Havruta: Learning in Pairs
A modern emphasis on peer-guided text study--an approach with ancient roots--reflects new social realities in the world of traditional Jewish learning.
Jews seldom study Torah alone; the study of Torah is, more often than not, a social and even communal activity. Most commonly, Jews study Jewish texts in pairs, a method known as havruta ("fellowship"). In havruta, the pair struggles to understand the meaning of each passage and discusses how to apply it to the larger issues addressed and even to their own lives. Sometimes they study to prepare for attending a lecture, and sometimes they meet to delve into a text independently of any organized class.
Often, a havruta chooses to learn in the bet midrash, a study hall, together with other havrutot. Together, havrutot (plural for havruta) create the atmosphere of the beit midrash (study hall) where the sounds of discussion and debate fill the air.
How and why did study in havruta become such an integral part of the Jewish tradition? The Jewish tradition has always valued learning with others, whether with teachers or other students. Recent historical research, however, suggests that learning in pairs--havruta--only became the predominant mode of learning in the last century.
Some of the earliest references to learning in groups, and particularly in pairs, occur in the Talmud. The Talmud asserts that the Torah is only acquired in a group, haburah (Babylonian Talmud [BT], Berakhot63b). The word haburah derives from the same root as havruta--haver, or, in English, friend. The Talmud also particularly extols the value of learning in pairs: "Two scholars sharpen one another" (BT Ta'anit7a)--two scholars, through discussion and debate, help to sharpen each other's insight into the text.
The most frequently quoted saying in the Talmud relating to havrutais: "o havruta o mituta" (BT Ta'anit23a), translated provocatively by Jacob Neusner as "Give me havruta or give me death." Many Jewish scholars cite this phrase to illustrate the centrality of study in havruta. In context, however, the phrase has nothing to do with learning in pairs. Rather, the phrase means that the individual needs society and the respect of others, and without them life is not worth living. Still, the very fact that so many Jewish scholars take this phrase out of context and interpret it as referring to study in pairs shows the importance of havrutain the Jewish tradition.
Havruta in Medieval Sources
In addition to these Talmudic discussions, medieval Jewish commentators also address the benefits of study in havruta. Ovadiah Seforno, a 16th-century Italian rabbinic commentator, interprets the following verses in Ecclesiastes as referring to study in pairs: "Two are better off than one, in that they derive greater benefit from their efforts. For if they should fall, the one will raise up the other, as opposed to if one falls when there is no one to raise him" (Ecclesiastes 4:10-11). He explains that two people learning together are better than one learning alone, because if one makes a mistake, the other will correct him, whereas if one learns alone there will be no one to correct him. Seforno's interpretation does not emerge from the plain meaning of the text, which does not mention study, but his insistence on interpreting the verses in this creative manner shows the value he ascribes to study in pairs.