Please note that I have been estranged from Judaism for many years, and have only recently revisited its teachings:

When I studied science and non-Jewish philosophies, I would take notes. I mean notes of key facts, and of content that felt to enlighten me.

I have seen Jewish studies at a school, and also people learning in a Beit Midrash, and did not see extensive note taking, except perhaps annotation.

Are there (experiential) reasons not to study with a pen and journal at my side?

(I also wonder whether this quote by the Kotzker Rebbe is relevant: "Not all that is thought need be said, not all that is said need be written, not all that is written need be published, and not all that is published need be read."?)

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    Welcome to Mi Yodea Shai! Hatslaha Rabba on reacquainting yourself with Jewish teachings. I doubt that the last quote is overly relevant; it seems to be encouraging caution in expression. What do you meant by experiential reasons? Note taking style seems to be a matter of personal preference. – mevaqesh Sep 18 '16 at 3:41
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    To echo @mevaqesh's point, I take notes on everything I hear at Yeshiva, unless it's Shabbos or my pen runs out of ink. I don't see too many other guys doing so. I think it's just a matter of preference, though I can't say that's true for all yeshivos. – DonielF Sep 18 '16 at 3:46
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    Related: judaism.stackexchange.com/questions/47573/… – Yishai Sep 18 '16 at 3:59
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    places without exams tend to have less note taking – ray Sep 18 '16 at 5:09
  • Thank you very much. My impression from your responses is that there is no explicit tradition that emphasizes any sense of momentariness in study, and so it is a matter of preference. – Shai106 Sep 18 '16 at 7:41

The Rambam writes in the Introduction to Mishne Torah:

רבינו הקדוש חיבר המשנה. ומימות משה רבינו ועד רבינו הקדוש לא חיברו חבור שמלמדין אותו ברבים בתורה שבעל פה. אלא בכל דור ודור ראש בית דין או נביא שהיה באותו הדור כותב לעצמו זכרון השמועות ששמע מרבותיו והוא מלמד על פה ברבים. וכן כל אחד ואחד כותב לעצמו כפי כחו מביאור התורה ומהלכותיה כמו ששמע. ומדברים שנתחדשו בכל דור ודור בדינים שלא למדום מפי השמועה אלא במדה משלש עשרה מדות והסכימו עליהם בית דין הגדול.

Rabbenu Hakadosh composed the Mishnah. From the days of Moses, our teacher, until Rabbenu Hakadosh, no one had composed a text for the purpose of teaching the Oral Law in public. Instead, in each generation, the head of the court or the prophet of that generation would take notes of the teachings which he received from his masters for himself, and teach them verbally in public. Similarly, according to his own potential, each individual would write notes for himself of what he heard regarding the explanation of the Torah, its laws, and the new concepts that were deduced in each generation concerning laws that were not communicated by the oral tradition, but rather deduced using one of the thirteen principles of Biblical exegesis and accepted by the high court.

Rashi brings the same concept in Shabbos in a couple of places explaining the term מגילת סתרים - hidden scrolls, i.e. scrolls that would be hidden because of the prohibition on writing down Halacha.

Shitta Mikubetzes brings this as an alternate version of Temura 14b, although the standard version is that only new ideas were written down.

So even in the time when writing down Oral Law was forbidden, they kept notes. So it would seem there is no prohibition of writing down notes to aid in learning.

  • Do we see from here proof that they had writing implements at their side while learning? Perhaps they wrote later what they had learnt earlier. I realize that the kotzker quote might not be a great fit for the OP's question and possibly not relevant to Torah study so I'm focusing on the main question as it seems to be intended. – user6591 Sep 20 '16 at 11:23
  • @user6591, the discussion in this sugia brings up that it is ossur for a teacher to teach from notes, but never mentions taking notes (as far as I know), so I don't see a source for prohibiting it, even then. Even if there was, as an aid to remember after permission was given to write down there would be no basis to prohibit. However, as practical matter I doubt they did. Writing notes while listening on quill and parchment is going to be wasteful of paper, and writing was very expensive at that time. It is more likely they thought carefully about what they wanted to write before writing it. – Yishai Sep 20 '16 at 14:00
  • I agree with everything you just wrote, but I don't see how your answer answers the question. But I guess the OP does:) – user6591 Sep 20 '16 at 14:04

JJLL mentions an interesting point about not defacing holy books. However, when I was in yeshiva high school, not only did I take extensive notes, but I wrote many of them in the Talmud margins (Believe it or not, Rash"i and Tosfot as well as all the others aren't the only ones vying for margin space!) Admittedly, a large reason for the note taking is that eventually I would be tested on these things. However, in many yeshivot, and kollel, etc, today, I still see people writing notes, usually in a note book. (Now, with technology, some are using their laptops or tablets.)

But, perhaps, one reason many are NOT taking notes may be due to the nature of learning certain subjects, esp. Talmud, itself. For many, the task of the learning itself is its own reward, not necessarily memorizing all the facts, commentary, and nuances. Even in my yeshiva, many sections of Talmud were reviewed sometimes multiple times. Part of it was to memorize, thus, in a sense, precluding the need for written notes. Another motive was as I mentioned - your focus is on the learning method, itself and moreso the discussion of these concepts with your chevruta (learning partner.) The idea is for each to come up with his own analysis and discussion of the topic, asking each other questions, coming up with your own answers, and having a "debate" - much in the same way that the Talmud itself does. Perhaps, if each person took notes, this would greatly disturb the flow and mitigate the spontaneity of the discussion between each other.

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