Use it or lose it

“The Meaning of Life,” by Leland Francisco via Used under Creative Commons 2.0 license.

According to the Talmud (Shabbat 147b), “if you don’t use it, you lose it.” Perhaps not in those exact words, but this page speaks of a Rabbi, Elazar ben Arakh, who was the most promising (and perhaps favorite) student of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai. Pirkei Avot (The Ethics of the Fathers) describes Rabbi Elazar as “an ever-flowing spring.” The Talmud, in Sotah 49b, describes Rabbi Akiva in a similar, positive way, ascribing to both sages “the talent of innovation and creative ability in Torah study.” However, Rabbi Akiba is heavily quoted throughout rabbinic literature, but Rabbi Elazar is barely mentioned at all.

Why? Shabbat 127 gives us a clue. In the midst of various discussions of what may and may not be carried on Shabbat, whether or not something can contract ritual impurity, and why one shouldn’t wear new shoes for the first time on Shabbat (because if they hurt, the person might taken them off and carry hem), comes a discussion about going to the bathhouse on Shabbat, a place named Deyomset is mentioned.

It’s apparently a beautiful place with much water, but according to the sages, a place devoid of Torah. The story goes, “Once Rabbi Elazar ben Arach happened to come there, to Phrygia and Deyomset, and he was drawn to them, and his Torah learning was forgotten. When he returned, he stood to read from a Torah scroll and was supposed to read the verse: “This month shall be for you haĥodesh hazeh lakhem” (Exodus 12:2), but he had forgotten so much that he could barely remember how to read the Hebrew letters. Instead he read: “Have their hearts become deaf haĥeresh haya libbam, inter-changing the reish for dalet, yud for zayin, and bet for khaf. The Sages prayed and asked for God to have mercy on him, and his learning was restored.

This story seems extreme to be, that such a promising sage would practically forget the Hebrew alphabet, but it does make a point–if we don’t use it, we lose it. For decades now, scientists and doctors have been looking at ways to help keep our brains and bodies young; not necessarily to turn back the clock, but so we can be as physically and mentally healthy as possible, for as long as possible. Why is one 95-year old woman as sharp as a tack, while her 80-year old friend can’t concentrate on a card game? The answer is complicated, and I’m not qualified to answer it, but if Rabbi Elazar ben Arach is any indication, keeping up our skills requires continually engaging in activities that will challenge us. It also requires that we include others in our activities, which isn’t always so easy, especially during this pandemic.

Praying for mercy to have our learning restored can’t hurt, but learning from Rabbi Elazar’s experience can help us continue to be our best selves as we age.



About Rabbi Susan Elkodsi 12 Articles
Susan Elkodsi is the rabbi and spiritual leader of the Malverne Jewish Center in Long Island, New York. She was ordained by the Academy for Jewish Religion, the country's first pluralistic rabbinical and cantorial seminary, in 2015, fulfilling a life-long dream. Her goal is to help Baby Boomers and older Jewish adults create meaning and purpose in their lives, in a Jewish context, but not the one they might have been traumatized in growing up. Rabbi Elkodsi recently completed a Certificate in Gerontology and Palliative Care through Yeshiva University's Wurzweiler School of Social Works, and looks forward to incorporating this new knowledge into her current work. She and her husband David have two grown children, Phillip and Jacqueline, and in her spare time enjoys knitting and spinning her own yarn.


  1. How to do this during the pandemic is a challenge. I fear I am loosing it. So many plans and hopes for my remaining years postponed indefinitely. Maybe forever. Life – what makes it worth living – I need a new definition.

  2. It’s a challenge and an opportunity. It’s hard to watch plans get sidelined or even destroyed, and so much is beyond our control. How can we use the skills we already have to help us through this?

  3. It’s a blessing and a curse, just as this weeks portion says, taking the opportunity with others on ZOOM in Jax Beach, Fl. to study Torah and do Meditation, celebrate Tu B’av, and we’re reading Mussar and Naomi Levy’s book Einstein and the Rabbi… also closer to home, staying a distance from others, and still connecting with family on Facetime and maybe more so on ZOOM.

  4. Martha, you’re absolutely right, and we talked about this “in services” this Shabbat. How do we turn “curses” into “blessings”? How do we understand the idea of “curses” in today’s world?

    I enjoyed Einstein and the Rabbi, and being able to take advantage of technology to stay connected is great, although I’m mindful that not everyone has the ability to do that.

    Thanks for sharing!

What are your thoughts?

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.