Talmudic pages

Nedarim 41

Knowledge is power.

My childhood classrooms were crammed with motivational posters, including a seemingly-ubiquitous image of an oversized lightbulb emblazoned with the words “Knowledge Is Power!” (Electric power specifically, I suppose.) Indeed, many parents and teachers are persuaded that a proper education will propel their children to a life of happiness and material comfort.

It’s easy to slip into a reverse logic: Those who have no power or wealth must be ignorant. As we learn today:

Abaye said that we have a tradition: A poor person lacks only knowledge.

I’m trying to imagine this on a motivational poster. While certainly not as cheerful as the lightbulbs of my youth, it feels fundamentally similar in message.

Abaye’s assertion that the poor are only lacking in education comes amidst a difficult, pages-long conversation about illness and visiting the ill (bikkur cholim). It is not an accident, I think, that a few lines later the Gemara begins to relate a series of stories about rabbis who fell ill and, as a result, lost their hard-won knowledge. For example:

Rav Yosef fell ill and his studies were forgotten. Abaye restored his studies by reviewing what he had learned from Rav Yosef before him.

In this touching story, the student becomes the master as Abaye helps his teacher relearn what illness has taken from him. 

The sages are keenly aware that illness brings myriad vulnerabilities, which are discussed in detail. Intestinal illness can make one embarrassed to be seen, which is why it is best not to visit someone with this disease. Headaches make one unable to endure conversation, so this is also not a time for bikkur cholim. And as we’ve seen already, sickness can lead to loss of knowledge which, as we all know, is power. Therefore, Abaye’s reeducation of his teacher is a special kindness.

Here’s another story on today’s page about a sage who loses his knowledge to illness and turns to his pupil for restoration:

When Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi would learn 13 aspects of a halakhah, he would teach Rabbi Hiyya seven of them. Ultimately, Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi fell ill (and forgot everything). Rabbi Hiyya restored those seven aspects that Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi taught him. However, six were gone.

There was a certain launderer who would hear Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi when he was studying those halakhot. Rabbi Hiyya went and learned those halakhot from the launderer and he came and restored them to Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi.

When Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi saw that launderer, he said to him: You made me and Hiyya. And some say that this is what he said: You made Hiyya, and Hiyya made me.

For a moment in this story, when Rabbi Hiyya can only restore 7/13ths of his teacher’s knowledge, it appears that the rest of Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi’s learning is lost forever. But then something completely unexpected happens: A launderer whose job allowed him to frequently overhear the great master turns out to be in possession of all the other teachings that Rabbi Hiyya lacked. In the end, it is a menial laborer who restores the teachings of the great rabbi and, in the words of the master, “made” both teacher and pupil.

The narratives on today’s page challenge Abaye’s statement. There is no simple equation between knowledge and power. The poor may very well possess great knowledge and still be poor (as some of the sages famously were). And the sages can quickly lose their learning. There is a lot of comfort — and endless poster-making potential — in telling ourselves that there is a direct correlation between education and success. But life is actually much more complicated.

Read all of Nedarim 41 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on December 5th, 2022. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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