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Shiur is the Hebrew word for study. A shiur is the study of the Talmud’s and Mishnah’s interpretations of a biblical passage from the Torah. The Torah is what Christians term the Old Testament.
A shiur is rather like literary criticism that accounts for all interpretations of a passage prior to the writing of a criticism. Yet it is of much greater significance than criticism of literature, because it is the interactive way in which Judaism interprets the law of God. While many view Jewish law as static and old-fashioned, it is quite the contrary. Interpretation of the law is a constant process and a dialogue that has been occurring for thousands of years.
In a yeshiva, a school focusing on interpretation of Torah, one learns to both study and write a shiur, or shiurim, the pluralized form. One evaluates the Torah and its commentaries to come closer to how Jewish law should be best interpreted and followed. Writing a shiur or delivering it at Temple is a vital part of Judaism stressing the many disputations and resolutions on Jewish law.
Some compose a weekly shiur to be delivered during Temple, similar to interpretation of scripture that forms the basis of a sermon. At other times a shiur can be much longer and in depth with the writing concluding with a personal position on Jewish law as it has been interpreted.
Sometimes a shiur can have a dramatic effect on the interpretation of the law, which in the past has caused different sects of Judaism to arise. All depends on which shiurim a person agrees with, and how leaders of a Jewish community interpret them.
For example, some use the shiurim written from the past to argue for various deviations from normally accepted Jewish law. A shiur on what type of work is permitted on the Sabbath might conclude that certain types of work, say for example, a necessary surgery are permitted, while other types of work, such as working overtime at the grocery store are not.
Many shiurim have been written on the subject of Kosher food law. Those who do not keep Kosher point to a progressive shiur or several progressive shiurim that suggest the consumption of certain foods is not in fact a violation of the law. Interpretation allows for one to find one’s place in the varied sects of Judaism. Thus a shiur can be conservative, Hasidic, orthodox, or progressive depending upon the author’s final conclusions.
Depending upon the sect of Judaism, writing a progressive shiur at a yeshiva can cause concern among the teachers. This is well illustrated in Chaim Potok’s novel The Chosen. The character Danny is often taken to task for studying Torah in a way that is not in keeping with the ideals of the school.
However, some yeshivas are open to the more progressive shiur, and in fact the shiur is often used to determine how to apply the law of God in modern times. This negotiation with the law as new circumstances arise which test it, is a major purpose of the shiur. It is a quest for knowledge of God’s word and law and a way for the modern Jew to keep close to God’s law in a modern world not envisioned in the Torah.