“In order to forget one must have previously been aware.”
Today’s Daf Yomi returns to the theme that has winded its way through our readings: intention matters. The discussion incorporates forgetfulness and primal memory and if we have within our essence the memory of traditions that we may have never known. It is a deeply mysterious perspective on who we are and where we have come from.
Rav and Shmuel, who have been arguing upon every fine point imaginable since the beginning of this Daf Yomi cycle, settle upon a rare point of agreement in the discussion of whether a Jew who forgets the Shabbat can be compared with a child who is held captive away from his family and community. They agree that one who knew about the Shabbat is culpable (and must pay the price of a sin-offering), while one who never knew, like the kidnapped child who is robbed of his religious education, is blameless
The argument becomes more complicated in the case of one who may have known at one time but has forgotten. We learn that the legal status of one who knew and has forgotten (perhaps through old age and a loss of memory) is the same as one who never knew. But in a contradiction to Rav and Shmuel’s determination, we are told that both are liable to bring a sin-offering for their unwitting transgression, even though it was done without intent.
Rabbi Akiva appears in the text to offer some perspective on the dispute. The Rabbis deliberate before the great Akiva the difference between people who transgress intentionally and those who do so unwittingly, because they are both called a “sinner.” Rabbi Akiva, ever the level-headed conciliator, declares that one is liable for punishment only if he has awareness that he has transgressed.
The Rabbis debate the concept of forgetting and what it means. How can a child who has been kidnapped forget something he was never taught? Rav and Shmuel compare this child who was held captive with someone who has forgotten the “essence of Shabbat.” Perhaps somewhere in the essence of the captive child is a longing for the community and heritage that he is exiled from through no fault of his own. He may not know what his obligations are, but somehow, he knows. Perhaps this is the longing that leads adopted children to search for their biological families.
The importance of forgetfulness and by extension memory, permeates today’s text. My ancestors were Rabbis in Lithuania and I like to believe I carry their wisdom and learnings within me. If we carry the spirit of our ancestors within us, perhaps we really know everything we have forgotten that makes us who we are. It is our DNA and our life blood. It is the mystery of life.