A teenager lies on the grass outside the building, “Walkman” earphones on his head and a book in his hands. At first glance he looks as if he is relaxing between classes, listening to the latest hits while reading a novel. A closer look reveals that he is actually listening to the recording of a lesson on a tractate of the Talmud, which he is following in the book.
Beit Midrash Torah (BMT), a yeshiva in Jerusalem’s Bayit Vegan neighborhood, primarily for youth from the diaspora, is in the process of producing the entire Talmud on cassettes. All the recordings have already been completed, and the institute is now bringing out each tractate in an attractive cassette binder, complete with reading aids to help the student follow the lessons. Each month a new tractate is being produced, and sixteen of the planned 30 binders are already available.
“The project is of recent vintage,” said Rabbi Moshe Horovitz, director and founder of BMT, in a recent interview with the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “It started off five years ago when we recorded individual classes.” The project snowballed thanks to the impetus of a class of 15 boys who decided to record the entire Talmud.
“We discovered that there was a rabbi in Beit El, Shabtai Sabato, who was also recording his classes on cassettes. A contingent of boys from BMT went out there to ask whether he could give us copies of his cassettes, and the upshot was that Sabato came to BMT, bringing his entire class with him to work with us on the project, “Horovitz said. “Our plans at first were not so grandiose, but our spiritual appetite grew with time.”
The BMT now has a cassette library and students can take out the tapes of the tractates they are studying. The project is in line with the institute’s concept of learning: “The main goal of an educational institute should be to bring the student to the point where he can do individual study and research, where he is self-propelled and disciplined, “Horovitz pointed out.
A 3,000-HOUR CLASS
The institute, which is run by the Torah Education Department of the Jewish Agency, celebrated the completion of the recordings in the presence of the country’s two chief rabbis. “By then we had the entire ‘Shas’ (the Hebrew acronym for The Six Orders of the Mishnah) on tapes,” said Horovitz.
Sabato said he sat with his class for a total of 3,000 hours, spending an hour on each page of Talmud. Afterwards, the tapes were spliced and edited, leaving only the teacher’s voice lecturing. With each cassette encompassing some two or three pages of the Mishnah or Gemara, the complete Talmud takes up exactly 1,000 tapes.
“It is not intended to diminish from the role of the teacher,” Horovitz said. “On the contrary, it is to serve as a teacher’s aid and not as a primary source of study; the teacher guides his students in the use of the cassettes.” The system, however, does not work for everybody — the student must be self-disciplined to study by himself with the cassettes, Horovitz conceded.
Sabato also believes that the modern technological aid does not break down the traditional role of the rabbi-teacher. “It restores the Talmud to its original role: that of the Oral Law, ” he said. It strengthens, rather than weakens, the role of the teacher, since “the rabbi nowadays cannot spend hours with his students, as they did in medieval times when every rabbi had perhaps three or four students whom he taught during his entire lifetime.” Today the teacher spends only a few hours a week with his students; therefore the cassettes only strengthen the bond, enabling the student to receive more instruction, Sabato observed.
CASSETTES HAVE REACHED NUMEROUS COUNTRIES
Recordings of the Talmud have been bought from BMT and 10 cassette libraries have been opened in Israel, Horovitz said. In addition, the Talmudic cassettes have reached numerous countries, and some have even been smuggled into the Soviet Union, according to Sabato. He added that the aid opens up new vistas for blind students, who until now have had no access to the Talmud.
While Beit Midrash Torah has recorded the Mishnah and Gemara in Hebrew, elsewhere in the world recordings are being prepared in English and in Yiddish. “Yeshivot in the United States are now in the process of recording the Talmud in English and some tapes are being prepared in Yiddish, “Horovitz said.
“A student who comes from the diaspora can study the entire ‘Shas’ in four years, even if he does not have a good command of Hebrew, “Sabato observed. “Today, with the help of this modern aid, there is nobody who can say: ‘I would like to study, but do not have the means to do so.’ “
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.