The Gemara says that when "two sit and learn together, the Shechinah is with them." Does this also apply to two people who learn together over the telephone or computer?
I don't have access to email, so please call me with the answer (phone number submitted to Kollel separately).
Akiva Rokowsky, Yerushalayim
1. It seems obvious to me that the Shechinah is with the two people who learn over the telephone. This is because there does not appear to be any logical reason to say that they must see each other in order for the Shechinah to be with them. If two people were learning together on opposite sides of a wall and could not see each other but could hear each other, it seems obvious that the Shechinah is there because they are learning together simultaneously.
a. However, it might be possible to argue that learning via correspondence (such as via email) is different. Since they are not learning at the same time, they may be considered as though they are learning one after the other.
b. Nevertheless, I would like to prove that the Shechinah indeed is with them. My proof is from the fact that the Gemara here in Berachos states that the Shechinah is even with one person who learns by himself. The Gemara then asks that if the Shechinah is with one person, then why is it necessary to teach that the Shechinah is with two people who learn together? The Gemara answers that there is an important distinction between two people who learn together and one person who learns alone. When two people learn together, their words are written in the Sefer ha'Zichronos, the book of remembering, while the words of one person who learns are not written in the Sefer ha'Zichronos.
(According to the Gemara, we could end the answer to your question by stating that the Gemara states explicitly that the Shechinah is with one person who learns, so it certainly is with two people who learn over the phone or computer. Your question, though, is whether those two people have the benefit of their words being written in the Sefer ha'Zichronos. Moreover, I saw that the "Mi'ma'ayanos Netzach" on Pirkei Avos (3:3, page 148) cites the Chida who writes in his commentary that it is possible that when the Mishnah there states that the Shechinah is with even one who learns Torah, this may refer to someone who strains his brain to the maximum to make a Pilpul of Halachah and come up with Chidushim. This may be similar to the learning of the Arizal, who would invest such great effort into his study of Halachah that he would break out in sweat. According to this understanding, it may be that not everyone is capable of reaching this level of learning on his own. In contrast, if one learns with a partner, it is much easier to put all of one's concentration into learning, so it is easier to acquire the Shechinah with two than with one.)
c. We will now try and understand the meaning behind the idea of being written in the Sefer ha'Zichronos. The Maharsha writes that as a result of discussing the words of Torah together, the learning partners will usually reach the true meaning of the Torah's words, which is then possible to commit to writing. In contrast, one who learns on his own may make mistakes and his explanatiaons will not be worth writing down. According to this explanation, two people who learn together over the phone or computer may also be written in the Sefer ha'Zichronos, because in this way they also can discuss together the topics they are learning and thereby reach the truth.
d. In summary, it seems apparent that the Shechinah is with two people learning over the phone or computer, because the Gemara says that the Shechinah is even with one person who learns on his own. This is not so simple, though, because it may be difficult for someone learning alone to reach the level of learning necessary to receive the Shechinah. When two people learn together, they will not make mistakes, since each one will correct his study partner. Since they will attain the truth of Torah, "their words will be written" in Hashems' book and they will receive a high level of Shechinah.
e. I want to suggest another proof that two people who learn together over the telephone or over the computer can attain the level that "two people learning together have their words written in the Sefer ha'Zichronos" (which the Gemara states is the difference between two people learning together and one person who learns on his own). My proof is from the explanation of the Vilna Ga'on (in Imrei No'am, his Sefer on Berachos) concerning the distinction the Gemara makes between one person learning and two people learning. The Vilna Ga'on cites the Gemara later (63b) which states that "a sword is placed upon those who sit alone and learn Torah." The Gemara there asserts that people who learn Torah on their own will become foolish. The Vilna Ga'on writes that the reason for this is that if one learns on his own he forgets his learning, while a person who studies with others remembers what he has learned much better. It is only if a person remembers his learning that one can say that his words are written in the Sefer ha'Zichronos, because it is only then that his Torah study is lasting and enduring.
Accordingly, if one learns with a telephone or computer Chavrusa, he benefits from the interaction of learning with a partner and does not fall into the category of "one who learns alone" who "becomes foolish."
f. However, after I wrote the above, I spoke to a number of Talmidei Chachamim who appear to be of the opinion that the level of Shechinah attained by learning over the phone or computer is not the same as what one reaches when one learns in the Beis ha'Midrash. One Talmid Chacham argued that a "Tzibur" is required to achieve the level of "words written in the Sefer ha'Zichronos" and one does not possess this Tzibur merely by corresponding in Torah. Another Talmid Chacham said that two must learn "together," and learning on the phone is not considered as learning together.
g. I do not yet fully understand this argument, and it is not clear to me how they refute the proofs that I cited from the Maharsha and the Vilna Ga'on. However, I saw that the Chidushim u'Vi'urim (by Rav Chaim Greineman shlit'a) to Berachos 6a writes that there must be something that binds the 10, 5, or 3 people who do the Mitzvos together. He proves this from the Gemara's statement here that the difference between 10 and 3 is that when 10 pray together the Shechinah arrives even before all 10 are present. Rav Greineman writes that this implies that even before they are all togeher they are considered as 10, and this must mean that they decided to come together. We see from here that there is something special about everyone being together. If so, perhaps one may argue that if two people are learning over the phone or computer they are not considered as learning together because they are not in the same room. It may be that just as all 10 must be in the same room in order to comprise a Minyan for Tefilah (see Shulchan Aruch OC 55:13), so too must the two people be in the same room to be considered that they are learning together.
h. Clearly this question requires further study but I will close here for the moment.