What’s better – continuing to learn online or getting together to learn?
Rabbanit Surale Rosen
She'elaNow that the easing of social distancing restrictions enables groups of people to come together and learn, should we continue learning on Zoom or is it preferable to sit together for a shiur and Havruta. Is there added value to assembling together physically for learning?
The Mishna Avot 3:2 discusses the presence of the Shekhinah while learning Torah:
R. Hananiah ben Teradion said: if two sit together and there are no words of Torah [spoken] between them, then this is a session of scorners, as it is said: “nor sat he in the seat of the scornful…[rather, the teaching of the Lord is his delight]” (Psalms 1:1); but if two sit together and there are words of Torah [spoken] between them, then the Shekhinah abides among them, as it is said: “then they that feared the Lord spoke one with another; and the Lord hearkened and heard, and a book of remembrance was written before Him, for them that feared the Lord and that thought upon His name” (Malachi 3:16).
The Mishna goes further to say that even a single person engaged in learning merits a reward: " How [do we know] that even one who sits and studies Torah the Holy One, blessed be He, fixes his reward? As it is said: “though he sit alone and [meditate] in stillness, yet he takes [a reward] unto himself” (Lamentations 3:28)."
The question is, what is it that calls forth the Shekhina? Is it the actual physical presence of two getting together to learn or is it the material they're engaged with? In other words, is it the Torah or the combination of people and Torah? From the conclusion that an individual who learns merits only a good reward but does not cause the Shekhinah to dwell, we can assume that it is indeed dependent on the two getting together to learn.
However, the idea is repeated in the following Mishna 3:6 "Rabbi Halafta of Kefar Hanania said: when ten sit together and occupy themselves with Torah, the Shekhinah abides among them, as it is said: “God stands in the congregation of God” (Psalm 82:1). How do we know that the same is true even of five? As it is said: “This band of His He has established on earth” (Amos 9:6). How do we know that the same is true even of three? As it is said: “In the midst of the judges He judges” (Psalm 82:1) How do we know that the same is true even of two? As it is said: “Then they that fear the Lord spoke one with another, and the Lord hearkened, and heard” (Malachi 3:16). How do we know that the same is true even of one? As it is said: “In every place where I cause my name to be mentioned I will come unto you and bless you” (Exodus 20:21)."
If the Previous Mishna had already taught that when two are learning, the Shekhinah dwells among them, then what is the purpose of the additional numbers in Mishna 6? Would we assume that כל המרבה הרי זה משובח , the bigger the group, the better?
The teaching in the latter Mishna about an individual learning Torah is that that in itself merits the Shekhina, thus disputing the conclusion in the previous Mishna (that an individual is only rewarded) and puts Torah learning as the primary cause for the Shekhinah’s presence (as opposed to two individuals getting together).
Also, Rabbi Halafta may be introducing the correlation, or, the comparison between a group of ten men praying together, a minyan, and the same number engaged in learning, concluding that regarding Talmud Torah, the approach is different from prayer and the Shekhina dwells even amongst smaller numbers.
We can suggest that from another angle, the Gemara in Berachot 6a deliberates on a similar question (whether Torah learning alone brings the Shekhinah or whether it requires the presence of two), regarding the presence of the Almighty in the synagogue: "Abba Binyamin said: One’s prayer is only fully heard in a synagogue, as it is stated with regard to King Solomon’s prayer in the Temple: “Yet have You turned toward the prayer of Your servant and to his supplication, Lord my God, to listen to the song and the prayer which Your servant prays before You on this day” (I Kings 8:28). The following verse concludes: “To hear the prayer your servant directs toward this place” (I Kings 8:29). We see that one’s prayer is heard specifically in the Temple. It may be inferred that in a place of song, a synagogue where God’s praises are sung, is where prayer should be heard. Ravin bar Rav Adda said that Rabbi Yitzḥak said: From where is it derived that the Holy One, Blessed be He, is located in a synagogue? As it is stated: “God stands in the congregation of God; in the midst of the judges He judges” (Psalms 82:1). The congregation of God is the place where people congregate to sing God’s praises, and God is located among His congregation.
The Gemara then asks "And from where is it derived that ten people who pray, the Divine Presence (Shekhinah) is with them? As it is stated: “God stands in the congregation of God,” and the minimum number of people that constitute a congregation is a quorum of ten".
If God is in shul anyway and this is where our prayer is ultimately heard, then why do we need ten men to congregate as well? Besides what the Gemara teaches about the Shekhinah resting even in a group of ten praying outside the synagogue, is it also setting a preference to pray with a minyan within the synagogue, when the sugya just mentioned that G-d is present there anyway? Is there a difference between God's presence and His Shekhinah? What is the primary factor – the place (synagogue) or the number of people (minyan)?
One way of understanding this Aggadic sugya is that since the Gemara used the same verse for both teachings, one is dependent on the other. The pasuk says "God stands in the congregation of God" – the synagogue is where God is present but He stands in the congregation, a minimum of which is ten. The question of the value of the prayer of an individual in the synagogue versus prayer outside it but with a minyan or inside with a minyan remains open to interpretation in the Poskim (Rambam Hilchot Tefila 8:1, Shulchan Aruch Orach Chayim 90:9, Talmid of Rabbeinu Yona in the Beit Yosef Orach Chayim 90:9). However, Talmud Torah is different to prayer since the Shekhinah abides by a single person.
When contemplating your question, there are a number of considerations – is it better to continue learning online, thus enabling more people to participate by reducing the hassle of getting to and from the shiur and in addition reaching out to those that can't actually come to learn for various reasons? Yet, we see that the online platform does not encourage lively participation and discussion and the nature of the shiur remains centered round the teacher – contrary to the unique quality of joint learning, havruta, where partners deliberate the issues at hand together until they reach greater clarification and understanding.
Something else to consider, no less important, is the value of investing time and effort in learning – עמל תורה literally, the labor of Torah. Torah shouldn't be something we do only at our ease and comfort. It isn't only about taking the time to sit for an online shiur because it’s easy but actually investing time in going to the Beit Midrash, in part because the quality of learning face to face is higher. We find in the introduction to the Vilna Gaon's Sifra Detznyutha, written by Rav Chaim of Volozhin, descriptions of his physical investment in Torah learning since this is part of meriting Torah. Similarly we find in the introduction of Rav Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin (the Netziv) to his book Ha'amek She'ela that the value of the labor of Torah is a primary element of the actual learning. The Netziv quotes the Gemara Sanhedrin 99b "Rav Yitzḥak bar Avudimi says… “The hunger of the laborer labors for him; for his mouth presses upon him” (Proverbs 16:26), i.e., he exhausts his mouth through constant review and study. He labors in Torah in this place, this world, and his Torah labors for him in another place, the World-to-Come". So too the Yerushalmi Pe'ah ch.1:1 lauds the labor and mesirut nefesh of beit din as it merits the fulfillment of their decisions.
Perhaps we should try and create a synthesis of what we gained from Corona home based learning i.e reaching out to people who are unable to attend by broadcasting online while an actual shiur is going on and simultaneously encouraging those who can to invest the time and effort it takes to walk/travel to be there physically so they can learn together.
אשרי מי שעמלו בתורה