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Pirke Avot chapter three, verse ten

We are on about studying, still. This is the Chabad translation, and I’ll quibble after:

Rabbi Dusta’i the son of Rabbi Yannai would say in the name of Rabbi Meir: Anyone who forgets even a single word of this learning, the Torah considers it as if he had forfeited his life. As is stated, "Just be careful, and verily guard your soul, lest you forget the things that your eyes have seen". One might think that this applies also to one who [has forgotten because] his studies proved too difficult for him; but the verse goes on to tell us "and lest they be removed from your heart, throughout the days of your life." Hence, one does not forfeit his life unless he deliberately removes them from his heart.

The quibble is about the forfeited his life bit—it’s a bit of sagespeak that we’ve been coming across, and while people translate it differently (mortal guilt, guilt against self, guilt against soul) the connotation is that not only is it a Bad Thing, but it is the mental equivalent of a physical act that is a capital crime. As bad as murder. Only, you know, not actually as bad as murder, but rhetorically as bad as murder—we don’t enforce capital punishment, or any punishment in this world, for these soul-based acts. There is no body of law for them. But this whole ethical discussion takes place within a body of work that is primarily discussing the body of law for physical transgressions, and this idiom is comparing them, while keeping them separate. Am I making any sense? I’m just trying to get across that Rabbi Dusty is not saying that from a legal standpoint we should consider forgetting to be a form of suicide, he is saying that there exist transgressions of the soul as well as transgressions of the body, and that this is a very serious transgression of the soul.

What is? You might, with the backtracking, wonder who is capable of deliberately forgetting the Torah? That’s not how memory works, is it? In the backtracking, isn’t Rabbi Dusty letting everybody off the hook?

I don’t think so. The stated exception is for people who people who can’t learn in the first place, not for people who learn and forget. That is, if you learn a verse on Monday, and then on Tuesday it’s gone, that’s not a mortal transgression. If you learn a verse on Monday and can’t remember it on Tuesday, learn it on Tuesday and forget it on Wednesday, study it on Wednesday and can’t recall it on Thursday, that’s clearly a very sad thing, but not a matter of guilt. It was never really in the heart, so it wasn’t removed from the heart.

The warning is for people who study it on Monday, remember it on Tuesday, and figure well, that’s it, then, I don’t need to study it anymore. Then, when he ultimately forgets, it is as if he had forfeited his life.

A couple of comments from the tradition are important here. Rabbi Asher is quoted as saying that the heart of study is reviewing. When you find something you don’t understand, and you study it in order to understand it, that is for the sake of understanding. But when you study it a second time, that is studying for its own sake, and that is the heart of study. There is no pride in it, no self in it. I don’t altogether accept that, as I think that there’s always (particularly with Scripture) the opportunity to improve my understanding and my self; review is not just review. On the other hand, I haven’t attempted to memorize the text entirely, which would perhaps entail a different kind of review. On the other other hand, I know from running lines that memorization review can lead to new connections and new ideas. So.

The other thing I want to pass along is Rabbi Jonah’s emphasis that the guilt is in not accepting that forgetfulness is common among human beings. The guilt is in the pride that says I won’t forget, when people do forget. And then, when you give a decision that such-and-such a dispute is covered under such-and-such a precedent, that such-and-such a thing is permitted or forbidden, that such-and-such an obligation may be fulfilled in such-and-such a way, the decision is wrong, and not only does the scholar transgress, but he causes others to transgress as well.

I often describe myself has having a “trick memory”. It’s not photographic, it’s not perfect by any means, but in dealing with words (as opposed to pictures or numbers), it’s a lot better than most people’s. Both faster and more accurate. This is a gift that runs in my family; I set it to learning song lyrics and Jeopardy! facts, while my brothers and my father learned batting averages and ERAs. It’s not what it was in my youth, I’m afraid; I now have to actually work at memorizing lines, and, yes, review them to keep them in my head. And I have lost most of the plays I have ever been in. I couldn’t do To be or not to be… or recite This is the Place (which I took to tournaments in my high-school years) or even do the long monologue from Pyggie without putting in some work refreshing my memory.

And, of course, all of that is just entertainment. I should say just, as I’m a big believer in entertainment, but the point if that I put as much mental effort into Scripture as I do into things for my own amusement, I would still need to put a lot more in before I passed this test. Which, I suppose, is one reason why for so many years I did very little at all.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


Why is it better to memorize Torah than to just read it? I guess there's a sense in which you can skim something superficially and tell yourself you're really reading it; I can see that this should be avoided. But can't it be avoided without the (different) effort of learning it by heart? In The Chosen it's regarded as a great thing that Danny knows lots of Torah (and, as I recall, commentary too) by heart, but it's also regarded as unusual, no?

I think the breadth of Danny's knowledge is remarkable, but knowing the text by heart is a requirement. I think there's even a line (hold on, I'll look it up) (phooey, I can't find it) that memorization was the only kind of knowledge recognized by the yeshiva.

As for Rabbi Dusty and the commentators, well, we are dealing with a largely literate sub-society, but one in which books (and writing materials) are expensive, so there is a tremendous emphasis placed on memorization. Then (or rather, around that time) it becomes illegal to possess certain texts, so memorization becomes even more important. There becomes a kind of tradition that values memorization over other kinds of learning, and generally deprecates the use of written commentaries. Although, of course, the people who break with that tradition (the Rambam, Rashi) are the ones who wind up having tremendous influence...

As for any actual benefit (other than by tradition), I would say that rote memorization can provoke the kind of cross-text referencing (as the use of one phrase triggers the recollection of the same phrase in a different text) that becomes the basis of a lot of Talmudic disputational logic. On the other hand, a concordance can help with that, and current text searching is even more helpful. But it doesn't replace the ability to pull up that while Rabbi So-and-So says A here, he says B elsewhere, and Rabbi Thus-and-such says that he heard B from Rabbi Other, who was Rabbi So-and-So's teacher.


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