Acquiring Torah 16: Corrected Book
Rabbi Akiva gave five instructions to Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai when Rabbi Akiva was incarcerated in prison (See Berachot 61b): Rabbi Shimon said to him, “Master! Teach me Torah!” Rabbi Akiva said, “I will not teach you (to protect his student from being imprisoned).” Rabbi Shimon said, “If you do not teach me, I will tell Yochai, my father, and he will report you to the government (for more serious crimes than those for which you were imprisoned [Maharsha])!” Rabbi Akiva said to him, “My son! More than the calf wishes to suck, the cow wishes to suckle.” Rabbi Shimon said to him, “But who is in danger? Is it not the calf (the student) that is in danger?” Rabbi Akiva said to him, “1. If you want to get yourself choked, hang yourself from a tall tree. 2. And when you teach your son, teach him with a book that has been corrected from mistakes. 3. Do not cook in a pot in which your friend has cooked. 4. If one wishes to perform a Mitzvah and profit handsomely, he should eat the produce and will have capital. 5. If one wishes to perform a Mitzvah and have a pure body as well, he should marry a woman, and to him, children!” (Pesachim 112a-b)
“When you teach your son, teach him with a book that has been corrected from mistakes.” The Talmud asks, “What is this? Rava said, and some say that Rav Mesharshia said, “When the child is learning something new, a corrected text is essential, for once a mistake has entered the child’s mind, it has entered permanently.”
The Talmud did not bother to ask after Rabbi Akiva’s first instruction, “If you want to get yourself choked, hang yourself from a tall tree,” which seems more obscure than this one, “what is this?” Why is this instruction explained, and the first one, not? If these, the final instructions of Rabbi Akiva to one of his foremost students, is as we have posited, are instructions for maintaining the Jewish people through a long exile in which Torah study is threatened, why is this basic instruction, fundamental and straightforward, included? Is this not only basic, but necessary even when Torah study is widespread and secure?
Another question: Was the first instruction, “If you want to get yourself choked, hang yourself from a tall tree,” cryptic as it is, consistent with this rule? Is not its oblique nature just as dangerous as teaching from a faulty text? Why would Rava or Rav Mesharshia need to teach their lesson if it was already famous as one of Rabbi Akiva’s final teachings?
We explained Rabbi Akiva’s first instruction as a lesson in holding back. The teacher loves to teach, is desperate to share his knowledge, and has now been asked to rule. He cannot jump at an opportunity to render a decision in new circumstances, as he does at teaching. Rabbi Akiva now teaches Rabbi Shimon, that when teaching a new idea; a new decision rendered for a situation never before confronted, he must render the decision, and teach it as he would teach a child for the first time. There are always implications to a new decision. People will study the decision and apply it to new situations. Therefore, the person ruling must present it with total clarity and simplicity of form. Complexity will confuse those in future generations who want to apply this new idea.
I have observed parents choosing to become observant. They are, as far as their children are concerned, rendering a new decision. It is essential that they present their “ruling” with clarity and simplicity so that they do not confuse their children.
When we decide to make a change, any change, we are rendering a “ruling.” We must first repeatedly review the decision in our minds before we present it to others so that they can receive it with the clarity of a child learning the aleph-bet.