What’s Wrong with this Picture?

The Hebrew Poetry group at Temple Micah (DC) is exploring some works of Chaim Nachman Bialik (1873–1934; also: Haim or Hayim). So I have recently discovered “The Talmud Student,” one of his most famous poems. I find it fascinating and powerful. But it leaves me with one large question I’m hoping someone(s) can help me answer.

Some read this poem as pure ode to Talmud study:

The ideal Torah student is constantly studying. His is the image portrayed by the great poet Chaim Nachman Bialik in his masterpiece, HaMatmid [The Talmud Student]. There he describes the night and day devotion of the young man to his studying task in moving and inspiring terms. For Bialik, himself once a yeshiva student, the “Matmid” is the true hero of Jewish history.
Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, VP emeritus of the Orthodox Union

It is also, perhaps more commonly, read as a statement of “great ambivalence” toward the way life in the Lithuanian yeshiva of the late 19th Century CE. (See, e.g., this Jewish Virtual Library note.)

The poem is frequently understood as referencing concerns about insularity in the yeshiva world, as in this contemporary opinion piece by Shmuel Winiarz.

Missing Warmth

Certainly, Bialik’s closing lines, from the perspective of one who has parted company with his classmates, describe a stifling atmosphere at the yeshiva:

Recalling still how vigorous the seed
Hidden within your luckless plot of ground,
And what the treasure which it might have brought
Had but a ray of sunlight warmed the soil,
What sheaves we might have reaped, had but a gust
Of generous air blown o’er you — had the road
Which leads toward the Torah, which we so
Neglected and despised, been cleared and plain!
— “The Talmud Student,” by C.N. Bialik (trans., Helena Frank)

This passage, and others throughout the work, assumes a collective “we” of students, but the Matmid‘s is a “lonely voice,” apparently lacking one important source of light and air.

“His Friends”

The following are just a few lines from Bialik’s LONG poem (2400+ words in Hebrew, more in English):

Within, a holy stillness fills the space
Empty as yet, and he first drinks it in.
His comrades three await him in his place,
They, who have been his friends since first he came:
The burning light, the desk, his Talmud text.
He hastes to join them, like to one who hoards
The nimble seconds, and begins to learn.
— “The Talmud Student,” by C.N. Bialik (trans., Helena Frank)

“The Talmud Student” (1947) by Lionel S. Reiss

But these lines capture the essence of the portrait Bialik is drawing with “The Talmud Student.”

The student’s “friends” appear clearly, too, in this 1947 visual illustration by Lionel S. Reiss (1894-1988; learn more here) for the poem.

There is something fundamentally wrong with this picture, however: For thousands of years, Jewish learning has been conducted socially, particularly in pairs. “Learning in Pairs” is, and was, the norm across Jewish denominations since antiquity. (See also International Handbook of Jewish Education.)

So, where is HaMatmid‘s partner?

Of course, two partners might learn together in an insular world. They might, even in partnership, remain cut off from “the fullness of the earth.” But neither would be alone.

Why is Bialik’s student alone with his lamp, desk, and text?

Any Light to Shed?

Is the solitude of Bialik’s “The Talmud Student” a literary device?

Isn’t studying with a partner meant to ensure that learning is infused with a “ray of sunlight” and a “generous gust”? Is this poem some kind homiletical warning?

Is it meant to describe something happening at the famous yeshiva at Volozhin, Lithuania in the author’s brief time there?

Does it reflect some personal sense of isolation of the author?

If anyone has an idea or a source to share, please do so in the comments section.

HaMatmid Resources

Hebrew. The full Hebrew text is available at Project Ben-Yehuda, which “aims to make accessible the classics of Hebrew literature (poetry and prose, but also essays, letters, memoirs, and reference works) to the reader of Hebrew.”

English. An English translation, posted for educational purposes and covering much of the poem, is available at Poetry Nook.

Study Group. A makeshift, side-by-side bilingual study aid, combining these two sources is available for Micah’s Hebrew Study group in a password protected page. (If you are not a study group participant but are interested in this particular format, inquire of songeveryday at gmail)

BTW: If you are in the DC area and interested in exploring Hebrew poetry in original and translation, there’s no need to study alone: You are welcome to join Temple Micah’s Hebrew Poetry group, meeting after services twice each month.


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Virginia hosts "Conversations Toward Repair" on We Act Radio, manages WeLuvBooks.org, blogs on general stuff a vspatz.net and more Jewish topics at songeveryday.org and Rereading4Liberation.com

3 thoughts on “What’s Wrong with this Picture?”

  1. I don’t know anything about the poet Bialik, or the artist Reiss, but I notice clues about Bialik’s life in the links you included about them. According to Shaul Stampfer, havruta may not have been the predominant mode of learning when Bialik was young enough to have been a yeshiva student. Bialik’s birth year is given as 1873. WWI began in 1914, when Bialik was already 41 years old. Riess’s illustration was specifically crafted to depict the yeshiva student described in Bialik’s poem, not necessarily a yeshiva student of the post WWI period.

    [From p. 2, “Havruta: Learning in Pairs” by Rachael Gelfman Schultz, My Jewish Learning]

    “The Emphasis on Havruta Is of Recent Vintage

    Despite these early references to study in pairs, Shaul Stampfer, a contemporary Israeli historian, argues that study in havruta was not the prevailing mode of learning until the beginning of the last century. Even in the great 19th century yeshivot (Jewish academies of higher learning) of Eastern Europe, havruta was only one among many possible modes of study. These yeshivot sought to create a scholarly elite who would not need a havruta in order to understand the text. They saw havruta as only a means of helping weaker students who could not keep up with the class.”

    [From p. 3, Ibid.]

    “How did study in havruta become so predominant in recent years? Stampfer, in an interview with Aliza Segal for her article “Havruta Study in the Contemporary Yeshivah” (in Havruta Study: History, Benefits, and Enhancements, published by the Academy for Torah Initiatives and Directions), hypothesizes that study in havruta became predominant during the World War I period. At this time, yeshivot opened their doors to all Jewish men. Once yeshivot were no longer only for the elite, the students needed to learn in havruta in order to understand the difficult texts, and this mode of learning spread.”

  2. Just read this doc about Bialik’s life and work, “Bachar Bialik” by B. Cooperman at U. MD. faculty.history.umd.edu/BCooperman/…Jewish…/Bachar%20Bialik.doc
    [doc] Bachar Bialik – University of Maryland

  3. Commenting on an old (2015) but still interesting discussion, “what’s wrong with this picture”…
    Why is the yeshiva student (Bialik?) without his hevruta or study partner. My thought is that he may not have been… the artist may have been the hevruta partner or standing in his place.

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