I have a pretty serious concern raised by Berachos 63 with the admonition that one who studies Torah alone is foolish and likely to suffer consequences.
In my situation, where I happen to live, in the middle of North Dakota where there is virtually no Jewish community, it is impossible to study Torah with others. Does Berachos 63 imply that I should not study? That would be hard to believe!
Is it an adequate substitute to seek out commentaries, study materials and discussion groups such as this one on the Internet, and thereby "not study alone" even if electronically at a distance?
I think you can understand my concerns!
Bismarck, North Dakota
The Gemara is specifically referring to those who purposely isolate themselves from others, even though there are others around with whom they could study. This is implicit in the wording of the Gemara, "Destruction to those... who sit alone and alone ;" the repetition of "alone and alone" ("Bad v'Bad") indicates that there are two people in the same place who could study together, but they purposely isolate themselves. This is also implicit in the verse from which this concept is derived, "Cherev Al ha'*Badim*," "Badim" being in the plural construct.
Many of the greatest Torah sages of history learned by themselves, either because they had no choice due to their circumstances, or because they simply learned better that way. However, they were not learning by themselves in the sense that they associated with others in learning and spoke or wrote with others about what they learned. Certainly one who lives in North Dakota who studies from the classic commentaries can, in a sense, be considered to be actually learning with those great sages, and is not learning by himself. We, at Kollel Iyun ha'Daf, are proud to have someone like that joining us.
I also have a question regarding learning by oneself. I am very confused about this because of the following reason. I know a rabbi who spent many years learning very closely with probably the greatest Posek of the previous generation. This rabbi claims that because of this, he has the Mesorah. He says that there are very few rabbis today who have the Mesorah. He maintains that most rabbis today have not learned closely for an extended peroid of time from another rabbi who has the Mesorah. Rather, they have learned mainly by themselves. Therefore, he says, they also do not have the Mesorah and are not qualified as a Posek.
Can you please comment on the each of the points above? If this rabbi is correct, does that mean that the only worthwhile way to learn is to seek out a rabbi who has the Mesorah and learn from him? If one can't find such a rabbi, is he better off learning from another rabbi (who doesn't have the Mesorah) or is it just as good to learn from texts alone?
You (Kolel) said that some of the greatest sages learned by themselves. I think the Chazon Ish is one, but I don't know of others. Can you please list some others? Was the Chazon Ish and any others who learned alone considered Poskim? By what criteria does a rabbi become a Posek?
Also, can you please explain what it means that they learned alone? Did they ever have a Rebbi? If so, how much time did they spend learning with him?
Good point. One of the reasons why the Gemara looks down on those who learn by themselves is because of the reason which you wrote -- they are missing the Mesorah. However, as I wrote to Mr. Newell, the Torah Sages that we know of who learned by themselves were not doing what the Gemara warns against (nor is Mr. Newell). They were not cutting themselves off from the Mesorah or from communicating and interacting with other scholars. All of them had very close relationships with their personal Rebbeim, and almost all of them carried on extensive dialogues with other Sages and many delivered Shi'urim to large numbers of Talmidim (some were even the heads of huge Torah institutions). They learned alone either because of their circumstances (war, etc.), or because they felt that they were able to learn qualitatively and quantitatively better without a Chavrusa. Their learning, though, was all based on the Mesorah that they had received from their Rebbe'im.
Furthermore, with the plethora of Sefarim that are available today, one's "Rebbi" can be the Sefarim that he uses, if he is humble enough to accept what they say over what he says, and learns and understands what they had to say about the Gemara before he interpolates his own explanations into the words of the Sages.
As per your request that I list some other Sages who learned by themselves, the list is too big even to begin. If you send me the names of the Gedolim whom you are wondering about, I will try to tell you if they learned by themselves, and who their primary Rebbe'im were.
All the best,
I have heard that the halacha of learning by oneself no longer applies because of the huge amount of written literature available so that in essence one is not learning by oneself. In a similar vein Rav Schachter writes in the name of Rav Soloveitchik that today there is almost no such thing as rebbe muvhak except in very unusual circumstances because most of one's learning comes from books and not a personal rebbe. The Gemara was referring to their age when all learning was personal and learning by oneself meant cutting oneself off from all traditions.
Thank you so much for your response. I'd appreciate if you can answer a few more questions on this subject.
Are you saying that all of our greatest sages first