Nedarim 81: The Next Generation

By: Rabbi Jay Kelman |
 
Adam and Cain, Noah and Cham, Abraham and Yishmael, Yitzchak and Eisav. Our children do not always turn out as we would like. Even children who are great in their own right often chart their own paths, differing from even the greatest of parents[1].
 
“And why is it not common for scholars to give birth to sons who are scholars? - Said Rav Joseph, ‘That it might not be maintained, the Torah is their inheritance’” (Nedarim 81a). 
 
Torah scholarship requires great effort and dedication. One can be the most brilliant of people - something we might inherit from our parents - but brilliance alone will get you little. It is the rare person who is willing to put in the great effort required to achieve excellence- be that in athletics, art, science, even business and most definitely regarding Torah scholarship. And yet as crucial as effort is it too is not enough to achieve excellence. Such requires G-d given talents and a combination of many factors many of which are beyond our control While we can all probably think of generations of great learning in the same family - the Soloveitchiks immediately come to mind - they are the exception rather than the rule. How often have you commented on how the children of Torah greats pale in comparison to their parents?   
 
This non-inherited gene of Torah scholarship serves a double purpose, one necessary both for the children of great scholars and for all others. Often children of great parents do not feel the need to work hard. They somehow believe they will pick up much by osmosis. At times that very message is given to them by none other than their parents. While one can pick up much by listening to and just being in the presence of exceptional people that is not enough and children of scholars need to learn that. They must be taught that without hard work they will accomplish little. History is full of great people whose children accomplished little.
  
Even more importantly it is crucial that those not born into the “right family” realize that such is not an impediment to Torah greatness. Torah knowledge is available to all who want it[2] and are willing to work for it. We are witness to so many from “average” families who through hard work have achieved greatness.
  
Yet as important as Torah scholarship is, it is primarily a means of servicing the community (or at the very least personal religious growth). Those fortunate to have much Torah knowledge must share that knowledge with others[3]. The fact that at times Torah scholarship is used as a means of power can be seen in the the views subsequently quoted in the Gemara, as to why the children of Torah scholars are generally not scholars themselves[4].   
 
“Rav Sheshet the son of Rav Idi, said: That they should not be arrogant towards the community. Mar Zutra said: Because they act arrogantly against the community.  Rav Ashi said: Because they call people donkeys.”
 
When Torah becomes concentrated in a family there is a risk of feelings of entitlement and power leading to arrogance. Mar Zutra goes one step further asserting that risk in inevitable. As [the commentary ascribed to] Rashi (s.v. mipnei) notes “it is certain that whoever he and his son are Torah scholars will definitely lord [over the community]. And from that, Rav Ashi notes, it is a short step to disdain for others. To again quote [the commentary ascribed to] Rashi (s.v. dekaru) “they do not display to them respect and belittle them because of the Torah they have.”
 
These notions are encapsulated in the final suggestion of the Gemara: “Rabina said: Because they do not first utter a blessing over the Torah.” A bracha is meant to acknowledge that all we have is be used in the service of G-d. “Whoever benefits from this world without a benediction, ma’al, has committed a sacrilege” (Brachot 35a). 

Meilah, sacrilege, in technical terms refers to using something meant for the Beit Hamikdash for personal use. To learn Torah without making a blessing, thanking G-d for this wonderful gift, risks turning Torah learning from a Divine mission to a means for personal gain[5].  
These are truly remarkable insights our Sages had into the misuse of Torah learning. The disdain for others, they assert, is the  result of Torah knowledge! Torah must never be concentrated in a few families lest instead of being a “potion for life” Torah be used as “a potion for death” (see Taanit 7a).  It is by “democratizing” Torah that we best protect it ensuring it be used for the benefit of all. 
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[1]This is why Yitzchak is known for the trait of gevurah, inner strength, as it takes a great person to give up their independence to follow almost exactly in the path of one’s parent.
 
[2] Sadly this is true only in theory. No longer do we follow the edict of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Gamla that Jewish education be made available at no cost for all. “If not for him Torah would have been forgotten from Israel” (Bava Batra 21a). And this is exactly what is happening today as only the wealthy can afford a proper Jewish education.
  
[3] It is noteworthy that the obligation to learn Torah is derived from the verse “and you shall teach them to your children” (Devarim 11:19 and see Kiddushin 29b).
  
[4] It would be fascinating to see research into what percentage of great scholars had fathers or sons who were also great scholars. See here for a most intereting look at the odds of children in various fields being as successful as their parents. 
 
[5]  It is hard to imagine that in actual fact Torah scholars neglected to recite the daily birchat HaTorah. Presumably it was not the saying of the actual words of the benediction that they neglected but what stands behind those words.