On the roof of the Aish center looking down at the Western Wall with Chevra & Davai in 2011

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Sunday, November 13, 2011

Jewish Law Question – If I want to start learning Torah, where should I begin?

As you know, learning is a fundamental part of being Jewish.  Since the beginning of the Jewish people, we’ve always gravitated to the intellectual understanding of whatever topic was before us.  We do it in both the secular and the religious world.  In our religious studies there is so much information available and so many books, it’s important to know where to start.

There have been many major transitions within the confines of learning Torah over the last 3,500 years.  When Rabbi Yehuda the Prince first wrote down the Mishnah, which was the teachings of our Rabbis which, up until that point, were only transmitted orally, it was considered revolutionary.  The same holds true for when Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon  first took the vast oral law and broke it down into an encyclopedia-like how to book for Jewish law, titled the Mishneh Torah.  It’s my hope to deal with the evolution of Torah and Jewish law in a later article. 

I believe that history will also show that translation of all major Jewish books and most of the minor Jewish books into clear English with background and instructions will also go down in history as a revolutionary point in the Jewish world.  Now, the millions of Jews who are not fluent in Hebrew & Aramaic can finally learn Torah in depth.

Like my previous articles, I’m making the assumption that you’re committed to learning Torah on a regular basis.  I want to tailor this article on where you may want to start with whatever time you’re willing to commit.  When I first started learning, I had to struggle through this topic, like everything else, collecting many different opinions from many different Rabbis.  After 10 years, I think I have a pretty good learning schedule that will hopefully help you grow into a well rounded and learned Jew.  Keep in mind, there is no final word on something like this.  If you don’t like one of my recommendations, feel free to try something else or mix and match from the different levels.  There are no hard and fast rules.

At the bottom of the article, Ill list links where you can find any of the works that I mention in English.

Level 1: 10 minutes per day
The foundation of Torah is the Torah itself.  The Torah is broken up into weekly portions (parshas) and each portion is broken up into 7 sections.  In level one, I recommend reading the daily section with the commentary by the renowned Torah scholar, Rabbi Shlomo Yizchaki, better known simply as Rashi.  Rashi’s commentary on Torah is second to none in the Jewish world and is the first stop in understanding the divine wisdom of our creator that’s transmitted through the Torah.

Level 2: 20 minutes per day
On level 2, I would recommend learning the weekly Midrash to go along with the Torah portion.  The Midrash is the homiletic stories that give us the behind the scenes perspective on the Torah portion from the Rabbis point of view.  The Midrash combined with the Torah text and Rashi’s commentary will give you a very well rounded view of the Bible.

Level 3: 30 minutes per day
On Level 3, it’s time to add Jewish law into your study sessions.  The Kitzur Shulchan Aruch is probably the easiest “What to do when” books that we have for Jewish law.  It’s great to look up the specific questions that you have, but I would recommend starting on page one and reading it through.  It will give you a great flavor for what’s going on at synagogue over the holidays and Shabbas.  Keep in mind, that Jewish law isn’t confined to any one book.  It is a living, breathing thing that can never be fully contained.  Don’t take anything you read in the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch as the final word for any specific situation that you have.  If you have a specific problem, consult with a trusted Rabbi.  If you don’t have one, email me and I’ll find you one.

Level 4: 45 minutes per day
On level 4, I would recommend starting with a book titled Ein Yaakov.  There aren’t a lot of people that study this, but I have no clue why.  I think it gives a tremendous overview of the stories that make up the Babylonian Talmud or Gemara.  The valuable lessons contained in Ein Yaakov seem to have no limits. 

Level 5: 1 hour or more per day
On level 5, it’s time to take the big leap and dive into the Babylonian Talmud.  In all learning, it’s best to have a study partner or class, but with the books in level 1-4, you can make your way through them on your own.  In level 5, it’s a different story.  I don’t recommend starting to learn Talmud without a qualified teacher.  The sea of the Talmud is too deep to go treading through on your own.  There are Rabbis out there who can help you with this, either in person or over the phone. 

Level A.U.:
You may be asking “What is A.U.?”  These articles always end with 5 levels.  Well… for this one, I’m adding A.U. It stands for “Automobile University.”  I’m in the car a good 7 hours per week.  If you’re in the car, train or bus for any length of time, you can take advantage of it by listening to Torah based classes.  I highly recommend Rabbi Berel Wein’s “Travels through Jewish History.”  Rabbi Wein lives in Israel and is truly brilliant and entertaining in my opinion.  Automobile University can give double the amount of learning you do without taking any time out of your schedule.  I can’t recommend it enough.

With all of my articles, I must tell you that I’m not a Rabbi.  I spent a total of two days in Yeshiva.  However, I am a Baal Teshuva for roughly 10 years and I’m hoping that my experience will help you adjust to your new quest for Yiddishkeit with the most success.  I’m also making assumptions about what your knowledge and Jewish background may or may not be.  With any of these areas, it’s best to speak to an orthodox Rabbi who knows and understands you.  His classes and advice may be much better to suit your needs.  My article should be used when there is no Rabbi around who you feel that you can relate to.  If you have any specific questions, feel free to email me.

Where do I find these books?
1. Chumash with Rashi:
2. Midrash:
3. Kitzur Shulchan Aruch: http://www.eichlers.com/Page.asp?ID=051a912641d4572d062357b8c4d49d2aaaa332c7671cd5b9&searchCategoryList=&txtSearchString=kitzur+shulchan+aruch
5. Babylonian Talmud:
6. Berel Wein’s Travels through Jewish History: http://www.rabbiwein.com/ProductsListing/History-C10/All/

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