Absorb Knowledge and Add To It - Middah Shomaya U'mosif

About Middot
In Pirkei Avot 6:6, we read, "The Torah is greater than the priesthood and than royalty, seeing that royalty is acquired through thirty virtues, the priesthood twenty-four, while the Torah is acquired through forty-eight virtues." Learn about one of the middot (in Hebrew a "middah") from the list of 48 provided in Pirkei Avot.

Shomaya u'mosif means "to absorb knowledge and to add to it." Shomaya contains the Hebrew root shin-mem-ayin meaning "to listen," and the root of the word mosif is yud-samech-fei meaning "to increase."

"I came not to destroy the Law of Moses but to add to the Law of Moses." (Talmud, Shabbat 116b)

Acquiring Torah is not about repeating what one has learned but rather learning and going further than one's teacher.

The French medieval scholar Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki, known by the acronym Rashi, taught that a learner must listen to his/her teachers and understand the implication of the teachers' words so that the learner will be able to expand on what has been taught. Rashi cautions that the learner should not contradict the words of a teacher, but rather look to support them.

A wonderful example of a learner who went further than his teacher is Rabbi Akiva. At the age of forty, Akiva was a totally unlearned individual. Akiva worked as a simple shepherd never having studied a day in his life. While standing at a well one day he asked a friend, "Who hollowed out this wellstone?" The friend replied, "Akiva, haven't you read in Torah that 'water wears away stone' (Job 14:19)? It was water from the well falling upon it constantly, day after day that wore away the stone" explained his friend. Akiva asked himself: Is my mind harder than this stone? I will go and study and learn at least one section of Torah. With his son, Akiva went to the schoolhouse and together they began to learn the alef bet. Akiva went on studying until he had mastered the entire Torah.

Akiva then went to study with Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Joshua, asking them to teach him Mishnah-Jewish law. They taught him one law and he went off to reason it out by himself. Akiva kept returning to his teachers asking more and more questions until he left his teachers unable to respond. In all, Akiva spent twelve years learning from them, but during that time Rabbi Eliezer paid very little attention to him. The first time Akiva was able to best his teacher, Rabbi Joshua, quoting Scripture, said to Rabbi Eliezer, "There is the army you paid no attention to; now go out and fight it." (Judges 9:38) Rabbi Akiva had overtaken the learning of his teacher.

It is written about Rabbi Akiva that he was a shepherd for forty years, he studied Torah for forty years and he guided Israel for forty years. ( Sifre Deuteronomy)

To Talk About

  1. What life lessons can we learn from Rabbi Akiva?
  2. In the midrash it is recorded that Rabbi Nehorai said: "When a person learns Torah in youth, that person may be compared to dough that has been kneaded with warm water-it stays together. When a person learns Torah when advanced in years, that person may be compared to dough that has been kneaded with cold water-it does not stay together." (Avot de Rabbi Natan 23) Do you agree or disagree with Rabbi Nehorai's teaching? Does this contradict the experience of Rabbi Akiva? Discuss.
  3. What are the benefits and drawbacks of learning while young? What about at an older age?
  4. Talmud text reads, "I came not to destroy the Law of Moses but to add to the Law of Moses." How does Rashi's teaching about not contradicting your teacher serve as an example of that Talmudic quote? Consider, does not contradicting a teacher prevent new ideas or innovations from being developed?

To Do
Let your imagination run wild and dream up a list of all the things you would like to learn. Then choose from your list one or two ideas and make plans for accomplishing those learning goals.