Following the discussion initiated on Yevamot 96b about the importance of attributing Torah insights to their original composers, today’s daf (Yevamot 97a) quotes a stunning teaching of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai that כל תלמיד חכם שאומרים דבר שמועה מפיו בעולם הזה שפתותיו דובבות בקבר – ‘any Torah scholar in whose name a Torah insight is quoted, his lips move in the grave’.
Until now I had always understood this teaching to mean that whenever we quote a Torah insight from a Torah scholar who has died, it is because the one referencing the teaching still hears the echo of the words of the one who composed this teaching in their lifetime. The ‘repeater’ remembers hearing the idea first-hand from the ‘composer’, and when the repeater conveys these words again, the original moment of first hearing this teaching – which clearly left a deep impression on them – is replayed in their head to such an extent that it is as if they can still hear the words of the composer. And because the composer is no longer alive, it is as if their lips are moving in their grave. What this suggests is that the primary relationship being emphasized here is the one between the deceased composer of a Torah insight and the repeater who is now quoting it.
However, upon further reflection, it is clear that the primary focus of this statement is less about the relationship between the deceased composer and the current repeater, and far more about the relationship between the deceased composer of the Torah insight and the Torah insight itself; it is about the act of reconnecting, reuniting and restoring the insight with its original composer by mentioning the insight with the name of the individual who composed the idea.
But what is the relationship between a Torah insight and its original composer? Admittedly, some artists speak of their artwork as being like their children. However, I understand art to be an aspect of the self as expressed through the medium which that individual has been blessed to best express themselves. Simply put, the art is not a child of the artist; it is a part of the artist.
So when a Torah insight is quoted along with the name of the individual who composed the insight, we restore life to that deceased composer because the insight is a part of them; we recognize that part of them still lives, and we acknowledge the spiritual umbilical chord between the composer and their insight. Though the composer previously gave life to the insight, now that the composer has died, the insight restores life to its composer. It doesn’t just testify to a life well lived; it restores a part of that life as well.