I would say most, if not all yeshivas of today learn in general (and specifically the study of Gemara -- and unfortunately ONLY Gemara with little mussar, little halacha and probably no Tanach) in the way that R' Chaim of Volozhin prescribed. That most would call "iyun" or his type of "iyun". Many Yeshivas followed in this way: Slobodka, Mir, Ponevezh, Kelm, Telz, etc. Until today the similar style of limud continues in all Yeshivas (probably both litvish and chassidish.)

However to me this is quite troubling, what gave him the authority then to change the way people should learn? More importantly what gives the chachamim of our generation to continue learning in a way that goes against the gemara in Avodah Zara Daf 19 that a person should learn a lot first, then do more "iyun" later. Going against Rambam in Hilchos Talmud Torah, perhaps the Shulchan Aruch and nosei Kelim itself and for sure the Shulchan Aruch HaRav in Hilchos Talmud Torah (which is built upon what the Tur, Rambam, Chazal and others said.) Which is to learn in a way of "bekius", until one knows everything well, then later in life to learn "iyun". He even prescribes how each type of person should learn (i.e. one who can understand well, one who doesn't understand so well, etc.) Although perhaps the Litvish community wouldn't give so much thought to this I'll note as well that The Arizal, Sha-ar Ha-Mitzvot Va-etchanan, page 79 right column, writes that iyun should be only be learned an hour or two a day (and that this itself was only for the "keen minded", but those who have "dull" brains should not even devote that time to iyun.)

Perhaps my biggest question on how this started was the fact that R' Chaim of Volozhin was a talmid of the Gra who himself writes in Mishlei Chapter 6 Verse 8 (starts at the bottom of the page that I linked to) that a person should spend the first part of his life learning a lot (bekius) and then later in life spend time more with "iyun". How could he go against his own Rebbe?

How can the generations ignore what Chazal and the great Chachamim that came before us prescribed. Not to much that the iyun often or never brings someone to halacha l'maseh (practical Jewish Law) which is perhaps the most important thing.

My question is a big one, however if we'll say that this whole way of learning started with R' Chaim then I have a kasha on him, how could he go against his Rebbe, the Gra.

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    Thank you @yehoshua for asking a marvelous question that has implications far beyond the specific issue you raised. – JJLL Jul 31 '15 at 1:53
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    Firstly, everybody who studied in Volozhin had already spent thirteen-or-so years in heder, at a minimum, had already covered the gemara and certainly the Torah. Secondly, it was a feature of the Netziv's approach to learning that during his tenure, students also studied halakha. Thirdly, so far as only focusing on gemara in yeshiva is concerned, you mentioned both Telz and Slabodka. They were both mussar yeshivas. Have a look at Gil Perl's biography of the Netziv, and Shaul Stampfer's study of Lithuanian yeshivas. – Shimon bM Jul 31 '15 at 2:13
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    It's not clear to me what you're asking here. Are you asking how R. Chaim could act not like his immediate rebbe? how he could act not like the G'mara? how "the generations" (after him I guess?) could act not like the G'mara? This question sounds more like a stream of consciousness than like the type of focused question Stack Exchange is suited for. At least clarify which of the aforementioned questions is/are what you mean to ask -- perhaps just by boldfacing it. I think this should be closed as is, as "unclear what you're asking". – msh210 Jul 31 '15 at 5:13
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    It should also be noted that it can be argued that this is not a halachic issue that can be paskened, but rather a matter of style and preference. Thus, historical shifts do not necessarily indicate deviation from propriety. Furthermore, even if one would argue that p'sak is possible on non-halachic matters, it is still conceivable that guidelines established by previous generations may not be applicable to future students with different sensibilities and circumstances. For example, the modern student is faced with the analytics of R. Chaim Soloveitchik, and to be prepared must train... – mevaqesh Jul 31 '15 at 7:27
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    Possible duplicate of Why do Yeshivos learn Talmud Bavli so extensively? – mevaqesh Nov 9 '17 at 20:13

My Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Ahron Lopiansky, who is particularly well read in history, in a shiur titled Why So Much Iyun 5774 spoke out that (my memory of the shiur is not that sharp, so I may be misquoting him or leaving out a detail and suggest you see the shiur) the chachamim of that generation saw that although the method you described was the proper way to learn, it took a significant amount of time, and was very difficult to do, and they were losing boys to Yiddishkeit after they left yeshiva because they couldn't get through the "grind"/the hard part which was necessary in the beginning. (In my own words: it was like learning piano; to become really skilled you must practice arbitrary and unpleasant scales and finger exercises to no end, over and over again, and then you can start playing real songs with skill and gain musical intuition.) They couldn't handle learning the same masechta 70 times over again before moving on to the next one. So when they decided to instead focus on the most intellectually stimulating and difficult parts of shas, and delve deeply, the boys found it tremendously rewarding and "geshmak", and ultimately continued learning and living like a Jew after they left yeshiva. It is a complex thing to triage when you have such limited time, and literally a person's life is at stake. עת לעשות לה' הפרו תורתיך - "A time to act for God, they uprooted Your Torah", because that is actually what Hashem wants.

  • A bit like the Aruch HaShulchan's comment on the radical mussar approach of the Novardik yeshiva -- "ideologically not my thing, but hey if it seems to work and keep people in the fold..." – Shalom Jul 28 '20 at 7:10
  • The Hebrew wikipedia on Brisk mentions that this style of iyun works well for baalei teshuva too -- if you show up and have a good head for logic, you can do it fairly quickly, without a ton of background needed. Vs. a breadth-first approach (like the Netziv's Cross-Shas Expressway. Actually, more like Cross-Sifrei-Chazal-Expressway.) – Shalom Jul 28 '20 at 7:11

Sam's answer is probably the main point, but I would like to add that in Volozhin, the yeshiva pace was a daf a day, so they covered all of Shas over a seven year cycle. So their iyun pace would be today's bekius pace. If you look at Meromei Sadeh, which is the Netziv's shiurim on Gemara, you see he covered all of Shas. R' Chayim Soloveichik used to learn sixty blatt a day for himself.

In addition, many yeshivos encourage bochurim to learn bekius on their own and finish the masechta. So while the main limud is iyun, students are expected to cover ground and know more. In post-secondary yeshivos, there is an expectation that students can do this on their own or with a chavrusa without official help. (The same applies to learning Tanach.) So while the study of bekius has been downgraded (as Sam explained), it has not been lost completely.

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