Chavrusa, also spelled chavruta or havruta (Aramaic: חַבְרוּתָא, lit. "friendship" or "companionship"), is a traditional rabbinic approach to Talmudic study in which a pair of students analyze, discuss, and debate a shared text. It is a primary learning method in yeshivas and kollels, where students often engage regular study partners of similar knowledge and ability, and is also practiced by men and boys outside the yeshiva setting, in work, home and vacation settings. The traditional phrase is to learn b'chavrusa (בְחַבְרוּתָא, "in chavrusa"; i.e., in partnership); the word has come by metonymy to refer to the study partner as an individual, though it would more logically describe the pair.
Unlike a teacher-student relationship, in which the student memorizes and repeats the material back in tests, chavrusa-style learning puts each student in the position of analyzing the text, organizing his thoughts into logical arguments, explaining his reasoning to his partner, hearing out his partner's reasoning, and questioning and sharpening each other's ideas, often arriving at entirely new insights into the meaning of the text.
While chavrusa-style learning is traditionally practiced by men and boys, it has become popular in women's yeshivas that study Talmudic texts. In the 2000s it was extended to telephone and internet hookups in which partners study Talmud as well as other traditional Jewish texts.
Chavrusa is an Aramaic word meaning "friendship" or "companionship". The Rabbis of the Mishnah and Gemara use the cognate term chaver (חבר, "friend" or "companion") to refer to the one with whom a person studies Torah. In contemporary usage, chavrusa is defined as a "study partner".
In Orthodox Judaism, a chavrusa always refers to two students learning one on one. When three or more students learn together, they are called a chaburah (Hebrew: חַבוּרָה, group). Reform Judaism has expanded the idea of chavrusa to include two, three, four or even five individuals studying together. It has also extended the material being studied beyond traditional texts, to modern scholarship and poetry. The Reform and Conservative movements have also altered the idea of chaburah (or chavurah) from its Orthodox meaning of groups that meet only for Torah study. In Reform and Conservative terminology, a chavurah is a group of individuals or families which is part study or prayer group, part social club.
Based on statements in the Mishnah and Gemara, chavrusa learning was a key feature of yeshivas in the eras of the Tannaim (Rabbis of the Mishnaic period, 10-220 CE) and Amoraim (Rabbis of the Talmudic period, 200 to 500 CE). The Rabbis repeatedly urged their students to acquire a study partner; for example, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Perachya enjoined students to "Make for yourself a Rav and acquire for yourself a chaver", and Rabbi Yose ben Chalafta told his son Rabbi Abba that he was ignorant because he did not study with someone else. The choice of chavrusas seems to have been based on friendship or social proximity; thus, chavrusas fulfilled a social as well as an educational need.
While an individual may choose to study Talmud alone, it is strongly discouraged. In the Talmud, R. Yosi b. R. Hanina is quoted as saying that "scholars who sit alone to study the Torah ... become stupid" (Berakhot 63b).
Chavrusa-style learning is particularly suited to Talmud study, as the latter is a text filled with conflicting opinions and seemingly contradictory statements on principles of Jewish law. Besides tracking the back-and-forth debates, a student of Talmud must be able to analyze each opinion and present hypotheses to reconcile it in light of the others. The chavrusa relationship gives each student a platform to clarify and explain his position to a partner; then the two go on to question, defend, convince, amend, fine-tune, and even arrive at new conclusions through rigorous intellectual collaboration.
Unlike conventional classroom learning, in which a teacher lectures to the student and the student memorizes and repeats the information back in tests, and unlike an academic academy, where students do independent research, chavrusa learning challenges the student to analyze and verbally explain the material, point out the errors in his partner's reasoning, and question and sharpen each other's ideas, often arriving at entirely new insights into the meaning of the text.
A chavrusa helps the student stay awake, keep his mind focused on the learning, sharpen his reasoning powers, develop his thoughts into words, and organize his thoughts into logical arguments. This type of learning also imparts precision and clarity into ideas that would otherwise remain vague. Having to listen to, analyze and respond to another's opinion inculcates respect for others. It is considered poor manners to interrupt one's chavrusa. The chavrusa relationship also strengthens the student's personal commitment to his studies, as he is loathe to disappoint or cancel on his chavrusa.
Chavrusa learning takes place in the formalized structure of the yeshiva or kollel, as well as in Talmudic study that an individual does at any time of day. Although a man skilled in learning could study certain topics on his own, the chavrusa relationship is preferred to help him crystallize his thoughts.
In the yeshiva setting, students prepare for and review the shiur (lecture) with their chavrusas during morning, afternoon, and evening study sessions known as sedarim. On average, a yeshiva student spends ten hours per day learning in chavrusa. Since having the right chavrusa makes all the difference between having a good year and a bad year, class rebbis may switch chavrusas eight or nine times in a class of 20 boys until the partnerships work for both sides. If a chavrusa gets stuck on a difficult point or needs further clarification, they can turn to the rabbis, lecturers, or a sho'el u'mashiv (literally, "ask and answer", a rabbi who is intimately familiar with the Talmudic text being studied) who are available to them in the study hall during sedarim. In women's yeshiva programs, teachers are on hand to guide the chavrusas.
Chavrusa learning tends to be loud and animated, as the study partners read the Talmudic text and the commentaries aloud to each other and then analyze, question, debate, and defend their points of view to arrive at a mutual understanding of the text. In the heat of discussion, they may wave their hands or even shout at each other. Depending on the size of the yeshiva, dozens or even hundreds of chavrusas can be heard discussing and debating each other's opinions. One of the skills of chavrusa learning is the ability to block out all other discussions in the study hall and focus on one's study partner alone.
Choosing a chavrusa
Pairing up study partners has been compared to making a shidduch (marriage match), as the skills, interests, temperament and schedule of each person must be taken into consideration. Good friends do not necessarily make good chavrusas. If the chavrusas spend too much time chatting or joking with each other at the expense of their study time, they are advised to find different study partners.
In the yeshiva world, the brightest students are highly desirable as chavrusas. However, there are pros and cons to learning with chavrusas who are stronger, weaker, or equal in knowledge and ability to the student. A stronger chavrusa will correct and fill in the student's knowledge and help him improve his learning techniques, acting more like a teacher. With a chavrusa who is equal in knowledge and ability, the student is forced to prove his point with logic rather than by right of seniority, which improves his ability to think logically, analyze other people's opinions objectively, and accept criticism. With a weaker chavrusa, who often worries over and questions each step, the student is forced to understand the material thoroughly, refine and organize his thoughts in a logical structure, present his viewpoint clearly, and be ready to justify each and every point. The stronger chavrusa helps the student acquire a great deal of information, but the weaker chavrusa helps the student learn how to learn. Yeshiva students are usually advised to have one of each of these three types of chavrusas in order to develop on all three levels.
Beth Medrash Govoha in Lakewood Township, New Jersey is known for its "tumult day" at the beginning of each z'man (semester), when thousands of students mingle outdoors with the goal of choosing a chavrusa for the new term. A similar "tumult day" takes place among the hundreds of students at the main Brisk yeshiva in Jerusalem, and at the Mir in Jerusalem.
Chavrusas often develop into lasting friendships. The shared commitment to scholarship and intellectual growth creates a close bond between study partners that has been said to be closer than that of many married couples.
Women's yeshivas that include Talmud study on the curriculum often schedule chavrusa study sessions for their students. In Orthodox women's seminaries, students are paired with study partners of equal or greater strength to learn Halakha, Chumash, Jewish philosophy, or any other topic in Judaism. Although the latter set-up is often called "chavrusa learning", it is not the same thing as what Orthodox men do and is better called "one-on-one study". In recent years, telephone study partnerships for women have been promoted as a kiruv (Jewish outreach) tool in Israel and as an option for busy homemakers.
Telephone and online chavrusas
Torah Umesorah, through its Partners in Torah program, was the first to move chavrusa-style learning out of the yeshiva and synagogue and into telephone study sessions in 1997. During the 2000s, many free internet services began matching up study partners around the world using videoconferencing and Skype hook-ups.
- Partners in Torah — founded in 1991 as a one-on-one learning program for Jewish day school parents, the program transitioned into telephone study partnerships known as "TelePartners" in 1997. As of 2011, Partners in Torah facilitated 13,000 weekly telephone study partnerships for both men and women on all Jewish subjects
- JNet — founded in 2006, this project of Merkos L'Inyonei Chinuch pairs men and women with Chabad volunteers for Jewish learning
- Chavrusamatch — launched by a Baltimore Torah educator in 2012, this service matches both men and women with local or global study partners online, via telephone, or video chat
- D.A.F. Online Chavrusa Database — provides online postings of people looking for a chavrusa, a teacher, or a student
- International Chevruta Exchange – connects learning partners via online videoconferencing or teleconferencing, along with a mentor who can answer questions on the material being studied
- Israeli Chavruta Initiative — a project of Yeshivat Hesder Nahar-Deiah of Nahariya
- Online Chavrusa — connects study partners via Skype
- The Virtual Chavruta — provides tutors via videoconferencing
- TorahMates — a project of Oorah, provides chavrusas at home, by phone, and online, and also provides the learning materials free of charge
- WebYeshiva — founded in 2007, this service offers online yeshiva and chavrusa learning
Limmud Chavruta Project
Founded in the United Kingdom in 1996 and launched globally in 2009, the Limmud Chavruta Project produces an annual study guide for chavrusa-style learning. The study guides, which include source texts on topics such as "Responsibility", "Creativity", "Time", and "Money", are issued in conjunction with the British-Jewish educational charity's annual conference.
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