The famous pin test epitomized oldtime devotion to Gemara study. The test was simple enough – to reveal which words had been pierced by a pin thrust through several pages of Gemara. Rare as these “Pintelle” Yids may be nowadays (Rav Pinchas Hirschsprung of Montreal was one of the unique individuals reputed capable of the feat) they must have been commoner a century or two ago. Several such people journeyed to the US where they were collectively known by the dubious title of “Shas Pollacks,” Polish Jews who could pass the challenging pin test on Shas. Surprisingly, these American savants vanished without a trace; not one of them left any mark on Jewish history for reasons that will be explored later.
The Miracle Man
The most famous Shas Yid you never heard of thrived during the mid-nineteenth century. For a decade or two, he toured the capitals of Europe and entertained its royalty and top brass with his almost flawless recall of not only Shas, but also of any sefer printed in square Hebrew script that an audience member cared to hand to him. If you are wonder-
Testing how he knew the contents of books he never laid eyes on, the same question occurred to people of his time. Some of them regarded this as proof of supernatural powers, while others were dubious, as we shall see.
The name of this savant was Rabbi Hirsch Denmark, more or less that is, since almost every article discussing him finds a different way to spell his name.
The first extant report of this miracle man appears in “The Family Magazine” of Cincinnati and describes a performance he gave in London in 5599/1839. In those days, the defunct system of phrenology was all the rage. A number of academics (but never the academic mainstream) believed it was possible to detect a person’s talents and disposition by examining the shape of his head and scrutinizing its bumps. Using this theory, the reporter dedicates a few introductory sentences to describing the physiology of Rabbi Denmark’s head and speculating on whether this contributed towards his powerful talents:
“Last Monday night, a truly singular display of natural capabilities took place at the Argyle Rooms, in Regent street,” he writes. “The Rabbi Hersh Danemark, a professor of Hebrew and rabbinic literature from Stutchim in Poland, appeared on a small platform before the auditory. His eye is dark and little seen, but always quick and confident; his forehead retreating, and his head particularly high in the regions of veneration, firmness, self-esteem, and love of approbation. The perceptive organs are well developed: order is particularly full, but number is moderate, and stranger still, the position of the eyes affords no indication of any remarkable fullness of language.”
After analyzing our hero with the weird, but not defunct pseudoscience of phrenology, the reporter gets down to business. The canny writer of this early article refused to concede that the rabbi possessed anything more than a wonderful memory. After describing how
people stuck pms through the pages of a Gemara and how he then unerringly revealed the word punctured on any given page, the reporter describes the even more amazing demonstration of the rabbi’s powers.
In this test, the rabbi requested a person to insert his fingers into a volume of Gemara from the side and then announced which words their fingers were touching. He not only knew the position of every word in a Hebrew book, but could also estimate exactly on which page the person had inserted his fingers from the volume’s side. This seemed miraculous.
However, when the turn of our intrepid reporter came to insert his fingers between the book’s leaves, he observed “that the rabbi also inserted his fingers and felt carefully, though quickly, the marginal commentaries adjacent to the edge of the leaf.” Through this, he concluded that Rabbi Denmark identified the page not through a miracle, but through the uncanny ability of reading letters through the sense of touch.
A later report in the August 5606/1846 “Jewish Chronicle of London” was less skeptical and reported additional feats of Rabbi Hirsh as bordering on the supernatural:
“In any Hebrew book, or in any other language interspersed with Hebrew words, the rabbi told, without looking in, the words occurring on the line and page being named,” the report stated. “A pin being stuck through ever so many leaves, he tells the exact word to which the point of the pin penetrates. This he accomplished in books, which some of the audience brought from home with them.
“He wears a diamond ring, presented to him by the Emperor of Russia, and a gold watch by Prince Metternich. The Germans called him ‘Der Wunder Man’ (the man of wonder) and no one has been able to explain his remarkable but undeniable ability of telling that which he does not see, and never has seen before.”
What was Rabbi Hirsch’s secret? Was he identifying words m books he had never seen through paranormal means?
The truth may have remained lost forever were it not for a more skeptical report of a show printed in the “Manchester Guardian” a year later in 5606/1846. Advertisements issued in advance of the show claimed that the rabbi was capable of the supernatural, or, at least, the inexplicable, professing that he was capable of, “looking at any Hebrew book, never before shown him, after the number of the page and line had been pointed out to him, without opening the book, to read the passage occurring on the page and line.”
But during the show, our astute reporter noticed that the rabbi invariably opened any volume he was about to be questioned on, presumably familiarizing himself with its contents, albeit at lightning speed. “Let a Hebrew volume be produced which he had not had an opportunity of seeing before,” the reporter concluded, “let the experiment be repeated, and on no account let the rabbi open the volume till he has answered the questions put to him… there will be something more inexplicable and nearer the supernatural than at present.”
Now here is something even more amazing. Despite Rabbi Denmark’s amazing abilities of lightning comprehension, perfect memory, and “seeing” fingers, his name is forgotten except in dusty newspaper archives and digital databases. This goes to show that Torah greatness demands a lot more than amassing one’s mind with facts.
The same lesson is evident from the third issue of the 5677/1917 “Psychological Review,” in which George M. Stratton of the University of California discussed “Shas Pollacks” who had arrived in America during the past few decades.
“Some years ago, through the kindness of my friend Professor Hollander, of the John Hopkins University,” he writes, “my attention was directed to a special achievement in memorizing which I venture to report; since so far as I know, it has remained unnoticed by psychologists. The facts of the case I can hardly do better than to allow the witnesses themselves to state. And first the Reverend Dr. David Phillipson of Cincinnati, to whom I was first referred by Professor Hollander:
“’There have been, as there undoubtedly still are, men who know the whole Talmud by heart. Some years ago one of these men, a native of Poland was in this country. I witnessed his remarkable feats of memory. Thus, one of us would throw open one of the volumes of the Talmud. a pin would be placed on a word. the memory sharp would then be asked what word is in this same spot on page thirty-eight or page fifty or any other page designated. The memory sharp would then mention the word and it was found invariably correct. He had visualized in his brain the whole Talmud; in other words, the pages of the Talmud were photographed on his brain…
“’In the company gathered about the table were a number of Talmudic experts who would readily have discovered fraud had there been any. The technical name which was used by the Jews of aforetimes to designate these experts was Shas Pollack; Shas is the abbreviation for the Hebrew terms for the Talmud, and Pollak is Pole; nearly all these memory experts came from Poland.’”
Additional testimony discussed someone who also estimated how far into a Gemara a pin had pierced. It is worth noting that in this last instance, despite the person’s amazing recall of every page in Shas, he is described as little more than a donkey car- lying seforim and with little comprehension of his vast knowledge. The correspondent concludes, “I heard afterwards of many similar ‘Shas Pollaks,’ but it is a fact that none of them ever attained to any prominence in the scholarly world.” Indeed, they left no mark on Jewish American history.
All this indicates that true knowledge is not a mass of facts, but rather a matrix of facts. Perusing the works of gedolim such as the Shevet HaLevi and Chavos Daas, it becomes clear that their knowledge is not a mere record of the words of Shas and Poskim, but rather a comprehensive understanding of the whole that enables them to connect seemingly disparate elements of Shas into a beautifully coherent tapestry and prove any point at hand. The American “Shas Pollacks” apparently lacked this third dimension.
A longstanding question is how people get to know Shas well enough to pass the pin test. Is this through true photographic memory or through utilization of gifts possessed by everyone? Actually, there is no
scientific consensus that true photographic memory exists at all. Although some people, mostly children, possess eidetic imagery, which enables them to visualize a picture after it is removed from their view in incredible detail, the eidetic image is far from perfect and may have missing or added details. There is no conclusive evidence of even one person ever having true photographic recall, and many people achieve incredible memories with no eidetic talents.
Thus, whether the “Shas Pollacks’’ were aided by eidetic memory or whether their incredible skills were due to innate memory, learned tactics, and a large, organized data base, remains an open question.
(Credits: Thanks to Shimon of onthe- mainline.blogspot.com for his permission to use the relevant newspaper clippings on his site)