One of the harder parts about taking a position as to whether a common practice is a good idea or not, is that people are bound to have strong opinions about it. Whether it is a good idea to give yeshivah bachurim a break for bein hazmanim is one of those questions. It is also one regarding which most people’s opinions are informed by their personal experiences. The important part, which many people forget to do, is to remove the anecdotal evidence that doesn’t speak to the larger issue, and to focus on the broader picture.
The bein hazmanim question can be broken down into four parts. 1) What is its purpose? 2) Is it too long? 3) Is it too expensive? 4) Whatever the purpose is — is it successful?
The bein hazmanim that I will be championing is a very specific one. It is not a bein hazmanim that is what the Maharsha (Shabbos 119b) and Maharal speak about when they decry the very idea. It is not a time for taking extreme trips that require another vacation afterwards just to recover. Nor is it a time when one no longer has the mitzvah of talmud Torah. There are some who misuse it in that way; that is not a problem with the “system,” but a problem for these individuals alone to deal with.
Essentially, representing bein hazmanim as a three-week break is not an intellectually honest depiction of what it is meant to be. What it is, really, is a break from the routine that a beis medrash bachur is used to during the zman. The typical seder hayom begins with Shacharis at somewhere around 7:30–7:45 and continues for the next 14 1/2 hours with hour-long breaks, approximately, for meals. Most bachurim continue learning after the yeshivah sedarim are over, and it isn’t atypical for a day to end after midnight. The amount of energy used when learning with the intensity one needs to properly grasp a sugya, is not standard in the professional world. A relative of mine, a very successful lawyer, now retired, said that he hadn’t been as pressed for time when he was practicing law as when he learns sedarim. While a professional has time to do things between meetings and the like, any break during a seder is just that — a break.
That being said, bein hazmanim is a time when this can be dialed back a bit. A bachur can relax more, play some ball, and learn things not typically covered during the yeshivah year. This allows him to figuratively recharge his batteries in order to be fresh for the upcoming zman.
Is bein hazmanim too long? A legitimate case can be made that it is. Perhaps it is a matter of uniformity, along with the added benefit that comes with starting a shortened zman on a day as important as Rosh Chodesh Elul. This way it is easier to start the zman with an extra level of intensity so that the most can be made out of the five weeks it contains.
The prohibitive cost normally associated with camps in the summer is usually not an issue when it comes to beis medrash bachurim. Most learning camps will allow a bachur to have a job in the camp that will cover most to all of the cost of the program. And there are enough cost-effective alternatives for those bachurim for whom this is not an option.
Finally, we come to the matter as to whether bein hazmanim, in its current form, is successful.
There is no question that a large part of this debate hinges upon this last, most important part of the question. And here is also where the point about evaluating the greater picture and not getting caught up in anecdotal evidence is crucial. Everyone knows of bachurim who don’t take proper advantage of bein hazmanim. But is that a valid argument to make against the entire institution?
An overwhelming majority of yeshivah boys do use this time to its fullest potential. Programs are plentiful wherein the boys are assured a geshmakeh time and no lack of anything they can reasonably expect in the realm of gashmiyus, while still ensuring an aliyah in ruchniyus. Dedicated menahalim set up programs with the specific purpose of accomplishing these two objectives. If a parent has a son who can’t be convinced to take part in these programs, or do the same on his own without a program, it is not the system’s fault.
Ultimately, success will be measured by how the bachurim return from this break. One only needs to enter any yeshivah during the first week or two of Elul to see that, without question, bein hazmanim was a success.