Rabbi Baruch Bodenheim – Associate Rosh Yeshiva – PTI – Passaic Torah Institute – Asarah B’Teves: From Darkness To Light Through Torah Study

Jack was on a Birthright trip for the first time in Israel. The tour stopped at one of the largest yeshivos in Eretz Yisrael, Mir Yerushalayim. He was taken aback by the loud noise as he entered the huge study hall, with students talking in full voice, even screaming. Jack had been to many study halls where intense study was taking place. All of them were quiet like a library. Yet, he was taken in by how visibly excited and engaged the people were about the material they were studying. The guide explained that the Torah is studied in pairs, with two partners debating the concepts they are learning.

We’re barely finished Chanukah, celebrating victory over the Greeks, and now this Friday we observe the fast of Asara b’Teves, commemorating the day the siege began around Yerushalayim by Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylonia, during the time of the first Beis Hamikdash. The Selichos lists three tragic events that occurred in the month of Teves during different time periods. The Greek king Ptolemi ordered the Torah translated into Greek on the eighth of Teves, Ezra Hasofer died on the ninth of Teves, and the siege began around Yerushalayim, leading to the destruction of the Beis Hamikdash on the 10th of Teves. The Shulchan Aruch notes that darkness enveloped the world for three days when the Torah was translated into Greek, linking the eighth, ninth, and 10th of Teves to each other.

Although one would think that translating the Torah into Greek would breed clarity, it had the opposite effect, especially since the Greeks outlawed learning both the written and oral Torah law. It confined the infinite words and understanding of the Torah into a single interpretation. It also secularized Torah study, equating its study to all other disciplines, such as history, math and architecture.

The Greeks were intent to cause the Jews to forget the Torah in favor of Greek culture, and it seems they were extremely successful at that time. For a thousand years since the giving of the Torah at Har Sinai, there was no dispute on any halacha. When the Greek era began, the first dispute of halacha was between Yossi ben Yoeizer and Yossi ben Yochanan. During this period of Greek decrees forbidding the study of both the written and oral law, disputes on halacha multiplied. There are thousands of disputes recorded in the Mishnayos and Gemara. Until this very day, the effect of the Greeks is still felt. Even though the Chashmonaim won the physical war against the Greeks, our perfect clarity about Torah declined.

However, Rav Hutner says if we look at the situation from a different perspective, we will understand that the Greek era caused the opposite effect. The increase in disputes actually helped preserve and restore the Torah that might otherwise have been forgotten!

The Gemara describes all its conflicting opinions as “divrei elokim chaim”—all the opinions regarding an issue are correct, even if we only rule like one of them. How is this so? Each opinion can be considered and possibly used for halachic rulings in different situations. But even more fundamentally, the differences of opinion help crystallize the concepts involved. The back-and-forth arguments help reveal different angles on how to understand a topic, leading to deeper knowledge.

Typically, a day in yeshiva is spent learning with a chavrusa—a study partner—as opposed to individual study. The two individuals often have different approaches to understanding the topic, and together, using many different rabbinical authorities for guidance, they can come to a clear conclusion. Some of my own best chavrusos had entirely different ways of thinking and I enjoyed learning with all of them, since they helped me see the Gemara from an angle I might never have contemplated.

The increase in arguments of interpretation, starting from the Greek era, caused a major expansion of Torah. It’s noteworthy that the Mishnayos and Gemara are founded on the thousands of disputes that evolved from the era of the Greeks. These arguments continued through the centuries of the Rishonim and Acharonim until this very day. Each additional dispute adds greater clarity and understanding by detailing the respective arguments.

The Greeks did initiate confusion in our Torah learning, which is expressed by the three-day period of darkness. Let’s face it: Gemara learning is difficult. Many people tell me, “Rabbinical arguments in the Gemara are not for me. It’s all so confusing; I don’t get it.” I reassure them that one of the most rewarding feelings in Torah learning is the clarity achieved after sorting through all the confusion. Giving up is succumbing to the darkness, giving the Greeks a victory. But if we plug away, especially with a study partner, the Midrash promises that the apparent darkness of our not understanding will eventually turn into great light and clarity through the learning of our great Torah.

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