MNEMONICS OR MEMORA TECHNICA


MNEMONICS OR MEMORA TECHNICA (Heb. סִימָן, siman; "a sign"), devices based on the principle that the mind is able to recall relatively unfamiliar ideas by connecting, as some artificial whole, parts of them which are mutually suggestive. Mnemonics are widely used in the Talmud – as in post-talmudic literature – but their use in the former was rendered imperative by the fact that the Talmud was originally transmitted orally, and even after it was committed to writing, both the scarcity of the texts, and the custom of teaching the text orally which prevailed in the geonic academies (Weiss, Dor, 3 (19044), 215ff.; Halevy, Dorot, 3 (1928), 227) made it necessary for mnemonic devices to be employed. The rabbis laid great store on the efficacy of mnemonics as an aid to study. R. Ḥisda in Babylon deduced that the Torah can be acquired only by the use of mnemonics, adducing as evidence the verse "Put it in their mouth" (Deut. 31:19) reading simona – mnemonic for sima ("put"); R. Taḥlifa in Palestine explained that in Palestine they deduced the same lesson from the verse "Set thee up waymarks" (Jer. 31:21), proving that the "waymarks" refer to mnemonics (Er. 54b). The fact that the scholars of Judah retained their learning while those of Galilee forgot it was ascribed to the fact that the former employed mnemonics while the latter did not (Er. 53a). The verse in Ecclesiastes 12:9, "and besides that Koheleth… taught the people knowledge" was explained that he taught them by mnemonics (Er. 21b). It has been suggested that the widespread use of the alphabetical *acrostic in the Bible (e.g., Lam. 1–4; Ps. 119 and 145) had a mnemonic purpose since it reminded the person who recited it of the letter with which the succeeding verse commenced, but this form of mnemonic, though widely used in medieval poetry and even in prayers (e.g., El Barukh in the morning service, Tikkanta Shabbat in the Sabbath Musaf) is not at all resorted to in the Talmud.

The mnemonic devices of the Talmud can be divided into two main categories, those in which the mnemonic is an integral part of the text, forming part of its body, and those in which a passage is preceded by the mnemonic as an aid to the memory of what is to follow. The former are usually designated as simankha, i.e., "your mnemonic," while for the latter the simple word siman is given. Since the essence of the mnemonic is to call to mind the unfamiliar by use of the familiar, it naturally follows that it consists of the use of a well-known phrase. These phrases can be divided into biblical verses, since knowledge of the text of the Bible was regarded as axiomatic, well-known talmudic phrases, popular proverbs, or readily remembered catchphrases.

Biblical Mnemonics

Examples of biblical verses used for this purpose are numerous. For the six orders into which the Mishnah is divided, Isaiah 33:6 was cited: "There shall be faith in thy times, strength, salvation, wisdom, and knowledge," each of the nouns indicating a specific order (Shab. 31a). That basilicas attached to royal buildings are forbidden because of idolatry, but those of baths and storehouses permitted, was to be remembered by the mnemonic "to bind [forbid] their kings with chains" (Ps. 149:8; Av. Zar. 16b). The law that if the lungs of animals are liver-colored they are permitted, but if flesh-colored forbidden, had the mnemonic "and if flesh in the field, it is terefah" (Ex. 22:30; Hul. 47b). The mnemonic to remember that one should not curse one's parents in the presence of one's children is the verse (Gen. 48:5), "Ephraim and Manasseh [the grandchildren] shall be mine even as Reuben and Simeon [the children]" (Ket. 72b).

Talmudic Phrases

The bird called the moor-cock is forbidden as food, but the moor-hen permitted; the mnemonic is the rabbinic interpretation of the prohibition of an Ammonite to enter the congregation (Deut. 23:4): "An Ammonite," but not an Ammonite woman. A bird called the wine-drinker is also forbidden, and the mnemonic is "a drunkard is forbidden to officiate" (cf. Sanh. 22b). These are two examples given from a list in Ḥullin 62b.

Catchphrases

By their nature these are pithy statements in which the element of apparent paradox is often used. Thus the fact that a fish called the "sea ass" is permitted while one termed "the sea bull" is forbidden produces the mnemonic "the unclean is clean, the clean unclean," since the ass is forbidden and the ox permitted for consumption. To remember that meditating on sin can be worse than its actual commission, the mnemonic was devised "the odor of meat" (i.e., the odor of the meat excites the appetite more than the meat itself).

Mnemonics are used as an easy way to remember different statements in the name of one authority. Thus three statements on charity by R. Eleazar (BB 9a) provide the mnemonic "great is the sanctuary of Moses." Three statements of R. Manasseh found in different parts of the tractate Ḥullin (4a, 31a, 51a) are mnemonically connected by the sentence, "Inserting a blade into rams" (Ḥul. 4a). It is one of the characteristics of the methodology of the Talmud that a statement in the name of a sage which is relevant to the discussion is followed by a number of statements in the name of the same sage which have no connection with the subject under discussion. The need for mnemonics in these cases was obvious, and as far as possible they are made into a sentence. Thus three statements of Samuel b. Naḥamani in the name of R. Johanan (the first has Naḥamani in the texts) were to be remembered by the sentence "In truth money shall he see." An interesting example is provided in the same passage. Six anonymous popular epigrams are quoted, for all of which Samuel finds a biblical proof verse. They are combined in a mnemonic which (probably) means "Hear, Vashti, Seven Songs, (and) another" (Sanh. 7a). It is obvious, however, that any device which aided the memory was pressed into service. There was a difference of opinion between the scholars of Pumbedita and Sura as to the number of nails permitted in a shoe for walking on the Sabbath. R. Ḥiyya reported that the former said 24, the latter 22. The mnemonic was "Ḥiyya lost two nails in walking from Pumbedita to Sura" (Shab. 60b).

Popular Proverbs

The wealthy Simeon b. Judah ha-Nasi was of the opinion that a certain defect in an animal did not render the animal invalid and he ate its meat, while the poor R. Ḥiyya discarded it as invalid; they had a similar disagreement about the oil for the Temple. In both cases the mnemonic was the popular proverb, "the wealthy are parsimonious" (Ḥul. 46a; Men. 86a). Among the most frequent devisors of mnemonics are Rava, R. Papa, R. Safra, and especially R. Naḥman b. Isaac.

The second category of mnemonics (indicated by the word siman without the suffix) is usually merely a combination of words, each indicating a topic. Sometimes it is possible to make a sentence out of them (e.g., a mnemonic in Ḥullin 46b, "Date, Red, Dry Scabs" may be read as "A date, red and dry with scabs"), but sometimes this is quite impossible. These simanim appear to be post-talmudic and were often omitted from the text. In Bava Batra 113a the mnemonic has been omitted from the printed texts, but the word siman has been retained, giving rise to the erroneous view that it was the name of an amora. There was in fact a tendency to ignore the simanim even if they were printed, a practice of which Isaiah *Horowitz strongly disapproved, insisting that they had a mystic connotation (Torah she-be-Al Peh, ayin, Shenei Luhot ha-Berit (Amsterdam, 1698), 407b).

Another type of mnemonic consisted merely of the initial letters of words. The best known example is the mnemonic DeẒa-KH ADa-SH Be-AḤa-B for the ten plagues. The Midrash states that it was engraved on the staff of Moses and calls it a *notarikon (Ex. R. 5:6), but in the Passover Haggadah it is referred to as simanim. Another example is the word Ma-NẒe-Pa-Kh for the letters of the alphabet which have a final form. The Talmud makes a kind of mnemonic of this mnemonic, seeing in it a reference to the fact that "the prophets [seers] introduced them" (ẓofim amarum), i.e., Mi-N Ẓo-Fayi-KH ("from thy prophets"; Meg. 2b). The medieval grammarians similarly made the mnemonic Ba-Ga-D Ke-Fa-T for the six letters which take a dagesh kal. The six things in which Shemini Aẓeret is regarded as a festival independent of Sukkot are indicated by the words Pa-Ze-R Ke-SHe-V, each letter indicating one of the things. The six laws in which the opinion of Abbaye prevails over that of Rava are indicated by the mnemonic Ya-AL Ka-Ga-M (BM 22b). The difference of opinion as to the order of the festival blessings for wine (yayin), Kiddush, the festival (zeman), the candle (ner), and Havdalah is indicated by whether it should be Ya-KZa-Na-H or Ya-KNe-Ha-Z (Pes. 102b, 103a). For the order of biblical readings for the intermediate days of Passover a full sentence was used, "He dragged an OX, and sanctified it with money" (Meg. 31a).

The use of mnemonics did not end with the Talmud, and they are found in late rabbinic literature. The laws of terefah begin, "there are eight categories of terefah and their siman is Da-N Ha-Na-K Ne-Fe-SH" (YD 29:1). A remarkable calendrical mnemonic is provided by atbash (the cryptogram whereby the first letter of the alphabet, alef, is equated with the last, tav; the second, bet, with the penultimate shin, etc.) so as to determine the days of the week on which the festivals of a certain year fall. Alef, bet, etc. represent the eight days of Passover, and the rule is that alef = tav (Tishah be-Av); bet = shin (Shavuot); gimmel = resh (Rosh Ha-Shanah); dalet = kaf (Keri'at ha-Torah, i.e., Simḥat Torah in the Diaspora); he = Ẓadi (Ẓom, i.e., the Day of Atonement); vav = peh (Purim, but of the previous year). The list ends with vav. Zayin, however, corresponds to ayin, and the seventh day of Passover always falls on the same day of the week as Israel Independence Day. Another calendrical mnemonic is "Lo ADU Rosh ve-lo Ba-DU Pesaḥ," i.e., (the first day of) Rosh Ha-Shanah cannot fall on the first, fourth, or sixth day of the week (alef, dalet, vav), nor Passover on the second, fourth, or sixth (bet, dalet, vav).

Distinct from mnemonics, although they serve the same purpose, are such mnemonic aids as are frequent in the Mishnah, whereby mishnayot on completely unrelated topics are grouped together because of their identical opening formula, e.g., "the only difference between A and B is" (Meg. 1), and "that which is invalid in A is valid in B" (Ḥul. 1:4–6).

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

J. Bruell, Doresh le-ẓiyyon (1864); Bruell, Jahrbuecher, 2 (1876), 58–67; B. Epstein, Torah Temimah to Ex. 34:27 (n. 40) and Num. 21:18 (n. 18); P.J. Kohn, Sefer ha-Simanim ha-Shalem (1953).

[Louis Isaac Rabinowitz]


Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.