Bava Batra 10: Put it in Writing

By: Rabbi Jay Kelman |

Visiting Yeshiva Chachmei Lublin as Torah in Motion “Journeyed through Jewish History”, sitting in the beautifully rebuilt, but tragically empty, Beit Midrash, I read the schedule that Rav Meir Shapiro, the founder of the Yeshiva – and the originator of the idea for Daf Yomi – set for the students. That some (if I recall correctly) ninety minutes a day were devoted to Daf Yomi comes as no surprise – though I doubt any other yeshiva scheduled time for the daf. What was a bit surprising was the last scheduled daily activity at 10:00 pm each evening, to write one’s original Torah insights gained during the day. And if one had no new insights, one was required to write down the insights of others, i.e., what they had learned that day[1].

In the introduction to the posthumously published responsa, Melamed LeHoeel of Rav David Tzvi Hoffman – the greatest German halachic authority at the turn of the 20th century - his son records how his father stressed “that no day should pass without the writing of a Torah insight”.

Writing down one’s Torah thoughts is much more than a mechanism to ensure one doesn’t forget one’s Torah[2]. It is – and I speak from experience – the best way to sharpen one’s thoughts. Unlike an oral shiur, every word in a written piece must be carefully thought out, its language precise and its sentence structure tight. The piece must flow seamlessly. Even after completion, the editing process can be just as time consuming as the original writing. It is only because writing takes so much effort that those reading it are often oblivious to the time and effort that goes into the written word. What may take five minutes to read can take five hours to write. Yet that is precisely the beauty of the written word. So much effort (hopefully) has been made in ensuring the clarity, accuracy, and flow of the piece that the reader can gain with minimal effort. As with so many things in life, it looks a lot easier than it actually is.

The written word has the added advantage of being timeless. The oral word – while often most powerful - is here today and gone tomorrow, whereas the written word allows one to reach, teach and influence people living thousands of years after one has departed this world.[3]  

“And I heard that they said: Blessed is the one who arrives [in the World to Come] vetalmudo beyado, his learning is in his hand” (Bava Batra 10b).

The “simple” meaning of this passage is one emphasizing the primacy of Torah study. Talmud Torah kneged kulam, Torah study equals them all. In the next world, the eternal world of spirituality, it is Torah learning that is valued. The expression talmudo beyado implies a mastery of knowledge. We should, to paraphrase the Talmudic Sage Shmuel, know Torah like the back of our hand. And how does one do this? The Maharsha understands talmudo beyado most literally, as praised is the one who uses his hand to write down Torah, “because the primary learning, and that which makes [the greatest] impression is the learning that comes from the writing of the hand and that is why the Sages were called sofrim, [those who counted the letters].” It is not surprising that the written word, the words of permanence, would receive great blessings in the World to Come, the world of permanence.

It is worth noting that even when there was a prohibition against writing down the Oral Law, that was a prohibition of writing a fixed text. However, individuals were allowed and encouraged to write notes on their own learning. Thus the Maharsha’s comment was applicable even in pre-Mishnaic times.  

This written piece would be incomplete without thanking all of you who provide me the inspiration to continue writing. I pray that it be worthy of blessing.


[1] The fact that there was any schedule was in itself an innovation.  In “traditional” yeshivot, one sat and learned. There was no beginning or end to the day or semester, no requirement to attend any shiurim, no tests, no degrees and no graduation.  In Volozhin, the mother of yeshivot, the Rosh Yeshiva, the Netziv, arranged that there should be people learning in the Beit Midrash 24 hours a day, including immediately after Yom Kippur, a shift the Netziv himself volunteered for. Things were much different in Lublin, which we could call the first modern yeshiva. It was housed in a beautiful building, complete with a dormitory and meals – no longer would students have to rotate from family-to-family to get a meal. There were schedules, curricula and testing as Rav Meir hoped to train generations of active Rabbis, something almost anathema to the traditional way of yeshiva thinking. Alas, the yeshiva lasted a mere nine years before it came to its tragic end.

[2] Nonetheless, in keeping to his understanding of the permission granted to write down the Oral Law, it is said of Rav Natan Adler, the teacher of the Chatam Sofer, that he refused to write down any of his Torah insights, claiming it was forbidden for him to do so as he never forgot anything he learned. This could explain why, despite his greatness, he is relatively unknown today.

[3] In his fascinating introduction to the development of the Oral Law, Rav Moshe Shmuel Glassner in his “Dor Revi’i, The Fourth Generation” (he was the great-grandson of the Chatam Sofer), explains that it is precisely because the written word is permanent and oral is not that the bulk of Torah was meant to be oral. G-d wanted each generation to apply the eternal principles of Torah to its own particular set of circumstances and thus Torah had to be oral. Precedent was to play a very limited role. It was exile that caused us to move away from this ideal and forced the writing down of Torah, thereby constricting it. Rav Glassner, who made aliyah from Hungary in 1922, saw the return to the land as the first step in returning Torah to its original oral form. (See here for the original Hebrew introduction and here for a synposis in English.)