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Why Did 1 Million Show Up to the Funeral of a Man Without an Official Position?

Don't Celebrate Ignorance: The Value of Life-Long Inquiry and Study

    Rabbi YY Jacobson

  • March 21, 2011
  • |
  • 15 Adar II 5771
  • Comment

Class Summary:

Don't Celebrate Ignorance: The Value of Life-Long Inquiry and Study

Dedicated by David and Eda Schottenstein, in the loving memory of Alta Shula Swerdlov. And in honor of their daughter Yetta Alta Shula, "Aliyah," Schottenstein.

A great deal of intelligence can be invested in ignorance. -- Saul Bellow

Light travels faster than sound. That's why most people seem bright until you hear them speak. -- Author Unknown

Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I'm not sure about the former." – Albert Einstein.

“Inquire He Inquired”

An interesting comment is inserted into the printed editions of the Chumash in this week’s Torah portion (Shmini). In between the words "inquire he inquired" ("darosh" and "derash" in the original Hebrew) it is written: "Half of the words of the Torah."

What this means is that these words—“inquire he inquired”—mark the halfway point of a word count of the Torah. The first “inquire” completes the first half of the five books of Moses; the second “inquire” begins the second half of the Torah[1].

What is the symbolism behind this? Why do these words mark the halfway point of Torah? One beautiful explanation is [2] that the Torah is attempting to teach us that the entire Torah—both halves of it—revolve around inquiry, the quest and search (darosh darash) to learn, understand and internalize the truths and perspectives of the Torah. To be Jewish is to forever remain a student of Torah wisdom[3]. So the end of the first half and the beginning of the second half of Torah -- and the mid-center of it -- are all about the quest for truth and wisdom.

“Inquire did he [Moses] inquire”—this is the center point of the entire Torah, because Moses himself, the greatest scholar and prophet, never ceased to inquire and search[4]. Moses knew that the most essential component necessary to absorb Torah is our never-ending yearning and readiness to continuously explore and seek truth. Moses realized that after all of his discoveries, he had only reached the middle of the Torah, and there was much more ahead that he had not yet learned.

What is more, the written text of the Torah was given together with the oral tradition of the Torah transmitted and expounded by the sages in a continuous process of inquiry and study; together they constitute two halves of one whole. The Torah thus intimates that the written Torah itself without the expositions ("darosh darash") of the sages in the oral tradition is only one half of Torah tradition. In its absence, you are missing its full resonance and meaning; you are missing the second half of the picture. 

Ignorant Spokesmen?

The message is vital for Jews today.

Some time ago I was invited to attend a symposium sponsored by the UJA Federation about Jewish continuity. One of the presenters suggested that we introduce a reformation in Jewish observance in order to make the religion more appealing to the youth.

When it came to my turn to address the audience, I begged to differ from the above presenter. His argument, I suggested, was refuted by the undisputed fact that the only ones who managed to maintain their Jewish numbers and even increase them dramatically were those who opposed reformation in Jewish observance. Perhaps our youth is searching not for reformation but for the Judaism taught and practiced by Rabbi Akiva, Rashi, Maimonidies, and the Baal Shem Tov? Perhaps what was necessary was not a diluted form of Judaism, but rather a more intense presentation of a Judaism saturated with spiritual passion, authentic idealism, profound scholarship, personal relevance, and emotional connection?

Later, in private conversation, I asked the presenter if he could name the 54 portions of the Five Books of Moses and the titles of the 63 tractates of the Talmud, the most basic body of Jewish law and literature. From memory, he could only name 10 of the biblical portions and not one of the Talmudic tractates.

“Imagine,” I said to him, “we would be attending a symposium on Shakespeare, and one of the lectures on how Shakespeare ought to be taught to youths today would be presented by an individual ignorant of the titles of Shakespeare’s 38 plays? Or imagine a symposium on the future of philosophy, where one of the speakers was not well versed in The Republic, the Critique of Pure Reason or Beyond Good and Evil? Wouldn’t that be embarrassing to the subject they are discussing?"

He said to me that in his opinion one did not need to be well versed in Torah in order to present an argument on the future of Judaism.

Why is Judaism seen as such an inferior discipline, that it does not demand rigorous mastery? Why is it that in the fields of biology, science, art, or history nobody would dare present strong opinions about their futures without intensely studying these subjects for years? Why do so many Jews think that Judaism—a tradition taught and developed over three millennia, consisting of tens of thousands of volumes, many of them written by some of the greatest human minds—is a set of archaic laws and cute rituals?

Perhaps the saddest commentary about Jewish life in America is that so many leaders of mainstream Jewish organizations and institutions did not send their own children to Jewish schools, depriving them of serious Jewish education. They see themselves as Jewish leaders and activists; yet they don’t even entertain the thought that Jewish tradition has anything truly valuable to teach them and their children about life, death, and everything in between. The greatest obstacle to discovery, a wise man once said, is not ignorance; it is the illusion of knowledge.

The Torah, the most profound blueprint for life ever articulated in the history of humanity, belongs to every single Jew[5]. It is about time, that every member of our people gives himself or herself the gift of discovering its beauty and wisdom.

This is the reason we created TheYeshiva.net, where various ongoing courses on Torah study are offered for free, both for advanced students as well as beginners. I hope you will seize the opportunity to challenge your mind and broaden your horizons. We stop living when we stop inquiring.

The late Rabbi Jonothan Sacks put it beautifully: 

Imagine the following scene. The Lord Chief Justice, together with his senior judges, decide that law is a wonderful thing. They resolve to set aside a day each year to celebrate it. They write poems and compose songs in its honor. When the day comes, they each take a weighty tome — Halsbury’s Statutes would do nicely — and dance around the House of Lords, singing the songs and reciting the poems.

Whacky? Undoubtedly. Impossible? Probably. Yet this, more or less, is what Jews do on the festival called Simchat Torah, literally “rejoicing in the law.” We take the scrolls of the Torah (the Law) from the holy ark and dance around the synagogue, singing love songs to God for His gift, His holy words. If you want to see the majesty and dignity of the law, go to an English court. But if you want to see the joy and exuberance of the law, go to a synagogue on Simchat Torah.

A Torah scroll is the nearest thing Judaism has to a holy object. Still written today as it was thousands of years ago — on parchment, using a quill, by a master-scribe — it is our most cherished possession. We stand in its presence as if it were a king. We dance with it as if it were a bride. We kiss it as if it were a friend. If God forbid, one is damaged beyond repair, we mourn it as if it were a member of the family.

The Koran calls Jews a “people of the book”, but this is an understatement. We are a people only because of the book. It is our constitution as a holy nation under the sovereignty of God. It is God’s love letter to the children of Israel. We study it incessantly. We read it in the synagogue each week, completing it in a year. During the long centuries of Jewish exile, it was our ancestors’ memory of the past and hope for the future. It was, said the German poet Heinrich Heine, the “portable homeland” of the Jew.

"Let my people know," this was the motto of the late Rabbi Adin Even Yisroel (Steinsaltz), the first translator of the Talmud into Hebrew and other languages, and author of 60 books on Judaism. He once lamented that many Jews manage to study science, physics, business, medicine, math, or philosophy on a post-graduate level, yet their Jewish knowledge often remains on a second-grade level. So many of our people are unaware of the endless intellectual and spiritual richness of their heritage and the profound emotional healing it can bring. 

Reb Chaim

Last Sunday, 17 Adar II, 5782, March 20, 2022, close to one million Jews attended the funeral of Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky (1928-2022), who passed away last Friday, age 94, in the city of Bnei Brak, Israel. This was the largest funeral in the history of Israel and it reflected the unique Jewish approach to learning. For Reb Chaim sat for 85 years and studied Torah some 18 hours a day, becoming one of the greatest Torah scholars of the generation.

Rain or shine, on Shabbos or on holidays, during good or challenging times, he did not cease his studies, in a tiny, humble abode on 23 Rashbam Street in Bnei Brak. Here was a man whose love of learning the Torah was boundless. Each year he would complete all the major works of Judaism: The Tanach, the Mishnah, Tosefta, the Jerusalem and Babylonian Talmuds, Maimonides, Codes of Jewish law, the Midrashim, and the Zohar. Rabbi Israel Meir Lau called him this week “a walking Torah scroll” since, in his 94 years, he reached rare levels of Torah mastery and devotion. 

At the funeral, his son, Rabbi Shlomo Kanievsky touched the crowd with stories of childhood games played with his father, the mastermind, and shared a little bit about the relationship with his deceased wife, Batsheva. For years, the two of them would get up much before sunrise and recite the morning blessings that open the day together. He would say one blessing after the next and she would answer amen to each. And then she would recite the blessings and, after each one, he would answer amen.

His son also related how when his father came home in the afternoon, he would never eat lunch without his wife by his side. If she was not home and sitting at the table, he would never begin eating. And if she was delayed, even by a few minutes, he would of course open a book and learn until she arrived. They never vacationed in a guest house and never went to a coffee shop, but this was their special quality time together.

Close to one million Jews showed up to bid farewell to a man who had no official position, no title, no political power, and no material affluence; but embodied with every fiber of his being the infinite passion of a people to study, internalize and live daily the truths and wisdom of Torah, G-d's blueprint for humanity.     


[1] Leviticus 10:16. See Talmud Kedushim 30a: The early [scholars] were called sofrim because they used to count all the letters of the Torah. Thus, they said, the vav in gachon (Leviticus 10:42) marks half the letters of the Torah; darosh darash (Leviticus 11:16) half the words. See Penei Yehousah to Talmud ibid.; Chasam Sofer and Torah Shlaimah to the verse in Leviticus, who discuss the apparent flaw in the count.
[2] See Degel Machane Ephrayim to Leviticus 10:16. This book was composed in the 18th century by Rabbi Moshe Chaim Ephraim of Sudilkov (1742-1800), who was the grandson of Baal Shem Tov. (It is arranged according to the weekly Torah readings and contains many teachings the author heard directly from his grandfather. It is thus considered one of the primary sources of the Baal Shem Tov's teachings. Also included are some of the lectures delivered by the author during his tenure as a teacher and preacher in Sudilkov).
[3] See Joshua 8:1: “You shall toil in it [in the study of Torah] during the day and the night.”
[4] See the commentary of Or HaChaim on the verse.
[5] See Sanhedrin 59a. Rambam the Laws of Talmud Torah chapter 3.

Please leave your comment below!

  • M

    mike -2 years ago

    In the Excellent Hesped shiur on Rav Kanievsky Z'TL, you said it was the largest funeral in Israel history, however on 9th October 2013, Rav Ovadia Yosef's funeral was attened by around 1 million people - which was possibly the largest in historry. can you add a note of that in your class. you did not mention that there was another funeral in the history.

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  • S

    shaindel -2 years ago

    This essay is absolutely magnificent. Your brilliance and perspicacity blows my mind

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  • ES

    Ephraim Schlisser -2 years ago

    Thank you amazing 

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  • ASA

    Adiv Shlomo Abramson -3 years ago

    יישר כחך פאר דעם העכטס אינטערעסאנט ארטיקעל. איין שאלה האב איך אבער. וויבאלד תשבע״פ איז ווילייכט די מעהר וויכטיגע אפטיילונג פון דער תורה בכללותה פאר וואס טאנצט מאן נישט מיט א גמרא אדער א סדר פון משניות ביי שמחת תורה? נאך דערצו: ווארום לייגט מאן נישט קיין ספר פונעם תלמוד אריין אין דער ארון קודש אין שוהל צוזאמען מיט די ספרי תורה? אויב די תשב״כ בלייבט אוםפארשטענדליך אהן די אויפקלערונגען פון דער מונדליכע תורה, עס דאכט מיר אז אלע ביידע זאלען זיין צוזאמענגעלייגט אין דער ארון קודש. 

    א הארציג׳ן דאנק אייך, רבי

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  • J

    Jaia -5 years ago

    Thank you


    Thankyou Rabbi Jacobson. Interesting to read.

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Essay Shmini

Rabbi YY Jacobson
  • March 21, 2011
  • |
  • 15 Adar II 5771
  • |
  • Comment

Dedicated by David and Eda Schottenstein, in the loving memory of Alta Shula Swerdlov. And in honor of their daughter Yetta Alta Shula, "Aliyah," Schottenstein.

Class Summary:

Don't Celebrate Ignorance: The Value of Life-Long Inquiry and Study

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