"Friendship or Death" – Havruta o Mituta – A Conversation between lifelong Havruta partners Rabbanit Sara Wolkenfeld and Rabba Yaffa Epstein


In many educational environments, students learn independently through reading and listening to lectures. Learning can also be somewhat competitive when students are pitted against each other to receive the highest grades. Jewish learning is based an a different system entirely. Students learn together, in Havruta (paired study), to work through the texts and challenge each other in an attempt to understand the true meaning.

Learning with empathy

Rabbi Ira Stone, a leading figure in the modern Mussar movement describes the facets of Havruta learning in the following paragraph.

Torah As A Spiritual Garment: The Mussar Of Learning, by Rabbi Ira Stone


…Learning begins with emulation but requires introspection and conscientious steps toward self-transformation. In the course of this process, as Torah more and more adheres to our souls, the specific content of Torah, the mitzvot and the halakhic and aggadic discourses, become the field upon which our Torah-bearing souls express themselves in concrete acts. Some of those acts comprise the middot/values that have been central in our transformation (that is, acts that incorporate the values themselves, such as leaving the corners of the fields unharvested for the poor), while other acts are interruptive (serving as reminders of the original values that aided in our becoming carriers of Torah, such as kashrut or tefillin).

The specific mode of Torah study that Jewish tradition highlights, an interactive mode whereby learning proceeds always in dialogue with another person, epitomizes the coming together of the various levels of Torah and Torah study that we’ve mentioned. In the very act of study we are always standing before another whose real presence, and real needs, filter the potential meaning of the text. The act of study in this hevruta (face-to-face) model requires prior attention to middot (character traits). Moreover, the text we are studying contains a history of such study encounters. The faces of the others who have labored in study over the very same texts transforms the text itself into an “other“ of whom we must be solicitous. It is this solicitousness of the other that distinguishes Torah l’sh’ma from other modes of learning, and it is learning as solicitousness of the other that places it at the heart of the Jewish spiritual journey.

  • According to Rabbi Stone, what is special about Havruta learning?

The power of Havruta learning

While Rabbi Stone points out the empathetic nature of learning with a partner, the Talmud in Taanit shows a totally different aspect of Havruta learning. As opposed to the solicitousness of the other, this text uses the metaphors of iron, fire, and a sword to describe Havruta study. What do we learn from each metaphor?

אמר רבי חמא (אמר רבי) חנינא מאי דכתיב (משלי כז, יז) ברזל בברזל יחד לומר לך מה ברזל זה אחד מחדד את חבירו אף שני תלמידי חכמים מחדדין זה את זה בהלכה אמר רבה בר בר חנה למה נמשלו דברי תורה כאש שנאמר (ירמיהו כג, כט) הלא כה דברי כאש נאם יקוק לומר לך מה אש אינו דולק יחידי אף דברי תורה אין מתקיימין ביחידי והיינו דאמר רבי יוסי בר חנינא מאי דכתיב (ירמיהו נ, לו) חרב אל הבדים ונואלו חרב על שונאיהן של תלמידי חכמים שעוסקין בד בבד בתורה ולא עוד אלא שמטפשין שנאמר ונואלו

The Gemara cites other expositions that deal with Torah study. Rabbi Ḥama, son of Rabbi Ḥanina, said: What is the meaning of that which is written: “Iron sharpens iron, so a man sharpens the countenance of his friend” (Proverbs 27:17)? This verse comes to tell you that just as with these iron implements, one sharpens the other when they are rubbed against each other, so too, when Torah scholars study together, they sharpen one another in halakha. Rabba bar bar Ḥana said: Why are matters of Torah compared to fire, as it is stated: “Is not My word like fire, says the Lord” (Jeremiah 23:29)? To tell you: Just as fire does not ignite in a lone stick of wood but in a pile of kindling, so too, matters of Torah are not retained and understood properly by a lone scholar who studies by himself, but by a group of Sages. And this is what Rabbi Yosei bar Ḥanina said: What is the meaning of that which is written: “A sword is upon the boasters [habaddim], and they shall become fools [noalu]” (Jeremiah 50:36)? This verse can be interpreted homiletically: There is a sword upon the enemies of Torah scholars, a euphemism for Torah scholars themselves, who sit alone [bad bevad] and study Torah. And not only that, but those who study by themselves grow foolish from their solitary Torah study, as it is stated: “And they shall become fools.”

As we saw in this text, learning with a Havruta sharpens each person. The discussions, conversations, and arguments raise the level of understanding but can also present a danger.

  • What do you like about learning with a study partner?
  • What are the challenges of learning with someone else?
  • What are the dangers of this type of learning? What are the benefits?
  • The first two texts seem to be describing Havruta learning very differently. How can both aspects - being sensitive to your partner and challenging your partner - live side-by-side?

A Havruta in crisis

Until now, the texts have described the positive aspects of Havruta study - a caring relationship between study partners who are working together to decipher the Truth as transmitted through the Divine word.

The story of Rabbi Yohanan and Reish Lakish, a famous Havruta in the Talmud presents, is a cautionary tale of Havruta study that goes wrong. Under what circumstances can the words said in a Havruta go too far? Is there a line that shouldn't be crossed?

To get to the heart of the matter, we begin with the origin story of their relationship.

יומא חד הוה קא סחי ר' יוחנן בירדנא חזייה ריש לקיש ושוור לירדנא אבתריה אמר ליה חילך לאורייתא אמר ליה שופרך לנשי א"ל אי הדרת בך יהיבנא לך אחותי דשפירא מינאי קביל עליה בעי למיהדר לאתויי מאניה ולא מצי הדר אקרייה ואתנייה ושוייה גברא רבא

The Gemara relates: One day, Rabbi Yoḥanan was bathing in the Jordan River. Reish Lakish saw him and jumped into the Jordan, pursuing him. At that time, Reish Lakish was the leader of a band of marauders. Rabbi Yoḥanan said to Reish Lakish: Your strength is fit for Torah study. Reish Lakish said to him: Your beauty is fit for women. Rabbi Yoḥanan said to him: If you return to the pursuit of Torah, I will give you my sister in marriage, who is more beautiful than I am. Reish Lakish accepted upon himself to study Torah. Subsequently, Reish Lakish wanted to jump back out of the river to bring back his clothes, but he was unable to return, as he had lost his physical strength as soon as he accepted the responsibility to study Torah upon himself. Rabbi Yoḥanan taught Reish Lakish Bible, and taught him Mishna, and turned him into a great man.

The text continues telling the story of the powerful Havruta of Rabbi Yohanan and Reish Lakish. Here we will see what happens when a Havruta goes wrong - when they go too far.

יומא חד הוו מפלגי בי מדרשא הסייף והסכין והפגיון והרומח ומגל יד ומגל קציר מאימתי מקבלין טומאה משעת גמר מלאכתן ומאימתי גמר מלאכתן רבי יוחנן אמר משיצרפם בכבשן ריש לקיש אמר משיצחצחן במים א"ל לסטאה בלסטיותיה ידע אמר ליה ומאי אהנת לי התם רבי קרו לי הכא רבי קרו לי אמר ליה אהנאי לך דאקרבינך תחת כנפי השכינה חלש דעתיה דרבי יוחנן חלש ריש לקיש אתאי אחתיה קא בכיא אמרה ליה עשה בשביל בני אמר לה (ירמיהו מט, יא) עזבה יתומיך אני אחיה עשה בשביל אלמנותי אמר לה (ירמיהו מט, יא) ואלמנותיך עלי תבטחו נח נפשיה דר' שמעון בן לקיש והוה קא מצטער ר' יוחנן בתריה טובא אמרו רבנן מאן ליזיל ליתביה לדעתיה ניזיל רבי אלעזר בן פדת דמחדדין שמעתתיה אזל יתיב קמיה כל מילתא דהוה אמר רבי יוחנן אמר ליה תניא דמסייעא לך אמר את כבר לקישא בר לקישא כי הוה אמינא מילתא הוה מקשי לי עשרין וארבע קושייתא ומפריקנא ליה עשרין וארבעה פרוקי וממילא רווחא שמעתא ואת אמרת תניא דמסייע לך אטו לא ידענא דשפיר קאמינא הוה קא אזיל וקרע מאניה וקא בכי ואמר היכא את בר לקישא היכא את בר לקישא והוה קא צוח עד דשף דעתיה [מיניה] בעו רבנן רחמי עליה ונח נפשיה

Eventually, Reish Lakish became one of the outstanding Torah scholars of his generation. One day the Sages of the study hall were engaging in a dispute concerning the following baraita: With regard to the sword, the knife, the dagger [vehapigyon], the spear, a hand sickle, and a harvest sickle, from when are they susceptible to ritual impurity? The baraita answers: It is from the time of the completion of their manufacture, which is the halakha with regard to metal vessels in general. These Sages inquired: And when is the completion of their manufacture? Rabbi Yoḥanan says: It is from when one fires these items in the furnace. Reish Lakish said: It is from when one scours them in water, after they have been fired in the furnace. Rabbi Yoḥanan said to Reish Lakish: A bandit knows about his banditry, i.e., you are an expert in weaponry because you were a bandit in your youth. Reish Lakish said to Rabbi Yoḥanan: What benefit did you provide me by bringing me close to Torah? There, among the bandits, they called me: Leader of the bandits, and here, too, they call me: Leader of the bandits. Rabbi Yoḥanan said to him: I provided benefit to you, as I brought you close to God, under the wings of the Divine Presence. As a result of the quarrel, Rabbi Yoḥanan was offended, which in turn affected Reish Lakish, who fell ill. Rabbi Yoḥanan’s sister, who was Reish Lakish’s wife, came crying to Rabbi Yoḥanan, begging that he pray for Reish Lakish’s recovery. She said to him: Do this for the sake of my children, so that they should have a father. Rabbi Yoḥanan said to her the verse: “Leave your fatherless children, I will rear them” (Jeremiah 49:11), i.e., I will take care of them. She said to him: Do so for the sake of my widowhood. He said to her the rest of the verse: “And let your widows trust in Me.” Ultimately, Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish, Reish Lakish, died. Rabbi Yoḥanan was sorely pained over losing him. The Rabbis said: Who will go to calm Rabbi Yoḥanan’s mind and comfort him over his loss? They said: Let Rabbi Elazar ben Pedat go, as his statements are sharp, i.e., he is clever and will be able to serve as a substitute for Reish Lakish. Rabbi Elazar ben Pedat went and sat before Rabbi Yoḥanan. With regard to every matter that Rabbi Yoḥanan would say, Rabbi Elazar ben Pedat would say to him: There is a ruling which is taught in a baraita that supports your opinion. Rabbi Yoḥanan said to him: Are you comparable to the son of Lakish? In my discussions with the son of Lakish, when I would state a matter, he would raise twenty-four difficulties against me in an attempt to disprove my claim, and I would answer him with twenty-four answers, and the halakha by itself would become broadened and clarified. And yet you say to me: There is a ruling which is taught in a baraita that supports your opinion. Do I not know that what I say is good? Being rebutted by Reish Lakish served a purpose; your bringing proof to my statements does not. Rabbi Yoḥanan went around, rending his clothing, weeping and saying: Where are you, son of Lakish? Where are you, son of Lakish? Rabbi Yoḥanan screamed until his mind was taken from him, i.e., he went insane. The Rabbis prayed and requested for God to have mercy on him and take his soul, and Rabbi Yoḥanan died.

  • What were they arguing about?
  • At what point did they cross the line of a constructive Havruta?
  • What are the results of their interaction?
  • What happens after the death of Reish Lakish?
  • Why isn't Rabbi Yohanan satisfied with his new Havruta, who agrees with everything he says?
  • How would you characterize the relationship between Rabbi Yohanan and Reish Lakish?
  • What does Rabbi Yohanan learn, a little too late, about the relationship that he had with his Havruta?
  • How do you feel about the ending of the story?
  • What might have prevented such a sad ending?

A successful Havruta

If we decide to view a Havruta as any pair of people who are using texts in their discussions, we could say that Rabbi Meir and his wife, Berurya, are also a Havruta. The text below relates an interaction between Rabbi Meir and Berurya and allows us to see the characteristics of an exemplary Havruta.

In this story, Rabbi Meir is concerned about his neighbors who he believes are endangering the community by wanting to physically resist the Romans who are ruling Israel. Rabbi Meir would like God to kill them while Berurya has a different idea.

הנהו בריוני דהוו בשבבותיה דרבי מאיר והוו קא מצערו ליה טובא הוה קא בעי רבי מאיר רחמי עלויהו כי היכי דלימותו אמרה ליה ברוריא דביתהו מאי דעתך משום דכתיב יתמו חטאים מי כתיב חוטאים חטאים כתיב ועוד שפיל לסיפיה דקרא ורשעים עוד אינם כיון דיתמו חטאים ורשעים עוד אינם אלא בעי רחמי עלויהו דלהדרו בתשובה ורשעים עוד אינם בעא רחמי עלויהו והדרו בתשובה:

There were these Zealots in Rabbi Meir’s neighborhood who caused him a great deal of anguish. Rabbi Meir prayed for God to have mercy on them, that they should die. Rabbi Meir’s wife, Berurya, said to him: What is your thinking? On what basis do you pray for the death of these hooligans? Do you base yourself on the verse, as it is written: “Let sins cease from the land” (Psalms 104:35), which you interpret to mean that the world would be better if the wicked were destroyed? But is it written, let sinners cease?” Let sins cease, is written. One should pray for an end to their transgressions, not for the demise of the transgressors themselves. Moreover, go to the end of the verse, where it says: “And the wicked will be no more.” If, as you suggest, transgressions shall cease refers to the demise of the evildoers, how is it possible that the wicked will be no more, i.e., that they will no longer be evil? Rather, pray for God to have mercy on them, that they should repent, as if they repent, then the wicked will be no more, as they will have repented. Rabbi Meir saw that Berurya was correct and he prayed for God to have mercy on them, and they repented.

(לה) יִתַּ֤מּוּ חַטָּאִ֨ים ׀ מִן־הָאָ֡רֶץ וּרְשָׁעִ֤ים ׀ ע֤וֹד אֵינָ֗ם בָּרֲכִ֣י נַ֭פְשִׁי אֶת־יקוק הַֽלְלוּ־יָֽהּ׃
(35) May sinners disappear from the earth, and the wicked be no more. Bless the LORD, O my soul. Hallelujah.
  • What happened when Berurya disagreed with Rabbi Meir? What approach did she take to trying to change his mind?
  • Why do you think that she was successful?
  • Why do you think that Rabbi Meir didn't refute her interpretation of the verse?
  • What aspects of Havruta study helped Rabbi Meir to change his mind?


Thinking back on all of the examples of Havruta learning that we have studied, what do you think is the power of the Havruta?

  • What about the structure facilitates the highest levels of learning?
  • What about the structure can lead to a total disintegration of the relationship and successful learning?
  • What can you learn about your own study relationships from the vignettes?


As the stories of Havruta learning have illustrated, learning Torah is never just about the text. There is also an interpersonal relationship that must be factored in. The difficult relationship between Rabbi Yohanan and Reish Lakish and the respectful relationship between Rabbi Meir and Berurya impacted the results of their learning. The first led to death and the latter saved lives.

A Havruta partnership built on trust and empathy, where the partners respect each other enough to argue and debate, all with the goal of reaching a greater understanding of Torah, is a true gift of Jewish learning.