Methods of Scripture Memorization by the Early Jews – Mnemonics


The Jews used mnemonic devices, or memory aids to help them memorize Scripture. Learn how the Hebrews of Biblical times memorized the Bible.

With such a demand on memory, there were ingenious memory devices and aids invented to aid in the memorization of the Torah and oral law. One such aid was involving the whole body in learning – it was thought that movement, or swaying, was a mechanical aid to memorizing.

Remembering the Aleph-Bet

In the Palestinian Talmud, there are two stories that help students remember the Aleph-Bet and incorporate moral teaching into learning the Hebrew consonant, “The shape of the letters, wherever possible, is used as a mnemonic device to help the children retain the appearance and order of the letters as well as to remind them of the moral message.” This technique will reappear in Medieval memory treatises which they called ‘visual alphabets’.

Artificial Memory

This method of memorization reinforced the so-called ‘natural memory’ with the imagery of ‘artificial memory’ and meet with the wide approval of Rabbis of the time. Ebner goes on to say that ‘spin-off’ methods were developed from this mnemonic device, “…The elementary teacher in Athens also tried to facilitate the learning of the alpha beta through dramatizing it. He would teach it in the form of a song, or devise some guessing game that was based upon the shape of the letters.

I’d Like to Buy a Vowel…

As noted above, after mastery of the ‘aleph bet’ the student was brought into reading the Pentateuch. “The difficulty he now faced was how to pronounce words that were made up of consonantal letters only. There were no vowels to help him. Nor he could tell where a verse began or ended, except at the end of the whole passages, as the scroll had no signs or dividing spaces between the sentences.” The only way for the students to learn to read the Scripture was to have the teacher recite the passage and have it recited back by the class. The lesson was generally recited to the student four times, or until the student had learned it. To make matters more challenging, according to tradition, verses could not be broken up, but had to be read aloud in their entirety.

Music as Memory Aid

One method utilized by teachers was a system of chanting or intonation to help the students remember their verses called ‘Pisuk Ta’amim’, “The origin of this system is reported to go back to very early times and its knowledge was transmitted orally…The employment of melody…served a twofold purpose – it appealed to the esthetic sense, making for a greater appreciation of the Bible and it impressed more effectively the content upon the memory of the learner and listener.”

Vowel Pointing in the Hebrew Text as Mnemonic Device

The introduction of vowel pointing in the Hebrew text of Scripture, between the times of 500 -1000 A.D. , is a mnemonic device employed to help students recall the proper recitation of Scripture. Morris states, “It is also suggested that the Hebrew vowel system – in its nature a system of mnemonics – had its origin in the mnemonic signs devised by the elementary schoolmaster as an ‘aid’ to his pupils.”

Your Heart’s Desire

The Rabbis also attempted to arouse interest in the subject and favored having students learn and study texts that they were interested in – an interest in any subject helps memory retention as will be discussed under heading VII of this essay. “People were advised that in studying the Torah they should choose those topics that had a special interest for them, ‘that their heart desired.’”

Memory Resides in the Heart

It is significant that the heart is mentioned, for the Jews believed, as did Aristotle, that memory resided in the heart. Such an idea was itself taken from Scripture. To reiterate Morris, comments, “‘Remembering’ or ‘recalling’, is in the Bible frequently synonymous with ‘coming up to’ or ‘putting into’ the heart. And conversely, to ‘forget’ or ‘be forgotten’ is equivalent to ‘departing’ or ‘removing’ from the heart.”

Food that Improves Memory

As the heart was thought to be the house of memory, Jews believed food could affect this faculty – olives were bad, but olive oil was good! They thought that bread baked on coals was also good for memory.

Review or Reap Not

In the end, for the Jewish teacher and student, the greatest asset to retaining Scripture ‘by heart’ was by frequent review of the material and by not rushing from one subject to the next too quickly, “…to study continuously new subjects, without making sure that the old ones are not forgotten, would nearly defeat its own purpose. In so doing one would resemble ‘a man who sows but does not reap,’ or as another Tanna puts it: ‘a woman who bears children and buries them.’”

Time to Reflect and Ruminate

Time was given to the students to reflect and ruminate upon their lessons, “The Rabbis were very emphatic in this advise. They explained that when God taught Moses the Law, He also paused after every section and after every subject.”

While care was taken not to move to quickly from one subject to the next before its mastery, a method found helpful was to study different subjects that had one common theme, “In order to facilitate memorization the Rabbis…oftentimes combined the study of many different subjects that had one common feature.”

Symbolic Numbers

While there were no set rules for the amount of times a lesson should be reviewed by a student, the general consensus among teachers was, ‘the more the better’. Some took symbolic numbers from Scripture as a standard, such as forty times, as many days as Moses was upon Mt. Sinai. Others reviewed 24 times, as many books in the Hebrew Cannon. Morris comments on using forty repetitions, “It was apparently believed that there was a particular efficacy in this latter number, for we find many references to it.”

This method of constant repetition was thought by the Rabbis to aid in retention, “…but also produced greater clarity.”