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Monday, May 21, 2012

Shy Guy (Part 4: Svara)

We would like to explain the statement of  אין הביישן למד, that a shy person can not learn, by taking it at face value.  Although בושה is a good character trait of the Jewish nation, and is on the middle path, it gets in the way of learning Torah. It must be overcome in order to truly learn.  The student who gives in to בושה in his learning is criticized.

The student described in the Rambam is the slowest among his peers to understand a given idea.  Everyone else comprehends the idea after one or two times, yet he still doesn't understand and has to ask again.  It is only natural for the student to resist asking, not wanting to look stupid in front of his peers.  Certainly, he is obligated to overcome that resistance in order to learn Torah.

But there is another way that בושה is brought into the situation.  The student is slowing down the rest of the class that has already comprehended the matter.  He is asking that everyone wait for him to understand.  It might take him many times before he understands, yet he is obligated to keep asking.

The further learning of the other students is being held up for one person.  In all other situations this would be inappropriate.  If this were a physics class, we would tell the one student that we can't hold up the learning of the entire class for him.  We cannot sacrifice the group for one individual.  The group would rightfully look disparagingly at an individual student who kept placing his own interests before the group.  The student, assuming he had a proper character, would feel ashamed and would promptly desist from asking further questions, and thereby be unable to learn physics.

But this is not physics.  We can tell the slowest student that physics is not for him.  We can not tell any individual that Torah is not for him.  Torah is a basic need for the Jewish mind's survival.  The Rambam says that the student responds to his Rebbe, תורה היא וללמוד אני צריך ודעתי קצרה, "it is Torah, and I need to learn, and my mind is narrow."  If the slowest student stops asking after everyone else understands, he will end up never learning anything.  That is why the Rambam adds: שאם נתבייש מדבר זה נמצא נכנס ויוצא לבית המדרש והוא אינו למד כלום

The slowest student cannot follow the middle path of בושה when learning Torah.  The obligation to learn is incumbent upon him too.  The need to learn is his as much as it is theirs.  The entire group's learning might suffer quantitatively, but the halacha does not allow us to sacrifice one individual's soul for the benefit of the many.


  1. Based on this explanation, we can understand why this halacha is found in Hilchos Talmud Torah, and not in Hilchos Daos which deals with appropriate character traits. The mitzvah and need of Talmud Torah overrides the character trait which is ordinarily appropriate, and characteristic of the Jew.

  2. This may be a separate point, but is busha really the derech bainonis? It certainly doesn't sound like it. It sounds like it is one extreme and azos panim, brazenness, is the other. What two traits would busha be the middle path between?

    1. its not a side question. we probably should have explained the other extreme in the post itself.

      the rambam, in the perush hamishna, towards the beginning of the 4th chapter of his introduction to avos, says that beishuness is in between azos and hachlumus (disgrace)...

      (you can see footnote 12 in the Kapach translation there for another way to translate it and explain the statement of אין הביישן למד)

      the opposite extreme of brazenness would seem to be excessive embarrassment, where a person feels ashamed and disgraced without having done anything truly wrong (perhaps we would call this a neurotic sense of shame). the middle path would be when a person only feels ashamed when he is actually doing something improper. brazenness is when a person feels no shame, even when they are doing something wrong.

  3. But why not tell the student to attend an easier class? He IS holding up the learning of everyone else. If the goal is to accomplish the most learning for everyone, the student should definitely leave and learn in a different way that doesn't compromise the learning of others.

    It would seem, based on this approach, that it would be better for the student to use his shame to stop himself from slowing down the rest of the class and further to learn extra outside of class or attend a different shiur that he can understand.

    1. you are definitely correct. if there is another class to go to, where he will be at the same learning level as the other students, the student has to transfer. we can't imagine that the rambam would advise against it if it were available.

      unfortunately, only grouping students at the same exact learning level is a luxury that often times does not exist. (it only works when you have a very large population size and a proportionate number of teachers). in most real world situations, there will be a slowest student in the class. it is to this student that the rambam statement of אין הביישן למד applies.

  4. Something about this just doesn't sit right with me. The benefit that the class gains from staying with this "slow" student's questions is being glossed over. I'm not sure at all that this student is, in fact, slow. Perhaps she is just more aware of her own lacks of understanding. After all, when you're sitting in a class and your brilliant teacher is saying these amazing ideas, it is very easy to go along and say, "Yeah, yeah! I completely understand!" It takes a very honest and student to acknowledge her own lack of understanding and submit the Rav's idea to the same sort of rigorous testing and evidence requirements that she would her own svarot. Often, when one person asks a question in shiur, I will realize that there are many parts of the shiur that I too have not fully understood when I thought that I had. In fact, if every student applied the principle of "En Bayshan Lamed" it is likely that every single person would be involved in questioning on a regular basis. It doesn't feel like a healthy middah to be engaging in judging what constitutes a slow student because who knows if it is not just my ego telling me that I am the one who isn't slow. Of course I appreciate the justice argument that you have put forth, I just wonder if this whole discussion points to a lack of justice in thinking about students and their questions. Answering that "slow" student shouldn't be seen as holding up the class to meet the needs of just this one. Instead, it can be seen as an opportunity for the entire class to benefit. Just wanted to put that out there.

    1. What you're saying is certainly true. All too often, many of the students act like they understand (by not asking a question) when if fact they do not. this is in clear violation of the rambams statement לא יאמר התלמיד הבנתי והוא לא הבין

      Not only does this give misinformation to the teacher, but it also can make another student ashamed to ask for fear of looking slow, when in fact, the other students do not understand either. In this situation, is of great benefit to the teacher, the other students and the student herself to ask the question.

      Nevertheless, there also does exist the case where there really is one student who does not understand when all the others do. We think it is necessary for the halacha to address this case (also, the law in this case applies to the prior case as well). We think that the evidence that the rambam is addressing the situation when the other students do understand is his statement לא יהיה התלמיד בוש מחביריו שלמדו מפעם ראשונה או שניה והוא לא למד אלא אחר כמה פעמים


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