Shas Pollak - Memorization Feat or Magic Trick?

Has anyone researched the memory feats of the Shas Pollak?

Shas Pollak were Jewish mnemonists who, according to the 1917 report of George Stratton in the Psychological Review, memorized the exact layout of words in more than 5,000 pages of the 12 books of the standard edition of the Babylonian Talmud. Stratton’s report consists of accounts of and comments on testimonials of three eyewitnesses. Two of the eyewitnesses stated that the memorizing was related to the Talmud part, printed in the centers of the pages, and not the surrounding commentary.

An account of the feat

A pin would be placed on a word, let us say, the fourth word in line eight; the memory sharp would then be asked what word is in the same spot on page thirty-eight or fifty or any other page; the pin would be pressed through the volume until it reached 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. It was one of the most stupendous feats of memory I have ever witnessed and there was no fake about it.


I bring up the topic, because this blog post suggests that the technique might have involved a magic trick:

The non-generous explanation is that the Shass Pollak were performing a bit of magic called the Book Test. There are, perhaps, 100 ways to carry off this effect, but the basic routine has the performer divining the words on the particular page of a book. A clue that the Shass Pollak effect was done via magic and not memory is the presence of the pin. A real memory feat wouldn’t require props.

The author of the blog post links to a page about Project Alpha, which shows how easily researchers can be fooled by professional mentalists. :slight_smile:

A Wikipedian named Laudak expresses skepticism on the Talk Page:

I have heard the tales about pin-thru-Talmud trick since childhood, but always as a hearsay with no names named. So having read in wikipedia that Pinchas Hirschsprung did the “pin test” I naturally decided to double-check it. I failed and I tagged the corresponding statement with citation request. Googling for “pin test” I came to the term “Shass Pollak” and subsequent googling gave a number of contradicting descriptions with apparently a singe reputable reference, the one to George Stratton, so I finally decided to go to the library and look up the original text. Hence the article.

Notice that Stratton did not test Shass Pollak himself, so it is still a hearsay. One of the witnesses describes a case which smacks of show trick. Another witness recollects from long time ago. So I am inclined to believe that Shass Pollak is nothing but a pretty legend, but I haven’t found any critical discussion or first-hand account so far. A serious reason to doubt is I find it difficult to believe for precious books allowed to be pricked with pins in order to astound goyim (or even Jews).

Similar Magic Tricks

I haven’t watched this whole video, but it’s an example of one of the many videos on YouTube about how to perform variations of “The Book Test” magic trick:

Here’s another variation of the trick:

Here is Derren Brown doing a similar trick: Derren Brown - Library; possible?

Could the Shass Pollak feat be a magic trick? If it’s a magic trick, how would it be performed?

If it’s a memorization feat, how would a person go about mentally photographing 5,000 pages of text?

An article by Joshua Foer attributes their feats to single-mindedness.

Side note: Apparently there was a Viennese article about Talmud memorization in 1864 by J. Brüll titled Die Mnemotechnik des Talmuds . If anyone can find a copy of that article, please post a link. :slight_smile:

A look at the material

I don’t know exactly how the text is organized on the pages, but if they were using the method of loci and knew that the fifth passage of every page appears in the same place, then it would be easier.

Here is Stratton’s account:

Another clue – they could perform the trick, but didn’t actually know the meaning of the contents:

I remember also that the people amused themselves by prying a needle into any volume of the Talmud,and he could tell exactly the word on which the needle touched. But I also recollect distinctly that it was nothing more than a verbal or rather local memory, the students all maintaining that he knew very little about the meaning of the contents, their interpretation and application. I heard afterwards of many similar’ Shass Pollaks,'but it is a fact that none of them ever attained to any prominence in the scholarly world."

This absence of any scholarly grasp of the contents thus memorized, of which President Schechter speaks, also appears in the judgment of Dr. Philipson. “I looked upon his achievement at the time I witnessed it as purely mechanical,” he writes. “It is quite likely that he could not interpret the Talmud though he knew its contents by heart.” And Judge Sulzberger, when proposing to his ‘Shass Pollak’ that he use his knowledge to some scientific or literary end, was listened to with respect, but nevertheless received the impression that such proposals were deemed by his man to be nonsensical.

Does the ability to memorize things stunt the brain in other areas? I don’t think so:

All of which confirms the oft-repeated observation, that such extraordinary powers of memory may exist in a kind of intellectual disproportion where there is no corresponding development of other powers—where, indeed, there may be an actual stunting of other powers and interests; as though the mind had ‘run’ to memory, and been enlarged here at the expense of other functions.

Apparently only parts of the pages were memorized:

As to the more precise amount of matter that was memorized,it should be noted that a page of the Babylonian Talmud consists,as my colleague Dr. Popper, has pointed out to me of the text proper, called the Gemarah, and printed as a more central portion on the page, and of a commentary printed below and around this text. Upon special inquiry whether the mnemonic feat applied only to the Gemarah or included also the Commentary, Dr. Philipson states that the test which he witnessed was upon the Gemarah only; and Judge Sulzberger is of the opinion that this was also true in the case that came under his observation.

Here’s what the pages look like: