By Rabbi Yehoshua Berman
Yevamos 79 – Know What You Don’t Know
Rabi Yehoshua transmitted what he heard: there is a saris who is choleitz and there is a saris who is not choleitz. There was only one problem. “I do not know the explanation,” said Rabi Yehoshua of this statement. The Mishna continues by quoting the opinions of Rabi Akiva and Rabi Eliezer who expounded on the distinction between someone who was born a saris, and someone who became a saris later in life.
The question is obvious: what is the purpose in the Mishna quoting Rabi Yehoshua’s statement? Why not just cite Rabi Akiva’s and Rabi Eliezer’s respective opinions and leave it at that?
There are multiple answers to this question. For the moment, let’s zero in on one.
In the second letter of Kovetz Igros, the Chazon Ish summarizes the primary components of the proper approach to learning Torah. “What needs the most attention is to make that which is primary the priority, and that is the clarification of both the broad axioms and specific particulars of each sugyah, fluency of the shakla v’tarya, to remember the hava-amina and maskana, the halachos that are certain and those that leave room for further elucidation, and this fundamental demands effort and an inner battle against laziness to repeat everything numerous times even with no chiddush…but this effort is the true amal ha’Torah about which all the superlative qualities of limud ha’Torah were said. After putting forth this effort, a new gate of light is opened up in which the intellect enjoys limitless pleasure.”
Notice, that one of the components that the Chazon Ish enumerates as part of this list that comprises the fundamental approach to learning Torah is the clarification of “the halachos that are certain and those that leave room for further elucidation.” In other words, using modern yeshivisheh parlance, it is just as important to take mental note of what is a tzarich-iyun as it is to take note of the points that are clear.
This is exactly what Rabi Yehoshua was doing, isn’t it? He stated, with perfect clarity, this is what I know, and this is what I do not know. The Mishna includes this to teach us that doing such is an inextricable part of learning Torah. One of the reasons for this is expressed in the famous vort regarding the fact that the bracha we make over limud ha’Torah is laasok b’divrei Torah (as opposed to lilmod divrei Torah), to be involved with learning Torah. This indicates that even if you do not necessarily come out with any clear-cut conclusions from your learning, you are still fulfilling the mitzvah of learning Torah. Because the main thing is that you are involved with it. You are engaged in the process.
I do not think it is going out on a limb to say that even were a person to learn only that one line of Rabi Yehoshua’s statement in the Mishna, it would mandate saying birchos ha’Torah; because that too is Torah! One may have thought, “But at the end of the day, you don’t know anything from this statement! So how can it be considered that you have learned?!” That is precisely why it was critical for this statement to be included in the Mishna. The general character of Mishnayos is that it consists of conclusive statements, as opposed to Gemara which contains a massive amount of discussion. It is not even enough to recognize Rabi Yehoshua’s statement of “here’s what I heard, but I don’t know pshat” as limud ha’Torah in the context of the discussion of Torah (Gemara). By including it in the Mishna, Chazal are indicating their insistence that it be recognized as limud ha’Torah even in the sense of yedias ha’Torah. The “I don’t know” is also a part of Torah knowledge. For, ultimately, limud ha’Torah is not simply an activity of amassing knowledge, but it is an ongoing, dynamic process.
Which brings us to the next facet of the importance of the “I don’t know”.
Rav Yaakov Yosef Lerner is the author of numerous, impressive sefarim. One of them is the two volume set called Shemiras Ha’Guf V’ha’nefesh. In the introductory chapters, he has a section (chapter 6 in the mevoh) that addresses the dichotomies that exist between the medical norms as expressed by Chazal and those of contemporary science and medicine.
One of the points mentioned there is the opinion of Rav Shreirah Gaon and Rabbeinu Avraham the son of the Rambam who both say that Chazal’s scientific and medical statements were based on the most up-to-date knowledge of their time and that we therefore follow contemporary medicine where it does not concur with what Chazal said. He then references a comment of Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach zt”l mentioned in Seifer Nishmas Avraham that this opinion of Rav Shreirah Gaon and Rabbeinu Avraham ben Ha’Rambam ought to be cited as a yeish omrim (“there are those that say”) and not as the primary reason why we generally follow the opinion of modern medicine.
Rav Lerner continues that he wrote to Rav Shlomo Zalman asking who is it that argues on Rav Shreirah Gaon and Rabbeinu Avraham ben Ha’Rambam. Rav Shlomo Zalman wrote back, “At the moment, I do not recall if there is anyone that really argues or even if there is anyone who can argue on them, but it is possible that my intention (in the comment he wrote on Seifer Nishmas Avraham) was since many have written that the reason (we generally follow the opinion of contemporary medicine) is that nature has changed and they did not make any mention of improved and more advanced knowledge of contemporary medicine, therefore I brought to [that author’s] attention that it is more suitable to write their opinion as a yeish omrim, particularly since there are those that allow melachos to be done on Shabbos (in situations defined by Chazal as sakanah) even when contemporary medicine does not consider the situation to be a danger to life.”
A fascinating footnote to this is something I heard directly from Rav Lerner. “Some members of Rav Shlomo Zalman’s family did not want me to publish that response because they maintained it is a lack of kavod to the gadol ha’dor that it should be widely published that he didn’t know the answer to the question if there is anyone who explicitly argues on Rav Shreirah Gaon and Rabbeinu Avraham ben Ha’Rambam. So, I went to Rav Shlomo Zalman himself and asked him if I should in fact publish it or not. He told me, ‘Of course you should publish it. Right now, neither you nor I know if there is anyone who argues. If you publish it, maybe someone who does know of such a source will see it and then inform you of the source, and we will all become smarter as a result.’ In fact, that is what happened!”
So, we see, that not only is the “I don’t know” part of the inherent, dynamic process of limud ha’Torah on the individual, personal level; it is also key to the overall, broad, communal endeavor of learning Torah that belongs to all of Klal Yisrael. This is actually precisely what happened with Rabi Yehoshua and Rabi Akiva, isn’t it? Because Rabi Yehoshua preserved his “I don’t know” as part of his Torah bank of knowledge, and made certain to transmit it as well, eventually that brought to a heightened level of knowledge and awareness for all of Klal Yisrael when the explanation was elucidated by his talmid, Rabi Akiva.
Cherish what you don’t know like what you do know, because what you don’t know, ultimately, is part and parcel of the dynamic process of learning and knowing, both for you and all of Klal Yisrael.
Rabbi Yehoshua Berman serves as the Rosh Kollel of Kollel Reshet HaDaf in Ramat Beit Shemesh, Israel. Driven by a passion to generate true kinyan Torah, both for himself and others, Rabbi Berman develops innovative tools to getting the most out of what we learn. In addition to having authored the warmly acclaimed Reflections on the Parsha, Rabbi Berman regularly delivers shiurim whose topics range from Halacha to Hashkafa, sends out daily emails of comprehensive chazara questions for the advanced Daf Yomi learner who really wants to retain his learning, and weekly emails of words of inspiration based on the Parsha. For more information on Reflections, to subscribe to receive these emails, or request a speaking engagement, Rabbi Berman can be contacted at email@example.com.