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Moses Receiving the Ten Commandments by Marc Chagall.

A Mishnah in Avot issues a daunting warning regarding Torah study, and the prooftext it cites reveals an attitude toward Torah study I found surprising the first time I noticed it. Avot 3;8 tells us R. Dostai be-Rabi Yanai said in the name of R. Meir, anyone who forgets Torah they have studied, the verse treats it as a capital liability. Puzzled, the Mishnah (or, perhaps, R. Meir himself) asks, what if the person is unable to remember it all? The Mishnah responds with a later part of the verse, only a willful forgetting had such extreme ramifications.

The verse the Mishnah quoted forces us to think twice. It says hishamer lekha u-shemor nafshekha me’od pen tishkah et ha-devarim asher ra-u einekha, be very careful and guard your souls lest you forget the matters your eyes saw (Devarim 4;9-10). The warning, guard your souls, told the Mishnah this was a serious matter, with lives at stake. A later clause, pen yasuru mi-levavekha, lest they leave your heart, told the Mishnah it was only where the person removed the knowledge deliberately.

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Rabbenu Yonah has a more stringent view of the requirement. He thinks the Mishnah only absolves the Jew if takfah alav mishnato, if the forgetting was inescapable, if the Jew had put in all possible efforts to retain the information (such as by repeat review). We do not have to “pasken,” rule, according to Rabbenu Yonah to take his message to heart. Perhaps you are better than me in this area, but I know I have failed often at the challenge of reviewing material to the point where I retain it well. A contemporary of mine used to have a series of index cards summarizing what he had learned, set a regular time to review, to rejuvenate and safeguard his hold on the material.

I think that’s already reason to keep this Mishnah in mind as we approach Shavu’ot. Ready to celebrate and renew our connection to Torah, the question of how we will remember what we learned comes up as well. It’s not the reason I bring it up, however.

I note the Mishnah’s choice of verse because the next verse in the Torah, Devarim 4;10, says yom asher amadeta lifnei Hashem Elokekha be-Horev, the day you stood before Hashem your Gd at Horev. The Torah itself defines what we have to be so soul-careful not to forget—the event at Sinai, not Torah we study!

Kiddushin 30a makes much the same “mistake” in its use of the verse. 4;9 closed with the phrase ve-hoda’atam le-vanekha ve-livnei vanekha, make them known to your children and grandchildren. The Gemara assumes that phrase, too, means something about Torah study (grandfathers have an obligation to teach their grandsons, or that teaching Torah to one’s sons is as if one teaches it to all generations), when, again, the verse itself seems clearly to be about the event at Sinai. Berakhot 22a similarly cites the verse, to prove we should approach study of Torah with awe and fear.

What’s going on? Why is the Gemara citing a verse so completely out of context? The question answer itself. The Mishnah and Gemara took for granted our Torah study should recreate Sinai. We study Torah to fulfill an obligation, to know how to serve Gd, and more. We also study it because it links us to Sinai, is part of being careful with our souls, to always remember we lavish such attention and concern on Torah because it is the written record of what Gd Himself (as it were), Master of the Universe, the Creator, taught us as a people on Sinai.

On Shavu’ot, we remember the event and keep it alive in our memories. The rest of the year, if we do it right, we have the same experience when we study the Torah itself.

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