The Haftara for Simchat Torah (2): "You Shall Meditate Therein Day and Night"

  • Harav Mosheh Lichtenstein
Translated by David Strauss
 
THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN SIMCHAT TORAH AND THE HAFTARA
 

            Some of the most famous verses regarding Torah study, including the key verse, "And you shall meditate therein day and night" (Yehoshua 1:8), are found in our haftara.  We must ask ourselves why it is that these verses find their place at the beginning of the book of Yehoshua, and not in the five books of Moshe.  In order to answer this question, let us cite the most important talmudic passage dealing with our verse:

 

Rabbi Ami said: We learn from the words of Rabbi Yose that even if a person studies only one chapter in the morning and one chapter in the evening, he fulfills the mitzva of "This book of the Torah shall not depart out of your mouth" (Yehoshua 1:8). 

Rabbi Yochanan said in the name of Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai: Even if a person reads only the Shema in the morning and in the evening, he fulfills "[This book of the Torah] shall not depart." But one may not say this in the presence of ignorant people.  And Rava said: It is a mitzva to say this in the presence of ignorant people. 

Ben Dama the son of Rabbi Yishmael's sister asked Rabbi Yishmael: Somebody like me who has studied the entire Torah - is he permitted to study Greek wisdom? [He answered:] Apply to him this verse: "This book of the Torah shall not depart out of your mouth, and you shall meditate therein day and night." Go out and find a time that is neither day nor night, and study then Greek wisdom. 

He argues with Rav Shmuel bar Nachmani, for Rav Shmuel bar Nachmani said in the name of Rabbi Yonatan: This verse is neither an obligation nor a mitzva, but rather a blessing.  The Holy One, blessed be He, saw in Yehoshua that the words of the Torah are exceedingly dear to him, as it is stated, "But his servant Yehoshua, the son of Nun, a young man, did not depart from tent" (Shemot 33:11).  The Holy One, blessed be He, said to him: Yehoshua, the words of the Torah are so dear to you; this book of the Torah shall not depart out of your mouth.  (Menachot 99b)

 

            To understand this passage, we shall cite in utmost brevity the words of Rav Sh. Y. Zevin, based on the words of the author of the Tanya in Shulchan Arukh ha-Rav.  Rav Zevin writes as follows:[1]

 

The study of Torah and the knowledge of the Torah are two separate mitzvot.  Study without knowledge is possible in two ways: Either a person already knows all the laws of the Torah, and as Ben Dama, the son of Rabbi Yishmael's sister, asked Rabbi Yishmael: Somebody like me who has studied the entire Torah is he permitted to study Greek wisdom? Or an ignoramus, who even if he studies understands nothing, and acquires no knowledge…

 

What is the biblical source for these two mitzvot? … "And you shall teach them diligently" (Devarim 6:7) points to knowledge.  And thus the Sages said: "'And you shall teach them diligently' – the words of the Torah must be sharp in your mouth."… The Ran writes: This does not mean that with this a person is exempt, for a person is obligated to study at all times, day and night, to the best of his ability.  And we said in the first chapter of Kiddushin (30): "Our Rabbis taught: 'And you shall teach them diligently' - the words of the Torah must be sharp in your mouth, so that if someone asks you a question, you shall not stutter, but rather say to him… And reading Shema morning and night does not suffice for this." He means to say: Even if the reading of Shema could exempt a person from the mitzva of study, it does not exempt him from the mitzva of knowledge, for the reading of Shema does not suffice for a person to know how to answer another person's questions…

 

What, then, is taught by the verse, "And you shall meditate therein [day and night]"? Even if a person is very busy with his livelihood and cannot study Torah all the time, nevertheless he is obligated to establish times for Torah [study] by day and by night, even one chapter in the morning and one chapter at night.  About this they said: In a time of need, when a person's preoccupations are excessive, and he has no time for even a single chapter, he can fulfill his obligation with the reading of Shema by day and by night in order to fulfill the mitzva of "And you shall meditate therein day and night," it being a time of need and there being no alternative.

 

            Rav Zevin means to say that the command given to Yehoshua does not relate to knowledge of the Torah.  Yehoshua occupied himself with acquiring Torah knowledge throughout the years that he ministered to Moshe in the wilderness.  But this chapter in his life ended when he was appointed leader of Israel charged with conquering the land.  From now on, he will have little time for study, because he will be busy fighting the Canaanites and governing Israel.  Therefore, the commandment that applies to him is not to increase his knowledge, but to maintain an existential connection to Torah through brief daily study.  The purpose of this study is not the knowledge to be gained therefrom, but putting his daily personal schedule into a framework in which the connection to God and Torah are basic components of his consciousness.  Accordingly, this commandment was given to him at this time, at the beginning of the book of Yehoshua, when he became leader.

 

            In light of this, reading this chapter as the haftara for Simchat Torah is meaningful even for us.  It comes to teach us that Simchat Torah is not the personal holiday of scholars who spend most of their waking hours amassing Torah knowledge, but rather it is the holiday of the entire Jewish people, who are busy earning their livelihood.  It comes to teach about the relationship of the entire people to Torah.  The siyyum that is celebrated on Simchat Torah relates to the cycle of weekly Torah readings in the synagogue, which is also a practice directed at man's existential situation, inasmuch as it provides him with a connection to Torah and to the revelation at Mount Sinai.  The weekly Torah reading is not a rabbinic ordination program and does not merely provide intellectual knowledge of the Torah.  Every year we return to that same cycle of reading, without making any changes, because the goal is experiential, and all of Israel are partners in that experience.  Chazal have already commented on the mitzva of bringing children to the hakhel ceremony, that it is to "to reward those who bring them." This should be understood to mean that hakhel involves educational and experiential gain, because even the connection of a child who does not understand what is written in the Torah must be strengthened.  The Tosafot (Chagiga 3a) transferred this principle from the reading of the parasha of hakhel in the Temple to the weekly reading of the Torah in the synagogue, and saw a reason to include children in that as well.  R. Yitzchak Or Zaru'a (II, no. 48) expanded upon this idea:

 

After he has read, the prayer leader goes and sits on a chair and all the children go and kiss the Torah scroll after it is rolled up.  This is a good custom to train and encourage children in mitzvot.  This is similar to what is found in tractate Soferim, which concludes that they would not leave their minor children behind, but rather they would bring them to synagogue in order to encourage them to perform mitzvot.  On the day that Rabbi Elazar ben Azaryahu was established in his position, he opened by saying: "You stand this day all of you before the Lord… your little ones, your wives…" – the men to hear, the women to receive reward for coming, by why do the children come? To reward those who bring them.  From here it has become customary for Jewish girls to come to synagogue in order to reward those who bring them… And also because children come to synagogue, the fear of heaven enters their hearts.  As we have learned: Yehoshua ben Chananya, happy is she who gave birth to him.  And it is explained in the Yerushalmi, in the first chapter of Yebamot: Because his mother would bring him to the study hall so that his ears should cleave to words of Torah, as this is the meaning of the Mishna: "[Yehoshua] ben Chananya, happy is she who gave birth to him."

 

            The underlying message of hakhel, of the mitzva of meditating upon the Torah day and night, and of our joy on the holiday of Simchat Torah is one and the same: the entire community, and not just an elite of scholars, has a portion in Torah study, and all participate in this mitzva alike. 

 

 

[1] "Talmud Torah ve-Yedi'ata," in Le-Or ha-Halakha, pp. 204-212.