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4 Teves 5762 - December 19, 2001 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly









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Opinion & Comment
Tzurso Deshmayteso: The Heart of Learning

by HaRav Moshe Sh. Mayernik

Part I

"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 generation.

Tzurso Deshmayteso

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 (ibid.):

"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 completed table.

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 "soul."

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 migu?"

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 before.")

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 time.

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 assumptions.

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!

Earlier Generations

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 chochom.

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 sevoro!"

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 a song.

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 Shraga, Yerushalayim.

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