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.
WHAT IS 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!
WHAT IS SHIUR?
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.
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.
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!
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?
WHAT IS CHAZARA?
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 chazara—the 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.
WHAT IS RECITATION?
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!