Chevruta: Learning through Difference
(ו) יהושע בן פרחיה ונתאי הארבלי קבלו מהם.יהושע בן פרחיה אומר, עשה לך רב, וקנה לך חבר , והוי דן את כל האדם לכף זכות.

(6) Yehoshua ben Perachiah and Nittai of Arbel received the transmission [of the oral tradition] from them. Yehoshua ben Perachia said, Make for yourself a teacher (rav), acquire for yourself a companion (chaver); and judge every person/the whole person with a leaning towards their merit

  • What is the difference between a teacher and a companion?
  • Can they ever be the same person?
  • What is the value of learning in collaboration?

עשו כתות כתות ועסקו בתורה לפי שאין התורה נקנית אלא בחבורה כדר' יוסי ברבי חנינא דאמר ר' יוסי ברבי חנינא מאי דכתיב (ירמיהו נ, לו) חרב (על) הבדים ונואלו חרב על שונאיהם של תלמידי חכמים שיושבים בד בבד ועוסקים בתורה ולא עוד אלא שמטפשים כתיב הכא ונואלו וכתיב התם (במדבר יב, יא) אשר נואלנו ולא עוד אלא שחוטאים שנאמר ואשר חטאנו

Put yourselves into groups (kitot) to occupy yourselves with the Torah, for the Torah can only be acquired in company (Chavurah). This is according to R. Yosi in the name of Rabbi Hanina, for R. Yosi said in the name of R. Hanina: How may one explain the verse, “A sword is upon the boasters and they shall become fools” (Jeremiah 50:36)? A sword is upon those who despise the students of the Wise and who sit alone to study the Torah. And not only this, but they also become stupid, as it is written here, “and they shall become fools”....And not only this, but they also have become sinners, for it is said: (“for that we have done foolishly”) and “we have sinned” (Numbers 12:11).

  • What kinds on knowledge can only be acquired/produced in contact and conversation with others?
  • What does R. Yosi mean by equating those who study alone with “boasters”?
  • In what way might studying in a group or with a partner guard against falling into stupidity? Into sin/wrongdoing?

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

Why does the verse teach Iron sharpens iron, as a person sharpens the countenance of his fellow (Proverbs 27:17)? To say to you: “just as this iron [weapon] sharpens the other, so two students of the Wise sharpen one another in the Law”

When have you been "sharpened" by a study companion or rival?

What do you make of the image of weaponry?

In your experience, what are the benefits and drawbacks of "intellectual dueling"?

The Tale of Rabbi Yochanan and Reish Lakish

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 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

One day R. Yochanan was bathing in the Jordan, when Resh Lakish [who was living as a bandit] saw him and leapt into the Jordan after him. Said he [R. Yochanan] to him, ‘Your strength should be for the Torah.’ — ‘Your beauty,’ he replied, ‘should be for women.’ ‘If you will repent,’ said he, ‘I will give you my sister [in marriage], who is more beautiful than I.’ He undertook [to repent]; then he wished to return and collect his weapons, but could not.

Subsequently, [R. Yochanan] taught him Bible and Mishnah, and made him into a great man. Now, one day there was a dispute in the House of Study [with respect to the following. Viz.,] a sword, knife, dagger, spear, hand-saw and a scythe — at what stage [of their manufacture] can they become unclean? When their manufacture is finished. And when is their manufacture finished? — R. Yochanan ruled: When they are tempered in a furnace. Resh Lakish maintained: When they have been furbished in water. Said R. Yochanan to him: ‘A robber understands his trade.’ Said Resh Lakish to R. Yochanan, ‘And how have you benefited me: there [as a robber] I was called Master, and here I am called Master as well.’ ‘[I benefitted you] By bringing you under the wings of the Shechinah (Divine Presence),’ R. Yochanan retorted. R. Yochanan felt himself deeply hurt, [as a result of which] Resh Lakish fell ill.

R. Yochanan's sister came and wept before him: ‘Forgive him for the sake of my son,’ she pleaded. He replied: ‘Leave thy fatherless children. I will preserve them alive. (Jeremiah 49:11) ‘’For the sake of my widowhood then!’ ‘And let thy widows trust in me,’ he assured her.

Resh Lakish died, and R. Yochanan was plunged into deep grief. Said the Rabbis, ‘Who shall go to ease his mind? Let R. Eleazar b. Pedath go, whose analysis of the law is very subtle.’ So he went and sat before him; and on every dictum uttered by R. Yochanan he observed: ‘There is a Baraitha (Ancient oral source) which supports you.’

‘Why aren’t you like the son of Lakisha?’ R. Yochanan complained: ‘when I stated a law, the son of Lakisha used to raise twenty-four objections, to which I gave twenty-four answers, which consequently led to a fuller comprehension of the law; whilst you say, “A Baraitha has been taught which supports you:” do I not know myself that my dicta are right?’ Thus he went on rending his garments and weeping, ‘Where are you, O son of Lakisha, where are you, O son of Lakisha!?’ and he cried thus until his mind was deranged. Thereupon the Rabbis prayed for him, and he died.

  • How do the images and ideas from the previous texts play out in this story?

Aish Kodesh: the Sermons of the Piezeczner Rebbe (Kalonymous Kalman Shapiro 1889-1943) – 7th Day of Passover, 1941

And God gave to Moses, after He ceased to speak with him on Mount Sinai, the two tablets of witness – tablets of stone inscribed by the finger of God: When Moses went up to the heavens, he began to recite the Torah after his Maker. After [the Torah] was fully memorized, [God] said to him, come now let us speak together, you and I. Thus we have the words: after He ceased to speak with him. (Midrash Rabbah on parashat Ki Tissa (Ex 41:5)

We learn that God was only in the role of “instructor” only when God was teaching Moses material that Moses did not already know. But regarding material that Moses already knew, God did not “instruct” Moses at all – rather, according to the opinion of the Midrash, God learned together with Moses, and not as an “instructor”. Thus, you must perforce acknowledge that God actually learns Torah with us.

  • Do you like the image of God as instructor or chevruta better?
  • How does the role change the relationship between God and humanity?
  • Why does the content seem to govern the status of the relationship?

Rachel Adler, The Goals of Chevruta: “The Juxtaposition of Text and Person,”

The chaverim (study partners) do not simply study Bible. . . . The very structure of their relationship and the nature of its boundaries present a Jewish model for the relation between self and other. In this relationship, people experience each other as whole, rather than as fragmented, beings…

Self and other are not sharply separate here. To be chaverim is to be neither fused nor counterposed, but to be juxtaposed. The root CH-B-R means to join together at the boundaries. The curtains of the tabernacle, for instance, are chevrot isha elachotah, “joined one to another” Some boundaries are barricades—chain link fences guarded by [watch dogs]. Others are not primarily barricades but loci of interaction. A cell membrane, for example, is part of the living substance of the cell. It is the perimeter at which the cell conducts its interchanges with other cells—the contacts, the flowings in and out, which maintain its life within its environment. The boundary between self and other [in the study partner relationship] resembles this living, permeable boundary…

  • What image does Adler use to illustrate the chevruta learning process?
  • Do you find this image compelling or not? why?

Elie Holzer, What Connects “Good” Teaching, Text Study and Hevruta Learning?
A Conceptual Argument

When I speak about text study in hevruta, I refer to a situation in which the
learner is involved in a slow, meticulous open investigation and deciphering
of the text, helping his study partner, weighing alternative interpretations,
arguing with his study partner about possible interpretations and “arguing
with” the content of the text.

For centuries, this activity has served not only as a method of acquiring
knowledge, but also as a devotional activity believed to have a transformative
impact on its practitioners in terms of religious practice, beliefs and values
learners were to take away from the content of these texts.


  • How does this model help us today in the modern world?
  • Do you find this model a compelling tool for constructive civil discourse? why or why not?
  • What is required for successful chevruta learning?
  • How can we develop these types of relationships for ourselves today?