This essay was first published in 1996.
The Secret Of Gaining Torah Knowledge
"No person ever became a godol beTorah merely by studying Torah. It was only by reviewing his studies," wrote the gaon HaRav Yitzchok Hutner zt'l.
When we talk about a skyscraper, everyone understands that the building's secret is not in its top floors, but rather in its bottom floors, many basements, and deep foundations. The top floor is less reinforced with thick steel beams than the lower ones since it need not carry so much weight. Any thoughtful person will point to the building's underlying infrastructure, as disclosing the key to its towering height: the secret is the massive, solid foundation. A foolish person, however, will look at the skyscraper's incredible height and become excited over seeing the uppermost floors touching the clouds.
The secret of gadlus in Torah study and the way to excel in Torah knowledge, is not in the "top floors" — the extra knowledge that a godol beyond that of a regular person. The secret of towering Torah greatness is also at the very foundation. The difference between a godol beTorah and a regular person is in his foundation's strength.
Let us return to the building. Some builders build foundations a foot thick, while others are not satisfied with that and add to the original foundations, making them thicker. They thicken the foundations, which thus become stronger and stronger. The advantage of a sound foundation is that a tall building can be built on it.
Now let us compare the building to a godol's knowledge. The godol is also not satisfied with weak foundations. He initially deepens his foundations, thickens them, and continually adds to them. With his strong foundations he can readily build an edifice of Torah, an edifice whose base stands on the earth while its head is elevated into the sky.
One frequently sees yeshiva boys who enthusiastically study any topic that other yeshiva students are not engaged in. For this purpose they find "unused" time outside the yeshiva schedule. Sometimes they even find "unused time" which is actually time allocated for the regular studies of the yeshiva's schedule. They do this because they feel that their individual study is of great importance.
This belief and its application result from a yeshiva student's desire to be greater than others. His reasoning is quite simple, although unfortunately tragically mistaken: to be greater than others I must study something others do not know, so that I will have an area to excel in. If I will be content to study what is being studied anyway in the yeshiva, how can I possibly be greater than others?
The trap he is falling into is most dangerous. During the time he is busy trying to become a godol, by studying topics that his peers have not yet studied, they are, meanwhile, thickening the cement walls around their previous studies — they are making their foundations thicker and deeper. His friends are investing in something that will reward them with the ability to maintain what they have already studied. The person who engages in supplementary studies will naturally have weak foundations and the components of his "edifice" will not be able to stand on them.
The main beam in a godol's building up Torah success is his reviewing (chazoro), as the Vilna Gaon writes, "Someone who studies to reach an objective always reviews and finds interest in his study."
Old Compared To New
"The former generations made their Torah study their principal occupation and their work secondary, and both were preserved for them. The later generations made their work their principal occupation and their Torah study secondary, and neither was preserved for them" (Brochos 35b).
The kadmonim found the above lesson of Chazal's difficult to understand. If later generations studied Torah on a secondary level and their Torah knowledge did not remain with them, that is quite logical. However, why did the fruits of their work, done as their principal pursuit, not remain with them? Furthermore, is this really so? Do we not see hundreds and thousands who work on a primary basis and study Torah only secondarily, and they do succeed in their vocation?
In addition, Chazal's precise expression, "preserved (or not preserved) for them" must be explained. What does "preserved" come to teach us? Should not some expression of success or failure be used?
There are two areas in Torah study: the first is review study of material that is already absorbed within and that has plowed deep furrows in his heart. This is a comparatively easy job: he is plowing well-plowed earth. "Rovo said: `Yes, it is my Torah, since it is written (Tehillim 1:2), "But only in Hashem's Torah is his delight, and on his Torah he meditates day and night"'" (Kiddushin 32b). Rashi explains, "Initially it is called Hashem's Torah, but after he studies and knows it well it is called his Torah."
The second area: study which can be defined as difficult — a new sugya, a new topic that demands from a person to exert himself. He must plow deeply, cast aside stones, and eliminate all the wild thorns in his way. This is work that involves building and demolishing until one reaches the desired results.
The former generations made their Torah study their principal occupation. The main occupation of those generations was their Torah studies — the Torah they already knew, that was considered already theirs — continually reviewing it.
"And they made their work temporary." To the difficult chore of gaining new knowledge of the Torah, they also devoted some time, but not their main time. Since they divided their time in such a way, "both were preserved for them." "Both" refers to previous Torah studies and new study.
In later generations, who mainly were engaged in their "work" — the Torah study involving the conquering of new sugyos — and only for a small part of their time would they review — "neither was preserved for them." Neither their old studies nor the new ones remained with them. Eventually they found themselves shockingly lacking Torah. After they opened their closed hands they saw that nothing remained. They suddenly found themselves forlorn.
If this was the case in those long ago "later generations," during the Talmudic period, this is far more true about us. Since most people today neglect review — only a few devote time at all to review and even they do not review enough — it is not surprising that neither their Torah nor their work has preserved, meaning that neither their new or old Torah studies remained in their memory. This is exactly what the Vilna Gaon teaches us in Mishlei (19:15): "Someone who studies a lot but does not always review, since he wants to gather a lot... nothing will remain with him." "Both were not preserved for them."
Ahavas Torah Compared to Ahavas Hachidush
HaKodosh Boruch Hu implanted in man a fire of curiosity. This characteristic is dynamic in man. Inquisitiveness causes a person to continue turning pages, to gain new knowledge without stopping. The unknown is a fundamental element in the existence of both the world and man. The hidden tempts a person into exposing it. Maran HaGaon R' Aharon Kotler zt'l terms this infatuation of man for the unknown as ahavas hachidush.
It is therefore not amazing that man always tends to be engaged in new sugyos, in new gemoras, and only little time is dedicated for review. In review, his yetzer of curiosity is not gratified. It is not surprising that this inclination drags a person from dapim that he just glanced at to dapim that he has not yet studied at all. The yetzer of curiosity and the love of discovering new ideas beats strongly in his heart.
When a person studies Torah we must suspect that perhaps it is not ahavas Torah throbbing within that is causing him to exert himself. Perhaps it is ahavas hachidush that motivates his tongue and mind.
On the other hand, when a person reviews his Torah studies, repeating pages that he has previously studied, it is sure that ahavas Torah is what inspires him and not ahavas hachidush. No great chidushim or blaring discoveries will be his by reviewing. He does so purely because of his love for the Torah.
Reviewing is the yardstick to know if someone has true ahavas Torah. It is engaging in Torah for its own sake and not for his sake. It is for good reason that Dovid Hamelech appeals to Hashem, "that I should not study Torah and then forget, or study and then be prevented by the yetzer hora from reviewing" (Yalkut Tehillim 119:88). The way to test ahavas Torah is by reviewing. In this way a person can really know what is happening within himself. He can know if he is studying for the sake of his Torah study or for his own sake — to satisfy his curiosity.
In light of the above, R' Aharon Kotler zt'l writes, that what Chazal taught us in Chagigah (9b) can be well understood: "Bar Hei Hei said to Hillel: `What does the posuk mean, "And you will look again and see [the difference] between a tzaddik and a rosho, between a person who serves Elokim and one who does not serve Him" (Malachi 3:18)? Is not a tzaddik a person who serves Elokim, and a rosho someone who does not serve Him?' [Hillel] answered: `[In this case,] both [the terms] "someone who serves Him" and "someone who does not" [refer to] absolute tzadikim, but one who reviews his study one hundred times cannot be compared to someone who reviews his study a hundred and one times.' He said to him: `Because of [the lack of] one time he is considered someone who does not serve Him?' He answered: `Go and learn from the mule market. Renting a mule to travel ten parsah costs a zuz, while renting it to travel eleven parsah costs two zuz.'"
Someone for whom studying a hundred times is enough is called a person "who does not serve Him." His study is not a proof that the fire of ahavas Torah burns within him. After he has studied for the hundred-and-first time, after he has begun the review for the second series of a hundred, he clearly shows that his essence is ahavas Torah.
From the parable that Hillel used we can learn an additional principle about reviewing Torah studies. The more a person reviews, the more tremendously the worth of that particular review increases. The hundredth review cannot be compared even to the hundred-and-first review, which itself is worth a hundred previous reviews. This we infer from the parable. For one additional parsah more than what is customary one must pay twice as much. This is not a question of additional percentages, but double the amount. Likewise every review doubles the benefit according to the amount that he previously reviewed.
Amount of Review
The obligation to review is at least one hundred and one times. Do we meet this obligation? It is apparent that we are far from fulfilling this. Perhaps in our generation we can try to justify our failure to do so because of the decline in comparison to previous ones and our troubled period. But perhaps, on the contrary, because of our troubled period we should review more to make our study go deeper, to protect it from being uprooted.
Even if we have difficulty in studying the entire Shas a hundred and one times, we should at least study one gemora that many times, so that we will have the opportunity of being on the level of those "who serve Him." As long as we have not entered the gate of the hundred-and- first time, we will lack this crown that our neshomoh yearns for. Besides its own great worth, it also adds to preserving one's study. "Since they were chassidim, their Torah was preserved" (Brochos 32b). Rashi explains that their Torah was preserved within their hearts in that they did not forget what they had studied.
Perhaps we can infer from Chazal's expression, "one who reviews his study," that they are not referring to the regular study of all the gemoras in Shas. They are focusing on "his study," the gemora that he has obligated himself to study and review his entire life.
HaRav Moshe Halberstam shlita told me that the HaRav Dovid Jungreis zt'l, who was the ravad of the Eida Chareidis in Yerushalayim, was zoche to study Bava Kama one hundred and one times during his youth. That was his life's gemora. From then on, any question asked and its answer was found by him to be also present in Bava Kama, in the gemora, the rishonim, and commentaries on this gemora.
How lucky is the person who can say about himself: "How fortunate is the person who comes here holding his Talmud in his hands" — with the whole Shas in his hands. If a person cannot accomplish this, he should at least try to study one gemora, through which he will have heavenly bliss in this and the next world.
After studying one gemora as one should, he can then continue to climb the Torah's ladder of excellence. This gemora is similar to the trunk of a tree. The thicker it is, the more it makes him feel more secure when climbing it. Just as from a tree's trunk grow branches and buds, so "his gemora" will grow buds of Torah.
"They should know at least one gemora," HaRav Chaim Kanievsky told me.
HaRav Avrohom Tzvi Margolis shlita is the Rav of Karmiel and the initiator of Mifal HaMesectos