The Zilberman Method

The past few decades have witnessed the rapid growth of Yeshivot that adhere to what is known as “The Zilberman Model” in the world of Jewish Education. Yeshivot across the spectrum, from Jerusalem to Johannesburg to Toronoto, have adapted the Zilberman model of education. What exactly is the Zilberman method, and why has it become so popular in recent years?

Some fifty years ago, following the birth of his first son, Rabbi Yitzchok Shlomo Zilberman undertook the study of the sources concerning the mitzvah of talmud Torah. After consulting with the Torah leaders of his day, and receiving encouragement from the preeminent Torah sage Dayan Yechezkel Abramsky, the well known educator from Jerusalem created the method that bears his name. His yeshivah presently located in the Old City of Jerusalem, Aderet Eliyahu, is the forerunner to some forty elementary schools that are based on his model. These schools are found in Israel as well as in Johannesburg, South Africa; Toronto, Canada; Lakewood, New Jersey; Los Angeles, California; and Baltimore, Maryland. The yeshivot use a somewhat modified form of the method used by Aderet Eliyahu.

Far from being a revolutionary approach, the Zilberman method draws upon traditional teaching methods as outlined by Chazal and championed by the Maharal and Vilna Gaon. The Mishnah and the Gemara set forth halachic guidelines for teaching Torah to children. These guidelines include the ages at which texts should be studied (“Five years old is the age to begin studying Scripture; ten for Mishnah; thirteen for the obligation of the commandments; fifteen for the study of Talmud…” [Avot 5:21]), the times of study (including Shabbat for children; Hachazan roeh heichan tinokot korin– the chazzan observes [on Shabbat] where [in the text] the children are reading [Shabbat 11a, Rashi, Ran]) and the manner of teaching (safi lei k’tura–stuffing the children like oxen [Ketubot 50a]; ligmar inish v’hadar lisbor–read the text and then explain it [Shabbat 63a]).

The Zilberman method has children focus exclusively on Tanach and Mishnah in their younger years, ensuring that they know large portions of both areas by heart before they begin learning Gemara. Indeed, graduates of such schools tend to have impressive fluency in these areas. Two key elements in Zilberman’s methodology, however, must be singled out: chazarah (review) and student participation.

In the Zilberman-styled school, a new text of Chumash is introduced in the following manner (obviously adjustments are made for each grade level). On Monday and Tuesday, the rebbe chants the text with the ta’amei ha’mikra (tropp) and the students immediately imitate him. This is repeated several times until the students are able to read the text independently. Then the rebbe introduces the translation/explanation of the text and invites students to participate in the process. New words typically need to be translated only once; subsequently, students are encouraged to call out the translation on their own. All translations are strictly literal. If the translation does not automatically yield a comprehensible meaning, the students are invited to try to find one. The class spends the rest of the week reviewing the material. Each pasuk is reviewed with the tropp at least twenty-four times.

In contrast, in the majority of other schools, the text is not sung with tropp; it is not repeated to the point of memorization and often the entire translation is provided by the rebbe. Furthermore, students are not encouraged to join in the process of translating the words, and usually the translation provides the final understanding of the verse rather than the literal meaning of each word.

What are some of salutary effects of the Zilberman method?

1. Students are continuously and actively involved in the learning process.

2. The constant review guarantees that the children will know the text by heart. This leads to the feeling of mastery, and sets the standard for all Torah learning–mastery. And mastery leads to simchah (joy).

3. Participation in the translation and explanation of the text initiates the student to the process of learning Torah and to his own capabilites. He is not just witnessing the mysterious genius of the rebbe; he is contributing his own intelligence to the process.

4. Mastery leads to penetrating discussions of the text because the students have the whole text before them. So students may be propelled to ask, “How can it be that Yaval invented shepherding if Hevel was a shepherd earlier?” (Did you notice that when you were studying Bereishit at age six?) Then the rebbe draws the student’s attention to Rashi, who explains that Yaval invented nomadic shepherding. Now the student understands what motivated Rashi to provide that particular explanation!

5. Believe it or not, the various benefits listed above generate within students a genuine and deep love of learning. Students do not want to miss yeshivah–some even refuse to take vacations.

The Zilberman Philosophy
The Zilberman philosophy of Talmud Torah is based on an understanding of the nature of mitzvot in general. Every mitzvah has two components: the rules and the goals of the mitzvah. The detailed rules concerning how to perform the mitzvah are the halachot of the mitzvah. Then there are the goals that the performance of a mitzvah should attempt to achieve (although the mesorah does not reveal the goals of every mitzvah). When we plan to do a mitzvah, we seek strategies to both assist in the practice of the halachah and to enhance attainment of the goals of the mitzvah. These strategies may include any means that do not violate Torah norms. However, an appeal to these strategies is not an adequate reason to reject implementing any part of the mesorah-definition of the mitzvah, i.e., the halachah and the goals.

We accept that the halachic rules are nonnegotiable for two reasons:

a.We recognize that while often a purpose of the halachot is to achieve (one or more of ) the goals, the relationship between the two (i.e., the halachot and the goals) is deeper than what we can comprehend.

b. Mitzvot have ta’amim that are often not revealed to us.

When exceptional circumstances arise that demand changing certain details that the mesorah or the halachah set forth, we must look for guidance to the Torah sages of the generation to instruct us in making adjustments.

Consider tefillah as an example. The goal of tefillah is essentially to connect one with Hashem. To this end, kavanah, concentration on the meaning and text of the prayers, is an integral part of the mitzvah of tefillah. One aspect of the halachically defined practice of tefillah is praying from a fixed text. In certain cases where there is tension between the halachic practice of tefillah and the goal of the mitzvah (connection through kavanah) the pesak (formal halachic ruling) is to sacrifice halachic form for the sake of the substance of the mitzvah. A case in point is the abbreviated text of tefillah known as Havinenu, created specifically for travelers. Furthermore, those returning from a trip were excused from tefillah altogether. The practice of the mitzvah was modified because one praying while traveling or returning from a trip is unable to have appropriate concentration. Thus, the form of the mitzvah was adjusted for the sake of the substance of the mitzvah.

Contrast this with the halachot relevant to an avel, a mourner. The halachah requires a mourner to pray even though he may be totally distracted, because he is required to overcome his grief enough to have proper concentration. But what if a mourner can’t overcome his grief. Is he therefore exempt from praying? No, the halachah says, he is not. The halachah dictates that in some cases lack of concentration overrides tefillah and in other cases, it does not.

Far from being a revolutionary approach, the Zilberman method draws upon traditional teaching methods as outlined by Chazal and championed by the Maharal and Vilna Gaon.

The halachic rules of a mitzvah are the fundamental Masoretic prescription for attaining the goals of the mitzvah. Unless the circumstances are halachically exceptional, this methodology is the standard that must be followed. To deviate from the prescription requires a demonstration that the circumstances are relevantly exceptional. And when the circumstances change so that they are no longer exceptional, the original position returns as binding.

The application to talmud Torah is straightforward. Children should be educated in accordance with the educational methodology outlined by Chazal. Some maintain that because the Haskalah, the Jewish Enlightenment, emphasized the study of Tanach, it was discouraged in certain religious circles. However, nowadays, the Haskalah no longer presents the same threat; thus, the time has come to reinstate the primacy of Tanach in the yeshivah curriculum.

The mesorah also defines goals for talmud Torah: getting children to know and understand the material, to love the process of learning, and to develop into ovdei Hashem. To achieve these goals, it is appropriate to use any devices that have demonstrated effectiveness, as long as they do not violate other Torah norms. These may include employing visual aids and group activities, learning through play, writing summaries of lessons, using oral and written exams, relating the material to the lives of the students to make the lessons more relevant and vivid, using activities to promote bonding between teacher and students, et cetera. But none of these devices can serve as the basis for contradicting the mesorah-definition of the mitzvah.

So, for example, we want the children to enjoy the learning, as a means to come to love the process. Many children will not naturally enjoy learning the rules of tumah and taharah, or the architecture of the mishkan, or the list of places that Klal Yisrael passed during their travels in the desert. But that is no reason to omit those sections of Chumash from the curriculum. Similarly, since the halachic rules of Talmud Torah require knowing and mastering Chumash, not merely having read it, dislike of the chazarah needed for mastery is not a reason to omit the repetition (see Avodah Zarah 19a). Moreover, the fact that many nine-year-olds can understand parts of mishnayot is not an adequate reason to change the ages Chazal prescribed for the study of the texts.

There is an even deeper principle for following the dictates of Chazal with regard to educational philosophy. Talmud Torah is a mitzvah. It is not the Jewish counterpart of Greek philosophy, or of contemporary advanced education. A mitzvah is a way in which Hakadosh Baruch Hu ordained that the Creation receives its tikkun, rectification. The mitzvot were given by the Creator Who knows what His Creation needs. He is aware of the nature of His people to whom He has addressed these mitzvot and the nature of the circumstances in which they live. Tampering with the mesorah-definition of a mitzvah is thus ruled out (unless the circumstances can be shown to be halachically exceptional). In other words, changing practice–failing to perform the mitzvah in the way that the mesorah defines–risks lessening or even entirely forfeiting the spiritual effect of the mitzvah; that is, it risks losing everything. For this very reason we would never dream of changing the mesorah-definition of other mitzvot (unless the circumstances can be shown to be halachically exceptional). The four cups of wine at the Pesach Seder may give one headaches until Shavuot and therefore seemingly negate any feelings of freedom that they are intended to induce. Similarly, blowing loud noises with a shofar in a public setting may not appear to be conducive to inspiring teshuvah to one who needs quiet to contemplate. And keeping Shabbat when one is facing severe economic difficulties may cause physical hardship and emotional distress, which seem far from menuchah, the rest that is an integral part of the mitzvah of Shabbat. Nevertheless, no one would suggest that the halachot should be modified for any of these cases.

Ramchal (Derech Etz Chaim) says that the Torah study of young children subdues the powers of evil in a uniquely effective way since they are entirely free from the yetzer hara (evil inclination). The Zohar (Introduction, p. 6) says, “the voice [sic] of tinokot shel beit rabban preserves the world, causes the Avot to appear, and through these children the world is saved.” The Midrash Tanchuma (Parashat Tzav) states: “Why do tinokot shel beit rabban begin with Vayikra? Because Vayikra records all the korbanot and the children are tahorim. Let the tahorim come and occupy themselves with the actions that require taharah, and I [Hakadosh Baruch Hu] regard it as if you brought the korbanot before Me.”

The Maharal (Derush al HaTorah) says that Torah is sechel Eloki (the wisdom of Hashem) and thus naturally foreign to the human mind. Therefore the order Chazal advocated for teaching Torah must be followed to gradually introduce this “foreign” element to our children.

Still another advocate for returning to tradition was Rabbi Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler (Michtav MeEliyahu, vol. 3, p. 362), who states that the teaching of the aleph bet in the traditional manner [“kametz alef ah….”] “infuses the child with kedushah and chavivut [affection], which lead to yirat Shamayim and love [for Hakadosh Baruch Hu]–and that is ikar halimud, and therefore one must not change the method.” Rabbi Dessler states that he heard similar ideas from the Chazon Ish many times.

In all these sources there is not a word about educational efficiency. Rather, the mitzvah of talmud Torah– teaching Torah to our young—is a mitzvah that perfects Creation in specific ways, and the details of the halachot are designed to achieve that perfection.

The Zilberman position is this: Whatever exceptional circumstances existed in centuries past, those conditions no longer exist and therefore there is no justification to disregard Chazal’s educational prescription. Thus we are required to return to the original mesorah-definition for Talmud Torah. While it is natural for one to say he wants to do what his grandfather did–“If it was right for one as holy and righteous as he, it cannot be wrong for me!”–in this case, it is incorrect. Instead, one should say, “If my grandfather were here, what would he do?”

Rabbi Zilberman believed that if our ancestors were here today, they would embrace the educational methodology advocated by mesorah and by Chazal. Indeed, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein’s famous pesak concerning changing one’s nusach in tefillah is quite relevant here. Rav Moshe ruled (Orach Chaim II:24) that an Ashkenazi who currently davens Nusach Sephard may switch to Nusach Ashkenaz since somewhere in his past there was an ancestor who changed from Nusach Ashkenaz to Nusach Sephard. Thus, this individual cannot in principle be opposed to changes! Similarly, today we find people whose practice of Talmud Torah does not adhere to the directives outlined in the Gemara; at some point, their ancestor(s) veered from the educational methodology outlined by Chazal. They cannot in principle be opposed to reverting back to the traditional guidelines.

Unfortunately, certain ma’amarei Chazal are often cited to justify the departure from Chazal’s educational methods. However, while on the surface these ma’amarei Chazal seem to be negating the importance of studying mikra, a deeper understanding of the various writings of Chazal indicate that the study and mastery of mikra is absolutely essential. I hope the few examples I show below will serve as a binyan av (generalization based on analogy from one source text) for other such sources that may occur to the reader.

Commenting on the Gemara (Kiddushin 30a) that directs a person to divide his days between the study of mikra, Mishnah and Gemara, Rabbeinu Tam says: “We rely on what is said in Sanhedrin 24a: ‘Bavel [Talmud Bavli] means filled with mikra, Mishnah and Gemara–for the Gemara of Bavel is filled with all of them.’” In other words, Rabbeinu Tam is stating one need only study Talmud Bavli to fulfill his obligation to study mikra and Mishnah as well.

Does this mean that the independent study and mastery of mikra and Mishnah are unnecessary? Is it possible that Rabbeinu Tam is contradicting the mishnah in Avot and the other sources that instruct us in the order of study? Elaborating on Rabbeinu Tam’s answer, the Shelah (Masechet Shavuot, beg.) clarifies: “. . . therefore a person must learn halachah from the Talmud every day of his life. And even though he fulfills the obligation to study divrei Torah via Talmud Bavli, this is for the sake of his daily obligation. Even so a person must learn Torah, Nevi’im and Ketuvim and Mishnah and Talmud. . . until he knows them by heart–and the halachah from the Talmud is to fulfill the obligation to divide his time in three.”

Essentially, the Shelah is stating that an individual has two obligations: a daily obligation to spend a third of his time studying mikra, Mishnah and Talmud, and a separate obligation to master mikra, Mishnah and Talmud to the point where one knows them by heart. According to this reading of the Rabbeinu Tam, in the gemara above Rabbeinu Tam is merely stating that the daily obligation, albeit not the general obligation, can be fulfilled by studying Talmud alone.

Hagahot Sefer Yesh Nochalin, the brother of the Shelah, states: “Chazal said that the study of mikra is mida v’aina mida, only partially praiseworthy.’ Chazal further said: ‘Stop your sons from higayon.’ Rashi explains that higayon in this context refers to excessive study of mikra. [The author then cites the statement of Rabbeinu Tam, and continues] ‘And the verses, mishnayot and passages from the Talmud inserted at the beginning of the siddur ought to satisfy the obligation [to divide one’s time in thirds for the three studies above].’”

Someone who relies on these writings of Chazal to absolve himself from the study of mikra is making a mistake. For we find other statements from Chazal that assert the exact opposite. . . such as a talmid chacham must be adorned with twenty-four sefarim like a kallah. . . [Rashi, Parashat Ki Tisa]. Furthermore, why did many great Torah scholars write commentaries on Tanach if the study of Tanach is secondary? It would seem that all of the sources mentioned above refer to someone who intends to spend all or most of his life learning and wishes to devote the entire time to the study of mikra alone. That is inappropriate. He should spend time learning Gemara as well. Moreover, Rabbeinu Tam is referring to an individual who is already knowledgeable in the twenty-four sifrei Tanach. Ba’al Netivot Hamishpat, Rabbi Yaakov Lisa, wrote in his tzava’ah (will) the following: “Even though Chazal said that Talmud Bavli contains all [that is, all three studies and therefore one need not study Tanach separately]– that is for [Chazal] since they already filled themselves with mikra and Mishnah. Also, [they said this so] that the yetzer hara to learn Torah she lo lishma [not for the sake of Heaven] should not attack [when one studies] mikra and Mishnah.”

I hope from this sample of sources the reader appreciates why the practitioners of the Zilberman method feel that their derech is the default position: Any deviation must be justified by citing exceptional circumstances.

The Ramchal in Derech Hashem (IV: 2) details the unique impact that talmud Torah has on the perfection of the Creation. Hakadosh Baruch Hu placed an intense energy (hashpa’ah) into the Creation and commanded us to access that energy and apply it to the whole of the Creation. The mode of access is talmud Torah. The mesorah– Chazal, Rishoniom and Acharonim –have taught us how to achieve this. It is our sacred trust–may Hakadosh Baruch Hu grant us the wisdom to do it right!

The Zilberman Method in Action
In a Zilberman-styled classroom, the rebbe would translate the verse “Tadshei ha’aretz deshe” (Bereishit 1:11) as, “The earth shall grass grass.” In this way, the students understand that “deshe” and “tadshei” are related. Then the rebbe asks, “What do you think the Torah is telling us when it says, ‘The earth shall grass grass?’” The students respond, “The earth shall grow grass.” This approach instills in students an exquisite sensitivity to the Torah’s language and trains them to pick up subtle nuances in the text.

Another example: consider the following phrases from three verses in Tanach: “nosei Aron brit Hashem” [Joshua 4:18], “nosei avon” [Exodus 34:7], and “lo tisa shema shav” [Exodus 23:1]. If you translate the verses as “carriers of the Aron,” “forgives sin” and “Do not accept lashon hara” respectively, students may miss out on the fact that the same verb appears in all three verses. A rebbe versed in the Zilberman method would translate the verses as follows: “carriers of the Aron,” “carries sin” and “do not carry a false hearing.” Even young students can be guided to get from “He carries sin” to “He forgives sin”; somewhat older students can figure out on their own that “do not carry a false hearing” really means “do not accept lashon hara.”

During the classroom discussion, the rebbe can ask, “Where does one carry something that he hears?” Students reply, “In his head.” Rebbe: “What then could ‘carrying a hearing’mean [how do we keep it in our head]?” Students: “By believing or accepting that which we hear.” Rebbe: “And what kind of false hearing could the Torah be telling us not to carry? If we know it is false, of course we will not accept it!” After a little discussion the students realize that “false hearing” is the Torah’s way of referring to lashon hara. The Torah uses the somewhat ambiguous term “false hearing” to teach us that we must relate to lashon hara as a falsehood, and not believe it.

Rabbi Dr. Dovid Gottlieb is a senior faculty member at Ohr Somayach in Jerusalem. An author and lecturer, Rabbi Gottlieb received his PhD in mathematical logic at Brandeis University and later become professor of philosophy at Johns Hopkins University. He is a regular lecturer at kiruv conferences. The author thanks Rabbis Nechemiah Gottlieb and Pinchas Gottlieb for their very valuable comments in reviewing the article.

This article was featured in the Spring 2010 issue of Jewish Action.