Studying or Learning?

By Philologos

Published March 30, 2007, issue of March 30, 2007.
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Gil Kulick of New York City writes:

“A question that has intrigued and puzzled me for a long time has to do with the use of the world ‘learn’’ in Jewish parlance as a synonym of the word ‘study,’ or, more precisely, the lack of distinction between the two.

“In standard English the two terms have quite distinct meanings, with ‘learning’ being a consequence or result of ‘studying.’ (Like the difference between ‘looking’ and ‘seeing,’ or ‘listening’’ and ‘hearing.’) In Hebrew and Yiddish, at least in a religious context, there appears to be no such distinction. This has carried over into English too, so that a yeshiva student doesn’t ‘study’ Talmud, he ‘learns’ Talmud, as though these two activities were one and the same. “For a people for whom scholarship is such a fundamental value, and who can spend days of disputation over the meaning of a single holy word, I find this conflation rather curious and would be very interested to see you devote a column to this conundrum.”

Descriptively speaking, Kulick is, for the most part, correct. All the non-Jewish languages I’m familiar with do make a distinction between “studying” and “learning”: Studieren and lernen in German, étudier and apprendre in French, daras and ta’allam in Arabic, etc. And in all these languages, the difference is pretty much the same. To study is deliberately to seek to master or to commit to memory a body of knowledge. To learn is to achieve this, although one can learn without studying, too. Just as it is possible to say, “I studied Spanish, but I never learned it,” it is also possible to say, “I learned Spanish, although I never studied it” — that is, one can, under certain conditions (such as living in a Spanish-speaking environment), acquire a knowledge of Spanish, as of many other things, without making a special effort to do so. Indeed, there are some things that can only be learned without study. “I’ve studied to tell the truth” would be a strange thing to say, whereas “I’ve learned to tell the truth” is not.

In Hebrew, on the other hand, there is indeed no fundamental distinction between studying and learning. Both are expressed by the verb lamad, and from biblical times to the present this verb can mean either to study or to learn according to the context, and can often be translated as either. When God says to Moses (Deuteronomy 31:12), Hak’hel et ha’am…lema’an yishme’u ulema’an yilmedu veyar’u et adonai eloheykhem, it makes sense to translate this as, “Gather the people together… that they may hear, and that they may learn, and fear the Lord your God.” But when Isaiah says (4:2), Velo yilmedu od milh.hama, “And they shall study war no more,” is surely better than, “And they shall learn war no more.” The same holds true for modern Hebrew in Israel today. Lamad’ti sfaradit ba’universita can mean either “I studied Spanish at the university” or “I learned Spanish at the university,” depending on just how much of what you studied was mastered and retained.

In modern Yiddish, by contrast, which has the German verb shtudirn, there is a separate verb for studying, which may be used in nonreligious contexts. You can say in Yiddish either er lernt fizik or er shtudirt fizik for “He’s studying physics,” and an American yeshiva student, too, probably would prefer to say in English, “He’s studying physics.” But Kulick is again right: If the subject is a religious one, you can only “learn,” never “study” it. You would never say in Yiddish, er shtudirt gemore, “He’s studying Talmud,” but only er lernt gemore, and our English-speaking yeshiva student would do the same.

Yet, rather than be puzzled, as Kulick is, by this linguistic peculiarity as though it were in conflict with Jewish values, I find it entirely consistent with them. What the Yiddish speaker or yeshiva student is really saying, it seems to me, is that whereas one can “study” a secular subject in the sense of acquiring a superficial knowledge of it without any deeper or more permanent understanding — as when one crams for an exam — a sacred subject can only be “learned,” since here knowledge without understanding is worthless. I don’t have to understand the nature of gravitational fields in order to acquire the potentially useful knowledge that the force of attraction between two bodies is directly proportional to the product of their masses and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them, but unless I understand why Rava or Abayei says what he does in the Talmud, merely knowing that he said it has no value. And conversely, whereas in ordinary life one can sometimes learn things without the effort of study, learning without effort in Judaism does not exist.

Havineni ve’elmedah mitsvotekha, “Help me to understand that I may ____ your commandments,” the author of Psalms says. Should we fill in the blank with “study” or with “learn”? It’s almost impossible to decide. And that, I should think, is the point.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to philologos@forward.com.


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