Rabbi Gidon Shoshan, contributing editor of NLE Resources, is the mashgiach ruchani of Shapell’s/Darche Noam, and holds master’s degrees in education from Yeshiva University and Harvard.
With the World Series now set for Boston and St. Louis, baseball is on the minds of many Americans, young and old. In part I of this blog, I shared a great story about how Dr. Alvin Schiff, the famous teacher and Jewish education executive, used baseball and the World Series to teach his young students Hebrew. Now, I’ll show you how to use baseball – and many other systems – to interest your students in Gemara and Halacha.
Think you know a lot about baseball? Do you have students that think they do? You might want to visit ESPN’s recent quiz: “Do You Know MLB Rules?”
I love baseball, and the quiz is a very fun way to test your own knowledge of baseball’s more intricate rules. But, there’s another way to use this quiz…
Many students complain that Halacha and Gemara are concerned with “minutiae” – a derogatory way to describe the exacting precision of Halacha. Why, pray tell, is Halacha so concerned with such fine distinctions?
Another often-heard complaint about Gemara is that the cases that it discusses are unusual and even outlandish. Why does the Gemara talk about weird and unusual cases – many of which might not even ever happen?
Here’s where the baseball quiz comes in… Print it out and administer it in class. Your baseball-minded students are sure to enjoy it. They’ll also find it very hard, and they’ll learn a lot.
Your students will find that every system – every body of law or rulebook (even baseball) – that takes itself seriously must make fine distinctions in order to define the parameters of each concept and each category. When it comes to filing your US taxes on April 15th, 11:59 is still April 15th, but 12:00 is not. In baseball, a foul ball is only when no part of the ball touches the foul line. In tennis, it’s the same. In basketball and football, it’s the opposite – the line is out of bounds.
Furthermore, in order to define the outer parameters of any rule, any category, or any legal concept, the system must – by necessity – discuss unusual cases. It is only the unusual cases that help define the outer parameter of any category. The Gemara does this all the time! But so does the American constitution, every rulebook, and every court ever. (Take a look, for example, at this 2009 New York Times article detailing the $160 million disagreement between British courts about whether Pringles are a “potato crisps” or “savory snacks”.) What’s more, in order for a legal system to be prepared for every eventuality, and in order for it to clarify its principles, it must legislate for situations that have not yet occurred, and are even very unlikely to occur. Take for example, the laws that regulate what happens when a US President-Elect dies before being inaugurated. Has it happened? No. Could it happen? Sure.
And so it is with Gemara and Halacha. They endeavor to carefully and finely delineate concepts and categories. Often, they do so by seeking the unusual case that defines the outer parameter. And they also delineate the categories for every reasonable eventuality – even those that might not ever actually happen!
If your students like baseball, use the ESPN quiz to demonstrate how every set of rules has fine details and careful distinctions. Use the quiz to sensitize the students to the need to master the rules and understand their logic. Use the quiz to help students reflect on the accomplishments of great Talmidei Chachamim (… and great umpires).
Like every self-respecting enterprise, the Torah has rules and regulations. Knowing them will help each of us make sure we don’t get called “out”.