Dec 19, 2009

Elite Yeshivos

In A Tzaddik in our Time about R' Aryeh Levin z'l (I highly recommend it), on p. 33, R' Aryeh says that in the 3 years he learned in Slutzk, he acquired a sound knowledge of seder Nashim with Tosfos (except for Yevamos). The mesechtos Gittin, Kiddushin, and Kesubos, he learned by heart with Tosfos, and then he started seder Nezikin. At that point he left the yeshiva in 1901. He was born in 1885, so that means he was 16 years old!

Lest you think he was a genius, and what relevance does it have to average students, there were numerous yeshivos in which hundreds (thousands?) of bachurim learned on this level.

Where are our hundreds or merely dozens of similar achievers today? Our yeshivos are not geared towards them as yeshivos used to be. Today, yeshivos are focused on the average student and have average goals and we are suffering greatly for this.

Does this sound elitist? Well, yeshivos were always geared to the cream of the crop! To get into Yeshivas Chachmei Lublin (see picture for this post) you had to know at least 200 daf Gemara by heart with Rashi and Tosfos. That's why R' Pinchas Hirschprung z'l could do the "pin test" (stick a pin through pages of the Gemara and he could tell you which words on each page that the pin went through) And there were many applicants! And many knew more than 200 daf!

Granted, today all boys must stay in yeshiva merely to remain frum (unlike yesteryear, when boys without learning talent apprenticed and married young), but yes, I believe we still need yeshivos that cultivate and support top achievers. Leaving potentially great learners to languish in "equal-opportunity" classrooms is reverse discrimination, in that it discriminates against those with talent! And these top achievers don't have to be geniuses; someone with learning ambition will go very far.  An excellent rebbi can galvanize an entire class into setting and keeping learning goals.  Too often, special achievement goals are relegated to extra-curricular contests. 

Rabbi Reuven Bengis was an incredible masmid. One day he invited people to a siyum he was making on completing Shas. The men were shocked since they had already attended a siyum ha'Shas he had made barely a month earlier.

When he was asked how he could be making another siyum ha'Shas so soon, Rabbi Bengis explained that normally it took him a full year of intense study to learn all of Shas, and the siyum he had made a month earlier had been for this cycle of learning.

This second siyum ha'Shas was for a cycle of learning he had begun many years earlier, in which he studied Shas during those unexpected idle moments of waiting for a train, for a bus, at a simcha, etc. Over the years, with a few minutes of learning here and a few minutes there, he had finally completed Shas in addition to his annual review.

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