How to Learn SVARA Style

At SVARA, we approach Talmud study as a spiritual practice for developing radically empathic, mature, evolved human beings who will create a more just, peaceful, and healthy world. We believe that radically courageous, compassion-driven change is native to the tradition, should be revived, and that every person can be given the tools to participate in it. The SVARA-method is designed to support the process of Talmud study in the original language. If you can sound out your alef-bet, you can learn Talmud as a spiritual practice!

The SVARA-method is what we use to build a traditionally radical culture of Talmud study in the original language (i.e. without translation), enabling our students to own the text and the tradition. The four steps of the SVARA-method are (1) chevruta, (2) shiur, (3) chazara, and (4) recitation

1 | CHEVRUTA

WHAT IS CHEVRUTA?

  • A framework for intimate connection with another human being, with the text, and with the tradition (“chevruta” refers to both the partnership and the people in the partnership!)
  • A spiritual technology for developing radical empathy and interdependence
  • Interactive, engaging, busy, immersive, with both chevrutas feeling totally present to the relationship and the learning
  • When done with rigorous and clear expectations of text mastery, chevruta  becomes a profoundly meditative and empowering experience

HOW DO WE LEARN IN CHEVRUTA?

Start with a check- in. Take turns, and share with your chevruta how you are, what’s on your mind, whatever you need them to know about you right now so that you can become fully present. 

Dedicate: In the Jewish tradition, learning is believed to carry within it the power to repair, to heal, and to transform. It is our custom at SVARA, as it has been the custom in many yeshivas in the world for thousands of years, to begin our learning by directing that power to someone or something in need of healing, strength, or encouragement. Or you might dedicate your learning to someone in whose honor or memory you would like to learn, perhaps someone whom you think would be very proud to know that you’re learning in this moment. Hold the person, people, or community you’d like to dedicate your learning to, in your mind and heart, and then say “I’d like to dedicate my learning today to _______.” Feel free to explain to your chevruta or your learning comrades why this dedication is on your mind.

Bless: The blessing for Torah study closes dedications and elevates learning into the realm of mitzvah, the language that the Rabbis used for what mattered most to them. You can find the blessing for Torah study here.

Learn: Now you’re ready to start learning! 

  • Pick a “driver”: You and your chevruta are going to be working through the text, word by word. It helps to have one of you be the “vocalizer”– the person saying out each word or phrase (making just a rough guess at the proper pronunciation), just to make sure you both know which word you’re both working on at any given moment, and are always both looking up the same word at the same time. You can periodically switch who’s being the “driver.”
  • Look up every word! Oftentimes we think we know what a word means based on previous learning or experience. At SVARA, everyone looks up every word to uncover hidden meanings, nuances, suggestive resonances, connections, and etymologies that are present in the words of the text and help us go deeper in our learning.
  • Holler out the page number when you find it! Each chevruta has their own set of dictionaries and should be looking up the same word at the same time as their chevruta. When looking up words, whoever finds the entry first should call out which dictionary they found the word in, the page number, left or right column, top or bottom of the column, or direct their chevruta to the entry.
  • Keep it collaborative, take your time. Learning is not a race, or a competition! Talmud study—and all learning—should be a collaboration between learners who understand that they’re on the same team. Don’t worry if other learners are ahead of you in the text, behind you, or anywhere else! Wherever you and your chevruta are is just plain perfect.

2 | SHIUR 

WHAT IS SHIUR?

  • The group discussion section during which the text is unpacked, word by word
  • Careful attention is paid not only to what each word means but how each word means what it means
  • Larger ideas and implications of the text are also explored in a freewheeling discussion

HOW DOES SHIUR WORK?

The teacher will call upon a student to “read.” “Reading” is done in three steps: “Read,” “Inside Translation,” and “Outside Translation.” “Read, Inside, Outside. Read, Inside, Outside” is the mantra that keeps the learning focused on deep ownership of the text rather than a mere cursory, surface-level drive-by of what’s going on in the text. 

It is important to take really good notes during shiur (on everything you can, including pronunciation, roots, grammar notes, meanings of words, etc.) so that you can refer to these during your next chevruta session when you are reviewing the text unpacked in shiur during Step 3: Chazara!  

Read—in the original Hebrew/Aramaic, in small chunks

If you are called upon to read, you will read out loud a short chunk of text, making your best guess at pronouncing the one, two, three, or maybe four or five words which make up the smallest meaningful idea in each phrase or sentence. Your teacher will help you as you go along.

Inside translation

You will then go back and make your best guess as to the “inside” translation, i.e., the  hyper-literal translation, of each word, in the order in which the words appear, following the syntax of the original. When you’re giving an inside translation, it will sound quite choppy and not flow in a smooth, colloquial translation. 

Every single prefix and suffix should be represented in an inside translation (i.e., החובל בחברו would be translated as the one who injures in his friend). Nothing that isn’t represented in the letters of each word should appear in one’s inside translation. For example, rabbinic literature often implies an “if” at the beginning of a case: “if one injures his friend.” But that implied “if” should not appear in the inside translation.

Outside translation

After giving your inside translation of each phrase, go back and give your best guess at the “outside” translation—a colloquial translation that flows smoothly in modern English, and sounds like something you’d actually say, in the way you’d actually say it. Then, if necessary, explain out what the phrase means, adding any additional background information that would be necessary to help an uninitiated imaginary listener understand what’s going on in that phrase. 

Every reader gets enthusiastically clapped up before the next reader is called on!

Unpacking

Along the way, ask yourselves: What does the text say? What does the text mean? And what might the Rabbis have been trying to tell us in saying what they said in the way in which they said it? Beyond the surface content of the text, what might the text be conveying on a meta level about how you, as the learner, are being taught to see the tradition and how it works? How does the text affect how you see yourself as a leader and your role vis-à-vis the received tradition and the future of Judaism? How is your process of learning this text helping you gain insight into yourself and the world around you?

3 | CHAZARA

WHAT IS CHAZARA?

  • The process of reviewing a text, in chevruta, to complete understanding and deep ownership
  • A diagnostic process designed to help you understand what you thought you understood but really don’t, and where your gaps in understanding are
  • The process of you becoming the text

HOW DOES CHAZARA WORK?

It’s all about chazara! This is where the magic happens. Chazara serves, first and foremost, to help you diagnose where the weak points in your understanding of the text are, and then to deepen your understanding of the text beyond where you even realized it could have been deepened! This is where the text’s molecules and your molecules come together. This is where you try to gain complete clarity of understanding (which, of course, will always be temporary and enhanced the next time you learn the text). Here’s where you come to own the text, and own the tradition! Without chazara, text study can actually reinforce a sense of powerlessness. If you don’t achieve absolute clarity on the meaning of the text and how each word means what it means—which can only happen through chazarathe teacher will remain the only one in true possession of a) the text, b) most of the “smart ideas” about what the text is saying, and c) the tradition itself. 

  • Read inside/outside: While looking at the text, the stronger chevruta (let’s call them chevruta a) goes first, reading out loud through the text, phrase by phrase, with proper phrasing and pronunciation, and translating both “inside” and “outside,” talking out any necessary explanatory or background information as if teaching the material to an uninitiated listener. Partner (b) should monitor and check very carefully and correct any mistakes immediately and be listening for any “rote” translations that are not actually deeply understood by chevruta (a). Switch roles: Now chevruta (b) does the same thing while chevruta (a) monitors and corrects. Note: At the end of this step, both (a) and (b) should understand every individual word, inside and outside, and as many details about each word and phrase as their Hebrew level will allow. See p. 6 of SVARA’s Bet Midrash Reference Guide, “What It Means to Own a Text.”
  • Talk it out: Chevruta (a) should close their masechet and talk out the text, in English, from memory (without looking at the text at all), in a good, colloquial outside translation, but staying fairly close to the inside translation, moving through the text phrase by phrase, sentence by sentence, to make sure they’re not missing any nuance of the text’s “moves.” The translation should follow the original words of the text closely enough that your chevruta should be able to know, at every point, where you are in the text. Chevruta (b) should be careful to monitor whether they think chevruta (a) really gets it or may not, at every given point. If chevruta (b) suspects there may be a gap or misunderstanding in chevruta (a)’s understanding, they should ask for clarification from chevruta (a). Remember: You are responsible for your chevruta’s learning! And they are responsible for yours. Switch roles. Now chevruta (b) does the same thing, while chevruta (a) monitors. 
  • Recite from memory: Chevruta (a) then starts the memorization/internalization part of chazara, reciting the text out, in the original Hebrew/Aramaic (without translating), still without looking at the text. You are now producing the text, from within yourself, from your deep understanding of it. This is not a rote recitation. The text will be naturally emerging from inside of you, because you know every move the text makes and you understand how each move leads to the next and can reproduce it! As soon as a mistake is made, even the most minor mistake in pronunciation or forgotten prefix, chevruta (b) should correct you by simply saying correctly the word which was mispronounced or missed, and send you “Back to the top!” to begin reciting again, from the beginning. This “Back to the top!” step is very important in the internalization process. Student (a) is not finished until they can recite the entire section perfectly, and without error. Remember: memorization is primarily a means to an end (deep, integrated understanding), not an end in itself (the ability to rattle off a lot of words). Switch roles. Now chevruta (b) goes through the same process of recitation from memory with (a) monitoring.

4 | RECITATION

WHAT IS RECITATION?

  • Sharing, out loud, the text you’ve come to own—in the original, in perfect rendition of the original but voiced through you
  • The last step of the chazara process 
  • The first thing that happens in each shiur before the new material is unpacked

HOW DOES RECITATION WORK?

Recitation is always the last step of the chazara process done in chevruta. But a typical shiur at SVARA always begins with a selection of students being called on, one at a time, to recite the material they mastered during chazara. After each student recites, the room explodes into boisterous applause!