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Understanding Torah


Mishpatim (Exodus 21-24 )

by Rabbi Yehonasan Gefen

Shemot, 21:1: “And these are the laws that you will place before them.”
Rashi, Shemot, 21:1, Dh: That you will place before them: “The Holy One, blessed be He said to Moshe, ‘you should not think to say, ‘I will teach them the chapter and the law two or three times until it is arranged in their mouths like it was taught, and I will not trouble myself to make them understand the reasons for the matter and its meaning’. Therefore, it is said, ‘which you will place before them’, like a table that is set and ready for them to eat before the man.”

God uses unusual language when instructing Moshe to teach the laws to the Jewish people, saying, ‘you shall place before them’. Rashi, based on the Gemara1 explains that God was alluding to the method in which one should teach the Torah. It does not suffice merely to teach the dry laws two or three times, rather it is necessary to give the reasons for the various laws, so that they are orderly arranged before a person in the same way that food is set before a person.

A close analysis of Rashi reveals that it is possible to fully grasp dry facts of Torah by learning two or three times2, but in order to gain a proper understanding of the reasons and logic of Torah, one needs to learn more than that. The question arises, as to why Rashi, in particular, mentioned two or three times as being insufficient, implying that four times is enough. This is more difficult based on the fact that the Gemara cited by Rashi about the necessity of teaching the reasons for the Mitzvot, does not mention learning two or three at all, rather it simply says that one should give over the reasons when teaching Torah. How did Rashi know that 2 or 3 times does not suffice, but 4 is enough.

It seems that Rashi derived these numbers from the preceding passage in the Gemara: The Gemara outlines the method in which God taught the Torah to Moshe and how Moshe taught it to Aharon and so on. It emerges that each person heard the teachings four times. It is evident that this form of teaching was not merely dry facts, rather God himself surely taught all the reasons, and Moshe did the same. Accordingly, it seems that this Gemara is the source of Rashi in Chumash that two or three times does not suffice when teaching with the reasons. The Gemara concludes that we learn from here that a teacher is obligated to give over the material four times to ensure that he develops a proper understanding of the material.

Based on these sources, a number of great Sages are recorded as saying that until one has learnt a Gemara four times, then it is not considered that he learnt it at all. Only by the fourth time, can a person be confident that he hopefully has a clear understanding of the back and forth of the topic at hand, and only then, is his revisiting of the topic after in the category of review.

How can a person know for sure that he has a clear understanding of his learning? A fascinating and somewhat startling Rashi in the Tractate of Brachot answers this; The Gemara states that the reward for going to a Torah class is the running – the implication of the Gemara is that there is no reward for the actual learning, which seems very hard to understand. Rashi explains that most people do not fully comprehend the class and therefore they do not receive reward for Torah learning, rather their main reward is for their effort to get to the Shiur. Rashi adds that the way to know if one understands the learning is if he is able to clearly give it over to someone else at a later time. Thus, we learn from Rashi, that the ability to give over one’s learning is the gauge of whether one properly understood it. Rashi’s explanation is somewhat startling in that it indicates that spending time learning does not merit reward for the exalted Mitzva of Talmud Torah if he does not understand it to the degree where he can give it over to others3.

We have seen the importance of learning with understanding, and that learning in a superficial way, in a certain sense, does not qualify as genuine Torah learning. It seems that this requirement is not limited to regular Gemara learning, rather it is necessary to gain a deeper understanding of all aspects of Torah, including understanding the reasons for the Mitzvot. It is true that we don’t condition our Mitzva observance on the reasons and trust that the Mitzvot are for our benefit even if we don’t fully comprehend them. Yet, at the same time, the commentaries spend a great deal of time giving reasons for the commandments, the Taamei HaMitzvot – which is literally translated as a taste of the mitzvot. These are not necessarily the ultimate reasons for doing mitzvot – they just add flavor, but they are not the beef; they are a vital aspect of our observance and increase our motivation and desire to observe them. Ultimately they are supposed to change us. For example, observing the laws of forbidden speech is supposed to transform a person into someone who sees the good and does not focus on the bad, but if someone blindly tries to keep the technical aspects of the laws, then he will not be transformed in the intended way.

May we all merit to learn and observe Torah with understanding.

  1. Eruvin, 54b.
  2. The implication of Rashi is that even when learning dry facts, it does not suffice to learn the material just one time.
  3. There are other explanations of this Gemara that do not accord with this understanding – see Tosefot haRosh, Maharsha, Ein Yaakov, Maharal, Meromei Sadeh, ibid.

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