Torah Study (12): Great is the Study of Torah (I)
I. Torah Study – The study of Torah can be equated to all the mitzvot, because study leads to practice
The Rambam writes:
None of the other mitzvot can be equated to the study of Torah. Rather, the study of Torah can be equated to all the mitzvot, because study leads to practice. Therefore, study takes precedence over practice in all cases. (Hilkhot Talmud Torah 3:3)
It appears that the Rambam has two sources in mind, which he joins together to form his position. The Rambam combines the Mishna at the beginning of tractate Pe'a with a Talmudic passage from the first chapter of Kiddushin.
In the Mishna in Pe'a we learn:
The following are the things for which a man enjoys the fruits in this world, while the principal remains for him in the World-to-Come: The honoring of one’s father and mother, the practice of loving kindness, and the making of peace between a man and his friend. But the study of the Torah is equal to them all. (Pe'a 1:1)
The Gemara in Kiddushin states:
Rabbi Tarfon and the Elders were once reclining in the upper story of Nitza's house, in Lod, when this question was raised before them: Is study greater, or practice? Rabbi Tarfon answered, saying: Practice is greater. Rabbi Akiba answered, saying: Study is greater. Then they all answered and said: Study is greater, for it leads to practice… And just as learning preceded practice, so does the judgment thereof [in the next world] take precedence over that of practice… And just as the judgment thereof takes precedence over that of practice, so does the reward thereof. (Kiddushin 40b)
This Mishna and Gemara raise several questions. First of all, we must understand the phrase in the Mishna in Pe'a: "But the study of the Torah is equal to all of them." The Mishna concerns the things for which a man enjoys the fruit in this world, while the principal remains for the World-to-Come. What is the meaning of principal and fruit in the context of Torah study?
In addition, we must examine the nature and the substance of the discussion in the passage in Kiddushin. The passage opens with the question: What is greater, study or practice? And it concludes with the paradoxical statement, "Study is greater, for it leads to practice." Later in the passage the wording changes, and instead of saying that study is greater than practice, the Gemara states that "learning preceded practice."
Let us first examine each of these sources separately, and then, with the help of the Rambam's commentary to the Mishna, we will try to join them together.
II. Pe'a - The study of Torah is equal to all of them
The Gemara in Kiddushin discusses the Mishna in Pe'a:
Rava pointed out a contradiction to Rav Nachman. We learned in the Mishna: These are the things the fruit of which man enjoys in this world, while the principal remains for him for the future world: Honoring one's parents, the practice of loving kindness, and making peace between man and his neighbor, while the study of the Torah is greater than all of them.
Now, in reference to honoring one's parents it is written: "That your days may be long, and that it may go well with you." Of the practice of loving kindness it is written: "He that pursues righteousness and loving kindness finds life, righteousness and honor." And Rabbi Abbahu said: We learn "pursuing" from "pursuing." Here it is written: "Seek peace and pursue it;" and elsewhere it is written: "He that pursues righteousness and loving kindness." Of the study of the Law it is written: "For that is your life, and the length of your days."
But with respect to the release of the nest (shilu'ach ha-ken) it is also written: "That it may be well with you, and that you may prolong your days." Then let this too be taught? The Tanna teaches [some] and omits [others]. [What!] the Tanna states: "These are the things," yet you say that he teaches [some] and omits [others]!
Rava said: Rav Idi explained it to me: "Say you of the righteous, when they are good, that they shall eat the fruit of their doings." Is there then a righteous man who is good and a righteous man who is not good? Rather he who is good to Heaven and good to man, he is a righteous man who is good; good to Heaven but not good to man, that is a righteous man who is not good. (Kiddushin 40a)
Rava wishes to clarify the critical factor defining the mitzvot for which a man enjoys the fruits in this world (apart from the principal which remains for him in the World-to-Come). His initial assumption, according to which the matter depends on the phrases mentioned in the Torah with respect to each mitzva, leads him to a dead end.
Rava examines each of the mitzvot mentioned in the Mishna in Pe'a, and finds a Biblical source for each of them, which all state that one who fulfills these mitzvot will be rewarded in this world. But a difficulty arises from the mitzva concerning the release of the nest. Regarding this mitzva, the Torah states: "That it may be well with you, and that you may prolong your days," but nevertheless this mitzva is not listed in the Mishna.
Rava then proposes a new principle. According to this, it is specifically a mitzva through which a person does good for Heaven and for man that earns him fruit in this world, with the principal remaining for him in the World-to-Come. On the other hand, a mitzva through which a person does good only for Heaven, only earns him reward in the World-to-Come.
Accordingly, the Rambam in his Commentary to the Mishna distinguishes between two sets of mitzvot:
All of the mitzvot are divided into two primary groups: some mitzvot are intended for man himself, between him and God, such as tzitzit, tefilin, Shabbat and idol worship; and some mitzvot organize the relationships between people, such as the prohibitions against stealing, overreaching, hatred, and revenge, and the commandment to love one another, and not to deceive one another, and not to stand idly by when another is suffering damage, and to honor parents and Torah scholars who are the parents of all of Israel.
If a person fulfilled the mitzvot that are intended for him himself, with respect to what is between him and his Creator, he has earned himself a reward for this, as God will recompense him for this in the World-to-Come, as we shall explain in chapter Chelek.
And if a person fulfilled the mitzvot that organize the relationships between people, he has earned himself a reward for this in the World-to-Come, and he will also achieve benefit for himself in this world for his good conduct with people. For if he followed in this path, and the other person also followed in this path, he too will derive the same benefit. All mitzvot between man and his fellow are included in the practice of loving kindness. (Commentary to the Mishna, Pe'a 1:1)
According to the Rambam's understanding, the Mishna indicates that the mitzva of Torah study is considered a mitzva with an interpersonal dimension. This is because it involves doing good for people, which causes the person fulfilling the mitzva to receive reward in this world.
This is a reasonable position, because the mitzva of teaching Torah to other people is an essential part of the mitzva of Torah study. This is especially true according to the Rambam, who defines the mitzva of Torah study as follows:
For He has commanded us to study the wisdom of the Torah and to teach it [to others]. (Sefer ha-Mitzvot, positive commandment, no. 11)
However, in his Commentary to the Mishna the Rambam does not mention the mitzva of Torah study. It seems, then, that he does not see the mitzva of Torah study as an interpersonal mitzva, as the essence of the mitzva of Torah study is studying God's wisdom and thereby cleaving to Him.
It seems then, that according to the Rambam, Torah study is included among the mitzvot listed in the Mishna in Pe'a, because it is the source and foundation of all the mitzvot. This being the case, it is also the source of the interpersonal mitzvot, and therefore it is fitting that reward be received for its fulfillment both in this world and in the World-to-Come.
This is what the Mishna means when it says: "And Torah study is equal to all of them." For this reason this mitzva is fit to be included in the list of mitzvot for which a man enjoys the fruits in this world, while the principal remains for him in the World-to-Come.
At the end of his commentary to this Mishna, the Rambam writes:
And when you investigate the matter you will find that Torah study is equal to all of them, for through the study of Torah a person will know all of this, as we explained in the introduction that study leads to practice. (Commentary to the Mishna)
The Rambam explains the Mishna's conclusion as follows: The fulfillment of every mitzva depends on learning its essence and all of its minutiae.
We see then that Torah study, which enables a person to observe and improve the quality of his performance of his mitzvot, plays a part in the fulfillment of each and every mitzva. Therefore, for Torah study as well, a man enjoys the fruits in this world, while the principal remains for him in the World-to-Come.
In the Yerushalmi, the end of our Mishna, which states that "Torah study is equal them all," is explained as follows:
Rabbi Berachya and Rabbi Chiyya of Kfar Dechumin [disagreed]. One said: Even the entire world is not equal to one piece of Torah. And the other said: Even all of the Torah's commandments are not equal to one piece of Torah. Rabbi Tanchuma and Rabbi Yose ben Zimra [disagreed]: One said like this one, and the other said like that one. Rabbi Abba… in the name of Rabbi Acha: One verse states (Mishlei 8:11): "And all the things that may be desired do not compare to it"; and other verse states (Mishlei 3:15): "And all the things You desire are not to be compared to her." "The things that may be desired – these are precious stones and pearls. "The things You desire" – these are words of Torah, as it is written (Yirmeyahu 9:23): "For in these things I delight, says the Lord." (Yerushalmi, Pe'a 1:1)
The two explanations in the Yerushalmi offer two different readings of the Mishna.
According to one explanation, all of the good things in this world do not equal the importance and value of the mitzva of Torah study. Regarding this it is stated: "All the things that may be desired do not compare to it." That is to say, even all the pearls and precious stones are not equal to one piece of Torah.
According to this explanation, the Mishna comes to teach us that despite the importance of these mitzvot, for the fulfillment of which a man enjoys the fruits in this world, while the principal remains for him in the World-to-Come, they do not compare to the mitzva of Torah study. Even one piece of Torah is worth more than all the pleasures of this world.
According to this, there is no point in discussing the reward for the mitzva of Torah study, since the delight that it involves is above all else, wholly disproportionate to all other pleasures in our world.
According to the second explanation, all of the mitzvot of the Torah are not equal to the mitzva of Torah study. Therefore, it is clear that the reward for the mitzva of Torah, the most important mitzva, will be no less than the reward for other mitzvot. It too will earn those who fulfill it enjoyment of its fruits in this world, and of the principal in the World-to-Come.
III. The Passage in Kiddushin – Study or Practice
The Sages who gathered in the upper story of Nitza's house in Lod raised the question of what is greater – Torah study or practice. This question itself is not sufficiently clear and requires consideration.
It is possible that the question relates to the matter of precedence. If a person has the possibility either to study Torah or to perform a different mitzva, should he choose Torah study or performance of the mitzva?
Clearly a person is obligated to perform all of the mitzvot and cannot immerse himself exclusively in Torah study. The Yerushalmi has this to say about a person who engages solely in study:
One who learns in order to do, and not one who learns not in order to do, for one who learns in order to do, it would have been better for him had he not been created. Rabbi Yochanan said: One who learns not in order to do, it would have been better for him, had the after-birth in which he lay been turned over his face, and he had not emerged into the world. (Yerushalmi, Berakhot 1:2)
We are forced then to say that we are dealing here with a mitzva whose time is not limited, or with a mitzva that is not a personal obligation. For example, a mitzva involving charitable work, regarding which a person must decide whether to occupy himself with Torah study or the performance of some good deed. The question raised by the Sages is whether study or practice takes precedence.
The Meiri explains the matter as follows:
If one had the opportunity to perform a mitzva whose time was not limited, and he needs to study Torah, it is fitting to show preference to Torah study over the mitzva. (Beit ha-Bechira, Kiddushin 40b)
The Tosafot put forward a similar understanding:
There are those who explain that if a person has not yet studied Torah, and he comes to consult about whether he should first study or perform some deed, we tell him to study first, because an ignorant person cannot be pious. But for a person who has already studied Torah, practice is better than study. (Tosafot, Kiddushin 40b, s.v. Talmud)
The Tosafot distinguish between two periods in a person's life; his training period and his adult life. During the training period, during which time a person studies, develops and builds his spiritual world, preference should be given to Torah study, because "an ignorant person cannot be pious." In his adult years, however, after he has already studied and become a Torah scholar, preference should be given to practice.
These positions seem to indicate that the most important thing is practice. But since an ignorant person cannot truly be pious, he is first given the opportunity to study. Therefore, during one's adult years, preference should be given to practice. According to this explanation, we understand the words of Rashi at the end of the first chapter of Bava Kama (17a, s.v. meivi), who writes that practice is greater than study.
Even if we understand study as preparation for practice, it can serve as such preparation in two ways: directly or indirectly.
Study can be seen as direct preparation when that study broadens the person's knowledge of the minutiae of a specific law and allows him to see the overall framework of the practice at hand. In this way, the practice becomes more perfect both quantitatively and qualitatively, with greater concern for the details of the practice and the accompanying intentions.
However, study can be seen as preparation not only for a specific action, and not only directly through the study of the details of some particular practice. Sometimes, the general study of Torah can enrich a person and develop within him a more profound connection to the word of God and to His commandments. A person who is regularly occupied in Torah study, in various and varied areas (including those that are not connected to any specific actions), fashions his personality and his world of Divine service in the deepest way. The personality that he fashions reflects on the world of practice, the world of mitzvot.
In this sense the study that leads to practice is not just the study of laws connected to various actions. Even occupation with matters that do not involve halakha or that do not relate directly to practice, e.g., pure scholarship that enriches a person's spiritual world, are included in Torah study that leads to practice.
There is room, however, to see the dilemma raised by the Sages as touching upon an even more fundamental question: What is the highest value in a person's life, study or practice? The question of precedence is merely a ramification of the more fundamental and essential issue.
This is what appears in the Rambam’s words in Hilkhot Talmud Torah:
None of the other mitzvot can be equated to the study of Torah. Rather, the study of Torah can be equated to all the mitzvot, because study leads to action. Therefore, study takes precedence over action in all cases.
The Rambam emphasizes that the mitzva of Torah study can be equated to all the mitzvot. From this it would appear that the value of Torah study is greater than that of all the other mitzvot. We must, however, understand the Rambam's addition afterwards, that "study takes precedence over deed," which is the conclusion of the Sages.
The Ritva writes:
What this means is that study includes both of them, for it itself involves a practice which is a mitzva that leads to practice. (Kiddushin 40, s.v. na'aneh.)
That is to say, the mitzva of Torah study has a double value: It is itself a mitzva, and an especially precious mitzva, since it leads to practice.
The Ritva does not clarify whether study takes precedence over other actions as an action in its own right, or whether it takes precedence because it leads to other practices. However, from the words of the Rambam cited earlier, it would appear that the value of Torah study in its own right is greater than that of other actions.
Thus writes Rav Kook in his introduction to Shabbat ha-Aretz:
The study of Torah, even though it leads to the practice of all the mitzvot – nevertheless, God forbid that we should say that the value of Torah lies exclusively in the fact that it prepares for the practice of the mitzvot. Rather it is high and important in its sanctity in its own right, to the point that even when one studies material that cannot be observed at all, there is no measure to the virtue of that study.
And furthermore, it is greater in some respects than study which can be fulfilled in practice, as that too is considered action, as we said (Menachot 110a): "Whoever occupies himself with the study of the laws of the sin-offering is as though he were offering a sin-offering, and whoever occupies himself with the study of the laws of the guilt-offering is as though he were offering a guilt-offering." There is no measure of the virtue of studying matters that have no connection to practical concerns, for the study itself is supreme. But included in Torah's great virtue is the fact that it leads to practice. (Shabbat ha-Aretz, Introduction, chapter 15)
Earlier we brought the passage from the Yerushalmi (Pe'a 1:1), according to which "even all of the Torah's commandments are not equal to one piece of Torah." This emphasizes the virtue of Torah study which exceeds that of all actions, because the essence of the mitzva of Torah study is man's cleaving to the word of God and His wisdom which descended into this world.
Man is commanded to occupy himself with God's word and wisdom on a frequent basis, in order to connect his soul to its source. It is man's study and his effort in understanding the word of God in the Torah that connect the human mind to Divine wisdom. As the Zohar states (Zohar, Vayikra, Acharei Mot, 73a-b): "Israel, the Torah, and the Holy One, blessed be He, are all one."
In this way we can understand the Rambam’s words about the greatness and importance of the mitzva of Torah study in relation to all the mitzvot of the Torah. The extra virtue of Torah study is that it leads to practice. Not only in the sense of knowing the details of the law, but in the feelings of cleaving and connection to God through all of God's mitzvot. Therefore Torah study takes precedence over practice.
These are the very words of Rabbi Meir in chapter Kinyan Torah:
Rabbi Meir says: Whoever occupies himself with the Torah for its own sake, acquires by merit many things, and what is more, the whole of the world is worthwhile for his sake. He is called a friend, a beloved one, that loves the All-present, one that loves [his fellow-] creatures, one that gladdens God, one that gladdens man; and it [i.e., the Torah] clothes him with meekness and fear, and fits him to be righteous, pious, upright and faithful; it also keeps him far from sin, ands brings him near to merit; and men benefit from him by way of counsel, sound knowledge, understanding and strength, as it is stated: "Counsel is mine and sound wisdom; I am understanding, power is mine."
And it gives him sovereignty and dominion, and [the ability to be] searching in judgment; and they reveal to him the secret meanings of the Torah, and he is made as a well that ever gathers force, and like a stream that never ceases; and he becomes modest, long-suffering and forgiving of insult towards himself; and it makes him great, and exalts him above all the works [of God]. (Avot 6:2
Translated by David Strauss
 See Kesef Mishneh, ad loc.
 See Shabbat 127a: Rav Yehuda bar Shila said in the name of Rabbi Assi who said in the name of Rabbi Yochanan: There are six things, the fruit of which man eats in this world, while the principal remains for him for the World-to-Come, namely: Hospitality to wayfarers, visiting the sick, early attendance at the study hall, rearing one's sons to the study of Torah, and judging one's neighbor in the scale of merit.