For the week ending 10 January 2015 / 19 Tevet 5775

Depth and Breadth

by Rabbi Yirmiyahu Ullman -
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From: Alan

Dear Rabbi,

I have had some introductory exposure to learning Torah. Some has been more in-depth, other focused more on breadth. I was wondering, which approach is preferable?

Dear Alan,

This is a very important question, and one which is discussed in many sources.

There are several advantages to learning in-depth. It ensures that one learns and understands the will of G-d in order to fulfill it properly. It develops the mind, hones one’s learning skills and imparts an appreciation for the wealth of Torah.

On the other hand, learning in-depth can be very time-consuming. The limited focus may compromise a wider knowledge of Torah, may cause confusion, or frustration which might even undermine practice.

Learning which emphasizes breadth also has advantages and disadvantages. On the one hand, it ensures a broad, general knowledge of many Torah topics, it is novel and stimulating, and illustrates the inter-connectedness and continuity of Torah. On the other hand, it is less mind-sharpening and may result in over-looking certain important details.

If the question is which approach is preferable from an over-all Torah point of view, it would seem to me that, if it must be one or the other, for most people, a broader knowledge of more topics is considered better than thorough knowledge of less.

This way, one becomes familiar with most ideas and practices of Judaism, and will at least know what and how to ask about anything he’s not clear about. Also, it will ultimately be more stimulating, as a person is continually engaged in learning new things which he’ll be able to incorporate into what he already knows.

That being said, the traditional model of Yeshiva learning attempts to strike a balance by harnessing the benefits of both approaches. Typically, the morning hours of the day are dedicated to in-depth learning which hones one’s analytical and learning skills, while enabling one to acquire sophisticated, detailed knowledge of the topic. The afternoon hours are dedicated to acquiring breadth of knowledge with its particular benefits. The evening hours of learning are often used for reviewing what was learned during the day.

In this way, the areas of one’s learning compliment each other and become holistically integrated into one balanced whole.

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