Editor’s Thoughts: Reflections of an Unrepentant Tanakh Enthusiast
R. Simeon b. Eleazar testified on the authority of R. Simeon b. Hanina: He who reads a verse at its proper time brings good to the world, as it is written, “And a word spoken in its proper time, how good is it.” [i] [ii]
These days, children’s games have fallen quite far from their heyday in former generations. In a brief conversation I once shared with Rav Adin Steinsaltz, he reminisced about an old game he used to play in his childhood. The game’s rules were simple. One friend would recite an arbitrary verse from Tanakh. The next friend would then have to respond with a new verse from Tanakh whose first letter corresponded to the last letter of the verse previously recited. Upon hearing about Rav Steinsaltz’s adventurous youthful diversions, I remember feeling both relieved and impressed. I was quite relieved that Rav Steinsaltz did not ask me to participate in a reenactment of his childhood games. All the while, I was extremely impressed by the knowledge of Tanakh that seems to have been pervasive during Rav Steinsaltz’s youth.
Rav Steinsaltz’s game, I later learned, potentially had its Talmudic antecedents. There are a number of instances in the Talmud where an older person turns to an anonymous child, often as the child is leaving school, and makes the following request:“Psok Li Psukekh.”[iii] The translation of the request is simple and profound, “recite for me your verse.” In each instance of this phrase’s appearance, the child immediately responds with a verse relevant to the situation at hand. The verse recited by the young child is then interpreted by the questioner as some minor form of prophecy. For modern ears, what is perhaps most unique about these exchanges is, however, not the prophetic element. Rather, as the stories seem to indicate, in the times of the Talmud, even the children had (obscure) Tanakh verses sitting on the tips of their tongues.[iv] Now that is impressive.[v]
Sadly, it seems to be the case that, these days, Tanakh study has not only fallen out of style in children’s playgrounds, but in the Beit Midrash as well. A passage written in the Pri Megadim perhaps best captures the attitude toward Tanakh study in many a Beit Midrash in modern times. He writes, “there are the bahurim- young students – who say that it is an embarrassment for them to learn humash with Rashi and a bit of Neviim and Ketuvim [in the Beit Midrash].”[vi]
For many reasons,[vii] mastering the breadth of Tanakh has taken a backseat in the contemporary yeshiva curriculum. How many denizens of the Beit Midrash can say that they have, at the very least, cursorily read through Tanakh (or at least aspire to do so)? What has happened to the famous words of Rashi who wrote that just as a “bride adorns herself with twenty four types of jewelry, so too must a talmid hakham be proficient in the twenty four books [of Tanakh]”?[viii] Granted we are no longer young children emerging from a schoolhouse. In fact, we are already college students, emerging from our classrooms, labs, and Batei Midrash. Yet, if we were asked to “recite our verse,” would we have a response?
Even learning the weekly parsha with Rashi is not sufficient to properly equip us with the necessary verses for a response suitable to any given situation. To know Tanakh and to know how to apply it to any given situation, one must study it seriously and deeply. The games of youth do not ensure that one gains the aptitude and knowledge to avoid the fitting complaint of the Torah to God that “thy children have made me as a harp upon which they frivolously play.”[ix] “Psok Li Psukech” requires both a breadth and depth of knowledge for a proper response.
These days, there are so many tools at our disposal to arrive at the necessary deep understanding of Tanakh. In the 21st century, investment in serious Tanakh study requires looking back as well as looking ahead. Students of Tanakh must look back to midrashim and mefarshim[x], delving into their methodologies, motivations, and historical contexts. All the while, students must look ahead to incorporate the best in archeology, history, and literary technique into deepening their understanding of Tanakh. We must use all of the tools provided to us by both the past and present to enhance our appreciation of God’s written word to man.[xi]
Indeed, it has come time for this editor to leave the school house one last time. In many ways, my studies at YU have brought me one step closer to being prepared to “recite my verse” at a moment’s notice. It is my hope that this issue of Kol Hamevaser does the same for you. For, indeed, “how good is it” when one truly knows how to “read a verse at its proper time.”[xii]
Dovi Nadel is the outgoing Editor-in-Chief of Kol Hamevaser on the Wilf campus. He majored in Torah Ve-Hokhmah and will be continuing with Semikha and graduate studies in Bible next year. Some of his favorite Tanakh verses are listed below.[xiii]
[i] This article’s title is based off of the title of Rabbi Norman Lamm’s essay,“Notes of an Unrepenatant Darshan” found at http://brussels.mc.yu.edu/gsdl/collect/lammserm/index/assoc/HASH5876.dir/doc.pdf
I believe that many of the sociological and societal observations made in Rabbi Lamm’s reflections can be applied to the study of Tanakh as well.
[ii]Sanhedrin 101a; verse quoted is from Mishlei 15:23
[iii] The four instances of this expression’s usage are Gittin 56a, Gittin 68a, Hullin 95b, Esther Rabbah Parsha 7
[iv] A speech by the Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Commonwealth in 1882 offers a fascinating interpretation of this phrase. He notes the significance of the fact that the children had recently left their schoolhouse. His interpretation: a child always repeats what his teacher has last taught him. If one wants to know what “the people” are saying, ask the schoolchild. Link to the full speech can be found here: http://englishhebraica.blogspot.com/2007/07/rationalist-19th-century-british.html.
[v] Indeed, a glance at any page of the Talmud appears to demonstrate that that many of the Tanaaim and Amoraim were incredibly proficient in Tanakh. As Saul Lieberman once wrote, “The entire Talmudic literature is testimony to the fact that the sages clearly knew Tanakh by heart.” Quoted in article by Rav Yeshoshua Reiss, “Shavim El Ha-Tanakh” in Ve-Hi Sihati,(Maggid Press 2014) Page 35
[vi]Found in the Igrot of Pri Megadim on Or HaHayyim, Igeret Hey. Also found in Rav Yeshoshua Reiss’s article quoted above on page 49. The Igeret is written as advice to a teacher. He continues on to say “if they were wise, they would understand that they should be learning that [Tanakh] first before anything else…”
[vii] For an understanding of the historical trends leading Jews toward and away from Tanakh study see the following two important articles. Rav Yehoshua Reiss’s article “Shavim el HaTanakh”(Pages 30-68) as well as Rav Yoel Bin Nun’s article “Al Limmud Ha’Tanakh Ba’Yeshivot”(Pages 157-180) in a recent publication by Mikhlelet Herzog and Magid Press, Vehi Sichati.
[viii] Rashi to Shemot 31:18.
[ix] Sanhedrin 101a
[x] For a fascinating look at contemporary methods of teaching Tanakh through the use of classical mefarshim see Rabbi Yaakov Blau “Medieval Commentary in the Modern Era: The Enduring Value of Classical Parshanut.” I thank Rabbi Yosef and Dr. Rikvah Blau for pointing me to this work.
[xi] For some fascinating reading on the usage of critical literary methods in learning Tanakh see Rav Aharon Lichtenstein “Criticism and Kitvei ha-Kodesh” in Rav Shalom Banayikh, Eds Hayyim Angel and Yitzchak Blau (Ktav Publishig House, Inc. Jersey City, NY) 14-32.
[xii] Sanhedrin 101a
[xiii] Mishlei 29:18; Devarim 29:3; Eikha 3:27; Tehillim 19:3; Bamidbar 32:6;Tehillim 87:6; Shemot 12:10 ; Ezra 10:4; Devarim 4:6; Devarim 29:14; Mishlei 3:6; Divrei Ha-Yamim 1 29:18.