Shabbat 138

Astonishing torah.

One could easily argue that the rabbinic project is all about teaching, learning, and extending Torah. So it might come as a surprise to find this digression on today’s page:

Rav Huna related that Rav said: The Torah is destined to be forgotten from the Jewish people. It is stated: And the Lord will make plagues befall (והפלא) you and your offspring, great plagues of long continuance, and evil diseases of long continuance. (Deuteronomy 28:59) This term of astonishment (הפלאה), I do not know what it is. But when the scripture states elsewhere: Therefore, behold, I will continue to astonish (להפליא) this people with wondrous astonishment, and the wisdom of its wise will be lost, and the understanding of its men of understanding shall be hidden (Isaiah 29:14), then you must say: This astonishment is referring to forgetting the Torah.

Rav’s surprising midrash asserts that Israel will forget the Torah — a notion that, he teaches, is encoded in the Torah itself. As is true of many midrashim, Rav’s claim is argued through a series of Hebrew puns. He begins with Deuteronomy 28:59, which comes at the end of a famous list of curses. The plain meaning of this verse is that many plagues will befall those who do not keep God’s law. But Rav notices that the Hebrew word for befall sounds nearly identical to the Hebrew word for astonish and playfully suggests we should read it this way: “And the Lord will make many plagues astonish you…

Having made this pun, Rav asks what this new reading of the verse could possibly mean. He looks to Isaiah 29:14 for another use of the word astonish: “I will continue to astonish this people, and the wisdom of its wise will be lost…” The meaning of this astonishment, Rav argues, is that the wise will forget their wisdom — in other words, the people will forget the Torah. This is the secret meaning of the curse in Deuteronomy, Rav argues. No ordinary plague, but a plague of forgetfulness, a loss of the sacred scriptures, awaits Israel.

To the rabbis, for whom Torah is everything, this is an extremely dark sentiment. But they may well have had good reason to fear the loss of Torah. Many rabbinic texts were produced in the shadow of persecution and understood as a project of preserving the Torah. But the idea that this project might fail and Israel would forget the Torah proves so dark that the Talmud does not allow it to stand unchallenged. Further down the page, we find a counter-midrash:

An opposing view was taught in another beraita. Rabbi Shimon ben Yohai says: Heaven forfend that the Torah should be forgotten from the Jewish people, as it is stated: And this song shall answer to him as a witness, for it shall not be forgotten from his seed. (Deuteronomy 31:21)

The jury is still out on whether Rav was right. But at least for now, if you’re reading this, Torah has not been forgotten.

Read all of Shabbat 138 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on July 22, 2020. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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