Welcome to the Bet Midrash
This portal should have all of the goodies you need as we navigate our online learning together! Use the menu on the left to help you find what you’re looking for.
Dates & Time: Mondays, Feb. 13 – May 1 | 8:00-10:00 PM ET | 7:00-9:00 PM CT | 5:00-7:00 PM PT
Off for Purim on March 6 and Pesach on April 10
Teacher: Jess Belasco
Fairy: Lonnie Kleinman
Zoom Link: Access shiur here! (Meeting ID: 833 8341 6775)
Course Type: Chevruta Plus
About the Text: The Rabbis lived in a world full of natural perils and oppressive empires (sound familiar?). As such, they were no strangers to suffering. How did they understand the relationship between their suffering and their experience of spirituality? How might we challenge, extend, and nuance this relationship? When, if ever, do we accept that suffering is just miserable and all explanations fall flat? This course centers disability justice and other marginalized perspectives, and our enrollment process will prioritize SVARA-niks who live with disabilities and chronic illness.
If at any point you’re feeling lost or could use an extra boost, reach out to Jess. You can also grab time in fairy hours where our team is available to connect one-on-one and offer support for your learning or whatever’s on your mind.
What to Expect
This shiur is specifically designed to support you in deepening your practice of learning in chevruta. As such, you and your chevruta will meet for a spacious chunk of time before each shiur to prepare the material for the upcoming session (SVARA-style, of course! For a reminder about SVARA-method learning and the steps you and your chevruta should take, check out “How to Learn SVARA-Style”). When we meet for our shiur, we’ll unpack the text, and then you’ll bring those insights back into your chevruta for chazarah, then move on to the new material.
Here’s a reminder about the flow of our learning:
- CHEVRUTA (PREP): You and your chevruta schedule a time to meet regularly for approximately 1.5 hours to prepare the material for the upcoming shiur. Remember: you and your chevruta are just making best guesses! There’s no need to come to shiur with an understanding of the text! That’s what shiur is for.
- SHIUR: In our shiur, we’ll unpack the text, building our collective understanding of what each of the words mean, and what they mean together.
- CHEVRUTA (CHAZARA on previous material + PREP new material): In your next chevruta session, you’ll start your time with chazara (review) where you’ll go back into the text from shiur to work on your understanding of it, and begin to internalize it to the point of memorization. You’ll then prep the new material!
- SHIUR: Before unpacking the new text, we’ll have a chance to encounter the material we’ve internalized one more time through recitations.
- And the cycle goes on and on!
Questions? Comments? Confusions? Hit up Fairy Hours here to connect with a Fairy or Faculty member to help you and your chevruta get unstuck.
What You’ll Need
Our Talmud Text
We will be learning from masechet Berakhot 5a/b. We’ll provide you with a full masechet if you do not have one already and with enlarged copies of the daf upon request. Additionally, a digital copy of our daf is available in this portal. We recommend learning from printed materials whenever possible—whether that is a full printed masechet or a print-out of the digital daf.
If you have any questions about accessing printed learning materials, please be in touch with Nat.
There are two dictionaries necessary for doing the work of this bet midrash:
- a “Jastrow”—Dictionary of the Targumim, Talmud Bavli, Talmud Yerushalmi and Midrashic Literature, by Marcus Jastrow.
- a “Frank”—The Practical Talmud Dictionary, by Yitzhak Frank.
Both these dictionaries were recently unavailable, but we are thrilled that they are back in print!
The Jastrow Dictionary is essential for your learning. You can find this dictionary at your local Jewish bookstore, or order online directly from the publisher. Used copies are also often available but, please note that the Jastrow Dictionary you’re looking for has about 1,700 pages. (There is a shorter truncated version which is not useful for Talmud study—Steer clear!)
The Jastrow is unfortunately printed in a small and somewhat fuzzy typeface. Below you will find information about Jastrow accessibility and two ways to access the Jastrow dictionary online.
In addition to Jastrow, you will need the Frank Dictionary. You can order the Frank dictionary from your local Jewish bookstore, or directly from the publisher. Since this dictionary is only just back in print, we will provide excerpts of any required entries. However, we strongly encourage getting a copy ASAP!
Jastrow Accessibility and Online Versions
Many of our learners and teachers use a Magnabrite magnifying glass to help increase the size and clarity of the printing. We also recommend this magnifier with two flat edges, which can fit in closer to the inner binding of a book. Some folks find the online versions of the dictionary more accessible for various reasons. Below is information about two online editions:
- Option #1 is the Tyndale Archive Jastrow Dictionary. This is a complete scan of the printed dictionary. You can find your dictionary entry by selecting the first letter of the word you are looking up and then selecting the first word on the page that will contain your entry. You can enlarge the scanned pages of this dictionary by using the interfaces built-in enlargement tools which are available in the page header. Some benefits of using this option include that it feels more like the book—if your chevruta is using a printed dictionary, you will be looking at the exact same thing and can share page numbers, and you will reinforce learning the order of the alef bet.
- Option #2 is Jastrow on Sefaria. With this option you can type the root or word you are looking for into a search box (via the onscreen Hebrew keyboard) and jump directly to an entry. You may need to scroll backward and forward from there because there can be multiple entries for the same term. Sefaria includes a built-in function to adjust the font size which you can access by selecting the “Aא” button on the upper right side of the page. Some benefits of using this option are that the digitized text is clearer than the Tyndale Archive’s scans and Sefaria is compatible with screen reader technology. Some challenges are that it is harder to get on the “same page” as your chevruta (there are no page numbers), and sometimes the search function takes you to unexpected places.
Only you know what you need in order to learn best! We’ve found that having printed materials and a hard copy of the Jastrow dictionary is supportive for many folks, especially as a contrast to our learning online, and we encourage you to try this if it’s accessible to you.
If purchasing dictionaries or a magnifying glass is beyond your means, please be in touch with Olivia.
A Computer With…
To participate in shiur most fully, you will need a computer with high-speed internet access capable of supporting video conferencing. Shiur will be hosted on Zoom—we recommend downloading Zoom’s free software (Zoom Client for Meetings) for the smoothest experience. If you are unfamiliar with Zoom, check out Zoom tips!
Other Learning Materials
The other learning materials you will need for this Bet Midrash, including the Hint Sheet, Supplemental Texts, and reference works will become available through this portal and will be mailed to you in paper copy. 20-point font materials will be available in paper copy upon request at registration and will be available in this portal.
SVARA envisions a future in which liberatory expressions of Judaism equip individuals and communities to realize a just and healed world. As a learning community, we hold ourselves to a set of cultural norms to help shape a bet midrash experience that enables each person to be fully present, supported, and nurtured.
We know that building a culture that is responsive, healing, and connective is not static work. And just as we approach our time in the bet midrash as a space to practice liberatory learning, we know the work of creating a community that is growthful takes time and practice. We hold the wisdom of bell hooks in our commitment to keep striving:
“The classroom, with all its limitations, remains a location of possibility. In that field of possibility we have the opportunity to labor for freedom, to demand of ourselves and our comrades, an openness of mind and heart that allows us to face reality even as we collectively imagine ways to move beyond boundaries, to transgress. This is education as the practice of freedom.”
Thank you for your partnership in growing this incredible movement, for holding us accountable to our actions, and for your commitment to holding these community norms as they evolve over time.
We understand our project as queer in our effort to move towards a more just, inclusive and accessible world in which all people are able to live out their most fully human lives by allowing the insights of those on the margins to be brought to bear on the world.
Queerness is about thinking, living, and learning in radical ways. It is about challenging society’s norms not only related to gender and sexuality, but also more broadly challenging the silences and injustices around us, while creating subversive, brave, joyful culture that celebrates who we are. Like Jewish insight, queer insight is drawn from the experience of being on the margins and the wisdom gained from it. We believe that in their creativity, resilience, and radicalism, the Rabbis of the Talmud were queer. The innovators of the Jewish future will be queer. To be deeply Jewish is to be queer.
There are folks in our batei midrash with many different identities, and we are committed to making sure that everyone feels comfortable bringing their most dazzling, embodied, fabulous queer selves into the room. We invite you to bring the full range of your experiences and identities to the learning, something queer folks are rarely invited to do in Jewish community. We also welcome allies, and are grateful for their self-awareness and humility while engaging with queer culture and participating in queer-normative space. We ask that you:
- share your pronouns and take care to respect the pronouns of everyone in the space
- don’t ask someone about their identity and experience without their consent
- honor the names that folks use no matter what
- share what you’re comfortable with about your identity and honor others’ self-determination as well.
- changes to names and/or pronouns, for any reason, are welcomed and respected.
Throughout history, the Talmud has been accessible to just 1% of Jews. We believe in expanding the Talmud’s teaching to the other 99%, and we commit to ensuring accessibility in the bet midrash for all people who are seeking to learn.
All of our online programming includes:
- live captioning
- ample breaks to help reduce screen fatigue
- low teacher-student ratios
- materials that are compatible with screen readers
When we are in person, we utilize venues that meet or exceed ADA requirements and allow full access to folks who use scooters, wheelchairs, and other mobility tools, and we seek out locations that are easily accessible by public transportation.
We invite participants to share specific access needs with us in all of our registration processes and do our best to support our learners by designing an environment that works for them. Identities and access needs shared privately with the staff will never be shared outside of SVARA’s administrative team and immediate teaching team, and anything shared internally is on a need-to-know basis. All participants are expected to show the same level of discretion when their peers share personal information.
As a general rule, we invite each person to reflect on the ways in which we occupy positions of privilege, as opposed to asking those who are in a marginalized group to explain their oppression. These kinds of inquiries may be experienced as intrusive, insensitive, misguided, or hurtful – so be mindful before asking questions.
If you feel uncomfortable with the way another participant is engaging in the space, please reach out to a staff person privately to let them know. The SVARA bet midrash is, in its most powerful moments, a healing space and we ask everyone to treat each other with kindness and love.
We stive to be an anti-racist space, which we understand to mean one that is actively working to dismantle white supremacy culture and lift up the voices and insights of Black people, Indigenous people, and People of Color in our community. Guided by SVARA’s Justice & Equity committee we are committed to:
- donating 1% of our earned income each year to organizations and projects that lift up and center BIPOC identities
- building and deepening relationships with BIPOC SVARA-niks and members of the broader queer Jewish community to develop a pipeline of folks joining our learning community, the Teaching Kollel, and SVARA’s board
- creating a protocol for addressing racist acts and speech if and when they arise in our programs or through interpersonal interactions in our spaces
- creating a safety and security plan with built-in alternatives to policing that we will put into action when we gather again in person
- reviewing and updating our hiring practices to ensure that they are anti-racist and liberatory
- ongoing assessment and advanvancements to SVARA’s culture, policies, and programming
SVARA is a home for queer and radical Torah, and we are committed to building a culture where we are all students and teachers to each other. We strive to create an environment of mutual respect, where a myriad of voices and perspectives are welcome. We believe that words create worlds, and we commit to thoughtful speech with integrity. We invite you to play an active role in manifesting this commitment by:
- holding a posture of curiosity when encountering something new or uncomfortable
- listening to understand rather than listening to respond
- using a “yes, and” framework to add to conversation & learning
- noticing when you’re talking more than others and thoughtfully choosing where you might offer your voice (take space / make space)
- showing respect for the person sharing while challenging the idea being shared
- striving not to deliberately or inadvertently undermine, disrespect, or dehumanize another person’s identity or experience
- reaching out to a staff member when in need of resources about unfamiliar identities and experiences
Inevitably, there are moments where we let one another down, misstep, misspeak, hurt others, or get hurt ourselves. This is part of the deal when building community (not to mention when just being human!), and it can get messy. Harm can happen on multiple levels and we are here to nurture a community where it’s okay to own mistakes and work towards repairing them. While we always strive to reach resolutions that lead to an ongoing relationship with SVARA, we reserve the right to restrict people from learning with us for a given period of time or, in some cases, indefinitely, as they move through a teshuva process.
Harm from Surfacing Past Events
- We welcome you to the bet midrash in your current context, as the person you are today. And we also recognize that each of us brings a personal history to SVARA—some aspects that we’re proud of and some aspects that we wish we could have done differently. Even as we attempt to make SVARA as safe a space as possible, there may be times that the struggles someone else brings to the table will be difficult for you or create an issue for you. If you are triggered by something in another participant’s past, we invite you to reach out to a staff member for support.
Harm Between Participants in the Present Moment
- If you experience harm or are concerned you may have harmed someone else, please reach out to a staff member for support. We’re here to listen, to support processes of transformative repair whenever possible, and to remind you all that you’re human and humans make mistakes. We might invite you to engage in a process of teshuva, the Jewish spiritual practice of acknowledging and repairing harm and asking for forgiveness (invented by our oh-so-queer talmudic ancestors!), and are happy to talk you through how that could work.
Harm Between Participants and SVARA’s Staff, Faculty, or Fairies
- Our team is committed to embodying the steps of transformative repair that we ask of our community and we take your feedback and trust seriously. We are always open to direct feedback about any ways in which we may have caused or perpetuated harm in our learning spaces. If you experience harm in the bet midrash from a staff member or teacher, and feel that it’s too challenging for whatever reason to engage the person directly, please reach out to Ayana or Becky (our executive director and board chair, respectively) who can help guide you through next steps. Your feedback to Ayana or Becky will remain confidential unless you request otherwise, and you are welcome to request that your feedback be offered to a staff person or teacher anonymously.
Throughout history, the Talmud has been accessible to just 1% of Jews. We believe in expanding the Talmud’s teaching to the other 99%, and we commit to ensuring accessibility in the bet midrash for all people who are seeking to learn.
We invite you to share specific access needs with us in all of our registration processes, and we’ll do our best to incorporate your requests as much as possible to ensure that the bet midrash is an environment that supports your learning.
Below, you will find the latest accessibility systems we are using to support our online learning. We know that systems don’t always work, or fail to live up to their greatest dreamiest potential. If something isn’t going right for you in a learning space, please be in touch with your fairies, your facilitator, Elaina, or Olivia, SVARA’s point people for supporting access needs.
Access Information for Online Shiurim
We learn for 1.5-2 hours at a time on Zoom. There is a break scheduled for all learners during 2-hour shiurim. At all times, you are welcome to sit, stand, lay down, stretch, get a snack, drink some water, and take breaks according to your own needs. Please do what you need to do to take care of your body and yourself!
Feel free to turn your video on/off as needed throughout the session. While you are encouraged to have your video on during shiur, we honor that at times learners may need to have their cameras off. You always have the option of declining to read when you’re called on, and teachers will not call on you if you have your video off unless you have previously notified the teacher otherwise.
All full-group learning will be live-captioned by our captioning team, and all Zoom rooms support automatic integrated live-captioning. At various moments throughout our sessions, we may make use of breakout groups for chevruta (one-on-one learning) and smaller group discussion spaces of 3-6 people. Upon registration, you will be asked if you would like your chevruta and breakout groups to be captioned by one of the members of our captioning team.
All shiurim provide instructions for using Zoom, as well as options for increasing contrast and font size on your screen.
We have large-print copies of materials available to send along with printed materials. If you would like enlarged printed materials, please indicate this on your registration form and we will send them to you. Many students also choose to use a magnifying glass to read small print texts—we recommend the Magnabrite Magnifier.
Each shiur session will have an online learning portal with all bet midrash materials available digitally. Materials will be available in 13-point font, 20-point font, and in Google Doc formats compatible with screen reader technology and other formatting options.
After each session, we will upload recordings of the session, along with the Hebrew/Aramaic pronunciation of the text covered and inside/outside translations of the text onto the Class Portal.
There are two dictionaries that you will use when learning Talmud in the original at SVARA (or anywhere else!): a “Jastrow,” and a “Frank.” Below you will find descriptions for how to access these dictionaries.
A “Jastrow”—Dictionary of the Targumim, Talmud Bavli, Talmud Yerushalmi and Midrashic Literature, by Marcus Jastrow
You can access this dictionary in a printed bound book, or online. Only you know what you need in order to learn best! We encourage when possible to use printed and paper materials and recommend, if accessible to you, a paper copy of the Jastrow dictionary.
About the printed Jastrow Dictionary:
- The typeface in printed editions of the Jastrow Dictionary is quite small. Many of our learners and teachers use a Magnabrite magnifying glass to help increase the size and clarity of the printing. You can find these magnifiers here!
- Some folks find the online versions of the dictionary more accessible for various reasons. Below is information about the various online editions:
About the online Jastrow Dictionary:
The Jastrow dictionary is available online in several forms. We recommend the following two options:
- Option #1 is the Tyndale Archive Jastrow Dictionary. This is a complete scan of the printed dictionary. You can find your dictionary entry by the first letter of the word you are looking up and then selecting the first word on the page that will contain your entry. You can enlarge the scanned pages of this dictionary by using the interface’s built-in enlargement tools which are available in the page header. Some benefits of using this option include that it feels more like the book – if your chevruta is using a printed dictionary, you will be looking at the exact same thing and can share page numbers, and you will reinforce learning the order of the alef bet.
- Option #2 is the Jastrow Dictionary on Sefaria. With this option you can type the root or word you are looking for into a search box (via the onscreen Hebrew keyboard) and jump directly to an entry. You may need to scroll backward and forward from there because there can be multiple entries for the same term. Sefaria includes a built-in function to adjust the font size which you can access by selecting the “Aא” button on the upper right side of the page. Some benefits of using this option are that the digitized text is clearer than the Tyndale Archive’s scans and Sefaria is compatible with screen reader technology. Some challenges are that it is harder to get on the “same page” as your chevruta (there are no page numbers), and sometimes the search function takes you to unexpected places.
A “Frank”—Practical Talmud Dictionary, by Yitzhak Frank
A note about the “Frank”: It has come to our attention that this dictionary is currently not in print and finding a copy of a Frank might be difficult. We will ensure that any entries that are relevant to your learning will be scanned and placed on the portal for you to use during this class.
If purchasing dictionaries or a magnifying glass is beyond your means, please be in touch with Olivia.
No one will be turned away for lack of funds: during the registration process, you will be asked to identify the tuition amount that you would like to pay. All classes have a sliding scale tuition structure. If the tuition scale remains prohibitive, you will be offered the opportunity to make a meaningful contribution that is right-sized for your budget. You will be asked to choose a tuition or contribution amount in step two of SVARA’s two-step enrollment process.
Payment options include the opportunity to pay all at once or in a 2- or 3-installment pay plan.
If you have any other needs for making your learning experience with SVARA accessible, please don’t hesitate to reach out to us. We’re learning more each day about how to make online learning more accessible, and we’re grateful to everyone who shares feedback and ideas!
How to change your name
Hover your mouse over your own video feed and click the ⋯ button in the top right corner. Select ‘rename’ and type your name as you would like it to appear. Add your pronouns if you’d like after your name.
Gallery and speaker view
There are two views available in every zoom meeting and you can toggle between them whenever you want. Speaker view enlarges the video of whoever is speaking at the time and switches between speakers as new people begin speaking. (If you want to stick with one person’s feed, even when new people start speaking, see the next tip.) Gallery view shows up to 25 meeting participants in a grid of video feeds. If more than 25 people are in the session, you can scroll between different subsets of participants.
When in speaker view you can switch to gallery view by clicking the speaker view button in the top right corner of the zoom window. When in gallery view you can switch to speaker view by clicking the gallery view button in the top right corner of the zoom window.
Pin a video
The faculty will sometimes use physical whiteboards to present ideas in shiur. If you would like to stay with their video feeds even when other participants are speaking, you can pin their video by hovering your mouse over their video feed, click the ⋯ button in the top right corner, and select ‘pin video’.
Hide your own video
If you want to stop seeing your own video feed, hover your mouse over your own video feed, click the ⋯ button in the top right corner, and select ‘Hide Self View’. Note well: Hiding self-view keeps your camera on and other participants will still be able to see you. If you want to turn your video feed off for everyone, turn off your video.
Turn off your video
In the toolbar at the bottom of the screen, click ‘stop video’.
Turning on closed captioning
Closed captioning will be available throughout our shiurim. To turn on captioning, select the CC button from the toolbar at the bottom of the window.
Unfortunately, chat notifications interfere visually with the closed captioning. To avoid this challenge, click the chat button in the toolbar to open the chat feed in a side panel, and thereby shut off the notifications.
Increase the size of the chat and captions
Step 1: Log into zoom and hit your profile icon in the top right corner
Step 2: From the drop down menu that will pop up, select ‘Settings.’
Step 3: Select the “Accessibility” settings at the end of the list
Step 4: Move the slider to adjust the closed captions size. Below the sample closed captions, you can choose how big you’d like your chat to be.
Bonus: While on a zoom call, click the chat box as if you were going to write a message. If on a mac: hold down the “command” key and then hit the “+” key to increase the chat font size or “-” to decrease! If on a PC: hold down the “ctrl” key and then hit the “+” key to increase the chat font size or “-” to decrease.
Controlling the size of a screen share
Facilitators will periodically use ‘screen share’ to share important information with you in writing. Screen share produces a split-screen effect in which you will see the shared content on the left pane and the speaker’s video feed on the right. You can control the size of these two panes by clicking the center of the bar separating the two panes and dragging left or right.
Text Breakdown and Recording
In this bet midrash we will learn a sugya from Berakhot 5a/b. The session-by-session text breakdown below is provided to help you find your place as you prepare our text. The magic of our learning happens with your chevruta—please prepare each passage below together in advance of the session for which it is assigned.
Recordings of our shiurim and of our text being read and translated will be added below after each session.
Assignment prior to first session:
In this first chevruta meeting, my goal is to support you in getting to know each other and in establishing the beginnings of a mutually supportive chevruta relationship for this zman. In this class especially, we’ll be dealing both with the technicalities of learning text, and with challenging discussion topics related to spirituality and suffering. Your chevruta relationship will, of course, unfold over time, but I’d like to help you get started by offering some topics for you to discuss before our first class meeting.
- On a text-learning level, what needs, hopes, and/or previous experiences are you entering with? What might help support your learning in this chevruta space? What are your learning priorities?
- On a topical level, we all enter this discussion about spirituality and suffering carrying different life experiences, orientations, and traumas. Is there anything that you want your chevruta to know or hold, at the outset, about how you’re entering this conversation? Are there any boundaries you want to set?
In this class, as you obviously know, we’ll be delving into and feeling through the nuances of the relationship between spirituality and suffering. One term that often gets thrown around in conversations like this is “theodicy,” which is philosophical shorthand for “the problem of evil” or “why bad things happen to good people.” I’m going to use the term “theodicy” occasionally because it’s an easy way to refer to this question, though to be clear, I personally have lots of ambivalence about that term! On that note, I’d love for you and your chevruta to discuss:
- What are you carrying from conversations about “theodicy” (whether or not that specific term was used) that you’ve been in before?
- Is there anything you’re curious about or interested in changing — in how those conversations have felt, been framed, etc.?
- Finally, here’s a brief text assignment! Our sugya will center on the word יסורין (“yisurin”), which is often translated as “sufferings.” I’d like you to take a Jastrow dive into this word — the root is י.ס.ר. Take some time to explore the universe of meanings inside of and related to י.ס.ר (if you can, you may want to check out the related roots ס.ו.ר and א.ס.ר). What possible meanings can you find, and how might these meanings help us explore and nuance our understanding of יסורין?
Our sugya begins on Berakhot 5a.
יכול אפילו לא קבלם מאהבה תלמוד לומר אם תשים אשם נפשו מה אשם לדעת אף יסורין לדעת
ואם קבלם מה שכרו יראה זרע יאריך ימים ולא עוד אלא שתלמודו מתקיים בידו שנאמר וחפץ ה׳ בידו יצלח
פליגי בה רבי יעקב בר אידי ורבי אחא בר חנינא חד אמר אלו הם יסורין של אהבה כל שאין בהן בטול תורה שנאמר אשרי הגבר אשר תיסרנו יה ומתורתך תלמדנו
וחד אמר אלו הן יסורין של אהבה כל שאין בהן בטול תפלה שנאמר ברוך אלהים אשר לא הסיר תפלתי וחסדו מאתי
אמר רבי יוחנן נגעים ובנים אינן יסורין של אהבה ונגעים לא והתניא כל מי שיש בו אחד מארבעה מראות נגעים הללו אינן אלא מזבח כפרה
מזבח כפרה הוו יסורין של אהבה לא הוו ואי בעית אימא הא לן והא להו ואי בעית אימא הא בצנעא הא בפרהסיא
We will review the follow section together in shiur.
ובנים לא היכי דמי אילימא דהוו להו ומתו והא אמר רבי יוחנן דין גרמא דעשיראה ביר אלא הא דלא הוו ליה כלל והא דהוו ליה ומתו
In this session we will skip forward to daf 5b.
רבי חייא בר אבא חלש על לגביה רבי יוחנן אמר ליה חביבין עליך יסורין אמר ליה לא הן ולא שכרן אמר ליה הב לי ידך יהב ליה ידיה ואוקמיה
רבי יוחנן חלש על לגביה רבי חנינא אמר ליה חביבין עליך יסורין אמר ליה לא הן ולא שכרן אמר ליה הב לי ידך יהב ליה ידיה ואוקמיה אמאי לוקים רבי יוחנן לנפשיה אמרי אין חבוש מתיר עצמו מבית האסורים
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.
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?
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 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.
- 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!
Fairies are a beautiful part of the SVARA bet midrash. These folks are here to support the teaching and learning within our community and serve as wisdom-givers and text-wranglers.
If you have a question or need some encouragement, grab some one-on-one (or two-on-one) time with a fairy or faculty member from the list below! Let them help you (and your chevruta) get unstuck in a text, talk Talmud, or just chat about whatever is coming up in your learning.