Celebrating Wisdom

“Had the first tablets not been broken, the Torah would never have been forgotten by the Jewish people.”

Rabbi Eliezer


Many of us wonder how it is that we read something and quickly forget it. If only we could remember all that we read and study. Rabbi Eliezer above gives us one hint about retention: if something is engraved upon your heart, you do not forget it. This is how he understands the superfluous words used to describe the Ten Commandments in Exodus 32:16: “engraved upon the tablets.” The verse already mentions the tablets as both the work and writing of God. What could be added by this unusual phrase? R. Eliezer reads it as the relationship we could have had with the original text. Had it not been broken, we would have engraved it within us. It never would have left us.


On Shavuot we celebrate the role of study in our lives by doing additional learning. Many people stay up the whole night immersed in Jewish texts and coffee. Others make a point of attending classes during the daylight hours of the holiday. If you attend as many study opportunities as you indulge in slices of cheesecake, it might help maximize one aspect of the celebration and minimize another!


Another way we celebrate the role of study and how it shapes us as a people is to study the art of studying. How did the rabbis of old believe one should learn and retain knowledge? After all, the great debates of the Talmud are critical not only for their content but also for their method. The rabbis often articulated their notions of pedagogy along with the legal substance of their arguments. They wanted us to know that it is not only about the what and why of knowledge but about the how.


Marilyn Vos Savant (her real name, which means “a person of learning”) made it to the Guinness Book of World Records in 1985 as the woman with the highest IQ (190 before the category was retired in 1990). Here is what one of the world’s smartest people - according to this measure - says about learning, “To acquire knowledge, one must study; but to acquire wisdom, one must observe.”


And here is what some rabbis observed about learning in a section of Talmud devoted to the topic (BT Eruvin 54a-55a):


Beruria: “If the Torah is ordered in your 248 limbs it will be secure. If not, it will not be secure.” Make your body language reflect your learning. Animate the words with movement when you study, and they will become yours.


Shmuel: “Open your mouth and read from the Torah. Open your mouth and study the Talmud, in order that your studies should endure in you…” Say the words out loud so that you hear and ingest them.


There was even a discussion of study as medicine to reduce headaches and throat sores, intestinal pain and bone problems. Why? Because, according to Rabbi Yehuda, “It is a drug of life for one’s entire body.” Some sages believed that engaging in learning as an intellectual and spiritual pursuit distracted the mind, allowing the body to take its natural course of healing. If you are sick, however, please see a doctor in addition to opening a book.


The Talmudic passages also mention the virtue of mnemonic devices and of repetition and review – up to 400 times! Collected together, these statements all point to the most important aspect of learning: retention. In the world of scholarship and mastery, it is not the initial stimulation and curiosity of learning. It is all we do to hold on to what we already know, to engrave it in our hearts.


This Shavuot, instead of learning something entirely new, perhaps we can follow the path of ancient Jewish wisdom and study something we’ve studied before, taking new ownership of it as it seeps deeper into our consciousness. Lather, rinse, repeat. Study, apply, repeat.


Shabbat Shalom and Happy Shavuot