An intriguing legend from the Talmud and Midrash describes how a child, while still in its mothers womb, is taught the entire Torah to the glow of a supernatural lamp that allows it to see to the ends of the earth. It is only at the moment of birth that an angel appears and imposes upon it an oath to live a righteous life, and then slaps the youngster on the mouth or the nose, causing it to forget all that it has learned.
According to this tale the process of learning in later life does not involve the mastering of new information, but only a "review" of teachings that were once known, but have subsequently been forgotten.
As several scholars have been quick to point out, this depiction of learning as recollection bears an uncanny resemblance to a myth that was recounted several centuries earlier, in the concluding pages of Plato's Republic. In Plato's well-known myth, the souls stand ready to enter their new lives with the accumulated experiences of prior existences, but are ordered to drink from waters that induce forgetfulness.
Unlike the rabbinic legend, the Greek story posits a doctrine of transmigration of souls, so that the unborn child's wisdom is acquired in the course its prior lives, not by being instructed in the teachings of the Torah. It is also significant that the Jewish soul is commanded to make a moral choice, whereas the fatalistic Platonic soul can only "choose" to continue a destiny whose course was determined by its previous incarnations.
The angel's smack in the Talmudic legend produces total amnesia for all, but in the Greek theory of "anamnesis" the souls quaff varying quantities of the oblivion-inducing potion. The clever souls drink no more than they have to, which makes for an easier job of learning and recalling during their coming lives. Only the foolish and short-sighted souls make the mistake of rashly and greedily gulping down excessive doses, dooming them to lives of ignorance and dull-wittedness.
The theme of the angel's slap was a favourite in Eastern European Jewish folklore. In most versions the slap becomes a tweaking (shnel) of the nose, which is responsible for creating the furrow beneath the nostrils. The story provides a satisfying explanation of the sublime and innocent wisdom that adorns the countenances of newly born infants; they are, according to this theory, still enjoying the residual effects of their prenatal schooling.
Furthermore, the Jewish world had its share of child prodigies and geniuses who mastered the Talmud at a tender age (such a person is known in Hebrew as an "Illui"). This phenomenon could be ascribed to the soul's evading the angel's slap, whether by accident or design.
The popular Yiddish writer Itzik Manger composed a delightful novella, The Book of Paradise, based on the premise that a mischievous young spirit named Shmuel Abba succeeded in sidestepping the shnel, and then, after he was born, regaled his audiences with a hilarious series of reminisces about the doings of the righteous in Paradise.
My most unlikely encounter with the legend occurred a few years ago while watching a television late-show movie. The film was the 1948 production Key Largo, which starred Humphrey Bogart as a disillusioned and battle-weary cynic who found himself among a group of hostages in the power of a desperate gangster. In an otherwise forgettable piece of banal philosophizing whose connection to the plot now escapes me (Unfortunately, my memories of post-natal experiences tend to be very hazy), Bogie began to expound the story of the angel's slap. The legend was related there in its midrashic version, though its Jewish origins were not identified.
Plato, the Talmud and Humphrey Bogart... Hmm? With three such diverse and unimpeachable witnesses attesting to its veracity, the story just might be true. In fact I seem to recall something similar happening to me when I was very young...
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