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Reviewing your Torah learning and edging it to your memory
(Based on Likkutei Sichos Vol. 34)
This week’s Parsha, Parshas Vaeschanon, enumerates many of the cardinal commands of the Torah, including the mitzvah of Torah learning. Included in the general mitzvah of learning Torah is the instruction that one may not forget that which he learned. This is derived from a special verse in our Parsha. The Rebbe begins to talk with introducing the Talmudic story of Rav Zeira who fasted for the sake of forgetting all of his Torah knowledge that he acquired in Babylon, in order so he could properly study the Jerusalem Talmud when he arrived in Israel. The question that is raised in the talk is regarding how this did not transgress the above prohibition of forgetting one’s Torah learning. Several explanations are offered, however when analyzing the words of the Alter Rebbe in his Shulchan Aruch regarding the prohibition, all of the answers that are offered become inapplicable, and hence a new explanation must be found. After further analyzation into the prohibition, the Rebbe comes up with a new revolutionary understanding of the prohibition of forgetting Torah learning and the scenario to which it applies. On the one hand, the talk emphasizes the halachic importance of reviewing one’s Torah study and not allowing his learning material to become forgotten. On the other hand, it motivates one to study Torah even if he will not be able to edge it all into his memory, as the prohibition of forgetting Torah only applies in the case of active neglect.
Explorations of the Sicha:
1) Is there an actual prohibition to forget one’s Torah learning?
2) Why did Rabbi Zeira purposely make himself forget his Torah learning and did he transgress anything by doing so?
3) How can one be expected to remember everything that he learns and avoid the above prohibition?
4) Should one continue to learn Torah even though he knows he will not remember it?
1. The prohibition to forget one’s Torah learning:
It states in the Mishnah in Avos, “Whoever forgets even a single teaching from his study, is considered by Scripture to be liable for his life, as the verse states, “Make sure to guard yourselves and guard your souls very much, lest you forget the words that your eyes saw.”
The Talmud teaches us based on this verse, that whoever forgets even one matter from his studies transgresses a negative command.
2. Rav Zeira purposely caused himself to forget all of his Torah learning:
The above clear Talmudic teaching aggravates the following question regarding Rav Zeira of whom the Talmud relates the following strange tale: When Rav Zeira moved [from Babylon] to Israel, he fasted for 100 days in order to forget the Babylonian Talmud, in order so it would not disturb [his future studies in Israel].
This story with Rav Zeira is quite perplexing, as even if the forgetting of his studies served some purpose, how was this allowed to be done in light of the above prohibition to forget even one teaching of one’s Torah learning, and certainly to forget one’s entire Torah learning, and to do so purposely! Now, although the Talmud explicitly states that the entire reason of Rav Zeira in making himself forget all of his learning in Babylon was so that he can learn the Jerusalem Talmud, and hence one can argue that since he was doing so for a purpose of learning therefore it was allowed, practically it is difficult to accept this explanation. There is no precedence to allow one to transgress an explicit prohibition in the Torah for the sake of then doing a mitzvah. This idea is known as, Mitzvah Habah Beaveira, which is strongly negated. This especially applies in light of the fact that it is not even clear that he will be successful in learning his new studies of the Jerusalem Talmud. One also cannot answer that the prohibition of forgetting one’s Torah learning only applies when one actively forgets it, as indeed Rav Zeira actively cause himself to forget it by fasting and even praying to G-d that he forgets his learning. Furthermore, throughout the entire period of 100 days, he certainly did not study the Babylonian Talmud, and hence he was actively neglecting his Torah learning for the sake of removing it from his heart.
3. The different opinions regarding the severity of forgetting one’s Torah learning:
To understand the above matter, we must first introduce the various opinions in Rishonim regarding the severity of one’s forgetting of his Torah learning.
- The opinion of the Rambam: The Rambam, as well as many others who enumerate the list of the 613 commands, omit the above prohibition of forgetting one’s Torah learning from the list of 365 negative commands. This seems to imply that it is not a prohibition at all, and at least not a biblical prohibition.
- The opinion of the Ramban: The Ramban, unlike the Rambam, does enumerate the verse of “thou shall not forget..” as part of the 613 commands. However, as he understands it, this prohibition is not referring at all to forgetting one’s Torah learning but rather to forgetting the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. Thus, he too does not list the forgetting of one’s Torah learning as a biblical prohibition. According to the Ramban, it seems that he understands the statement in the above Mishneh in Avos and Talmud which seems to prohibit forgetting one’s Torah learning, to simply be a matter of piety which is supported by the above verse in Scripture, although it is not an actual obligation.
- The prohibition is only when one stops learning Torah altogether: Indeed, there are a number of Rishonim who enumerate the above prohibition of forgetting one’s Torah learning as part of the 613 commands, hence accepting the above Mishnaic and Talmudic teaching as literal. Nonetheless, even they describe the prohibition is only applicable to one who completely drops his Torah learning, and get themselves involved in trivial matters which causes his Torah learning to become forgotten.
According to the above opinions, it is clear that Rav Zeira did not transgress any prohibition, as some Rishonim hold that no such prohibition even exists and is merely an act of piety which Rav Zeira chose to ignore in order to properly study the Jerusalem Talmud. Furthermore, even according to those opinions which hold that it is a prohibition, it was not transgress by Rav Zeira being that he did not ignore his Torah learning and spend his time in trivial matters, and on the contrary was still involved in learning the written and oral Torah, including the Mishnah, and the only thing he didn’t learn was the Babylonian Talmud.
4. The understanding of the Alter Rebbe in the prohibition to forget one’s Torah learning:
The Alter Rebbe has a very unique and detailed approach in his understanding of the above Mishnaic and Talmudic prohibition of forgetting one’s Torah learning. In his laws of Torah study, the Alter Rebbe states based on Rabbeinu Yonah, that whoever forgets one aspect of his Torah learning due to him not reviewing it properly is considered by Scripture to be liable for his soul, and likewise transgresses a negative command in the Torah. Meaning, that not only does he hold that forgetting one’s Torah learning is under a biblical prohibition, but that it is transgressed even if one does not actively do anything to make him forget it, but simply is not active enough to retain the information that he acquired, such as if he does not review his learning. In his Kuntrus Achron, the Alter Rebbe explains this to be likewise the opinion of the Rambam who more than once mentions of the idea of not forgetting one’s Torah learning.
According to this approach of Admur it is unclear as to how he would explain the allowance of Rav Zeira to purposely forget all of his learning.
5. Attempted answer number one-the prohibition is only against forgetting the final Halachic conclusions:
Seemingly, one can explain that even according to the Alter Rebbe, the prohibition against forgetting one’s Torah learning and requirement of review is limited only to the subject of Jewish law and its final conclusions. However, the remembrance of the various debates and discussions of how that conclusion was reached [i.e. Pilpul], and its reasons and sources, is not obligatory, and regarding these matters there is no prohibition to even actively cause oneself to forget it. We find precedence for this from the words of the Alter Rebbe where he states that it was not so customary to review all of the various discussions that surrounded the conclusions of the law, and this caused for many of the learning discussions of both the Tanaim and early Amoraim to be forgotten. The reason for this, explains the Alter Rebbe, is because, “There is no obligation to review these discussions, as Pilpul was only given to Moshe.”
Accordingly, one can suggest that Rav Zeira did not cause himself to forget the final halachic conclusions of the Babylonian Talmud, but simply to forget their surrounding discussions, debates, and questions and answers which led to their conclusions. In otherwords, he fasted and prayed to forget the Pilpul material found in the Babylonian Talmud but did not forget its deduced laws.
Nonetheless, this answer is still difficult to accept, as aside for the fact that in other areas of Admur it is implied that the prohibition applies to forgetting even the reasons and Pilpul of the laws, the implication of the Talmudic tale of Rav Zeira is that he forgot the entire Babylonian Talmud including its final rulings. Hence, we once again return to our original question as to how was permitted for Rav Zeira to do so.
6. The law if one forgot his learning due to reasons beyond his control:
The answer to the above question can be understood through first introducing the continuation of the above Talmudic teaching which prohibits forgetting Torah learning. The Gemara there states that one forgets his Torah learning due to reasons that are beyond his control [i.e. Machmas Anso] is not considered to transgress the negative command. This ruling is likewise recorded by the Alter Rebbe in his laws of Talmud Torah. Now, the Gemara brings a special verse from which this exemption from the prohibition is derived. This is rather odd, as there is already a well-known rule in Torah, that the Torah does not hold one liable in matters beyond his control [i.e. Oness Rachmana Patrei]. Why then is it necessary for the Gemara to bring a special verse to teach us of this exemption from liability regarding the prohibition of forgetting one’s Torah learning. Why would it be any different than any other command of Torah of which there is an automatic exemption for transgressions that are done beyond one’s control.
7. The reason it is forbidden to forget one’s Torah learning:
To understand the above, we must first analyze the reason behind the prohibition of forgetting one’s Torah learning. Some explain that the reason for this prohibition is quite straightforward, so one not come to permit the prohibited and come to stumble on transgressions due to lack of knowledge of the law. However, the Alter Rebbe does not bring this reason down in his Shulchan Aruch, which implies that he holds that the prohibition is not due to it leading to transgression but due to an intrinsic prohibition in forgetting one’s Torah learning even if it does not lead to stumbling over a prohibition due to forgetfulness. So is also proven from that which the Alter Rebbe rules that “even in today’s times that all the laws have been written in books, and anything that one has forgotten can be researched, nonetheless, the moment that one forgets his learning he transgresses the above negative command prior to looking it up.”
8. The reason a special verse is necessary to teach us the exemption when the forgetfulness is beyond one’s control:
Based on the above we can explain why a special verse was needed by the Talmud to teach us that one forgets his learning due to reasons beyond his control is exempt from liability. The general exemption from liability for transgressions that are beyond one’s control can be explained to simply be an exemption from punishment for the transgression, although, the transgression is considered to have taken place. The novelty of the above Talmudic teaching from the verse is to teach us that one who forgets his Torah learning due to reasons beyond his control is not only exempt from any punishment, but it is not considered a prohibition at all. In other words, it teaches us that to begin with the entire prohibition against forgetting Torah is only in a case that one forgets it willingly, in a way that he could have prevented its forgetfulness. If, however, he could not prevent it from being forgotten, then it was never included in the prohibition to begin with, and certainly he is not considered to have transgress anything. Accordingly, we find that the Alter Rebbe rules it is proper for every individual after completing his learning and knowledge of practical Jewish law, to study at least one time in his life the entire Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmud. Now, although he will not have time to review his Talmudic studies and will surely forget much of it, nonetheless, since this is not of any fault of his own it is not considered a transgression, and on the contrary the initial learning is considered a great mitzvah which its memory will be returned to him in the future era.
Now, what is the reason that specifically by the prohibition against forgetting one’s Torah learning we consider it as if the transgression never even took place in a case that the forgetfulness is beyond his control? Seemingly, the reason for this is because the prohibition against forgetting one’s Torah learning is specifically in a case that one actively does something to neglect Torah learning in general. If, however, he does not actively neglect Torah learning and simply avoids reviewing certain sections of Torah due to lack of time, then since he has not neglected Torah learning therefore no prohibition is considered to have taken place.
9. Rav Zeira’s forgetting of the Babylonian Talmud was not considered a neglect of Torah:
Based on the above we can now understand why even according to the approach of the Alter Rebbe in his understanding of the prohibition against forgetting Torah, Rav Zeira is not considered to have transgressed any prohibition. Although Rav Zeira actively and purposely cause himself to forget his Torah learning of the Babylonian Talmud, this itself was not an act of neglecting Torah but on the contrary an act of progressing in Torah learning so he can acquire the knowledge of the Jerusalem Talmud. Accordingly, he is not considered to have transgressed this prohibition as he has not neglected Torah learning. Furthermore, one can explain that the entire purpose of the actions of Rav Zeira in forgetting the Babylonian Talmud was to help him retain the knowledge of the final conclusions of the Talmud. One of the differences between the Babylonian Talmud and the Jerusalem Talmud is that the Babylonian Talmud is filled with much debate and discussion until it comes to a final conclusion. The lengthy debates and discussions make it difficult for one to remember the final conclusions being that they are often left obscure in the midst of all the debate. However, in the Jerusalem Talmud there is very little debate and discussion, and the laws are brought down in the straightforward and clear manner. It is for this reason that Rav Zeira fasted in order to forget the Babylonian Talmud, so that he can forget all of the confusion surrounding the laws and commit to his memory the clear and straightforward rulings of the Jerusalem Talmud. Accordingly, the active forgetfulness of the Babylonian Talmud was in fact a catalyst to help them acquire memory of all the final laws. This point is capsulized in the Talmudic dictum which states that, “sometimes the nullification of Torah learning is its foundation.”
Lessons of the Sicha:
· On the one hand, from the above talk we learn of the importance of reviewing one’s Torah study. Reviewing one’s Torah studies is not just necessary for the sake of remembering the details of Jewish law so one does not stumble in transgression, but also due to the obligation to guard one’s memory of his Torah learning. Every individual should have set aside a certain amount of time daily or weekly for reviewing his studies. This especially applies to subjects of Jewish law, and especially applies to rabbis who give halachic rulings to the public, who must constantly review their studies in order so they don’t give a mistaken ruling due to their lack of memory.
· On the other hand, from this talk we learn that one is not held liable for forgetting his Torah study if it is not of any fault of his own and not due to neglect of Torah learning. Thus, one should not feel discouraged from studying book after book of Torah subject just because he may not be able to retain it all to his memory. On the contrary, not only should he study as many Sefarim as he can from cover to cover, but furthermore, he is guaranteed in the future era he will be granted eternal memory of that which he learned.
 Avos 3:8
 Vaeschanon 4:9
 Menachos 99b
 Bava Metzia 85a
 see also Rambam Talmud Torah 1:10, 12, brought in Kunrtus Achron Talmud Torah 3
 In Hashmatos of Sefer Hamitzvos L.S. 2
 See Semag Lavin 13; Semak 15; Yireim 28
 Hilchos Talmud Torah 2:4
 See Rabbeinu Yonah Avos ibid
 Beginning of chapter 3
 See Kuntrus Achron beginning of chapter 3
 See Hilchos Talmud Torah 2:10
 Menachos 99b
 See Bava Kama 28b
 See Rabbeinu Ovadai Bartanura and Rabbeinu Yonah on Avos ibid
 Menachos 99b
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