There is a term that we all use so frequently that we do not bother to define it. Yet, precisely because we use it so often, it is important that we at least try to understand exactly what it means.
The term is talmid chacham. It is an especially important term for those of us who study Daf Yomi. Each of us hopes that our daily study regime will one day earn us the title talmid chacham. But is daily Torah study, important as it is, sufficient to qualify us for that title? Or, is something more than scholarship necessary? And what might that something be?
The literal definition of the term is itself not quite certain. It can be translated either as “a student of the wise,” or as “a wise student.” Either way, study and discipleship are the major prerequisites for the appellation talmid chacham. But what are some other prerequisites?
One of the Talmudic texts which is particularly helpful in clarifying the nature of a talmid chacham is a gemara which we studied together not long ago in Maseches Brachos, daf 19a. It reads:
It was taught in the school of Rabbi Yishmael: If you saw a talmid chacham transgress a prohibition at night, Do not think badly of him during the day; Perhaps he has repented in the meantime.
The Gemara challenges this and asks:
Does it enter your mind that only “perhaps” he has repented? Rather, he has certainly repented!” B’vadai asah teshuvah!
This passage is especially relevant at this time of year, well past the middle of the month of Elul, and a little more than a week before Rosh Hashanah. The thoughts of every one of us are centered upon the important concept of teshuvah.
In this passage of the Gemara, we are being told an essential aspect of teshuvah. We are being told that teshuvah is something that a talmid chacham does routinely and regularly. We are learning that a talmid chacham’s teshuvah is reliable, and that we can trust that he has done teshuvah with absolutely certainty.
Note that we are not to assume that a talmid chacham never sins. Quite the contrary. This passage is one of the many in Sha”s that indicates clearly that talmidei chachamim are not perfect. They have their faults, make mistakes, and—like all of us—sometimes sin.
But the talmid chacham is a person who is introspective, who makes what Chazal call a cheshbon hanefesh, a spiritual reckoning. And what’s more, he makes that cheshbon hanefesh daily, without fail.
Not only does he reflect upon his actions regularly, but he is also brutally honest with himself and is not afraid to admit that he erred. And this openness to admission of error leads him inexorably to do teshuvah. And not just during the season for teshuvah, between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, but every single day of the year.
One of the classical and more insightful texts on the subject of teshuvah makes the point splendidly. I refer to the work Sha’arei Teshuvah (Gates of Repentance), by the great Rabbenu Yonah of Gerondi. This is a book that I try to carefully peruse at this time of year, and this is what he writes after describing the Almighty’s willingness to accept our teshuvah as a great Divine gift—which we must take advantage of with immediacy and not postpone:
“A dilatory attitude toward doing teshuvah can only be found among amei ha’aretz [usually translated as the “the ignorant” but better understood as a term that is the antonym of talmid chacham], who lie asleep and do not take their actions to heart, and have neither common sense nor the wisdom to swiftly escape with their souls. Some have even withdrawn from Hashem, blessed be He, and do not believe that there are consequences for sinning…”
He continues to quote our passage in the Gemara and emphasizes the contrast between the talmid chacham who does do teshuvah reliably and regularly, and the am ha’aretz who, at best, delays doing so.
Rav Avraham Erlanger, in his commentary on Sha’arei Teshuvah, analyzes the three features of the am ha’aretz:
1. He does not “take to heart;” he fails to look inward; 2. He does not possess common sense and intelligence, or fails to use those gifts; 3. He lacks genuine faith.
We can put this analysis to use in arriving at a definition of talmid chacham. He is a person who:
1. is self-aware and introspective; 2. uses his common sense and practical intelligence; 3. has strong religious faith.
He is not just a scholar. He is one in whom we can be confident, that although he may occasionally stumble, b’vadai asah teshuvah—he has most definitely repented!