Pirkei Avot, “Ethics of the Fathers,” states in chapter 6:6: “The Torah is acquired in 48 ways.” This week: Way #15, “Mishnah”
Mishnah has two connotations: the initial body of literature that recorded the Oral Torah, “Mishnah,” and “repetition.”
These connotations come down to the same thing because the Mishnah, before it was written down, was memorized, then conveyed orally from teacher to student. To be memorized, the Mishnah had to be regularly repeated. Unless one has a photographic mind, there is no other way to memorize other than by repetition.
The value of repetition is greater than memorization. The Talmud states that there is no comparison between studying a text of Torah for the 100th time and the 101st time. Shouldn’t a 101st repetition bestow only one percent more knowledge? Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein (1933-2015) offered: To say there is no comparison between a 100th and a 101st repetition means that all 100 repetitions before the 101st went beyond routine study into highly focused study.
Long ago I asked Rabbi Lichtenstein whether he would study a certain tractate with me. He said he would, but observed that he had already studied it in depth three times — maybe we could study something else?
In depth? Someone once observed Rabbi Lichtenstein on a 12-hour flight from Israel to America. Cramped in his seat, he was studying Talmud with fierce determination. Beads of sweat formed on his forehead. His focus continued the entire flight. In depth!
Repetition magnifies focus. Repetition bestows more than the ability to cite a text without having to look it up. Repetition unveils another layer, another connotation, another nuance in the text. The more repetition, the closer one comes to grasping the Oral Tradition, the Mishnah.
The 15th way to acquire the Torah: repetition.
Way #1, Study; Way #2, Listen; Way #3, Articulate Speech; Way #4, Understanding of the Heart; Way #5, An Intelligent Heart; Way #6, Awe; Way #7, Fear; Way #8, Humility; Way #9, Joy; Way #9a, Purity; Way #10, Serving the Sages; Way #11, Interaction with colleagues; Way #12, Exchanges with students; Way #13, Deliberation; Way #14, Scripture
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