“Neither smart nor stupid”

Friday, 22 July, 2016 - 8:29 am


Dear Friends,

“Neither smart nor stupid” – that is the Talmudic definition of a child who can decide whether a Sefer Torah is considered kosher or not.

This week, I took a crash course in checking Tefillin and Mezuzahs. The course was held in Krakow, Poland, under the auspices of the Rabbinical Centre of Europe. Among other things, we learned about a situation in which we have to decide when a specific letter in a Sefer Torah, in a Tefillin scroll or in a Mezuzah is considered to be written properly or not.

It is a well-known Halacha: If in the middle of the Torah-reading the reader becomes in doubt about the letter Vav, for instance: Is it too short, and therefore may be considered to be a Yud, thus invalidating the Sefer Torah? Or is it long enough to still be considered a Vav, and then the Sefer Torah will be declared kosher? The Rabbi or some other expert is immediately called over, but it is not they who can decide the issue; in fact, they are forbidden to do so. The Gemara in Masechet Menachot says that one must find a small child, who is “neither smart nor stupid,” show him the letter in doubt, and only he, the young child, can decide whether the Sefer Torah is kosher or not.

But not every child is considered suitable; it has to be one who is “neither smart nor stupid.” A child who already knows how to read and can recognize the word in which the letter appears, is considered smart, and he might understand from the context what letter should be there. He is too smart. A child who does not know the letters at all is also not suitable, for obvious reasons. He is considered “stupid.” Therefore, one must find a child who knows the letters of the Hebrew alphabet well, but does not yet know how to read. This way we will be sure that his reading of that one letter will be free of any bias.

While I was sitting there and absorbing information, I thought to myself that this definition can also be seen as a directive for life in general when it comes to making decisions: If you have no knowledge at all about the issue involved, you are defined as being “stupid” for the purpose of the decision; therefore, do not try to decide, but rather go and find someone to consult with. But – and this is a very important “but” – even if you feel yourself to be quite smart and wise, be careful! It is possible that your feeling of self-importance might cause you to involve your ego and wrong considerations in the issue, thus producing a wrong decision as well.

Neither smart nor stupid. In order to make a truthful decision, one needs a combination of knowledge on one hand, and simplicity and humility on the other. Only that way will we be able to reach a pure, independent decision.


Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski

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