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.

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Don Yitzhak Abravanel, a 15th-century Spanish rabbinic commentator, discusses another benefit of havruta study. Abravanel interprets the saying "Make for yourself a rabbi and acquire for yourself a friend" (Mishnah Avot1:6) as meaning that one should learn both with a teacher and with another student. He explains that everyone has doubts at times or is confused regarding how to interpret the text.  However, sometimes one is embarrassed to bring his questions to his rabbi. At these times, one can bring these questions to another student. Another student can clarify and sharpen one's understanding of the text and can provide a different valuable perspective on that text.

The Emphasis on Havruta Is of Recent Vintage

Despite these early references to study in pairs, Shaul Stampfer, a contemporary Israeli historian, argues that study in havruta was not the prevailing mode of learning until the beginning of the last century. Even in the great 19th century yeshivot (Jewish academies of higher learning) of Eastern Europe, havruta was only one among many possible modes of study. These yeshivot sought to create a scholarly elite who would not need a havruta in order to understand the text. They saw havruta as only a means of helping weaker students who could not keep up with the class.

Yet today, study in havruta has become so widely accepted that two contemporary rabbinic scholars (Rabbi Menashe Klein in Mishneh Halakhot and Rabbi Shammai Gross in Shevet Kehati) address the question: If one cannot learn in havruta, should one learn at all? Although both rabbis answer in the affirmative, the fact that this question was even raised shows how predominant study in havruta has become.

How did study in havruta become so predominant in recent years? Stampfer, in an interview with Aliza Segal for her article "Havruta Study in the Contemporary Yeshivah" (in Havruta Study: History, Benefits, and Enhancements, published by the Academy for Torah Initiatives and Directions), hypothesizes that study in havruta became predominant during the World War I period. At this time, yeshivot opened their doors to all Jewish men. Once yeshivot were no longer only for the elite, the students needed to learn in havruta in order to understand the difficult texts, and this mode of learning spread.

Today, learning in havruta is an integral part of traditional Jewish study. One yeshivah student sums up the importance of havruta:

"It played a central role. You really needed it. To get the most out of a shiur (lecture) you had to prepare and review, because often, even the rebbe himself was very vague. It was very complicated stuff. If you tried to prepare by yourself, you'd be fooling yourself because you'd be limited by your own abilities. On the other hand, another's viewpoint is always a little different and this way it would be much richer, almost like a third viewpoint, a combined result. As far as choosing a chavrusa [the word is a dialect variant of "havruta"] goes, it's like choosing a wife. There are so many things involved. (from William B. Helmreich, The World of the Yeshiva, p.111)

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Rachael Gelfman Schultz

Rachael Gelfman Schultz holds a B.A. in religion from Harvard University, and completed her M.A. in Jewish Civilization at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. She is a Jewish educator in Karmiel, Israel.