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11 Teves 5762 - December 26, 2001 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly









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Opinion & Comment
Tzurso Deshmayteso: The Heart of Learning

by HaRav Moshe Sh. Mayernik

Part II

The first part of this essay discussed the heart of what it means to learn and understand a part of Torah: acquiring a grasp of what Chazal call the tzurso deshmayteso. This is something that is difficult and important, as the author illustrated from halachas about beis din deliberations which show that the information can be written down but the grasp that the dayanim have of the tzurso deshmayteso may still be lost. He also cited some anecdotes from the work of the Chazon Ish which discuss the way he grasped a sugya while learning it and how he related to this later, for example by reviewing his written comments before issuing rulings on those matters on subsequent occasions.

The author called this grasp the form of a sugya in contrast to its matter, which is the collection of the pieces of information involved.

Valid Questions and Valid Answers

This also gives us some insight into the nature of a yeshiva, and the vibrant atmosphere of the learning that goes on inside it.

A talmid chochom is characterized by the way he grasps the form of the wisdom, as we explained. The task of a beis hamedrash is to educate, nurture and increase such talmidei chachomim. The purpose of a yeshiva, in essence, is to transmit the methods of attaining Torah, not just the actual texts, but also their form, quintessential content and brilliance.

Rav Sherira Gaon in his Epistle, after completing his account of the transmission of Torah from generation to generation until his time, reverts to a description of his yeshiva, the number of students, the syllabus and so on. When summarizing the method of learning at his yeshiva, he chooses a surprising point. We would have expected him to state that he teaches his students the whole of Shas, and familiarizes them with the whole of Torah shebe'al peh. Instead, he writes that he teaches them "21 ways of asking questions and answering them!"

In the yeshivos of the Geonim they learnt the whole of Shas, from beginning to end and he also mentions that, but his main concern when it came to transmitting Torah to his students was to teach them the techniques of distinguishing valid questions and answers from invalid ones. Rav Sherira, wishing to produce a generation of great rabbinical personalities, found it necessary to stress in his yeshiva the methods of acquiring the wisdom of Torah in all its depth, because the main purpose of a yeshiva is to elucidate and transmit the methods of limud from generation to generation.

An experienced daf yomi maggid shiur told me the following: "I'm in the middle of the third cycle of daf yomi shiurim which I give to a group of baalei batim every evening. Some of them have been attending my shiurim for over sixteen years, from the day they started. They have already made a siyum haShas with me twice.

"One of the baal habatim was already middle-aged when he joined my shiur, and had managed to complete the whole of Shas twice before. In addition to having finished Shas four times over by now he has, over the past few years, since going on an early pension, been participating on a regular basis in morning shiurim at a local kollel baalei batim. Since he is also an intelligent person, you would expect him to have become somewhat of a talmid chochom by now -- but this is not the case! His questions have always been to the point, but on the whole they are `baal batishe' questions!

"The most surprising thing is that the questions he comes up with are identical to the ones he put to me fourteen or fifteen years ago! I already answered them once or twice in the past to his satisfaction, but this does not deter him from repeating the same question for the third time! When I remind him that he has already heard this answer from me in the past more than once, he seems amazed and quite confident that I must be wrong, and that I must be mixing him up with someone else. But I'm not! This phenomenon has become a regular feature of my shiurim and I have stopped making any more comments about it."

The reason for this is that this baal habayis, even with thirty years' recent learning experience behind him, has yet to apply himself to the tzurso deshmayteso of a sugya. He does have a good grasp of the text itself. This Yid most probably can cite a lot of gemoras very well, and may consider himself quite a scholar. Sometimes he may even smile at the lack of erudition shown by younger scholars not as well-versed in gemora as he is, but he has never absorbed the "seichel," the tzurso deshmayteso of the Torah.

"This is because his learning has a haphazard nature about it. Even though he makes a point of reviewing the daf every day, his efforts are only concentrated on understanding the words. He has not applied himself to gaining a mastery of the `ways of asking questions and answering them.'

Facial Expressions

We are now coming closer to understanding what it is that cements the chain of Torah transmission from generation to generation. It has been established so far that a student learning Torah from his rov is not only learning the actual text. If this were the whole purpose, it would usually be enough for the student to consult books in his library. The main aim of learning from a rov is to attain the form of wisdom.

We would add an additional point: it is only possible to acquire the inner content of wisdom, its roots and form, by means of the student-rov relationship. This involves a face- to-face and peh lepeh communication, the same way that Moshe Rabbeinu learned mipi haGevuroh (see also the introduction to the Ksav Vehakaboloh on the Torah).

The outer shell of wisdom can be put into writing, but a man's heart cannot be. It would be hopeless to try to convey the depth of a sugya in writing, however much effort is put into expressing one's ideas. Even a cassette or videotape cannot achieve this. Fragments of active kedushoh can only be communicated through a living and accessible medium.

"Rebbi said, `I have only acquired Torah by virtue of having seen R. Meir's neck from the back.' R. Yochonon and Reish Lokish both said, `We have only acquired Torah by virtue of having seen Rebbi's finger come out of his sleeve.' " (Yerushalmi, Beitzo 8:2). Nowadays, it has become generally recognized that a person does not only express himself through his speech and diction. A person's deepest inner messages are only expressed through his body language: the way he "sings" his words, the way he wrinkles his face, the various ways he moves his eyes and blinks, his facial expressions and gesticulations, the way he twists his body, spreads out his hands and waves his finger. Torah texts are very deep and cannot be grasped fully just by reading them or hearing them from a teacher without experiencing all the body language that accompanies them. As it says, "Let your eyes see your teacher."

Chazal, whose entire personalities were molded by the oral traditions of Torah received from their rabbonim, were not only fully aware of the phenomenon of body communication, they could even pinpoint which particular body motion of their rov was responsible for their insight into the sugya that was being taught at the time. Rebbi was certain that if he had not absorbed R. Meir's expressions (just from the back!), he would not have understood anything of his Torah.

R. Yochonon and Reish Lokish were amongst the youngest students of Rebbi. They sat in his yeshiva in the seventeenth row. From such a distance they could not make out his facial expressions, but they could see the movements of his fingers, and how he used them to clarify his words. It was Rebbi's thumb that made them wise!

Conclusion of Shas

The Rambam in his introduction to the Mishne Torah, describes at length the chain of Torah transmission throughout the forty generations from Moshe Rabbeinu until the days of Ravina and Rav Ashi. He says that after their generation "the Jewish people dispersed all over the world, reaching faraway corners and islands. There was an increase in disputes, travel on roads was disrupted by armies, there were less Torah studies, and the Jews did not congregate in their multitudes to learn in yeshivos as they had done previously. Instead, individuals gathered together, remnants whom Hashem summoned in every city and country, who learned Torah and have a mastery of all of Chazal's teachings and know the laws from them."

From that time onwards, every Gaon and talmid chochom is entitled to differ from his predecessors. "If one of the Geonim decided that something was the halocho, and it is clear to a beis din of a later generation that this is not the right ruling according to the gemora, we do not follow the earlier ruling, but the one which is the most reasonable, be it the earlier or the later." (See also the Ramo's note on Chosen Mishpot 25:1).

We must try to understand what exactly changed after Ravina and Rav Ashi. Why does every rov from that time onwards have the authority to differ from his predecessors on the basis of proofs from the Talmud, but is not under any circumstances authorized to disagree with the Talmud itself?

If it is because the chachmei hatalmud were concentrated in one place, but subsequently rabbonim were spread out everywhere, then why should it be that if we would now gather the majority of the world's talmidei chachomim in one area, as they were in the time of the gemora, and they use their pilpulistic skills to disagree with Ravina and Rav Ashi, they would have no authority to do so? The reason for their lack of authority cannot be the absence of a direct tradition going back all the way to Moshe Rabbeinu, since everybody learns the methods of the Talmud from Ravina and Rav Ashi's writings, so that we may all be considered their students, and if Rav Ashi can disagree with the rulings of R. Yochonon and Reish Lokish, why can we not differ from them as he did, or disagree with the decisions of Ravina and Rav Ashi themselves when they concluded the Talmud?

In between the lines of the Rambam's quote above, we find an answer to this question. We have made the point that it is impossible to absorb the Torah of a rov from his writings, but only and specifically by being physically in his presence. This means that we cannot at all consider ourselves as students of Rav Ashi, because even if we spend a lot of time striving to understand his words and methods, this is not enough for us to be reckoned among his students.

We have not even had the merit of seeing his fingers from a distance! Consequently, we cannot come anywhere near an accurate understanding of even one of his statements. "The contents of a man's heart cannot be put into writing!" Our hearts are not capable of perceiving even a fraction of the heart of those Amoroim who concluded the Talmud. We have no connection to their hearts, we are not their students, and our perception of their teachings is only a light reflection, a shadow of the original Torah taught in their beis hamedrash. On what basis, then, could we possibly differ from them?

This leads us to a startling point implied by the Rambam. Even after the Jewish people were dispersed all over the world, the process of transmission of the Torah from teacher to student never ceased, and each student was totally dedicated to observing and transmitting the teachings of his rov. The Savoroim and Geonim did not keep their teachings to themselves: the transmission of traditions from rov to talmid continued during their time and has been going on continuously until the present day.

However, you cannot compare an individual who receives teachings from another individual to a large group of people receiving traditions from another large group. The Torah's depth is unfathomable, and one individual, or several individuals however great their stature, cannot on his own attain a perfect comprehension of divrei Torah in all their multifarious aspects.

The inner essence of Torah could only be transmitted in its totality in the yeshivos of the Tanoim and Amoroim, where the majority of all the chachomim were concentrated in one or two mesivtos, and many thousands of students absorbed the teachings of the chachomim. For Torah to be transferred in its entirety, there have to be a large number of students looking at a large body of rabbonim, watching their faces during the shiurim, their clenched fists and other body language during the heat of the Talmudic debates. Thousands of students listening eagerly and observing their teachers' every movement. Once we became scattered all over the world, this situation came to an end.

Of course, the Torah continued and will continue to be transmitted from rov to talmid until Moshiach comes b"b, but the fervor of Torah and its tzurso deshmayteso have necessarily been impaired over the generations.

To Make Them Forget the Torah

Let us return now to our opening question. We asked why Chazal made a point of singling out the category of lehashkichom Torosecho from the general category of decrees affecting religious observance. In the light of what we have discussed here, and taking note of the term hashkochas haTorah as opposed to mere bitul Torah, the answer should be obvious.

Chazal, when formulating the al hanisim, had in mind the Greek prohibition of public Torah study in botei medrash. Other anti-religious edicts were going to be cancelled sooner or later, with no long-term aftereffects, but the termination of Torah study in yeshivos posed a very serious threat because that would have necessarily resulted in a weakening of the living tradition of Torah, as we have explained.

If Antiochus had, choliloh, succeeded in his machinations, the Torah would have become hidden already at that time. The frightening spectacle of the disruption of the living chain of tradition from the time of Moshe and the consequent weakening of halachic decision-making powers which we witnessed with the closure of Sura mesivta at the beginning of the Savoroic period, would have occurred already during that earlier period.

Whereas the chachomim left us an organized Mishna and Talmud, from which we draw our sustenance until Moshiach comes b"b, in the time of the Greeks there was no trace of anything arranged in writing. Were it not for the Creator's kindness in nullifying their evil plans, who knows how we would have coped?

Now we can understand why, of all the decrees imposed by the Greeks, it was this one that posed the main danger to our spiritual well-being. " `And darkness' -- refers to the Greek exile; [it was the Greeks] who darkened the eyes of the Jews with their decrees." (Bereishis Rabboh 2:4). There is no greater blindness than forgetting the Torah. This is why Chazal formulated lehashkichom Torosecho as a separate category of praise.

The miracle of the Menorah symbolized this victory, because the main result of our triumph over the Greeks was the restoration of Talmudic study to its rightful place. The Mesivtos were revitalized and the succeeding generations of Tanoim, who would enrich the Torah tradition and disseminate it throughout the nation, could develop undisturbed.

The pure Menorah represents wisdom. "He who desires to become wise should turn to the south [when praying]. The symbol [by which to remember this] is that the Menorah stood in the south." (Bovo Basra 25b). The lone jug of pure oil which remained -- the thin wick of tradition secretly-adhered to -- burst forth, multiplied, and illuminated the eyes of the Jewish people for eternity.

HaRav Moshe Sh. Mayernik is rosh kollel of Tiferes Shraga, Yerushalayim.

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