Question: The Gemara (Sukkah 20a) states that the Torah was forgotten for a period of time. This seems to be quite difficult to understand. Weren’t the people of earlier generations greater than those of later generations?
Answer: The Gemara you refer to quotes Resh Lakish as saying: “In the beginning when the Torah [the Oral Law] was forgotten in Israel, Ezra the Scribe came from Babylon and restored it. When it was forgotten again, Hillel came from Babylon and re-established it.”
A number of years ago my uncle, HaRav Sholom Klass, zt”l, discussed your question. He answered, in part, as follows:
“The Torah was never forgotten; it was only the many laws found in the Oral Torah that were forgotten. The Talmud (Megillah 18a) tells us that Shimon the Pakulite formulated our prayers in the order as we now find it. The Gemara asks, Inasmuch as we have been told that it was 120 elders, among whom were many prophets, who drew up these prayers in the proper order, why did Shimon the Pakulite have to draw them up again? The Gemara answers that they were forgotten and he formulated them afresh.
“The same thing occurred in the time of Joshua, as Tractate Temura (16a) narrates: R. Judah reported in the name of Rab, when Moses was about to depart from this world to the Garden of Eden, he said to Joshua, ‘Ask me concerning any doubts you may have on any points of law’ Joshua replied, ‘My master, have I left you for even one hour and gone elsewhere (i.e. I have no doubts)?’
“Moses took offense at his remark and his strength ebbed. As a punishment Joshua forgot three hundred laws and seven hundred doubts concerning laws arose in his mind. However, Othniel, the son of Kenaz, restored these forgotten teachings as a result of his dialectics.
“We mentioned many times in the past that Tractate Erubin (54b) describes how our Oral Torah came about and Rambam in his introduction to the Mishna explains it in great detail.
“Moses learned the Torah from G-d and he taught it (the Oral Law, which explains the written Law) to Aaron and his sons, to Joshua and the elders and to all Israel, expounding on all the difficult points.
“They in turn taught it to others. The prophet Samuel acquired the Torah with all its explanations, from Eli, the High Priest and his Beth Din, and King David received it from Samuel and his court, and so it was passed down to our Sages of the Talmud until the era of Rabbi Judah the Prince.
“The leaders and their disciples in every generation would expound the Torah and its various explanations as they had heard it from their teachers and ancestors. Eventually, more discrepancies arose when, for example, two sages thought that they had heard different interpretations from their teachers. These had to be debated and ruled upon.
“Rabbi Judah saw that the people were growing weaker in exile and were continuously persecuted by various ruling authorities. Thereupon he and his court undertook the task of codifying all these oral laws and interpretations, dividing them into various categories, known as the Mishna. Later on the expositions on the Mishna were formally compiled into the Gemara (Talmud). Ravina and Rav Ashi compiled the Babylonian Talmud (around 500 c.e.) and Rabbi Yochanan compiled the Jerusalem Talmud.
“Following them came the Geonim, then Rashi and the Tosafists who compiled the various commentaries to the Talmud and continued to explain and amplify the word of G-d as it had been handed down throughout the generations exactly as their ancestors had heard it from Moses.”
Thus, Rabbi Sholom Klass concludes, “the history of Israel is one continuous, unbroken chain of events which has been recorded to this very day. Therefore what we observe and what we do today is, ‘Halacha leMoshe mi’Sinai,’ the law as promulgated by Moses on Mt. Sinai. These laws are recorded in the Talmud (known as the Oral Law) which is a miraculous work and which spans the history of Israel for thousands of years. The perpetuation of Jewry has been attributed to it. It has guided Jewry through exile, hunger, torture and death. It is the essence, the soul of the Torah, which is in itself, the very life of the Jewish religion.