Last week, as I set up my books in the yeshiva study hall in anticipation of a new year, I got a final call from my brother, who had been spending the summer with us in Israel and was now on his way back to law school. Talking to him at the airport, I exchanged some final words and wishes with him for the start of our respective academic years. Since I am just starting work on a book, a project on a new order of magnitude for me, he expressed hope that I’d manage to find enough time for it. I was optimistic; I told him I’d scheduled my day so as to devote the first four hours of every morning to writing, in the yeshiva, free from distractions. He was impressed; even with his heavy academic workload, he said, he never structured his time so rigidly, instead addressing projects and assignments as they arose, whenever he had the time.
The difference in time-management mentality struck me because, I realized, it wasn’t entirely due to the personality difference between us, but rather to a fundamental contrast between the way work happens in the academy and at yeshivas. Ever since I first moved between the two systems, beginning my undergraduate study after a gap year at an Israeli yeshiva, I have always wryly remarked that both seek to maximize students’ productivity, but the tools they use are different: Universities utilize fear, while yeshivas employ guilt.
Let me explain: In yeshiva, there are no exams to take, no papers to write, no assignments and grades hanging over your head like the sword of Damocles. Instead, there is a ubiquitous culture of rigid time-management that weighs like atmospheric pressure pushing you to use your hours wisely. A student who sleeps in and stays in his room on Facebook all day will lose the respect of his peers and teachers. One who falls asleep at his desk in the study hall at two in morning, his nose buried in a page of Talmud, will gain it. A casual scan around the room will show you all the students’ daily schedules scotch-taped willy-nilly to their desks, jam-packed till the middle of the night with classes and study sessions. The ambition of some of the first-year students in this regard can be amusing (“you will need a time-turner”), but it is also inspiring to see how quickly they internalize the ideal of discipline in study.
This ideal has deep roots in the Jewish tradition. According to the Babylonian Talmud in tractate Berakhot (53a), in the school of Rabban Gamaliel, students would not even say “bless you” to one who sneezed for fear of wasted time. Rava, in tractate Shabbat (31a), declares that on judgment day everyone must answer whether they set aside dedicated times for Torah study. And Hillel the Elder, who presided over the Sanhedrin at the close of the Second Temple period, famously enjoined in the Mishna (Avot 2:4): “Do not say ‘I will study when I find the time,’ for you may never find the time.”
This is one habit that I acquired in yeshiva that I have also found to be invaluable outside it. Even in an academic world dominated by deadlines and grades, everyone agrees that a key to success is discipline in study – what the non-Jewish world refers to as “good study habits,” and which is more poetically termed in Yiddish “sitzfleisch” (literally “butt-flesh,” the ability to sit in your chair and not move for an extended period of time). And as we start this academic year, in an age where our lives are quickly turning into a distracted circus of ringing, pinging, vibrating, and tweeting stimuli, we could all do with a reminder that the basic building block of success in any pursuit is the ability to sit down and make the time.