzkel’s passing, Rav Avrohom was appointed rosh yeshiva of Chevron, along with Rav Simcha Zisel Broide.

In 1986, Rav Avrohom gave a rare interview to the Temurah journal about the tafkid of a yeshiva. Although the discussion occurred 35 years ago, the message and lessons therein resonate until today, and the Yated is proud to present an adapted version of the interview.

HOW DOES ONE BECOME A LAMDAN?

Bochurim often come to yeshiva with a she’ifah – a deep desire to emerge from yeshiva as a lamdan. However, not all bochurim succeed in achieving that objective. Is there a foolproof approach to becoming a lamdan?

There is no prescription for lamdanus. Becoming a lamdan is dependent on many factors – some depend on the rosh yeshiva and the hanholah, and others on the bochur himself.

But first and foremost, I think your question is based on a misconception – the purpose of a yeshiva is not to make a bochur into a lamdan, it is to transform a bochur into a ben Torah! A ben Torah is a different entity. A ben Torah thinks differently than an average person. His goals and his desires in life are totally different than those of the average man, even the average frum man. Only once a bochur has a clear sense of what his essence is, the essence of the type of life he wants to live, can he even think of becoming a lamdan. Becoming a lamdan, however, is not an automatic outgrowth of this desire. One needs great siyatta d’shmaya.

Should a yeshiva have a one-size-fits-all approach to educating its talmidim?

During davening every morning, we beseech Hashem, “Give us our cheilek in your Torah.” Every Jew has his chelek in Torah, each according to his personal makeup and abilities. The purpose of the yeshiva is to bring out and cultivate the cheilek in Torah that a bochur has. Its purpose is to focus on a bochur’s individual strengths and empower him to access his own individual portion in Torah.

Nevertheless, just like every bochur possesses different intellectual powers – whether it’s his knowledge or ability to grasp things quickly or slowly – so too, each bochur has his own unique way of learning and analyzing. Therefore, it is inappropriate and counterproductive to try one derech, one approach to learning that will work for every bochur.

Trying to force every bochur or talmid to learn in a certain way is like trying to force people with various ailments to take the same medication. For some, the medicine will help, for others it might help partially, and some might even be allergic to the medicine and it may kill them. Just as a doctor prescribes medication on an individual level, the derech halimud that might work for one bochur might be poison for another…

That is what I meant at the outset when I said there is no generalized “prescription” for being a lamdan. Every bochur, together with his rosh yeshiva or rabbeim, must determine what derech works for him.

There is another important point that needs to be made when you talk about “becoming a lamdan.” A bochur’s learning skills are developed over time – nothing is instant. There is a marked difference in the yeshivos today than the yeshivos of my youth. When I was a bochur, we knew that we would be in yeshiva (at the bais medrash level) for a minimum of eight to ten years. Bochurim got married later and stayed in the same yeshiva for much longer. When you have an eight- to ten-year plan, you can slowly build upon your skills and perhaps become a lamdan in the end, properly developing your strengths.

Today, however, after four years in yeshiva (bais medrash), a bochur already starts to be considered an eltere bochur. You can’t compare an eight-year plan to a four-year plan. I used to be able to say that it was possible for a bochur to emerge from yeshiva as a lamdan. Today, however, he simply doesn’t have enough time to develop those skills in a comprehensive way.

That is why the concept of kollel today is different than it once was. The kollel today, certainly in the early years after marriage, should be a continuation of the skill cultivation that began in yeshiva. Sadly, there is minimal collaboration between the kollelim and the yeshiva. Each one operates in a self-contained framework rather than working in tandem and complementing each other, which would be ideal.

THE UNFORTUNATE BLURRING OF LINES BETWEEN THE PURPOSE OF MESIVTA AND BAIS MEDRASH

When you refer to years in yeshiva, I assume you are referring to yeshiva gedolah (bais medrash). What is the purpose of yeshiva ketanah (mesivta/high school level)?

Just as we said that there is no collaboration between kollelim and yeshivos, there is often a blurring of the lines between mesivta and bais medrash-level yeshivos, and that is troubling.

The tachlis of mesivta is to prepare a bochur to enter bais medrash. They impart the foundations of learning that he needs to understand sugyos, so that when he comes to yeshiva gedolah, he can utilize that knowledge to progress in his learning.

For some reason, however, some of the mesivta-level yeshivos feel compelled to jump ahead and get into lomdus before they have been able to impart the basic fundamentals and underpinnings of the sugya. It has come to the ludicrous situation where the exact opposite is happening. In many mesivtas, they are primarily engaging in lomdus, and the bais medrash-level yeshivos feel compelled to impart the basics to the bochurim, to make up for what they missed when they were in mesivta.

So back to your question of how a bochur can become a lamdan – the first thing is to better define the different jobs and guidelines that each mosad in the chinuch chain should comply with, so that we don’t have the vexing blurring of boundaries …

DON’T PUSH A BOCHUR BEYOND HIS ABLITIES

How much ground should a yeshiva cover?

Again, it is impossible to set ground rules in this matter. It depends on each individual. There are bochurim who are better served by covering a lot of ground in learning, and others who are better off learning less blatt per zman. That’s why every bochur should discuss with his rosh yeshiva/rebbi what is right for him, based on his own strengths and weaknesses.

It’s important to note that it is extremely counterproductive to burden a bochur with a goal beyond his abilities. A good rebbi should understand his talmid and know what is the most he could handle before asking too much of him. Asking too much will make the talmid view learning as a tremendous burden, rather than a pleasure. Pressuring a bochur beyond his natural capabilities can lead to terribly destructive outcomes.

What does the rosh yeshiva say about bochurim in mesivta being mechadesh lomdishe chiddushim?

I think that at that age, a bochur should be very careful not to be busy with lomdish sevaros. At such a young age, a bochur is usually not capable of putting forth a sevara properly. On the contrary, if done wrong, they hurt more than they help. Sevaros are supposed to be a natural outgrowth of a bochur’s maturity in learning. When he tries to skip a step and is already saying sevaros prior to clearly understanding the foundations of how sugyos work, he is not going to have the natural clarity to discern what is a proper sevara or not.

In my opinion, a baal havanah is one who has the ability to sift through a sevara and discern if it is airtight or not. This can only come as a natural outgrowth of first understanding the foundations of learning, and only then progressing to lomdus. If one skips that step, he may never be able to discern properly!

TMI: THE ENEMY OF PROGRESS IN LEARNING

Once a bochur maximizes his mesivta years to properly acquire the foundations of learning and goes on to the next step of lomdus, what should he do?

First, he should consult with his rosh yeshiva/rebbi. Every bochur at times needs guidance.

Also, one of the greatest enemies of progress in learning is too much information – it confuses a bochur. The first thing he must do is learn the sugya with clarity, breaking down the various opinions, understanding what Rashi says and what Tosafos says. Other than that, he shouldn’t learn extraneous meforshim. Talmidim shouldn’t get confused by numerous Rishonim and Acharonim. They can learn one more Rishon and learn it well.

In addition, you are not obligated to have the answer to every question. Rav Isser Zalman Meltzer once told me that he and his brother-in-law, Rav Moshe Mordechai Epstein, once went to Rav Yitzchok Elchonon Spector and asked him a question for which he had no answer. They felt that they were unable to go further in the sugya as a result of the question, and Rav Yitzchok Elchonon told them to look at a certain Tosafos, and they would understand. They looked at the Tosafos, but could not find the connection to their question, and returned to Rav Yitzchok Elchonon, puzzled. He explained, “That Tosafos ends with the words, ‘tzorich iyun,’ meaning that the question has not been answered. If Tosafos could leave a sugya with an unanswered question, so can you!”

A MINIMUM OF 40 BLATT PER ZMAN

What is the difference between iyun and bekius?

Today, many yeshivos separate iyun and bekius, but it is an artificial separation, in some ways. In the Mir, there were sugyos on which we spent a lot of time because they demanded it, and other sugyos on which we spent less time because they weren’t as complex.

Certainly, however, between the two main sedorim, at least 40 blatt per zman should be learned. Also, I cannot stress enough how pivotal chazarah is! Some bochurim suffice with learning the sugya over one or two times. That is not enough!! Chazarah is an integral part of learning.

The rosh yeshiva delivers shiurim and is mechadesh chiddushim. A good talmid might look at the rosh yeshiva and grow jealous – he also wants to be mechadesh. Is this kind of jealousy a good thing?

Certainly! Being mechadesh is one of the best ways to properly learn and understand a sugya. Delivering a chiddush enables the bochur to really work it through. He shouldn’t say a chaburah on every sugya, but I think once a zman is a very positive thing.

Is it true that yeshivos don’t put out the “gedolim” they once did?

As I told you about the chinuch today – in those times, they spent more than 10 years in yeshiva. Today, if you spend five years, you’re lucky! How can a “godol” be created in such a short time? Certainly, though, a bochur with a potential for gadlus can be produced.

EACH BOCHUR NEEDS A PERSONAL RELATIONSHIP WITH HIS ROSH YESHIVA

How can a yeshiva facilitate a bochur’s growth in learning?

The purpose of the yeshiva is to create a framework and environment where a bochur can shteig, and an atmosphere of striving for greatness needs to be created. This requires a number of things, but first and foremost is having a personal relationship with the rosh yeshiva.

Of course, the rosh yeshiva delivers a shiur klali where he imparts the foundations of the sugya. There is also the mussar shmuess, where he imparts mussar and the foundations of how to acquire Torah. But both these public forums are no substitute for personal, one-on-one interaction. Each bochur needs personal hadracha. When a talmid talks in learning with his rosh yeshiva, the rosh yeshiva can assess his abilities and guide him properly.

But yeshivos are so large! How can the rosh yeshiva have enough time for each bochur?

You are absolutely right! The size of the yeshivos limits the amount of interaction between rosh yeshiva and talmid. In the great European yeshivos, the older bochurim guided the younger bochurim. When I learned in the Mir, I learned with Rav Leib Malin, He had already been in the yeshiva for 15 years, and was a godol already as a bochur. That doesn’t exist today!

Nevertheless, I think a bochur must talk in learning with the rosh yeshiva at least seven to eight times per zman. The rosh yeshiva should have a discerning eye and see his qualities and be able to guide him. Otherwise, how will he grow properly?

Some people say that because a talmid should have a personal connection with his rosh yeshiva, it is better to learn in a small yeshiva where he can have more time with the rosh yeshiva. What does the rosh yeshiva hold about that?

Vegetables can grow in a greenhouse, but there is no substitute for growing out in the open, in Hashem’s world. The optimum place for a bochur to grow properly is within a relatively large group. The fact that a bochur is constantly challenging and being challenged by others – in a large group – enables and pushes the mind to think. It also provides the best atmosphere possible for growth and maturation of thought.

A small yeshiva is more analogous to a greenhouse. It is a more artificial structure where they try to mimic the ultimate yeshiva experience but cannot do it with authenticity, because it is missing the back and forth and constantly challenging intellectual atmosphere of a large yeshiva.

That being said, a greenhouse is very good for a fragile plant until it grows and become stronger, better able to withstand the elements. Similarly, smaller yeshivos are often needed and important for younger bochurim or bochurim with a certain type of intellectual make-up, where they can grow and develop until they reach a level where they can join a larger yeshiva by leaving the “greenhouse” and going out into the natural world.

If a person stays in the “greenhouse” for too long, he will not properly develop the mechanisms needed to fight and hold his own in the real world. Experience has shown me that if a person doesn’t leave a small yeshiva on time, he will never accustom himself to having to battle with others, thereby opening the mind and thought. The give and take with others help produce a true talmid chochom and lamdan.

What are seforim that help develop the mind of a yeshiva bochur? In our generation [35 years ago—Ed.], there are new seforim like Otzar Meforshei HaTalmud or Encyclopedia Talmudis, or other, more conventional yeshivish seforim such as Kehillas Yaakov. Are these seforim helpful for bnei yeshiva?

I don’t think that seforim like Encyclopedia Talmudis or Otzar Meforshei HaTalmud are designed for yeshiva bochurim. Those seforim encompass the entire sugya from beginning to end and then come up with conclusions, encyclopedic style. That is why the seforim have not become popular in yeshivos. The derech halimud in those seforim is not the approach of the yeshivos – they are designed for a more mature learner.

In contrast, a sefer such as Kehillas Yaakov is a classic in the olam hayeshivos. It is written with tremendous clarity, and the sevaros are put forth in a way that a bochur can think and understand the way that the Steipler analyzes the sugya. He focuses on one particular part in the sugya, and does not try to encompass the entire sugya. This enables the learner to stay focused. For this reason, the Kehillas Yaakov has become extremely popular in the yeshivos.

It appears that yeshivos are so focused on producing lamdonim that they neglect other important areas of learning, like Tanach, halacha or machshavah. Is there even an argument to be made to add these areas to the curriculum of the yeshivos?

They do not need to be added as self-contained limudim. The minhag in yeshivos is to learn Chumash and Rashi and certain parts of Ramban on the Torah as part of the regular learning. Every Jew is obligated to know daily halacha, and that is why all yeshivos have a daily seder in Mishnah Berurah. Tanach, in contrast, is a very sensitive limud. When a child or bochur is young, he can learn it on a simple level, but a bochur in yeshiva gedolah is too mature to learn it simply, but too young to understand it properly through the prism of Chazal. That is why, in my opinion, Tanach should not be learned in yeshiva.

Later, when a person is mature enough and developed enough in his intellect to understand Tanach al pi Chazal, he can make a seder to learn it.

Talking about the curriculum of the yeshivos – if it were up to me, all yeshiva gedolos [bais medrash-level yeshivos] in Eretz Yisroel would learn the same masechta. I think this would bring tremendous brocha and increase the fire of Torah and the sharing of chiddushim in a very productive way.