One of the most difficult, yet vital, tasks as we learn, is allotting enough time and effort for review. We all find the new more exciting, and oftentimes feel that if we spend our time reviewing, we are not progressing in learning. We may know that without review, we will forget; yet such does little to motivate us. It is precisely because the most effective time to review is before we have forgotten that makes review seem so superfluous and unnecessary. 

The lack of time for review is, if I may say so, a most valid critique of daf yomi. The pace is just so fast, with no reading week for review or summer vacation to recharge our batteries. For many, it is precisely this sense of daily accomplishment, fresh material, and a tangible goal of completing the cycle that makes daf yomi attractive--without which many would simply not learn each and every day, bar none. However, that does not mitigate the potential costs. The mitzvah of Talmud Torah consists of both learning Torah and knowing Torah, and we must not sacrifice one as we pursue the other.  

As for the preferred level of review, we need look no further than what we read this past Shabbat. “Then you shall discern between the righteous and the wicked, between one that serves G-d and one that does not serve Him” (Malachai 3:18). After one distinguishes between the wicked and righteous, what need is there to mention those who serve G-d and those who don’t? In a rather unbelievable teaching, our Sages note, “they are both righteous, yet one cannot compare one who reviews his teachings one hundred times and one who reviews it one hundred and one times” (Chagigah 9b). 

Such, for most, is surely unrealistic, and it is unlikely our Sages meant this teaching literally. No matter how well one might think one knows something, there is always room for further insight.  

Yet there is much we can and do review many times. “Rav Isaac ben Joseph found Rav Abbahu standing among a crowd of people. 'Who', he said to him, 'is the author of the traditions of Usha?' 'Rav Yossi ben Chanina', the other informed him. He learned this from him forty times and then it appeared to him as if he had it safely in his pocket” (Ketubot 50a). 

What is most amazing is that the review consisted of knowing who was the author of the traditions of Usha. Does such need review forty times? Moreover, does it really matter who was the teacher of the traditions of Usha[1]?

When I first studied Talmud, we were told not to worry about who said what, but to focus on the content of the teaching at hand. Did it really matter if it was Abaye or Rava who said yeush shelo meda’at is considered yeush[2] (Bava Metziah 21b)? Perhaps such an approach made sense in our context. But clearly, the Talmud feels otherwise.

As all who have studied know, the Talmud goes to excruciating lengths to connect each teaching to its author, often times going back three or four generations to the record the source of the teaching. Expressions such as "Rav Yaakov said in the name of Rav Yochanan and some say Rav Yirmiya in the name of Rav Shimon ben Lakish, Rav Avin and Rav Iyalye and all the group said in the name of Rav Yochanan” (Ketubot 33b) are not uncommon. While both traditions trace the teaching back to Rav Yochanan, ensuring the exact chain of transmission is most important. Why?

“Moshe received the Torah at Sinai and transmitted it to Joshua, and Joshua to the Elders, and the Elders to Prophets, and the Prophets to the Men of the Great Assembly” (Avot 1:1). Pirkei Avot is the Talmudic tractate that tells us how to live a moral, ethical, and holy life[3]. But is also the book of transmission of our heritage. From Moshe to the Men of the Great Assembly, the five generations of zugot led by the Nassi and the Av Beit Din (culminating with Hillel and Shammai,) and the six generations of Ta'anim. The teaching of these great Sages are listed chronologically and carefully. 

We are a people who revere tradition, and acknowledging the transmitters is a noble goal in its own right. One might say that we are very careful to avoid any trace of plagiarism. By meticulously noting our past, we ensure our future. “Whoever says something in the name of the one who said it brings redemption to the world” (Avot 6:6). 

However, knowing who said what goes beyond proper attribution. The teachings of a person reflect the essence of that person. It is not by chance that Hillel, known for his easygoing nature and for never losing his temper, was the one to teach that one should never separate from the community (Avot 2:4). If one wants to get to know someone, study their teachings. We want to get to know those whose teachings make up the corpus of Judaism. 

Forty is the number representing transition--forty days till a fetus is viable, forty days of the flood, forty days to receive the Torah, forty years to reach the land of Israel. If one wants to have the teachings of our predecessors “in our pocket”, we must review them forty times.  

[1]The expression “he learned this from him forty times and then it appeared to him as if he had it safely in his pocket” appears five times in the Talmud.  Remarkably, in four of those cases, the review consisted of going over the author of the teaching.

[2] This argument, which for myself and many others served as our introduction to Talmud, revolves around the status of a lost object for which one has no hope of recovery. This lost hope, yeush, allows a finder to keep the recovered object. Abaye and Rava debate whether the yeush takes effect when the object was lost or only when the person actually discovered that the object was lost. 

[3] The rest of the Talmud, while containing many moral messages, is to a great extent a book of law dealing with those who choose to ignore or defy it; cheaters, liars, and other assorted characters.