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Shabbat 21b says that Abaye did not accept a certain halacha the Sages related in the name of Rabbi Yirmeya. After he emigrated to Babylonia, the Sages related this same halakha in the name of Rabbi Yoḥanan, and he accepted it. Then Abaye said:

אֲמַר: אִי זְכַאי, גְּמִירְתַּיהּ לִשְׁמַעְתֵּיהּ מֵעִיקָּרָא -- If I had been worthy, I would have learned this halakha from the beginning.

The Gemara continues: Well, didn’t he ultimately learn it and accept it? What difference does it make from whom and when he learned it? And it answers: The practical difference is that knowledge acquired in one’s youth is remembered better.

My problem is with "אִי זְכַאי -- if I had been worthy". Are the less "worthy" among us not entitled to the same Torah teaching and learning as all other Jews? There is an implication of "punishment" here that I can't understand. Perhaps the Gemara simply means that knowledge acquired earlier in life stays with us longer. Sure, but that's a natural matter, independent of one's "worthiness", not a punishment. If Abaye had said: If I had been smarter, more dedicated, more learned, etc., I would have understood.

The Talmud says elsewhere that the Torah is the very antidote to the evil inclination. [Kiddushin 30b]

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  • אמר ר' יצחק אם יאמר לך אדם יגעתי ולא מצאתי אל תאמן לא יגעתי ומצאתי אל תאמן יגעתי ומצאתי תאמן הני מילי בדברי תורה אבל במשא ומתן סייעתא הוא מן שמיא ולדברי תורה לא אמרן אלא לחדודי אבל לאוקמי גירסא סייעתא מן שמיא היא
    – Double AA
    Aug 12 at 12:13
  • The translation is "merited" not "worthy". I didn't check all the translations, but that's what I thought and found Sefaria says that as well - "Then Abaye said regretfully: Had I merited, I would have learned this halakha from the outset."
    – Chatzkel
    Aug 12 at 13:17
  • I think your observation is correct, but the inference not necessarily so. The word zakai has two meanings, pure and meritorious. Apparently what Abaye means is that had I been pure enough I would have been able to be kolet this halachah me'ikara. It is a sine qua non of Torah learning that one must be pure, in order to be able to absorb the Torah. This is abundantly clear in many maamarei chazal.
    – pcoz
    Aug 12 at 23:22
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Like @Chatzkel noted in the comments I think a fairer translation is "If I merited" not "If I was worthy".

The Ishbitzer, Rabbi Mordechai Yosef Leiner zt"l in his Mei HaShiloach on the Gemara addresses this point:

אי זכאי היינו שהייתי מזוכך במדת קבל אמת ממי שאמרו גמירתיה מעיקרא, הלא הדבר הוא אמת מפני מה לא קבלתי אותה כשנאמרה משמיה דר' ירמיה, אף אם סוף דבר מארץ תצמח שלא הפסידו לגמרי, אך עכ"פ הפסיד הגירסא דינקותא, היינו שיש חילוק בין הלומד דבר תיכף ומיד כשנתחדש בעולם אז יש בו יותר כח וטעם מאשר כבר נתחדש, וזה פי' גירסא דינקותא היינו כמו שהתינוק יונק משדי אמו יונק חלב מה שלא היה עוד בעולם שלא נתיישן אפילו רגע ונמצא טעם טוב מדבר שנתיישן, כמו שנאמר בלחם הפנים (שמואל א' כ"א,י"ז) לשום לחם חם היינו שלא נתיישן רק היה תמיד חדש.

In essence he underscores the fact that when Abaye says "אי זכאי" - "If I had merited", he is bemoaning the fact that he didn't merit learning it when he was younger as something learnt in one's young age is much more fresh and therefore more easily retained. i.e. there is a significant difference between someone who learns something straight away when there's a sense of freshness compared to someone who learns it when their mind lacks the vitality of youth. He likens it to a baby nursing, the milk is there and provides immediate nourishment and is much better than something that has become old and left to fester which obviously will not be nearly as beneficial.

It is a lesson in making the most of our time when we are young as the mind is much sharper and can recall the Torah learnt much more effectively. It draws parallels with the Mishna in Pirkei Avos 4:20:

אֱלִישָׁע בֶּן אֲבוּיָה אוֹמֵר, הַלּוֹמֵד יֶלֶד לְמַה הוּא דוֹמֶה, לִדְיוֹ כְתוּבָה עַל נְיָר חָדָשׁ. וְהַלּוֹמֵד זָקֵן לְמַה הוּא דוֹמֶה, לִדְיוֹ כְתוּבָה עַל נְיָר מָחוּק.

Elisha ben Avuya says: A child that learns, to whom is he comparable? To ink that is written on fresh paper. And he who learns when an old man, to what is he compared? To ink written on a rubbed writing sheet.

The message being that just like fresh paper instantly soaks up the ink, retaining that which has been inscribed on its pages, so too, children’s receptive minds maintain that which they have learnt. Whilst Rashi and Rambam render this Mishnah as a reference to young students absorbing the words from their Rebbeim, the same would ring true in all areas. When a human being is in their younger years the brain is much sharper and more responsive. Conversely, as a human reaches old age the alertness that they enjoyed in their youth has significantly diminished.

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  • I said all this in my question. But where is the "merit" in all this? That's what I want to know. Aug 12 at 16:33
  • The merit is that a person who utilises his time in his youth and learns a halacha merits to retain it and remember it later in life.
    – Dov
    Aug 12 at 16:38
  • It's not merit. It's a law of nature. Aug 12 at 18:29
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    Why not?? Why does it have to be mutually exclusive. Why can't the way Hashem programmed a human be a zechus for the fact that when a person is young they are hardwired to have better memory retention?
    – Dov
    Aug 12 at 20:03
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    @maurice mizrahi the merit is not that he was young, that's natural. The merit would of been to learn when he was young. The more a person learns when they're young the more they retain, so it's a merit to have that opportunity. Not everyone does. In this case, Abya is saying he didn't have that merit
    – Chatzkel
    Aug 12 at 21:10

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