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Before gemara was written down, (and a long time afterwards too, according to this lecture J. Woolf on rishonim and achronim), people knew all of shas off by heart. According to the aforementioned lecture, even up to much more recently significant numbers of people knew gemara, rashi and tosfos off by heart. How?
I find it very difficult to accept that everyone had incredible memories in those days...

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    Why do you think everyone knew all of it by heart? Maybe a couple people did – Double AA Jan 8 '17 at 17:01
  • @DoubleAA On the assumption that Dr Woolf is correct in his lecture that significant numbers of people post talmudic era knew it, including commentaries, off by heart, we conclude that it must have been even more widespread prior to the writing down of gemara. If this was not the case there would not have been a need to write it down. – Moshe Steinberg Jan 8 '17 at 18:00
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I would suggest two points:

  1. Necessity is the mother of invention. We have the the gemara and meforshim written down, printed, and readily available, and even readily searchable via online repositories; so we feel less pressure to learn them by heart. In contrast, IIRC, in the shtetlach in Europe there was frequently only a single Shas in the entire town; under those circumstances it was either memorize all of masechta Sanhedrin when you had it, or waste time conducting a house-to-house search each time you wanted to look something up. Presumably, sefarim were more expensive and time-consuming to produce the further back in history we go, and thus were less available.

    A similar example is the ability of Yemenite children to learn to read from the Torah sideways and upside-down, owing to the fact that there was only one chumash available for the children.

    L'havdil, I can do long division on paper with some difficulty, but I never mastered extracting square roots by hand. And yet the techniques for doing so were taught and mastered by multiple generations of students — exceptional and average — before calculators, computers and mobile phones became commonplace. The ability to learn by heart is no different.

  2. We live in an age of distractions. The gemara describes how Rabbi Akiva came home after twelve years, and turned around and left upon hearing his wife say that he should stay to learn for another twelve years. Would it have been so bad for him to go in, say hello to his wife, maybe sit down to a cup of tea? But we, for whom a cellphone-free 3-3.5 hour seder is not a trivial undertaking, cannot appreciate the magnitude of a 5-minute interruption between two 12-year sedarim.

    Previous generations, which were not burdened by such distractions, were able to memorize large parts of the Torah, because a) the longer you focus on a single concept, the more deeply embedded it becomes in your memory, and b) even focusing on a group of related concepts for a longer time means that each concept reinforces the others in memory.

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