recent report on NPR compared the results of two methods to try to increase memory. Both methods, ironically, were based on games using computer technology, which is surely responsible for a decrease in memory. While the researchers found that one was significantly more effective than the other, neither method of memory boosting showed any demonstrable impact on “intelligence,” however measured.


Such reports make me think about the importance of memory in Jewish practice and learning. As a religion that requires adherents to learn and recite great quantities of texts, and that arose before the era of the printing press, Judaism always placed great demands on people’s memories. The command veshinantam, to study repeatedly, is in effect the command to memorize. Jews committed to memory vast portions of sacred texts in order to be able to daven and to study. I have been in awe of the enormous memory of many Jews: those who could recite all three services by heart; adults who remembered the exact page of Talmudic teachings learned years earlier; a blind man who could discourse on topics for hours by drawing on a vast library of teachings in his head. Poetry lovers could recite works of considerable length, sometimes in several languages, including Hebrew and Yiddish. In Ray Bradbury’s classic sci-fi novel Fahrenheit 451, people memorize famous books from the past as a means of preserving their humanity against a campaign of state-sponsored book-burning.
Today, educators tend to think of human memory as no longer so necessary, in an age when all information is at our fingertips. Memorization is often pejoratively described as “rote,” implying that there’s something mechanical, unworthy, out-of date about it. Perhaps that’s true–as one teacher argued, memorization can “get in the way of learning.” But for Jewish study (as well as humanities subjects), memorization is irreplaceable. Jews need to have texts that they know, that live with them, and that resonate in their actions and when they read other texts. The corpus of Jewish literature is an echo chamber that rings hollow if we don’t hear the echos.
Do you ask your students to memorize passages from Jewish texts?