We Shall Come Back to You

This piece first appeared in Text/Context: Fresh Encounters with Jewish Tradition, a partnership of The Jewish Week and Nextbook, Inc. In 2010 Rabbi Steinsaltz completed his monumental 45-volume translation and commentary on the Talmud, begun in 1965.  Text/Context asked Rabbi Steinsaltz to reflect on finishing the project.

Our sages say that everything in this world has an end — or, as they put it, boundaries and definitions — while the Torah (by which we mean all Jewish teaching) is boundless.

This is a puzzling statement, because the Torah — especially if we do not refer to its vast expanses but to its specific facets — relates to the world, whether by reaching halakhic decisions or by clarifying philosophical and legal issues.

It should be noted that almost everything that exists in this world can be an object of Torah study either directly or indirectly. While not everything is actually discussed in the Torah, there is not a single thing that is off limits.

This is true not only in regard to the vastness of the Torah as a whole, but also in regard to the specific area of halakha and legal decisions. In this realm, as well, practically every topic can serve as a theme for questioning, clarifications and halakhic rulings.

There are, for instance, Torah discussions on issues as diverse as local and international politics, women’s fashion and university grants. If there are areas that the halakha has not yet addressed, it is not because they have been overlooked or cannot be discussed.

Rather, they have not yet been tackled by the sages, whether by coincidence, out of fear of controversy or for a variety of other reasons. Conversely, while individual scholars may sometimes speak nonsense about quasi-halakhic issues, such statements are not a failing of the Torah. They are the problem of those who are speaking without understanding the matter at hand.

At any rate, the question remains: since our earth — which is the background for all these questions — is limited, how can the Torah be unbounded? Or, to phrase it from the opposite angle: if the Torah deals with all the matters of this world, it should also be defined as the world itself is defined.

It ought to be just as limited as the world! In truth, however, despite the connection between the Torah and the world, the world is basically one kind of an entity, while the Torah, in essence, encompasses a whole range of worlds, all of which are unlimited.

Furthermore, there is a difference between Torah study and halakhic decisions. Every halakhic decision is an attempt to match the world’s concrete reality to one solution chosen from a large number of possible solutions.

To use a mathematical simile: the Torah can be likened to a high-level equation that gives room to numerous different answers, all of which are correct. Every halakhic decision, then, is not the one and only possible and absolutely true solution; rather it is one that can suit the existential physicality of our world, one practically applicable solution to a specific problem.

This explains what the Talmud tells us — that in our world, halacha is decided according to the House of Hillel, but in the future, it will be decided according to the House of Shammai.

The House of Hillel’s method of reaching legal rulings is geared toward our reality; but in the times to come, when the world as a whole will have changed drastically, it will also need different halakhic solutions. And even though now we do not practice these different solutions, they exist as possible and true solutions that will be applicable in a different reality.

This also explains how the world, which is the object of all the questions, is specific and limited, while the Torah’s questions and answers are not. The world of the Torah is indeed unbounded! The study of subjects that contain well-defined knowledge can end; but the Torah has no limits.

If so, can Torah study ever be finished? Siyyum, the ritual done when one finishes learning a tractate of Talmud, emphasizes that every such ending is not a real end but only a time out. The siyyum is a full stop at the end of a sentence, but not the end of the utterance. When the study ends, it also begins.

Not only can one — as the text recited at the siyyum says — begin and finish studying other books or tractates, the siyyum is no more than a temporary break in the process of studying that very same tractate itself. In fact, the most important words in the siyyum text are “hadran alakh” which literally mean, “we shall come back to you” — namely, a promise to study this tractate again.

Therefore, we are called upon to repeat the study of the same tractate over and over again. It is not that we are asked to learn it by heart, for even if we know very well every word and letter, we are still asked to study it again.

Some of the greatest Jewish scholars, among them the Vilna Gaon (Rabbi Eliyahu son of Shlomo Zalman Kremer of Vilna, 1720-1797) and the Rogatchover (Rabbi Yosef Rozin of Dvinsk, 1958-1936), had eidetic memory; they retained each and every word and sentence they ever studied — and yet they never ceased to study.

These scholars went over the same books time and time again, because every new cycle of study reveals new aspects of the Torah, facets that can be revealed only in the second, or 100th, time.

This is why whoever finishes studying a tractate promises to repeat it again and again, regardless of whether he knows it forward and backward or whether he does not really remember it all that well.

However, in the siyyum text we do not only say hadran alakh (“we shall return to you”), but alsohadrakh alan, “you [the tractate or book] shall return to us.” This means that if one does not do the real work, if one does not learn it again and yet again, then all the material he has learned will come back to him; namely, he will inevitably find himself engaged in a multitude of problems and questions relating to the very book that he had closed and put away.

Thus, every finishing point of whatever part of the Torah is only a “recess.” After a certain point, one must once again start studying everything from the very beginning.

As a celebration of Rabbi Steinsaltz’s tremendous achievement, the Aleph Society launched The Global Day of Jewish Learning as a means of fulfilling the mission to “Let My People Know”.  Now in its fifth year, The Global Day continues to bring Jewish learning to Jews around the world through engagement with our shared texts.