"When the iniquitous power of Greece rose up against Your
Jewish people to make them forget Your Torah, and to force
them to transgress the statutes of Your will."
"Forgetting Your Torah" means that "they did not let them
learn Torah" (Rambam, beginning of Hilchos Chanukah).
Chazal divided the Greeks' decrees into two categories:
decrees against learning Torah on the one hand, and decrees
affecting religious observance on the other. We have to
understand why the first category is not included within the
second, and why Chazal thought it necessary to formulate two
separate categories of praise.
To get to the root of the matter, we must first get an
insight into the ways of the gemora and how Torah
shebe'al peh has been transmitted from generation to
The following statement from the gemora contains
within it a vital clue to our understanding of the mechanism
of Torah study:
"Rabbi Aba said in the name of Rabbi Shimon ben Lokish: when
two talmidei chachomim get together to learn
halocho (Rashi: `saying, let us learn and between the
two of us we will understand' etc.) Hakodosh Boruch Hu
loves them, as it says (Shir Hashirim 2:4), `And his
banner over me is love.' " (Shabbos 63a).
Learning with a chavrusa, then, is a source of much
satisfaction to the Creator. When talmidei chachomim
and bnei Torah assemble in botei medrash to
learn and toil in Torah together, it is an occasion of great
happiness to Hashem. But the gemora adds a proviso
"Rovo said: Providing they know the tzurso deshmayteso
(Rashi: `They have learned something about the foundations of
the subject from their rabbonim.')."
Everyone realizes that a cheder boy who tries to
understand Torah without the help of a rov is making a
laughingstock out of himself. The same applies to people who
have never toiled in Torah or delved into the depths of a
sugya. If such people, who never acquired the
necessary tools for understanding Torah in yeshivos and were
never meshamesh talmidei chachomim nevertheless
express "opinions" about divrei Torah, there can be no
doubt that the Torah will become a deadly poison for them and
only something destructive can come out of it.
What is It?
Why does Rovo use this expression tzurso deshmayteso
(literally, the "form" or "outline" of a sugya)? What
is the connection between "form" and a sugya, and why
is someone who is lacking a deep understanding of a
sugya considered not to have grasped its "form"?
The rishonim established that everything is made up of
two components: "matter" and "form". Matter is the crude
material, the basic raw mass. Form is superimposed onto
"matter", providing it with content, characteristics, meaning
and purpose. A carpenter who takes a piece of wood and
creates a table out of it, gives the piece of wood a visible
form, and thereby sets it apart to be used as a valuable and
meaningful tool. Matter is the crude piece of wood, form the
The form of an object is, essentially, something abstract
conceived intellectually and then put onto matter, thus
providing it with characteristics and content. In other
words, form is an intellectual-spiritual property filling
matter with character and meaning. Since it is the "form" of
an object which provides it with content and purpose, we may
justifiably define it as the "soul" of matter.
If we consider the matter further, we will notice that simple
beams of wood, in their raw state, are already themselves
composed of matter and form, because pieces of wood and even
sawdust are also wood even though nothing can be made out of
them. From the outset, then, a tree has the potential to
become a beam of wood, out of which tools can be created.
Even sawdust has a certain form in relation to other forms
even more crude than it. In other words, the form of an
object actually consists of several layers superimposed one
on top of the other, and the lowest form is defined as matter
vis-a-vis the form on top of it. The beam of wood itself has
form, but it is matter in relation to the table which is
created out of it.
All this shows that things which are essentially defined as
form, may actually be viewed as consisting of both material
and form. Thus, the words and sentences of a sugya are
its material. Understanding the sugya using one's own
intellectual powers, perceiving its inner core, its internal
"light," and feeling the stream of life which flows through
it -- these are things which you can only learn from a rov.
All these make up what Chazal termed the tzurso
deshmayteso, the form of the sugya. Words of Torah
and wisdom, although they are abstract, can be analyzed as
made up of both matter and form.
If someone recites some Torah, having learned it from the
printed word or heard it haphazardly from a rov, even if he
does not fully understand what he is saying, but if he quotes
correctly he is certainly giving expression to words of
wisdom which have form (relatively speaking). However since
he lacks an appropriate understanding of the material, he has
not grasped the tzurso deshmayteso. He has not
attained the inner "voice" of the sugya, its hidden
A seven-year old child can cite the fact that the sun's mass
is one-thousand-five-hundred times greater than that of the
Earth. If this is correct, he has made a wise statement.
However, such a child has no concept of the size of the Earth
and does not even know what "a hundred-and-fifty times
greater than" means. Perhaps he cannot even count to that
number. Clearly, then, he has no real understanding of the
statement he recited. This principle applies all the more so
to someone who recites divrei Torah.
I once listened in on a shiur on hilchos
Shabbos given by a prominent rov. Most of the
participants were baalei batim. Some of them seemed
quite learned and could follow the shiur, although not
on a deep level. Others were total am ha'aratzim. In
the middle of the shiur a person sitting in one of the
back rows got up to ask a question: "What about
It was obvious that his question had absolutely no connection
with what the rov was talking about. Only someone with an
especially fertile imagination could know what was going on
inside the questioner's mind. In fact, it is quite possible
that he himself was not referring to anything, only wishing
to show off "his knowledge" in front of the famous rov.
However, the rov, who knew the "clients" he was dealing with,
did not become confused, and on the spot came up with a
clever answer: "We don't say migu lehotzi."
This sharp answer satisfied the questioner. He was probably
proud of himself and told his friends about the difficult
question he had asked the godol, forcing him to come
up with some little known halachic concept to ward off the
question. We can also safely assume that this godol's
reaction to the question made the questioner want to
participate in more shiurim.
Clarity of Mind
To get an idea of the amount of effort and study required to
understand Torah properly, consider the following
halocho regarding cases of capital offenses. A
pronouncement of guilt is never made by a beis din on
the day of a decision. The dayonim have to reconsider
their verdict the following day, in case they come up with
new reasons for acquitting the defendant, which they did not
take into account the day before.
The Mishna continues with another halocho:
"Therefore trials are not held on erev Shabbos or
erev yom tov." On this the gemora comments that
if the defendant were tried on erev Shabbos and the
matter concluded on Sunday, the dayonim might have
forgotten their reasons by then, "for although two clerks
stand before them and write down the arguments of those in
favor of acquittal and those in favor of conviction, they can
only record verbal statements but not the heart of the
argument, which would become forgotten." (Sanhedrin
35a). (Rashi: "The contents of a man's heart cannot be
put into writing, and even though [the dayan]
remembers the basis of his reasoning, he will forget the
spirit behind it, and no longer be in a position to make a
ruling of the same quality as he would have two days
Just imagine: a dayan thinks of a sevoro or
halocho, the culmination of much deliberation on his
part, and the clerks of the beis din even put his
words into writing. You would think that there was no
possibility of all this being forgotten, and yet Chazal tell
us that the depth and clarity of divrei Torah may
become diminished even over a period of two days! The "heart"
of a sugya, with all its profundity and subtleties,
cannot be put into writing, and may be forgotten very
quickly. "It is as easily lost as a glass vessel!"
The matter of wisdom remains unchanged over a period of time.
As long as a person remembers the structure of a
sugya, or jogs his memory from written notes, the
matter of the material remains in existence, but the "heart"
disappears from his consciousness within a very short
It is well-known that the Chazon Ish zt"l would often
make a ruling only by consulting his own book. He would not
rely on his memory, knowing that at the time that he was
delving into a sugya, he had put all his concentration
into clarifying it to the best of his abilities and he was
sure that whatever he had managed to achieve during those
moments of intensity, he would not be able to achieve now,
when his mind was already in other sugyos. Many times
in his letters, cited in the book, he himself discusses what
he meant what he originally had in mind when writing a
certain matter, and he derives halachic points from this.
Once, when a difficult objection was made to one of his
rulings, the Chazon Ish checked again in his book to see what
he had written, and declared categorically that it says in
the sefer that the halocho is like that! He
felt that he was not in a position to revise his opinion.
Although he did not have an answer to the difficulty that had
been raised, he felt intuitively that it did not warrant
overturning the conclusion he had reached after painstaking
and in-depth study of the sugya, because every
question has to be considered carefully to see if it is
significant enough to justify invalidating existing
It was possible that when he would next have occasion to
study the sugya, he would change his mind, but as long
as he did not have the possibility of studying all the
material as intensely as when he had first put his thoughts
into writing, it would take more than that question to
reverse a written halocho.
If someone is studying a sugya intensively, and really
wants to get to the bottom of it, he has to shut himself off
in the beis hamedrash, exclude all other matters from
his thoughts, and devote all his attention and concentration
to his learning. Only then does he stand a chance of
attaining the tzurso deshmayteso in accordance with
his level and abilities. To achieve this is no small feat!
The main litmus test of a talmid chochom is whether he
has a proper grasp of the tzurso deshmayteso. We see
this from the gemora where Rabbi Aviyosor, an amoro
from Eretz Yisroel, made a ruling about
gittin coming from Bovel to Eretz Yisroel. Rav
Yosef was hesitant about accepting his ruling: "Rav Yosef
said: `Can it be maintained that R. Aviyosor is an authority
who can be relied upon? Was it not he who sent a statement to
Rav Yehuda [which included the posuk] `They have given
a boy for a harlot and sold a girl for wine,' and he wrote
those words without shirtut [lines underneath them],
although R. Yitzchok has said that two words may be written
without lines but not three?' "
How can the rulings of R. Aviyosor relating to serious
matters of gittin be relied upon when he is not
sufficiently conversant in halocho, and uses a secular
way of quoting pesukim? "Abaye said [to Rav Yosef],
`Is anybody who does not know this ruling of R. Yitzchok not
to be counted a great scholar? If it were a rule based on
logic [which he did not realize on his own], I could accept
the contention [that he is not a great scholar -- Rashi], but
in fact it is purely a tradition which R. Aviyosor had not
heard' " (Gittin 6b).
It goes without saying that a talmid chochom has to
have a mastery of all halachos, even ones in
masechta kallo (see the ruling in Yoreh Deah
244), but ignorance of novel, unknown halochos does
not affect his greatness. Only a major mistake in logical
reasoning (sevoro) on his part, would diminish from
his greatness and authority!
The discussion in the gemora at the end of
Horayos about whether a sinai or an okeir
horim is superior, is referring to two talmidei
chachomim who are both well-versed in most of the Torah
and are also proficient in the tzurso deshmayteso, but
one of them excels in his encyclopedic knowledge and the
other in his pilpulistic abilities and incisive
analysis of sugyos.
On the other hand, someone who can quote the whole Torah by
heart but only has a very limited understanding of the
material is obviously not a great scholar.
We see this being stressed by a gemora in
Megilloh 28b, where Rav Nachman was asked to eulogize
a student who had died and had been conversant with
halochos, Sifro, Sifrei and the Tosefta. Rav
Nachman replied, "What can I say about him? That he was like
a `basket full of books?' "
I think that we would certainly be proud to be called a
"walking encyclopedia"! In the eyes of Rav Nachman, however,
that student was not even worthy of being eulogized by a
Rav Chaim Volozhiner already said in the name of the Vilna
Gaon zt"l: "Earlier generations were only
distinguished from each other by the straightness of their
In fact, the same applies to Chazal. We find the following
gemora in Eruvin 53a:
"R. Yochonon said, `The hearts of the earlier generations
were like the door of the Ulam (twenty amos
wide), and those of the later generations were like the doors
of the Heichol (only ten amos wide). Ours is
like the eye of a very fine needle (used to sew up small
tears).' Abaye said, `We are like a peg in a wall in respect
of gemora.' Rovo said, `We are like a finger in wax as
regards sevoro.' " (Eruvin 53a)
We know that Abaye and Rovo learnt the same mishnayos
and beraissos and the same gemora as R.
Yochonon and his rabbonim. The difference between them was
not one of knowledge, but of the degree to which they
attained clarity in the tzurso deshmayteso, the heart
of sugyos: that is what R. Yochonon means by the
"hearts of earlier generations." Their learning was very
intense, and over the generations, the hearts shrunk, with
Abaye stating that he could hardly understand what he had
learned from his rabbonim, and Rovo lamenting the fact that
he was almost incapable of making novel insights.
The Torah is called a song: "Now write this song for you." In
music, the notation only serves as a hint of the deep
feelings for which they serve as symbols. Only someone whose
heart is sensitive to the stream of life bursting forth out
of these notes can come close to understanding the essence of
There is no essential difference between the way the earlier
and the later generations comprehended the matter of the
Torah; what distinguished them was the extent to which they
succeeded in attuning themselves to the "melody," the form of
the Torah song. The manner in which the wisdom of Torah
spreads throughout the heart, its absorption into our
consciousness, the degree of understanding, the clear grasp
of a sugya in all its manifold details, the degree of
depth and lucidity: all these are what set apart the great
scholar from the average student.
End of Part I
HaRav Moshe Sh. Mayernik is Rosh kollel of Tiferes