Mora Nechama: The One Woman Open University


Nechama Leibowitz (1905-1997 ) was born in Riga, Latvia and moved to Berlin with her family in 1919. Nechama and her older brother, Yishayahu, were raised in an Orthodox household filled with Jewish and secular culture and learning. In 1930, Nechama earned a doctorate from the University of Marburg and made aliyah with her husband, Lipman Leibowitz, who was also her uncle.

In Israel, along with teaching at the university level at Bar Ilan and Tel Aviv and Hebrew Universities, Nechama taught a wide variety of students located throughout the country. She traveled by bus and taxi and she taught everyone who was interested, whether they were teachers, kibbutzniks or taxi drivers. In 1942, a group of Nechama's students wanted to continue learning after the course had ended. Nechama mailed them mimeographed sheets with texts and questions which she personally answered when students mailed their answers back to her. This was the beginning of over 50 years of teaching one-on-one with thousands of students around the world.

Ma Kasheh L'Rashi [What's Bothering Rashi]?

Nechama had a specific approach to teaching Torah. According to biographer, Yael Unterman, Nechama changed the way that the Tanakh was studied.

Rabbi Lee Buckman explains his experience of studying in Nechama's class in this way:

Nechama was disciplined in her approach to the text and to teaching. She would begin class with her signature question: “Ma kasheh l’Rashi?” [What's bothering Rashi?] She wanted to know what surface irregularity in the biblical text provoked Rashi’s comment. We would begin to sweat as we painstakingly attempted to answer her question. Nechama made it clear that she did not want us simply to paraphrase Rashi’s words. She would remind us that Rashi said it well the first time, and it would be chutzpa to think we could do better. Furthermore, a kushiya [question] always involved a counter-text or an alternative hypothesis. If our answer was, “Why did the text say X,?” she would answer, “Why not?” She trained us to think precisely.

Nechama demanded everything in writing. Otherwise, she feared we might hide behind the raised hand of an eager student who would offer a correct answer. She wanted every student, all 100 of us, to think through the problem and commit in writing. She also wanted a terse answer, sometimes just one word. If an answer went on for a sentence or more, it was likely incorrect.

Mora Nechama, Times of Israel, April 9, 2015

Nechama's Gilyonot

Nechama originated the art of teaching with source sheets, "gilyonot", which have become a standard method for teachers around the world. Gilyonot are a series of Torah sources, commentaries and questions which require the students to delve into the world of Torah commentators and participate in the conversation. Her books and gilyonot have impacted hundreds of thousands of people and continue to do so as her students and her student's students teach with her method. Although Nechama chose to never leave Israel, since she believed that all Torah comes from Israel, her students are scattered around the world and continue to learn and teach in her method. Nechama was the ultimate teacher and asked that only one word be written on her tombstone - Morah (Teacher).

Nechama on Sefaria

According to Yael Unterman, "the truth is, that every revolution eventually becomes standard practice and may stagnate if subsequent generations do not bring it up-to-date." Sefaria is proud to bring Nechama's groundbreaking, revolutionary work up-to-date by digitizing her gilyonot and adding them to the Sefaria library. Their place in the library will prevent stagnation as thousands of new students become familiar with her work and incorporate her teachings and method of learning into their lives.

A collection of fully translated sheets, one for each weekly Torah portion, can be accessed here.