As someone who spends much of their life either learning, writing or teaching Torah, it is difficult to express the spiritual and emotional fright that I felt when reading the chilling words of Rav found in today’s daf (Shabbat 138b) and based on Devarim 28:59 that ‘There will be a time in the future when the Torah will be forgotten from [the people of] Israel’.
Interestingly, immediately after this citation the Gemara then cites a Tosefta (Eduyot 1:1) which, based on Amos 8:11-12, similarly states that ‘When our entered the vineyard in Yavne, they said: “The Torah is destined to be forgotten from the Jewish people”’.
The Gemara then tries to illustrate what kind of scenario is being alluded to, and based on Amos 8:12 where we are told that ‘they will roam to find the word of the Lord, but they will not find it’, the Gemara describes a future period of spiritual hunger when, for example, women will have halachic questions concerning spiritual purity but will not find people who understand (ואין מבין).
Finally we come to the words of Rabbi Shimon Ben Yochai who, based on Devarim 31:21 which teaches us that ‘this song shall… not be forgotten’, responds: ‘God forbid that the Torah should be forgotten from the Jewish people!’. Based on this, the Gemara explains that Rabbi Shimon Ben Yochai interprets the words of Amos 8:12 to refer to a time when ‘clear halakha and clear teaching’ won’t be found together.
Clearly, there are some deep messages being taught in this section of Gemara, and naturally there are many ways to interpret this piece. But this is how I understand this Gemara:
Rav was pondering Devarim 28:59 which is a section known as the ‘Tochacha’ (the rebuke) describing the frightening consequences of spiritual disloyalty, in which he finds a verse that suggests that ‘there will be a time in the future when the Torah will be forgotten from [the people of] Israel’.
Significantly, there is a tradition (see Ramban to Vayikra 26:16) which teaches us that these words prophetically describe the events after the destruction of the Second Temple. Yet it is of interest that Rav (175-247ce) was one of the most industrious Amoraim, and during his lifetime less than two centuries after the destruction of the Second Temple the learning centres of Babylon flourished. In fact, notwithstanding the fact that Rav was born in the diaspora, Rav’s entire legacy was all about the preservation of Torah. Given this, while acknowledging the fact – as prophecied in the Torah – that there be a time when the Torah will be forgotten from the people of Israel, through his actions Rav implicitly proclaimed, ‘but not on my watch!’.
But to understand how it was possible for there to be a remnant of Torah that Rav could teach in 3rd century Babylon, the Gemara then takes us back in time to Israel to the years preceding the destruction during which time Rav Yochanan Ben Zakkai famously asked Vespasian תן לי יבנה וחכמיה – ‘Give me Yavne and its Sages’ (Gittin 56b). Clearly, it was during this incredibly frightening period of Jewish history that there was a real fear that the Torah would be forgotten from the Jewish people. Yet, while Rav Yochanan Ben Zakkai may well have agreed with the interpretation of Devarim 28:59 that there would be a time when the Torah will be forgotten, through his actions he implicitly proclaimed, ‘but not on my watch!’.
Since then, and due to the incredible efforts of our spiritual heroes like Rav Yochanan Ben Zakkai and Rav, Torah has continued to be learnt, taught and observed around the world. However, in recent generations many Jews have unfortunately assimilated, and even amongst those who are observant, many have felt a sense of spiritual hunger that has not been fully satisfied. In particular, many Jewish women have struggled to allign their increased education in secular fields with the limited Jewish education that was available until very recently, while some Jewish women who wished to have their halachic questions answered concerning the laws of Taharat HaMishpacha (family purity) struggled to find people who fully understood them (ואין מבין).
In response to this, Sarah Schenirer (1883-1935) led the way in creating centres for women’s learning, while more recently, the Yoatzot Halacha program as established by Rabbanit Chana Henkin has ensured that women who have questions concerning Taharat HaMishpacha have access to knowledgeable women who fully understand them, and so – like Rav Yochanan Ben Zakkai and Rav – through their actions these great women implicitly proclaimed, ‘but not on my watch!’.
Finally we get to Rabbi Shimon Ben Yochai who lived in Israel immediately after the destruction of the Temple. Yet notwithstanding the destruction that he saw and the persecution that he experienced, he interpreted the Torah differently and he had faith that ‘this song shall… not be forgotten’. Still, the Temple had been destroyed, there was also no longer a Sanhedrin, and this naturally had a huge impact the way halacha would be rendered and Torah would be taught. So what did he do for the rest of his life? That’s right! He ruled halacha and he taught Torah – as if to say that while halacha and Torah may have been weakened as a fall-out from the destruction, as long as I – R’ Shimon Ben Yochai – am around, I will do all I can to preserve Torah.
As mentioned, I experienced spiritual and emotional fright when first reading the chilling words of Rav found in today’s daf. However, having taken a second look I think that this daf offers a profound lesson in spiritual love, loyalty, resilience and adaptability, and it teaches us about the efforts our great leaders have made over the past 2000 years to ensure that Torah is not forgotten from the people of Israel.
Like every period in history, ours has many challenges. Many Jews are currently suffering from spiritual hunger, while there are others who struggle in their observance of Jewish law. Given this, our task is to do all we can – on our watch – to address these challenges – to ensure that our generation isn’t the one when, God forbid, Torah is forgotten.