Matzav Inbox: He Doesn’t Learn Gemara Well. So He’s a Loser?

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Dear [email protected],

Yesterday’s Matzav Inbox letter was oh so painful to read. And oh so true.

I’d like to comment on one part of the letter about the cookie-cutter nature of most of our mosdos.

Let me talk about boys.

It is a sad reality that in many yeshivas today, a boy who struggles to learn Gemara, or has no interest in learning, feels like a failure. This is a harmful and outdated mentality that needs to be addressed.

Everyone has different strengths and weaknesses, and it is important to recognize and celebrate the unique abilities of each individual.

Unfortunately, our system doesn’t do that.

A boy in 6th, 7th, and 8th grade who doesn’t learn Gemara well, or doesn’t learn much altogether, gets a message that he’s a loser. It’s no wonder that many of these boys just decide to leave the system altogether. After all, their school, rabbeim and menahelim have basically told them that they will not amount to anything.

It is the responsibility of yeshivas to create an environment that promotes individuality and self-worth, rather than one that only values a narrow definition of success.

Gemara is one aspect of a yeshiva education and Yiddishkeit, and it should not be viewed as the sole determinant of one’s success as a Yid. Every individual is unique and may have different talents and interests, which should be respected and nurtured. A student who may not excel in Gemara can still be a dedicated and devout Yid through other pursuits.

It is the responsibility of educators, parents, and community leaders to foster an environment that values and supports all youngsters for who they are, and to recognize that true success and growth comes from embracing and developing one’s unique kochos and talents.

Name Withheld

Lakewood, NJ



  1. It is not so simple as you say. Sure, schools should, and many do create an atmosphere of working with the unique strengths of each child. Our schools do a phenomenal job of tracking and working with each child. I don’t know if you have been inside our schools, but they do amazing work.

    Secondly, you write: “A student who may not excel in Gemara can still be a dedicated and devout Yid through other pursuits.” Maybe they can, but most often they don’t. And that is because the whole Yiddishkeit is based off the Torah. Nowadays, if someone has no connection or interest in Torah, they will have a very difficult time having a connection to Yiddishkeit in general.

    Much has already been written on this topic, and there is no need to write it again.

    • 1) Yes, A yeshivas ikkur pursuit is to train boys in gemara (which is the yesod of talmud torah).
      Don’t obfuscate the unfortunate feeling that comes with failure with the intent of the one aiming for success.
      additionally, gemara is hardly the only area where those not good can feel like loosers.. ever heard of SPORTS?
      3) No one is contending that learning gemara is the ikkur of being a yid. Yirah and ahavas Hashem are.
      BUT, the main way to get there is through ameilus b’torah, which while for MOST would be toil in gemarah, still, that ameilus is NOT davka Gemarah.
      4) while some DO have a challenge with learning gemara, many who arent “good at gemara” have no problem in ability, rather their problem is interest.
      Conclusion: The derech of Hatzlacha in being a yid for the rabbim is thorough excelling in Gemarah, and that is why Yeshivos are geared for that. There ARE Yeshivos, and perhaps there should be more, that cater to those who need a different track. SO no, Yeshivos are doing EXACTLY as they should. The fact that there needs to be other places for those who arent able, notwithstanding.

  2. I’m disappointed to see matzav post such a letter.
    Gemora is a basic staple of every Jewish male who is healthy and able to learn anything at all.
    The halachic status of Talmud Bavli is ‘ Mishna ‘ because as the Mechaber and Shach Y”D 246:4 explains, Talmud is only attributed to a level of learning that renders a through and comprehensive understanding whereas ‘ Mishna ‘ is the simple scholastic knowledge of what was said in the text.
    Helping boys aquire the skills to become independent in ‘ Talmud ‘ is the principal purpose of Yeshiva today and always has been.
    Parents who blame the challenges their kids face on the emphasis on excellence in ‘ Talmud ‘ are mistaken about what our religion is about on a basic level.
    These views do not belong on matzav and truly anywhere in the Orthodox Jewish community. I’m truly disappointed in you guys for giving this sadly misguided view a platform and promulgating ideas that are contrary to the Jewish Hashkafa.

  3. To the letter writer: Your letter could’ve been written by me. I don’t know if you’re writing as a rebbe or a parent (or both) but I agree 100% with what you wrote. Thank you.

  4. He will remain an עם הארץ. Learning is actually the most important thing, and if he is unable or unwilling to, he will be ignorant of the Torah. That is the truth. So in a certain sense he is a failure. The excuse that he “is not cut out for learning” is brought down and demolished by Chazal. (Eliyahu met a fisherman….. look it up) The world was created for Torah. The Soton fought with Yaakov because “He is happy if you say tehilllim and daven and do chessed a whole entire day, as long as you don’t learn” so the yeshivos are doing what they are designed to do. Maybe teach the kids a little secular education and they won’t be “snapping” and will have a cheshek.

    • I learned in Brisk for three years and kollel for over ten years. I’m probably a lot more yeshivish than 90% of the yeshivish world. I still think aside for being damaging the message you are giving simply isn’t true from a Torah haskafa.

      Simple question: If what you are saying is true then how do you explain the many places in Chazal where you find tanoim or amaroim who were happy to be told they will partners in Gan Eden with people who were neither Talmidey Chachomim nor wealthy major supporters of Torah?

      And the even major supporters of Torah who so much kovod is given to are frequently am haartzim.

      Eliyohu didn’t tell the fisherman to learn Gemora . Maybe he indeed couldn’t. He should have had a seder in Eyn Yaakov , Chayay Odam Chumash and Rashi. If he knew how to be a fisherman that smart I’m sure he was.

    • The vort about the Soton and Yaakov is allegedly coming from the Chofetz Chaim. The Chofetz Chaim clearly did not think everyone is cut out for Gemora because he addresses the argument of “learning is too difficult for me to understand” by saying that if so just learn something translated into the language you speak every day.

      There was no Artscroll gemorah back then so presumably he meant some halacha or aggadta sefer with a Yiddish translation that were common in his time

  5. Like most serious problems this is a problem without a simple solution.

    If everything is valid, then most people are going to do whatever is easier. Therefore Yeshivas don’t have the option of heavily stressing Hashem’s value for everyone. Including those who aren’t capable of learning Gemora or for many hours.

    Making Mosdos for those who aren’t cut out for gemorah and long hours usually ends up as making mosdos for those who aren’t so interested in Yiddishkeit to begin with and not places for those who are fine and erlich but just not cut out for so many hours of learning or learning Gemorah.

    The parents of a boy not cut out for learning need to heavily stress how much he can still accomplish and how much value he still has. The mosdos have more difficulty doing so

  6. Unfortunately it only gets worse. As one continues on to bais medrash and kollel Gemara gets dropped for rishonim and acharonim that are harder to understand especially for someone who gets distracted easily and can’t grasp the concepts.

  7. FACT: Our Yeshivahs push students into Gemara too young and too soon.

    FACT: Our Yeshivahs push students into Gemara without enough Tanach and Mishnah.

    FACT: This is done to help the reputation of the Yeshivah, and so parents can “kvell”.

    FACT: Learning the entire Gemara, even many times, will not give you the Halachah.

    FACT: The Halachah is determined by the Shulchan Aruch, not the Gemara.

    FACT: Rambam and Shulchan Aruch are much easier to learn than Gemara.


    FACT: Most European Jews were members of the Chevrah Mishnah, not Gemara.

    • FACT 1: They push them into it, they teach it in their classrooms- Gemara can be learned on a level that is easy and hard- it can be even made easier than 2nd grade common core math– the word Gemara shouldn’t frighten people.

      FACT 2: Students have a few hours a day, in a classroom, to learn- every Rebbe tries his best to give over as much as he possible can- Torah is not a “subject” it is our life- this is why it takes longer to cover than just rushing through the entire Tanach by the time a child is 10 these days— then, the children are able to learn Gemara, developing their skill and cheishek, and there is limited time for the other Torah subjects, which is why Tanach is not spent enough time on.

      FACT 3: This sounds like a falsehood, based on an element of truth that is present in all situations- people like having a good reputation, and parents like thinking their kids are amazing– at the same time—- teaching Gemara to kids produces articles like this, and in any event- this is such a blanket statement that encompasses the entire Am Yisroel- as such, I’m not sure who to defend first–I guess I can just say this- if what they are doing is correct, then this is just saying that they’re not doing it lishmo- so I guess I would say it depends who but most have some Lishmo too, although they are definitely rightly proud of their accomplishments

      FACT 4: I’m not enough of an expert to delve too deep into this subject (and don’t rely on my explanation in this area as it is surely faulty), but there is no question that Gemara is the underpinning of all Halacha (it is a continuation of the Mishna, even though the average person may not always be able to connect the Gemara to the Halacha– nonetheless- since you say more Tanach and Mishna is needed, the Gemara is an explanation on the Mishna, which is the Laws of the Torah- one has to understand Gemara to be able to apply Halacha and understand Halacha in any instance where it is not written explicitly— putting that aside- we say every morning Ailu Devorim Sheein Lahem Shiur (so it shouldn’t be something finite, rather something we are continually doing and learning), and it says- vitalmud torah kineged kulam– and vihagisa bo yomam valayla (TANACH)- learning itself is the essential component of our existence and who we are, even if it is completely irrelevant, as for example a Yisroel studying the laws of Karbonos)- Learning IS the Halacha.

      FACT 5: “FACT 4” explained much of this, but Yeshivos also have a Halacha Seder, and place a strong emphasis on this, especially for those that can handle such a seder (Dirshu does both)- additionally, Shulchan Orech is a different generation in our long chain, explaining for us that are more removed from previous generations, explaining based on the Gemara, and there are many Meforshim now that study the Shulchan Aruch, as part of limud Torah, and our Mesorah of learning and keeping Torah alive and vibrant, continues.

      FACT 6: This certainly sounds like an opinion, and there are definitely many people that find Gemara easier (It is more engaging and interactive, which is another reason many schools focus on it)– different people learn differently-to just read the words of the Rambam may be easier then delving deep into the Gemara, and vice versa- there are different ways of learning things- in any event- how easy or hard something is shouldn’t determine its importance.

      FACT 7: There is a 100% chance that that is a made up statistic. See Fact 4 for more on this—

      FACT 8: I have no idea about this, but it probably isn’t true. Regardless, it proves nothing.

  8. I have been working in our system for many years learning with the buchrem that struggle academically. I agree with the writer that these boys have no place in our system and it is extremely hard for them to succeed in being healthy individuals after being felt unworthy for so many years. Opening up a yeshiva for these boys has its problems and they don’t last.

  9. every Yid can learn well, it is the argument of the yetzer hara saying “one doesnt have a head for Gemara” in the heim in Europe things were simpler but people were more ignorant, every boy in yeshiva today should be a potential gadol hador.

    • I honestly dont know what the mosdos can do to correct this problem but at least let us correct this wrong hashkafa that yiddishkeit is all about gemara (and when boys get older, birchas shmuel). This is a lie. Not everyone can learn well and not everyone can be a godol or anywhere close. I recently chanced upon a new beautiful sefer, Noam Hashem, where the author brings sources for this and he stresses the importance of all parts of torah and how not everyone was created for the same purpose. Lets not forget that there are three עמודי עולם

  10. It’s OK. If the boy is not good at learning he can always go into Real Estate and become a billionaire and THEN all those people who put him down will come running for donations and praise him to the sky as the greatest tzaddik of our times.

  11. An issue is that we have KN’H many “top” Yeshivas and many “bottom” Yeshivas, but not that many middle of the road places where decent guy, who is well behaved in just wants to do the right thing, can go.

    The other issue is, since this is a LAKEWOOD person, I will address this to the Lakewood people. You have a major problem over there in that everyone and their son-in-law wants to be a top of the line Rosh Yeshiva. Please tell me why it is that every single kid in a class needs to have extra tutoring going down into the elementary school levels of grade 5 6 etc? What about higher up in 9th grade? Why do they need the extra tutoring, I’m talking everyone. Teach to the students don’t teach to the sky! If you want to give a Bais Medresh shiur, open a Bais Medresh. Don’t force your stupidity and laziness on high school kids. It’s hard enough to be a teenager especially in a town like Lakewood.

  12. My mechutanim are more chashuv than yours. All of my children married into name brand prestigious families. All of my aidims learnt in Brisk, the real Brisk.

  13. Thank you for writing this letter. I moved to Lakewood a few years ago and this is “so” true. I would not say it’s only in Lakewood, but this is simply what I see. Here, even pirchei, in many shuls, is considered bittul Torah! I am disappointed because I see so many former talmidim of Lakewood yeshivos who have left the fold. Many girls, as well. When you struggle with learning in many of the yeshivos in Lakewood, you are ostracized, meant to feel that you are worthless, and with nothing else to build your self esteem, you turn to bad things that will give you small satisfaction that goes away quickly. When I was young, I , too, struggled. Because of the live and support of my parents, I survived the yeshiva system, learned to be independent and learn on my own. Despite the fact that I am 70 years old, I still don’t have confidence in my learning, even though I can and do learn. I think that we, as a community, together with daas Torah , need to reassess our entire educational system, so that we can help every talmid, not just the aleph ones

  14. It’s about time for schools to focus on our children, not their egos. When asked what their school stands for, menahalim have told me “Our goal is to get our boys into top mesivtas.” I understand the need for boys to get into good mesivtas. But I’m concerned about everyone else.
    Let’s introduce a curriculum that involves all aspects of children’s interests and strengths. I understand that it’s not simple to do this when you have so many boys on many different levels. However there needs to be more diversity in the curriculum. If not, we are going to be held fully responsible for the unfortunate situation unfolding in front of our eyes where so many boys are disenchanted at best.

  15. Thank you for this article. We actually have a yeshiva in Monsey Yeshiva High School of Monsey that works with kids that are lacking in Gemara skills. We focus on making the learning geshmak with lively interaction with the rabbeim. In addition, we offer numerous incentives for just putting in an effort. We do numerous trips and various food related incentives. BH’ we have seen great success as our talmidim have moved on to high level Yeshivas in Eretz Yisroel.

  16. Ladies and Gentleman,

    The time has come to stop bashing Rebbes, Moras, or the imaginative system you are upset about. I think it is true that many students that can’t learn Gemara feel like a failure. Yet it is also true that Gemara is a central component of who we are as a people. That obviously will be at the core of any curriculum, and we are not going to give up on kids just because they don’t have a cheishek after a few words. If we believe that Torah is Machkimas Pesi then we shouldn’t give up on them at such a young age, that would be negligence. Of course, when the students get a little older, and they start to give up, I didn’t hear of shuls rejecting them- on the contrary, it is the people in Kollel and Rebbeim that aren’t appreciated enough in our society as people get older- the shift should be in the opposite direction.

    As an aside, Rebbeim and Morahs didn’t go into the Education field to make kids feel miserable. Neither did those on the administrative side. Rather, the majority of school are working day and night to help kids fit in, and be themselves within the Torah Framework and within the school’s established framework that is guided by our Mesorah.

    To give an example, if there is a class of 20 students, there is a limited amount of time that a Rebbe or Morah can give to a student. Add that to the fact that having a structured classroom, which is essential, is not that easy, and in order to have a structured classroom, it is impossible to allow all 20 students to be themselves all the time. Nonetheless, what the Rebbeim and Morah’s are doing, day after day, is doing the best they can to provide a Torah True education to everyone, and build the children up, so that they can be happy, have friends ,and have a successful future.

    All these articles on a frum new site sound like the New York Times Articles- they are out based on falsehoods, false judgements, misunderstandings, and a disrespect for the power of our Yeshivos that are flourishing.

    • ‘it is also true that Gemara is a central component of who we are as a people’

      Also true is that half of our people never opened a Gemara until the 20th century. Fortunately, thanks to Rav Soloveitchik z’tz’l, that has changed. It IS a central component and ALL Jews should learn at least some Gemara. It is just that not everyone will want to learn it all the time, nor should they be expected to.

  17. As a principal/educator for over 40 years, I fully agree with the above article. Children are on a personal journey. They learn and develop at different rates and should be respected and nurtured according to their individual abilities. Just as physical growth has spurts, learning follows suit. Believing in a child’s different abilities creates a strong self image in the child, a feeling of self worth. Expecting that the child put forth his/her best effort is all we as educators can expect. Children will eventually offer a plethora of accomplishments in so many different areas as they grow to adulthood. Hashem created people with so many varied talents and abilities. Educate the child according to his/her capabilities, always asking for just a little bit more and carefully observing whether the child can fulfill the expectation in a safe and healthy way. it is painful to watch a child struggle with impossible expectations and lose his/her confidence along the way, feeling like a failure! We are to blame if this occurs! As Rabbi Dovid Trenk says, “Just love them!” Love speaks volumes and brings out the very best in each individual child!

  18. Maybe that’s your issue in Lakewood, but here in the 5towns, the problem is just the opposite. The yeshivas don’t push for excellence and are happy with mediocrity. Boys that DO have the ability are not “pushed” accordingly, so as not to burden them. As one who didn’t enjoy or learn a word of Gemara in yeshiva and fell thru the cracks of the old time systems just going thru the motions(bist a gurnit), I can appreciate the worth the yeshivas are trying to place on the “everyone and everything is wonderful” mentality. The kids will develop into well meaning, productive balebatim who appreciate and support torah and gedolim. I get that. But if that is the only goal of a yeshiva, we are selling our kids short of their potential torah greatness.

  19. There are many chalokim of torah that are far easier than gemara and one can and must be an ehrilicher yid even if he cant learn gemara as there have been millions of such yidden in all the doros. even if it were true that Yiddishkeit is based off Torah, it is NOT based off gemara as there are many chelkei hatorah. This is modern day yeshivishe katnus hadaas and it is driving some youth away rcm”l

  20. Learning gemorah shouldnt be graded. And if a boy doesnt enjoy learning the yeshivah needs to try a different method. I’ve seen boys who were considered bad learners, switch Rebbeim and get to top of the class.

  21. In Tanach times, Yissachar specialized in full-time Torah-study,
    and Zevulun specialized in supporting Yissachar.
    Levi specialized in Avodat Beit Hamkdash and teaching Torah.
    Yehudah produced individuals who excelled in governing the nation.
    Shimon produced soferim and teachers of children.
    Reuven (and other tribes) excelled in producing fighters
    who guarded and defended the nation.

    Each of the 12 tribes contributed according to its unique talents.
    All of them were important, and all of them were respected.

    In our times, the ONLY respected roles are those of Yissachar and Zevulun.
    All of the others are considered to be worthless failures,
    and that it NOT what our Torah teaches,
    and that it NOT what our history teaches.

    This mistaken attitude was caused by our long-and-bitter exile.

    May G*D have mercy on all of us,
    and help all Jews to speedily return to the True Derech HaTorah.

    • Not quite. Back then, they all learned, too. Yissachar, however, was the elite.

      Take Shimon, for example. How exactly would Shimon be sofrim and teachers of children if they didn’t learn? Everyone learns, but the amount and depth of that learning will vary. But none simply did not learn.

      So, Shimon’s role today is certainly respected. The melamdim get communal handouts and the like that the working poor could also use but don’t get.

      Even “fighters” were not like savages CH”V. They were tzaddikim who happened to be fighters. So, obviously, they learned, too. (Lo am Haaretz chasid).

  22. If you get rid of your smartphone, your child will have a turnaround and be matzliach. As long as you hang on to your egel hazaav, your kids will remain bums.

  23. “A boy in 6th, 7th, and 8th grade who doesn’t learn Gemara well,”

    An explicit Mishnah says that Gemara study begins at age 15. Not at 11. And we have a Biblical source for adapting each young person’s education to their needs and abilities. The fault isn’t the boys; it is ours for ignoring Shlomo HaMelech and Chazal.

    It is a myth that everyone was spending all their time learning Gemara in Europe. Sefardim have never done All Gemara All The Time and a lot fewer Sefardim and Mizrachim ended up in Reform, Conservative, or nothing.

    Let’s return to what Tanakh and Chazal told us.


  24. NO ONE ADDRESSED THE ROOT OF THE PROBLEM. As I write this there are 36 comments before me. Actually I could break it down to 2 comments. One group says without gemarah a child will be a failure. Gemarah is our life. The second group says learn easier things or make the gemara easier, sweeter. As a tutor I would like to address the root of the problem.
    #1 I know I will not be able to change when a yeshiva begins gemara so I will skip #1
    #2 In most yeshivos until you begin gemara there is very little in the way of comprehension skills. Chumash tests are usually on the literal level. Many mothers complain, when they ask me to learn gemara with their son, they can’t understand why all of a sudden, he’s having a problem with comprehension. There should be more higher-level comprehension instruction before learning gemara.
    #2 Every chumash or siddur printed today has a nice clear font and so do the gemaras the difference is the chumash and sidder fonts are big and easy to read, In addition you don’t have many pesukim squeezed onto a page. The gemara is a bunch of small words squeezed onto many, many lines. It’s hard for an adult to read what do you want from a beginner. I wouldn’t dear say to change the format of the gemara but why can’t someone make a gemara for students spread across 2 or 3 pages. This leads to #3
    #3 Every sefer printed today has nekudos The only reason I can think of as to why there are those opposed to putting nekudos into the gemara is because the Baal Davar knows the day nekudos become standard in gemara more people will be able to learn gemara. B”H there are gemoras today with nekudos but its usually used at home not in the classroom.
    Having nekudos in the gemara helps what I see as a major stumbling block even for adults. Chumash is usually translated word for word. There isn’t much explanation thrown in to the taitsh. In addition, in chumash you have the chumash text on top Rashi on the bottom. If the student loses the place it’s pretty easy to find the place Gemarah has at least four problems.
    1) much explanation is mixed into to the actual translation. When a rebbi says a word or string of words with a lengthy explanation the student has to try and find the place again, and again and again.
    2) As noted, the chumash has a clear format. The gemara has usually well over 20 lines on the page. Many words are cramped on a line. In addition, unlike chumash Tosfes and Rashi are surrounding the gemara text which makes finding the place difficult.
    3) Finding the place without nekudos can be extremely frustrating.
    4) Many people think gemara is simply the next step after chumash or Mishnayos. NOT TRUE. Chumash and Mishnayos are written in Lashon Hakodesh Gemara for the most part is written in Aramish. Aramish is NOT Lashon Hakodesh It is a different language albeit with the Lashon Hakodesh font
    #4 Rashi letters are learned in first or second grade yet many 5th and 6 grade rebbeim tell me some students have a hard time reading Rashi letters. Usually its the letters that are similar to other letters.
    These are some of the issues that I have seen in my struggle with learning gemara and I see it in students I tutor. If you have a solid foundation the floors on top will be sound, and stable.

  25. I numbered my points incorrectly. I’m up to number 6.
    #6 I understand we need accountability, and we don’t want kids just goofing off. But why are tests and farhers such a big deal in grades 3-8? Is the kid taking a test to see if he qualifies to be a rov or a dayan. As a rebbi you know who is weak and who can do better. Give a test but why do you have to mark in red ink? Why does the menahel have to give back a test so that the weaker kid feels like he wants to crawl into a hole. And of course, in order to get into a mesivta forget about middos and behavior If you have less than a 90% average any self esteem you did have will be gone from rejection letters.


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