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Shiur #1: Breadth, Depth and Choosing a Rosh Yeshiva

  • Rav Yitzchak Blau
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Understanding Aggada
Yeshivat Har Etzion

Shiur #1: Breadth, Depth and Choosing a Rosh Yeshiva


By Rav Yitzchak Blau



Rav Yosef was referred to as Sinai (someone with great breadth of knowledge) while Rabba was said to be an oker harim, uprooter of mountains (excellent in analytical reasoning).  The time came that one of them was needed (to become the Rosh Yeshiva). They sent a message to the Rabbis there: "A Sinai and an uprooter of mountains - which one of them takes precedence?"


They (the Rabbis) sent back: "Sinai takes precedence, for all need the master of the wheat (the one who has gathered all the Talmudic teachings)."  Nevertheless, Rav Yosef did not accept the position.  Rabba ruled (as Rosh Yeshiva) for twenty-two years and then Rav Yosef ruled for two and a half years. All the years that Rabba ruled, Rav Yosef did not even call a blood-letter to his house. (Berakhot 64a, Horayot 14a)


This story begins with an important educational question and ends with a note of ethical excellence on the part of Rav Yosef. The commentaries offer three explanations of the latter.  According to Rashi, the blood-letter made house calls as a sign of respect for distinguished people. Rav Yosef refused to accept that honor so as not to set himself up as a challenger to Rabba.  We can easily understand that situations calling for a change in leadership often divide people into rival camps and that negative feelings between those camps frequently linger on even after a decision has been finalized.  Rav Yosef understood this and took steps to publicly demonstrate that he was not a challenger to Rabba's reign.


Rashi cites another explanation that Rav Yosef did not have time for bloodletting as he was constantly engaged in learning from Rabba.  Rav Yosef's intense dedication to not missing any time in yeshiva may also have been a way of conveying his contentment with Rabba at the helm.  The refusal to miss a single lecture clearly assumes the self–definition of a student and not a rival.  Additionally, Rav Yosef may have realized that Rabba had reasoning skills he lacked and he therefore wanted to hear Rabba's shiurim and acquire a new set of analytical skills.


Tosafot Ha-Rosh cites a different explanation in which the closing line about the blood-letter actually reflects the reward for Rav Yosef's decision to allow Rabba to accept the position.  No blood-letter came to Rav Yosef's house because no individual in this house became sick during this time period.  If so, the sterling character of Rav Yosef manifested itself in his humble ability to step aside, and Divine providence arranged an appropriate reward.


Let us return to the educational question raised at the beginning of the gemara.  Is breadth of knowledge or depth of reasoning the crucial component of heading the yeshiva academy?  The first point that should be made is that we are not talking about two extremes. If the "uprooter of mountains" knows nothing about halakha, then he has nothing to analyze. Conversely, if the fellow who has learned it all shows little understanding of the material, he also cannot function productively in the beit midrash.  For this reason, Meiri explains the Sinai as someone who can make analogies and extrapolations, but lacks the creative reasoning of the oker harim. Presumably, the "uprooter of mountains" also has learned a good deal of material. The gemara's question refers to rabbis with different emphases and diverse strengths, but not to those totally inadequate with regard to either knowledge or reasoning.


It seems that the Rabbis prefer that the scholar with vast knowledge assume the mantle of leadership. Rav Shlomo Kluger argues that this was only true in the times of the Talmud, before the entire oral law was committed to writing. Then, the most crucial issue was finding someone who could report all the traditional material needed for discussion. Now that the oral law can be easily found in writing, the "uprooter of mountains" would take precedence. Rav Ovadia Yosef, in his introduction to Yabia Omer, cites many authorities that, contra Rav Kluger, still maintain that a Sinai takes precedence. This debate has a certain poetic appropriateness in that Rav Kluger offers an innovative and reasonable argument for the oker harim, while  Rav Ovadia Yosef shows his great knowledge to support the Sinai.


One might conclude that every educational institution needs both types of scholars. Indeed, Netziv (Meromei Sadeh on Horayot) argues that Rav Yosef was able to step aside only because he remained in the yeshiva and provided his knowledge. The yeshiva was able to draw on the knowledge of Rav Yosef even as it was led by the sharp reasoning of Rabba.  Thus, Rav Yosef's continuing presence in the beit medrash not only indicated his acceptance of Rabba's authority; it also enabled the combined and varied abilities of these two scholars to generate a stronger learning environment. 


When I think back to my days as a youthful yeshiva student and recall many intense debates about the relative merits of bekiut (breadth) or be-iyyun (depth), I conclude that youthful exuberance sometimes got in the way of more nuanced positions.  While students can certainly take pride in their teacher's or their yeshiva's approach to these issues, there should also be a healthy awareness of the need to integrate these two strengths on both an individual and an institutional level.  No individual can succeed in learning when sorely lacking in knowledge or analytical abilities.  No beit midrash can truly flourish without a healthy mix of scholars with different strengths.


Rav Kook (Ein Ayah on Berakhot) frames the question differently. He suggests that the Sinai is able to teach the masses but the oker harim cannot because the common Jews find his abstract reasoning incomprehensible. Nevertheless, both impact on the entire population.  The Sinai is able to impact directly by teaching the masses, as they understand his more straightforward approach to the material.  The oker harim teaches the learned and the scholarly, who then in turn succeed in giving over some of his teaching to the broader populace. When the Rabbis decided that "All need the master of the wheat," they indicated a preference for the teacher with the ability to speak to the common Jew without the help of an intermediary.


As my student Josh Young pointed out, the opposite can be true as well. Sometimes, breadth of knowledge makes things difficult for the average reader. One of the difficulties with reading an essay by Isaiah Berlin or George Steiner is simply keeping up with their massive amount of references.  In the Torah world, the sweeping erudition of some acharonim presents a similar challenge.  Perhaps, Rav Kook offers a charge to the leading scholar, be he a Sinai or an oker harim. While there is tremendous value to influencing the community through an intellectual trickle-down effect, a leader ultimately has to find a way to teach the broader community in a direct fashion.  Knowing how to simplify things when necessary, without sacrificing the profundity of Torah, makes one ready for rabbinic leadership.