Forgetting the wisdom of the wise (Daf Yomi Shabbos 138)

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“And the wisdom of its wise will be lost, and the understanding of its men of understanding shall be hidden.”

We enter into today’s text with a reminder of what this meandering Shabbos Tractate has been about from the beginning through the words of Abaye: “one will not conduct himself on Shabbat in the manner that he conducts himself during the week.”  Of course, that is not only what this very long Tractate has been about. Interwoven in the reverence for Shabbat has been lessons on intention and unintended consequences and compassion and grief. And today there is a discussion of the “astonishing” loss of learning.

We are reminded of specific labors that are prohibited on this Shabbat, including constructing a tent and straining wine. Rav Kahana declares that if one strained wine on this day he is liable for a sin-offering. Of course, wine connoisseurs may be more troubled by the existence of a wine that is of such poor quality that it requires straining to remove debris and floating bit of cork.

A comparison is made between the straining of wine and a woman who is prohibited from wearing an oversized gold ornament as she travels form one domain to another on Shabbat. Several Rabbis argue over whether the action is allowed. Rabbi Meir says she is liable and must bring a sin-offering and Rabbi Eliezer says she is exempt. There is some back and forth and the matter remains in debate: “Apparently, there is precedent for a dispute in which one opinion maintains that an action incurs liability to bring a sin-offering, while another opinion rules that it is permitted ab initio.” Abaye is the peacemaker among the group of Rabbis who held steadfast to their opinion about the gold ornament and offers a middle ground. We are told that the extreme opinions are possible due to the existence of an “intermediate opinion.”

In the middle of today’s reading about canopies, and folding chairs, beds and toilets, and a large felt hat with a broad brim, comes a discussion of a much more profound topic: the forgetting of Torah. Today’s passage foresees a time when the earth will be overrun with pestilence and outbreak of illness and the Torah will be forgotten by the Jewish people. Rav Huna recounts Rav’s reflection from Deuteronomy when he says that the Torah is destined to be forgotten and “the Lord will make your plagues astonishing, and the plagues of your seed, great plagues of long continuance, and evil diseases of long continuance.”

We are told that when a group of Sages entered a certain vineyard in Yavne, they conjured a warning that the Torah would be forgotten, and the Lord would “send forth a hunger in the land.”  This is not a hunger for food or wine, but a hunger for the Torah. What is being predicted is a time when wisdom and learning would be forgotten, and men would wander the earth looking for answers (and perhaps a good glass of wine.)

We are living in a time where there appears to be a forgetting of science, knowledge and plain common sense during the worse public health crisis of our generation. How did we get here? There seems to be amnesia among certain government entities about what it takes to control the coronavirus. We are told that there are three simple things we can do to protect ourselves and others from infection: wear a mask, maintain social distancing and wash our hands often or use hand sanitizer. As the Talmud often says, it is not difficult. It should not be a matter of politics or civil liberties or personal freedom. It is not even about making a choice between managing the public health crisis or the economy because the US states that opened too early are now in the middle of a virus surge and may have to shut down again, while the states that took a more measured approach and opened gradually have a better chance of staying open, with precautions, and rebuilding their economies.

This is a period of great technological and medical innovation. We have built tremendous knowledge based on decades of research by some of our greatest minds; So, how did we come to where we are today? Are we those souls described in today’s Daf Yomi who forgot the Torah and all the knowledge that came with it and are wandering the earth looking for answers?

About the Author
Penny Cagan was born in New Jersey and has lived in New York City since 1980. She has published two books of poems called “City Poems “ and “And Today I am Happy." She is employed as a risk manager and continues to write poetry. More information on Penny can be found at
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