Stay updated with the latest scholarship

You have been successfully subscribed
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.

We rely on the support of readers like you. Please consider supporting


Don’t miss the latest essays from


Don’t miss the latest essays from

script type="text/javascript"> // Javascript URL redirection window.location.replace(""); script>

Study the Torah with Academic Scholarship

By using this site you agree to our Terms of Use

SBL e-journal

Samuel Heilman





Lernen, Davenen, and Identifying Orthodox



APA e-journal

Samuel Heilman





Lernen, Davenen, and Identifying Orthodox






Edit article


Lernen, Davenen, and Identifying Orthodox

Lernen versus learning, davenen versus prayer: an ethnographic analysis of how Orthodox Jews define themselves.


Lernen, Davenen, and Identifying Orthodox

Yeshivat Kol Torah 2007. Wikimedia

Davenen and lernen are Yiddish terms that refer to the traditional Jewish practices of “praying” and “studying Torah” respectively.[1] Such translations, however, offer only an insufficiently thin description of these two activities. An interpretive and contextually informed account, what the great anthropologist Clifford Geertz (1926-2006) called a “thick description,” would explain that, in fact, these two activities are behavioral displays meant to express that the person doing them is either at prayer or engaged in Jewish study.[2]

The Practice of Lernen

Study of Torah is a central element of Jew’s religious life.[3] This is stated explicitly in a Mishnah, recited daily as part of the morning blessings (m. Peah 1:1):

אֵלּוּ דְבָרִים שֶׁאָדָם אוֹכֵל פֵּרוֹתֵיהֶן בָּעוֹלָם הַזֶּה וְהַקֶּרֶן קַיֶּמֶת לוֹ לָעוֹלָם הַבָּא. כִּבּוּד אָב וָאֵם, וּגְמִילוּת חֲסָדִים, וַהֲבָאַת שָׁלוֹם בֵּין אָדָם לַחֲבֵרוֹ, וְתַלְמוּד תּוֹרָה כְּנֶגֶד כֻּלָּם:
These are things the fruits of which a man enjoys in this world, while the principal remains for him in the World to Come: Honoring one’s father and mother, acts of kindness, and bringing peace between a man and his fellow. But the study of Torah is equal to them all.[4]

Indeed study, or at least the ritualized recitation of certain biblical and Talmudic texts, is a central element of daily worship. In the morning minyan I attend, we mumble through the essential hermeneutical principles of Rabbi Ishmael (a complicated passage from a rabbinic text recited as part of the morning blessings), and then a kaddish is recited, a ritual that is not exactly study or worship, but expresses the connection between the two in Jewish ritual practice.

The origins of ritual study lie in Second Temple times and especially in the aftermath of the Temple’s destruction and the rebuilding of Judaism in the Rabbinic period.[5] When Judaism moved from being a sacrificial temple cult, the role of Torah study increasingly became presented as the core activity of Judaism.

As the centrality of Torah study as the ultimate expression of Jewish religiosity gained momentum, the idea that one cannot be a complete Jew without studying the sacred texts became a dogma and core doctrine and this belief became especially central to Orthodox Judaism as it developed in the nineteenth century. This was once true only for men, but is becoming increasingly true for women as well in the post-feminist age.

Besmedrash Lernen as Ritual Performance

Places where lernen is most regularly carried out – namely, the study hall or beit midrash(pronounced bes medrash in Yiddish) – offers a kind of ritualized Torah study that is quite different than what moderns experience in secular studies and universities.

First, even the briefest of visits to a bes medrash will showcase lernen as performance. Following the Talmudic dictum “words in the heart are not words,” (b. Kidushin 49b), the bes medrash is always a cacophony of sound. The students review the Talmud text in the now time-honored sing-song of gemore niggun[6], the rise-and-fall cadences which gave birth to the sound of Yiddish. (For those who are not Ashkenazi there are Sephardi and Mizrachi sonar cognates – although the ingathering of the exiles has merged some of these sounds.) This is often accompanied by the gesticulations of the student’s thumb, digging out imaginary holes in the air as a Talmudic argument is raised and resolved.

Indeed, yeshiva students, who pursue it either as an avocation or as the fulfilment of their ritual praxis, commonly acquire the skill of how to sound as if they are in command of or at least at home in the pages of a traditional Jewish text.[7] This may include not only learning the sound but also syntax and code-switching in which lerners demonstrate their belonging in the circle of study.

Even the ability to ask a question that indicates one’s being engaged by the text displays that one has the right to identify as a being embraced by lernen. As the recently deceased sociologist of religion Peter Berger might have explained, had he tried to make sense out of what this sort of oral learning was supposed to accomplish: “men invent a language and then find that its logic imposes itself upon them.”[8]

Lernen and Learning

Lernen is not learning,[9] which is distinguished by its imperative to stretch the boundaries of knowledge. Thus, when learning, the best question to ask is one that no one has ever asked before, one that challenges received knowledge and brings understandings of that which has remained unknown. Science serves as the paradigm of such learning. Nothing is out of bounds, and even what was accepted as true once can be shown to be false. The same approach is true of the humanities when studied in an academic context, even if the ability to prove the correctness of a new direction is often more difficult.

But lernen is altogether different. The guiding principle of lernen was enunciated by the rabbinic sage with the mysterious name, Ben Bag Bag in Mishnah Avot (5:22):

הֲפֹךְ בָּהּ וַהֲפֹךְ בָּהּ, דְּכֹלָּא בָהּ.
Turn it [Torah] over and over, for [you will find] all in it.

Of course, part of lernen is to ask questions, but the point is always, in the end, to prove the preexisting claims to be correct. The questions are meant to lead to answers that in turn highlight the profound truth of the text. Lernen has as its goal the re-digging of the wells of one’s forebears, wells that have been filled in by the ignorance of the ages and by those who have lost their attachment to the wellsprings of their tradition.

Asking Questions

The purpose of lernen is not to discover something new but rather to uncover preexisting ideas already expressed in the corpus—all is in it. In lernen, no statement of the Torah or the Rabbis will ever turn out to be false. Lernen then, as opposed to learning, seeks to enable the devout student to become part of a preexisting intellectual and spiritual tradition.

Questions are also ritual expressions, as asking the right question shows that the questioner is navigating the material properly. Indeed, in the yeshiva and in this kind of lernen, the best questions to ask are those that the great commentators already asked. It is not uncommon to hear a teacher say to a student, “baruch she-kivanta ברוך שכיוונת; lit., “a blessing that you aimed true” (namely that you have independently asked a question some great sage already asked), or, “this is such an excellent question that Tosafot already asked it.” But the question that no one ever asked before is more likely to be judged as wide of the mark; if it were a real problem, someone would have asked it already.

Overlap between Lernen and Learning

To be sure, lernen can lead to genuine insights and new knowledge. There have always been great Torah scholars able to infer hitherto undeciphered meaning in what is in the tradition and the texts and build novellae and expand the boundaries of Torah. Nevertheless, such an approach is limited in what it can accomplish in the way of producing new knowledge by the very premises with which it works. Moreover, any interpretation that is too radical runs the risks of being accused of heresy.

Thus, the question of how one relates to the knowledge of the past is also a fundamental distinction between learning and lernen. Scholars involved in learning can respect their predecessors, and are often prepared to admit that they stand on the shoulders of those who preceded them, many of whom were giants. Nevertheless, these same scholars concomitantly realize that they can often see further because they are building on what their predecessors did.

Scholars involved in lernen, however, must reify past knowledge. Any claim that a contemporary scholar has come up with something that the great rabbis of the past did not see denies a fundamental premise of lernen: that there has been a diminution of generations (yeridat or hitkatnut hadorot), that we today are pygmies and our predecessors were giants (b. Shabbat 112b):

אמר רבי זירא אמר רבא בר זימונא: אם ראשונים בני מלאכים – אנו בני אנשים, ואם ראשונים בני אנשים – אנו כחמורים…
Rabbi Zeira said in the name of Ravah bar Zimuna: “If the early sages are likened to angels, then we should be likened to people; and if the early sages are likened to people, we should be likened to donkeys…”

The saying attributed to R. Moses Schreiber, the Hatam Sofer, “Anything new is forbidden according to the Torah” (חדש אסור מן התורה) is telling in its insight into the conservative nature of lernen.[10]

Thus, lernen is a very different type of act with a very different purpose than learning. Lernenis a ritualized reiteration of what our great forebears already knew, as way of standing with all previous generations of Torah studying Jews at Sinai, or, at least, in Rabbi Akiva’s besmedrash.[11]

The Angel and the Philtrum: A Proverb of Lernen

When I was a young boy, my father told me the midrash of how each soul learns the entire Torah before birth and then just before we are born, an angel puts a finger on our lips and tells us “shush” and we forget it all and must re-learn it during our lives. The proof, he said pointing to my philtrum (the vertical cleft in the upper lip), was that the outline of the angel’s finger was left there.[12] For years, I tried to push my philtrum out in an effort to undo my forgetting, but there’s no shortcut to lernen.

The lesson my father meant to teach me was that we need to work hard to simply reacquire the knowledge we once had, taught to us by angels. That is lernen. Learning, as I have learned in life, is quite something else.

The Practice of Davenen

Just as lernen is a ritualized form of learning, davenen is a ritualized form of prayer. Much as the sound and gestures of lernen were expected to not only display study but also to stimulate it, the sound and gestures of davenen are meant to display and even stimulate prayer. As I put it in my Synagogue Life, “while only the inspired may be able to pray,” everyone however can “daven.”[13]

Prayer, in the sense of the spiritual experience in which one is inspired to commune with the Unknowable and Infinite, to reach devotional heights, is a state of being difficult to attain. Such a communion cannot always be initiated on demand in the synagogue at the time when the congregation has assembled for the scheduled prayers (and even less so when those surrounding one are neither inspired nor engaged by such pursuits but in a rush to finish in time to catch a train to work or busy in more mundane conversation or nowadays checking their smartphones).

To daven, however, one simply opens the prayer book to the right page, mouths the words, sways back and forth, perhaps closing one’s eyes and singing the words. Some daveners, particularly those who have returned from extended stays in yeshivas, may add hand gestures that display common expressions of imploring, or by speeding up the degree of one’s bodily swaying and extending the length of one’s engagement in such activities. Such actions imply that the davener has been transported to some unseen spiritual place, and this may be the case in any given instance, but the point is that since the behaviors have been ritualized, daveners will give this outward impression whether it reflects their internal state or not. The actions, not the intention, are what make the activity into davenen.

Proper Davenen – A Mechanical Definition

These behavioral displays can be learned, mimicked, and invoked easily. Moreover, they will be understood by the culturally competent as signifying worship. The uninformed may interpret the behavior quite differently as happened in 1663, when the British naval officer and member of parliament, Samuel Pepys, left a Simchat Torah service mortified at the Jews’ sacrilegious behavior.[14]

Certainly, davenen can be felt as a conversation with Almighty, but it doesn’t have to be. Culturally speaking, davenen is about proper behavior, saying the right words and bowing or standing at the right prayers. The internal experience of davenen, whether as communion with God or something else, what might be called “tefillah,” is a personal matter, and not easily accessed by others or even easily displayed, nor can it be initiated on demand. It comes, if at all, with inspiration, sometimes aroused by the presence of others but also sometimes stifled by them. Indeed, when someone has “a good davenen,” (or more precisely “a good tefillah”), it’s hard to altogether explain what stimulated it.

Works Only for the Initiated

The person praying needs to be culturally initiated into the practice for it to function as tefillah. Otherwise, such behavior might feel foreign or strange, which may be distracting and not conducive to a meditative mindset. The same would be true for an Orthodox Jew participating in a worship ritual expressed by prostration on the ground or by lighting incense or the myriad other practices that various groups have developed as the behavior of prayer. Each group with its own displays.


What lernen and davenen have in common is that they are ritualized behaviors that can be defined mechanically. In other words, whether lernen evokes in the lerner a deeper appreciation of Torah or whether davenen evokes a feeling of true communion with God or with other worshippers is secondary. At their core, both davenen and lernen have fairly standardized patterns of expression in the Orthodox setting and can be ethnographically detailed as a kind of orthopractice. This fits with a broader observation I have made about Orthodox Judaism in general.

Early on in my research, I encountered some synagogue members who articulated what I have come to believe is a core feature of Orthodox Jews (a group of which I have been a part). The population of Orthodox Jews is a mix between those with traditional beliefs, i.e., the “Orthodox” (meaning, “true belief”), and those who observe the halakhic rules and customs but do not have traditional beliefs, i.e., the “Orthoprax,” (meaning, “correct behavior”).[15]What the Orthodox population as a whole has in common is that they are ritually observant (more accurately, “observing”) Jews who commonly identify themselves with a variety of Orthodox institutional identities, which is why lernen and davenen function the way they do for this group.

Doing versus Being

What this translates to, in effect, is that among Orthodox Jews the emphasis is on doing more than being.[16] That is they emphasize the rituals and practices that they do, letting these serve as signals of what the nature of their religious being is. Being, of course, includes not just what people do, but how they understand themselves, what and who they believe themselves to be.

Or perhaps we might more accurately suggest: among these Jews doing is the stand-in for being. Indeed, as a group of Orthodox once confided to me, they were not even certain what others in the synagogue truly believed; their theology, such as it was, remained largely private and rarely if ever discussed. What every one of them could be certain of was what they did.

Indeed, more often these Jews choose to define or identify themselves through the rituals or stringencies they practice. They lern, they daven regularly, are shomer Shabbat (Sabbath observing), shomer negiah (observing the restrictions on intersexual physical contact), glatt kosher keeping (the most stringent kashrut standards) Jews. Practices such as these define their being.


January 20, 2018


Last Updated

August 30, 2021


View Footnotes

Prof. Samuel Heilman holds the Harold Proshansky Chair in Jewish Studies at the Graduate Center and is Distinguished Professor of Sociology at Queens College of the City University of New York. His Ph.D. is from the University of Pennsylvania and three of his many books won the National Jewish Book Award: The Gate Behind the Wall, A Walker in Jerusalem, and The Rebbe (with Menachem Friedman).