Frac­tured Tablets: For­get­ful­ness and Fal­li­bil­i­ty in Late Ancient Rab­binic Culture

By – June 18, 2024

In her new book, Mira Bal­berg exam­ines the influ­ence and sig­nif­i­cance of mem­o­ry fail­ures in the lit­er­a­ture of the Tan­naim, the rab­bis whose views are record­ed in the Mishnah.

Remem­ber­ing and for­get­ting are deeply embed­ded with­in Judaism. Some­times remem­ber­ing to for­get, some­times for­get­ting to remem­ber. How do we pre­serve mem­o­ry? Must we always remem­ber? Are there things and times we should for­get? Are there bless­ings and curs­es in each?

Even the major hol­i­days are rife with this ten­sion. We remem­ber at Pesach, and we for­get at Purim. Our prayers echo this ten­sion, too. The Sh’ma is pre­cise about how to remem­ber and be remind­ed; Psalm 27 wrings out the con­se­quences of for­get­ting; and the rab­binic com­men­taries on the mitzvot seek to estab­lish prac­tice as a guard against for­get­ting. Yet human fal­li­bil­i­ty is always lurk­ing. We may have more sophis­ti­cat­ed psy­cho­log­i­cal terms, but the rab­bis knew slip­page and back­slid­ing when they saw them.

With­in these con­texts, Bal­berg shows how what is described as an intense pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with the pos­si­bil­i­ty of for­get­ful­ness, both inten­tion­al and not, becomes cen­tral to shap­ing Judaism as a prac­tice. She struc­tures her analy­sis around six inter­con­nect­ed, but not lin­ear, con­cepts that con­sid­er aspects of for­get­ful­ness, or mem­o­ry omis­sions,” as she terms them.

She first con­sid­ers mem­o­ry and doubt, par­tic­u­lar­ly episod­ic mem­o­ry,” by which she means for­get­ting inci­dents that the per­son actu­al­ly expe­ri­enced. She focus­es on the plac­ing of the frag­ments of the sec­ond set of tablets from Sinai in the Ark along­side the com­plete set. She draws from this the warn­ing that even unin­ten­tion­al for­get­ful­ness can dimin­ish one’s full under­stand­ing of halacha.

The sec­ond chap­ter inves­ti­gates the con­cept of remem­ber­ing for­get­ful­ness. Bal­berg argues that what may seem oxy­moron­ic at first blush is an essen­tial part of the role of com­mu­ni­ty lead­ers, not just inter­preters of Torah. They under­stand the very human ten­den­cy to forget.

Balberg’s third chap­ter is called Par­tial Eclipse of the Mind.” She looks at the way in which, from time to time, cer­tain aspects of halachic mem­o­ry can fade from con­scious­ness, be con­cealed for a time, and then reap­pear and cast a text in an entire­ly new light. In effect, this is some­what coun­ter­fac­tu­al, a what if” ques­tion, and its val­ue is to give extra depth to the rab­binic understanding.

Chap­ter four, Rit­u­als of Rec­ol­lec­tion,” exam­ines the solu­tions that the rab­bis devel­oped to deal with sit­u­a­tions in which for­get­ful­ness had already occurred. What should hap­pen to those who for­get? Is there a need for reed­u­ca­tion, for learn­ing the lessons again and again? Should they be pun­ished, taught a les­son they will nev­er forget?

The fifth chap­ter, When Teach­ings Fly Away,” is more con­cerned with Torah than halacha. Bal­berg argues that because the mem­o­riza­tion of Torah is regard­ed by some as a duty, any fail­ure can be seen as a short­com­ing in terms of devo­tion, com­mit­ment, or observance.

In the final chap­ter, Good Tid­ings, Bad Tid­ings,” Bal­berg con­sid­ers what may seem to many the most rel­e­vant, and per­haps most per­son­al, part of her book: how many times the peo­ple of Israel have for­got­ten Torah, and how they are like­ly to do so again. Whether this par­tic­u­lar for­get­ting is cycli­cal or just a one-off, it is, per­haps, one of the endur­ing ten­sions of the Jew­ish people.

Balberg’s book is clear­ly writ­ten and large­ly avoids bury­ing the read­er in lengthy foot­notes and recur­sive argu­ments. While it may some­times seem a lit­tle rar­i­fied for the less com­mit­ted read­er, it is impor­tant mate­r­i­al for rab­bini­cal stu­dents and will appeal to those wish­ing to study the debates, argu­ments, and prac­tices of the Tan­naim at a deep­er lev­el. It appears to be aimed at an aca­d­e­m­ic audi­ence, not so much the gen­er­al read­er, and in that regard, it hits its mark — pro­vid­ing we remem­ber what it says.

Discussion Questions

Jew­ish expe­ri­ence is shaped by both per­son­al and cul­tur­al mem­o­ry. The Torah requires Jews to remem­ber the Exo­dus from Egypt, the rev­e­la­tion at Sinai, the Sab­bath, and even the Torah itself. Metic­u­lous obser­vance requires sharp mem­o­ry, self aware­ness, and atten­tion to detail. As such, mem­o­ry laps­es often result in trans­gres­sion and failure.

The rab­bis of antiq­ui­ty saw it dif­fer­ent­ly. In her lat­est book, Mira Bal­berg, Pro­fes­sor of Jew­ish His­to­ry and Endowed Chair in Ancient Civ­i­liza­tion at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia, San Diego, shows how the ear­ly rab­bis nor­mal­ized for­get­ful­ness, build­ing it into the fab­ric of com­mit­ted Jew­ish prac­tice. Through a wide-rang­ing and metic­u­lous exam­i­na­tion of the Tan­naitic cor­pus, Bal­berg reveals the rab­bis’ pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with mem­o­ry laps­es, a project through which they sought to cre­ate an inclu­sive elite.” Balberg’s close read­ing of the many cas­es of for­got­ten laws or details demon­strates that, for these rab­bis, human fal­li­bil­i­ty is a part of a life of halachic devo­tion, affect­ing even the great­est of lead­ers. The rab­bis’ vision for a life of Torah includ­ed hard work and high stan­dards, as well as for­get­ful­ness and fallibility.

As we have come to expect, Bal­berg breathes life into even the most obscure and cul­tur­al­ly dis­tant sec­tions of the Mish­nah. Inno­v­a­tive and clear­ly writ­ten, Frac­tured Tablets offers deep insight into and a pen­e­trat­ing analy­sis of the Tan­naitic project.