Shiur #21: Forgetting Torah
Pirkei Avot - The Wisdom of the Fathers
Shiur #21: Forgetting Torah
By Rav Moshe Taragin
The tenth Mishna of the third perek lodges an astounding claim in the name of Rabbi Meir: whoever forgets any Torah he has learned deserves death. Rabbi Meir cites a pasuk in Vaetchanan which sternly warns against forgetting the 'items' which your eyes beheld at Har Sinai. Since the warning is prefaced by the term "shemor nafshekha me'od" (you should carefully guard your soul), Rabbi Meir infers that the penalty of death applies. Though the Mishna ultimately qualifies this 'harsh' statement, it is still an astonishing and even shocking, assertion.
Several parallel Gemarot echo the warning of this Mishna- albeit with more moderate terminology.
For example, the Gemara in Menachot (99b) in a more moderate tone mentions that forgetting Torah is in violation of a prohibition - based upon the very same pasuk cited by Rabbi Meir in Avot. However, even that Gemara in Menachot sounds a warning with equal severity to the caution of Avot. It cites Rabbi Yochanan and Rabbi Eliezer who equate the 40 days of the delivery of Torah to the 40 days of the early development of a fetus. Though this parallel may highlight a GENERAL analogy between Torah and nature, the continuation of the Gemara cites a more normative message. If someone preserves their Torah knowledge, their soul is conserved; by contrast if the Torah is not retained, the soul is not protected. This assertion is slightly different from Rabbi Meir's warning in two manners. Firstly, it does not directly speak of death, rather of a soul being watched or protected (nishmeret in Hebrew). Conceivably, the Gemara could be interpreted as referring to general detrimental consequences of forgetting Torah - but not necessarily death. In addition the Gemara in Menachot does not articulate death in a legal sense as the Mishna in Avot implies when it announces that this person is "mitchayev be-nafsho" - deserving of death. Instead, the Gemara in Menachot, in striking a parallel between human life and Torah, extends this parallel to indicate that squandering Torah knowledge poses dire natural consequences for human life. In a similar vein, the Gemara in Sanhedrin (99a) cites Rabbi Yehoshua who compares forgetting of Torah to the burying of children and also mentions Rabbi Yehoshua ben Karcha who likens his experience to planting but not harvesting. In each instance, to highlight the perversion or natural distortion of non-Torah retention, the gemara cites natural cases of unfulfilled potential. It does not assign death as the penalty for forgetting, but merely laments the tragedy by invoking death as an analogy.
This statement of Rabbi Meir served as the source for an interesting doctrine and a related curriculum. In his treatise upon Talmud Torah, Rabbi Shneur Zalman Mi-Ladi the original Lubavitcher Rabbi, claims that Torah study contains two very different mitzvot. The more popular mitzva demands Torah study regardless of the manner in which it is studied or the volume of Torah retained. Presumably, a person could study the very same Torah issue for his entire life and fulfill his base commitment. However, based upon this pasuk in Vaetchanan and the editorial of Rabbi Meir, the Lubavitcher Rabbi develops a second component to the mitzva not merely to study Torah but to KNOW it. One who studies and forgets does not diminish the fulfillment of the first mitzva but compromises the achievement of the second. Based upon this theory, Rabbi Shneur Zalman proposed a bold new curriculum for Torah study. Each day a person should first review all the Torah he has studied until that point, and only after reinforcing his retention of old knowledge may he advance to uncharted Torah study. Advancing to new Torah study without fully consolidating acquired knowledge would neglect the mitzva of Torah knowledge. By and large, this educational model has not been adopted- neither at a personal level or a communal one. No yeshiva in the world adheres to this model, though each in varying degrees dedicates periods of the day, and by extension parts of the year, to chazara - review of Torah knowledge. In a famous retort, Rav Chayim Volozin quoted in the sefer known as ma'aseh Rav (siman 53) - claims that the prohibition of forgetting Torah only applied to those who once studied Torah by heart before the oral tradition was canonized. In this historical context, forgetting Torah knowledge is criminal since it threatens the integrity of the Masora. However, in our modern context, in which all of our Torah has been committed to writing, the prohibition no longer persists.
Even if we reject the claim of Rav Chayim Volozin and maintain the relevance of this prohibition within the modern context, we may still dispute the manner in which the Lubavitcher Rabbi applied the prohibition. After all, the conclusion of the Mishna appears to significantly qualify the harsh beginning.
Quoting the end of the verse in Vaetchanan which warns against "removing Torah from your heart" (u-phen yasuru milvavkha) the Mishna indicts those who actively delete their Torah knowledge but seems to excuse those whose learning 'overwhelms' them. Though the Mishna severely qualifies the instance of death penalty, its actual categories are not that clear. What type of behavior qualifies as 'active deletion' and which attitude reflects "being overwhelmed by his study." To further complicate matters, the parallel Gemara in Menachot excuses someone who is an ones, instead of excusing someone whose learning overwhelmed his memory. In some ways, the syntax of Avot seems superior to formulation of Menachot. In Avot one who naturally looses knowledge because he is overwhelmed (cannot naturally retain all his knowledge) is excused and only one who actively deletes is indicted. This system seems symmetrical of course without fully explaining how a person can 'actively' delete his Torah knowledge. By contrast, the Gemara in Menachot exempts an ones presumably one who is ill or old and indicts one who actively deletes. In fact, based upon the Gemara's terminology the Rabbeinu Yonah, in his commentary to Avot, inserts this definition into the Mishna in Avot: only an ones who is ill or otherwise compromised is excused from guilt. However, the Gemara leaves a gap by not addressing someone who is not afflicted but does not actively delete Torah knowledge. Ultimately, the Mishna in Avot proposes a tighter system.