World of the Sages: Forget-me-not

How bad is it to forget the Torah you studied?

torah reading 224 (photo credit: AP)
torah reading 224
(photo credit: AP)
The Talmud tells us: "The reward for going to a class in Torah is granted for hurrying [to the class]." This statement is somewhat startling: Is there no reward for attending the study session and learning Torah? Is not the journey merely a means to the end of interacting with our traditional texts? In his classic commentary to the Talmud, Rashi (11th century, France) makes no attempt to soften the implication of this adage: "The primary reward for those who hurry to hear Torah lectures from the wise is the reward for running, because most people are unable to repeat what they have learned, recapitulating the teachings they have received from the mouth of their teacher after a period of time, such that they could receive reward for actual learning." The reward is therefore conferred for dashing to the beit midrash (study hall) since, it appears, there is no value to Torah studied and later forgotten. How bad is it to forget the Torah you studied? Elsewhere, the sages decry anyone who forgets Torah in most bleak terms: Whoever forgets one word of his study, Scripture considers him to have forfeited his life (M. Avot 3:8). The source for this harsh analysis is the biblical verse, "Only beware for yourself and be exceedingly careful for your soul, lest you forget the things that your eyes have seen" (Deuteronomy 4:9). Our sages, however, acknowledge an exception: If the studies were so complicated or overwhelming, such that the person's memory could not encompass all that was studied, he is absolved of guilt for his forgetfulness. The source for this exception is the continuation of the aforementioned verse, "and lest they depart from your heart all the days of your life" - a person is only culpable if he is the deliberate cause of the removal of the Torah from his heart. In the Talmud the issue of forgetfulness is recast in terms of transgression against divine commandments: "Anyone who causes even one word of his Torah learning to be forgotten has transgressed a prohibition." Our sages debate whether the forgetful person has transgressed only one commandment, perhaps two or even three prohibitions (B. Menahot 99b). Alas, forgetting what we have studied is not an unheard-of occurrence; for many of us it is an all too familiar scenario. Even our heralded forebears and the sages themselves were prone to forget Torah matters. To cite but one example: In the mishnaic tractate that deals with the layout of the Temple, one of the venerable sages admits that he forgot the use of certain offices in the Temple (M. Midot 2:5; 5:4). Are we constantly transgressing every time we forget? To be sure, all but one of the medieval scholars omit forgetting Torah from their lists of the 613 commandments (cf. Rabbeinu Yona Gerondi, 13th century, Spain). Yet, even if forgetting Torah is not one of the enumerated commandments, it is hardly a practice lauded by the Talmud. The talmudic passage also cites the aforementioned exception of one who forgets because of the complexity of the material, and adds a further exception to the rule of culpability for forgetting Torah: If one forgets Torah inadvertently, due to forces beyond his control. This might include one who forgot Torah due to illness or because of the burden of earning a living and providing for a family (Rashi, cf. Tosfot Yom Tov, 17th century, Bavaria-Bohemia-Moravia-Poland). Here too - as in the case of complex material - the person is said to have not deliberately removed Torah from his heart and is therefore spared the strict talmudic censure. Yet not all forgetfulness can be put down to force majeure, circumstances beyond our control. What is the measure of our responsibility and even guilt for forgetting Torah when outside circumstances cannot be blamed? One commentator suggests that the entire prohibition only applies to the rabbinic authorities and sages (Rabbi Ovadia of Bertinoro, 15th century, Italy-Jerusalem), for the folly of forgetting Torah is that it may result in incorrect halachic decisions and instructions. Another commentator offers an innovative approach to the entire issue of forgetting Torah. Rabbi Avraham David Wurmann of Buczacz (1771-1841) says that forgetfulness is only a problem if we rely on memory. If we record the Torah in writing or in print, then even though we may not remember all we have learned, we can easily use our notes or books to remind ourselves. Once we take note of the Torah we have learned, this newly created external repository of our knowledge lessens the culpability for our forgetfulness. This understanding recasts the prohibition against forgetting Torah as losing Torah: As long as Torah is not lost, even if I as an individual don't remember it at any given moment, the Torah has not truly been forgotten. This approach reflects the importance of printing books, taking notes and transcribing Torah thoughts. Rather than rely on our frail memories, putting the idea on paper - or on the computer screen as many do today - is one way to make sure we don't forget. Returning to the talmudic passage: Our sages recognize those who successfully retain the Torah they have studied: "Torah was given in 40 days and the soul is created in 40 days" - a reference to the initial stage of the formation of the embryo after conception - "anyone who safeguards his Torah, his soul is safeguarded." On the other hand, the opposite is also stated: "And anyone who does not safeguard the Torah, his soul is not safeguarded." The passage concludes the discussion with a parable indicating how precious Torah study is: A person entrusted a free-spirited swallow in the hands of his attendant for safekeeping. As he handed the bird over, he said: "You probably think that if you lose the bird, I will only take from you a small coin against the bird's value. Know that I will take your soul from you, for the value of this small bird is beyond any price." The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.