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Shiur #13a: Intensity, Integration and Talmud Torah

  • Rav Yitzchak Blau
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Understanding Aggada
Yeshivat Har Etzion

Shiur #13a: Intensity, Integration and Talmud Torah


By Rav Yitzchak Blau


Rav asked a question of Rabbi [Yehuda Ha-nasi]…  Rabbi Chiya said to Rav: "Child of great ones, did I not tell you that when Rabbi is involved in one tractate, you should not ask him about another, lest it will be difficult for him to focus on it?  If not for the fact that Rabbi is a great individual, he would have been embarrassed for answering incorrectly."

(Shabbat 3a-b)


Rav Yitzchak Hutner points out (Pachad Yitzchak, Shavuot 9) that the simple reading of this gemara is that Rabbi Chiya refers to a difficulty that stems from a certain shortcoming of the scholar in question.  This scholar cannot easily make the transition to different material because he lacks complete mastery of all the tractates; had he been a truly great scholar, the issue would be of no concern.  Indeed, Rabbi Yehuda Ha-nasi's excellence enables him to avoid this problem and answer a question from afar. 


            Rav Hutner suggests that, on the contrary, Rabbi Chiya's issue actually reflects the greatness of the scholar.  A great scholar is so immersed in the original topic that it is difficult for him to tear his focus away from it and think clearly about something else.  Someone who can easily and swiftly shift gears to another source may not have been thinking that deeply about the first topic.


            Rav Hutner contends that this idea reflects the fact that our personal Torah study is modeled after the original Torah study, the giving of the Torah at Sinai.  A gemara (Shabbat 88a) says that each dibbur from the Aseret Ha-dibberot filled the entire world; if so, asks the gemara, how did the second dibbur find room to enter?  It is clear that this gemara does not refer to physically taking up space.  For Rav Hutner, the gemara utilizes the image of a dibbur filling the world as a metaphor for a total focus on the aspect of Torah being studied at a given moment.  We emulate this intensity in our own narrowing in on the text in front of us.


In our gemara, Rabbi's greatness allows him to answer the question regardless.  According to the conventional approach, this works well, as Rabbi was above the shortcomings of the average scholar.  However, according to Rav Hutner's idea that the inability to quickly change topics itself reflects a positive intensity and focus, it seems that Rabbi lacks this intensity.  Why then does the gemara state that Rabbi's greatness would enable him to answer the question correctly?


            My student Zev Stender made the following suggestion that, as Daniel Vinick pointed out to me, appears in Rav Kook's Ein Aya (Shabbat 3a).  Some unusual scholars are able to integrate the many texts of Torah to the degree that the other topic does not represent an invasion from an external source; instead, it represents a natural continuation from the original source.  For such a scholar, there is no such thing as being asked a question from an unrelated tractate, as all of Talmudic thought forms part of a coherent whole.


            This interpretation of Rav Kook points to a broader concept in Rav Kook's thought.  In other contexts (See Orot Ha-kodesh 1, p. 49), Rav Kook distinguishes between the academic specialists, who know one thing very well but lack breadth, and the polymath scholars, who can integrate various disciplines into a coherent whole.  There is no doubt that specialization has enabled some impressive achievements in many fields, and especially in the sciences.  On the other hand, the specialist often lacks the sweeping vision to realize how this particular piece of information relates to a broader worldview. 


            Rav Kook says that the specialists "offer us dry kernels of matters, which are, fundamentally, full of freshness and ultimate vision" (trans. by Rabbi Shalom Carmy in The Torah u'Madda Journal, Volume 2).  He counsels that we learn the individual pieces of wisdom that these scholars offer but that we revitalize the information by seeing it as part of a greater whole.  Indeed, for Rabbi Kook, the truly great are those thinkers who are able to weave the many branches of wisdom into a grand tapestry.


            This challenge, to achieve the depth and intensity spoken of by Rav Hutner while still maintaining a larger vision, awaits all aspiring talmidei chakhamim.