Rav Yosef and the Broken TabletsMay 23, 2022
Having began working as a chaplain two years ago in a senior living facility, one thing I kept coming across was dementia – not just amongst the residents I saw and talked to, but also in writings about Jewish chaplains for this particular demographic. In the course of my looking into this matter, I happened upon descriptions about dementia in terms of a statement of Rav Yosef, which is the following (Menahot 99a (cf. also Bava Batra 14b)):
אשר שברת ושמתם בארון תני רב יוסף מלמד שהלוחות ושברי לוחות מונחין בארון מכאן לתלמיד חכם ששכח תלמודו מחמת אונסו שאין נוהגין בו מנהג בזיון
“At that time, the Lord said to me: ‘Hew for yourself two tablets of stone like the first…And I will write on the tablets the words that were on the first tablets, which you broke, and you shall put them in the Ark’” (Deuteronomy 10:1–2) – Rav Yosef taught: “This teaches that both the tablets of the Covenant and the pieces of the broken tablets are placed in the Ark. One should learn from here that, with regard to a Torah scholar who has forgotten his Torah knowledge due to circumstances beyond his control, e.g., illness, one may not behave toward him in a degrading manner.”
The imagery that Rav Yosef uses here is certainly a fascinating and colorful one: that even though the first set of tablets were full of Torah, yet broken, they were not discarded; so, too, he taught, should a learned Torah scholar be regarded with respect if they lose their memory of their Torah learning – despite no longer being useful in propagating Torah study, since they once held a lot of Torah and shared it, they are to still be regarded with respect.
What makes this teaching fascinating is considering the lived context of the sage who articulated this teaching, as we have related information about his life, especially within the context of his Torah knowledge. In fact, in his generation, he was considered “Sinai”, as possessing a LOT of Torah knowledge, as we see from this text (Berakhot 64a & Horayot 14a):
רַב יוֹסֵף סִינַי וְרַבָּה עוֹקֵר הָרִים, אִצְטְרִיכָא לְהוּ שַׁעְתָּא. שְׁלַחוּ לְהָתָם: סִינַי וְעוֹקֵר הָרִים, אֵיזֶה מֵהֶם קוֹדֵם? שְׁלַחוּ לְהוּ: סִינַי קוֹדֵם, שֶׁהַכֹּל צְרִיכִין לְמָרֵי חִטַּיָּא. אַף עַל פִּי כֵן לֹא קִבֵּל עָלָיו רַב יוֹסֵף, דְּאָמְרִי לֵיהּ כַּלְדָּאֵי: מָלְכַתְּ תַּרְתֵּין שְׁנִין. מְלַךְ רַבָּה עֶשְׂרִין וְתַרְתֵּין שְׁנִין, מְלַךְ רַב יוֹסֵף תַּרְתֵּין שְׁנִין וּפַלְגָא. כֹּל הָנָךְ שְׁנֵי דִּמְלַךְ רַבָּה, אֲפִילּוּ אוּמָּנָא לְבֵיתֵיהּ לָא קְרָא.
Rav Yosef was Sinai, extremely erudite, and Rabba was one who uproots mountains, extremely sharp. The moment arrived when they were needed; one of them was to be chosen as head of the yeshiva. They sent the following question there, to the Sages of Eretz Yisrael: Which takes precedence, Sinai or one who uproots mountains? They sent to them in response: Sinai takes precedence, for everyone needs the owner of the wheat, one who is expert in the sources. Nevertheless, Rav Yosef did not accept the appointment, as the Chaldean astrologers told him: You will preside as head of the yeshiva for two years. Rabba presided as head of the yeshiva for twenty-two years. After he died, Rav Yosef presided for two and a half years. All those years that Rabba presided, Rav Yosef did not even call a bloodletter to his home.
One side note regarding this story is that Rav Yosef is presented as being humble, which he views himself as being very humble (see Sotah 49b). So Rav Yosef was the leading Torah scholar of his generation as far as Torah knowledge goes, as he had the best memory when it came to retaining a lot of Torah knowledge.
However, the statement with which we began this survey as far as a learned Torah scholar losing his memory, is something that he, himself, experienced, as we see (Nedarim 41a):
רַב יוֹסֵף חֲלַשׁ אִיעַקַּר לֵיהּ תַּלְמוּדֵיהּ אַהְדְּרֵיהּ אַבָּיֵי קַמֵּיהּ הַיְינוּ דִּבְכָל דּוּכְתָּא אָמְרִינַן אָמַר רַב יוֹסֵף לָא שְׁמִיעַ לִי הָדָא שְׁמַעְתָּא אֲמַר לֵיהּ אַבָּיֵי אַתְּ אַמְרִיתַהּ נִיהֲלַן וּמַהָא מַתְנִיתָא אַמְרִיתַהּ נִיהֲלַן
Rav Yosef himself fell ill and his studies were forgotten. Abaye restored his studies by reviewing what he had learned from Rav Yosef before him.
This is the background for that which we say everywhere throughout the Talmud, that Rav Yosef said: I did not learn this halakha, and Abaye said to him in response: You said this to us and it was from this baraita that you said it to us.
Speaking of remembering a lot of Torah knowledge, we read that Rav Yosef fasted in order to help him remember (Bava Metzia 85a):
רב יוסף יתיב ארבעין תעניתא ואקריוהו לא ימושו מפיך יתיב ארבעים תעניתא אחריני ואקריוהו לא ימושו מפיך ומפי זרעך יתיב מאה תעניתא אחריני אתא ואקריוהו לא ימושו מפיך ומפי זרעך ומפי זרע זרעך אמר מכאן ואילך לא צריכנא תורה מחזרת על אכסניא שלה
Rav Yosef fasted forty fasts and he was read “My words…shall not depart out of your mouth.”
He fasted an additional forty fasts and he was read: “Shall not depart out of your mouth, nor out of the mouth of your seed.”
He fasted an additional one hundred fasts. In a dream, he came and was read the conclusion of the verse: “Shall not depart out of your mouth, nor out of the mouth of your seed, nor out of the mouth of your seed’s seed.”
He said: “From this point forward, I do not need to fast anymore, as I am now assured that the Torah will return to its lodging.”
It’s unclear from this text whether this took place before he got sick and lost his learning or whether it was after he recovered and Abayye helped him learn all of that Torah back.
Either way, it is certainly interesting that he used fasting as a way of helping ensure the continued memory of his learning.
Not sure what to do with this, but it seems Rav Yosef may have been blind; see Kiddushin 31a. Rav Yosef also considered himself to have lived a tough life, as he was compassionate, hot-tempered, and delicate (Pesahim 113b).
Please note, one textual approach to dementia that I appreciated was Rabbi Dayle Friedman’s notion of wandering in the wilderness.