Yesterday, we noted the various explanations presented by the Gemara in Masekhet Berakhot (63b) for the phrase, “Haskeit u-shma” – “Pay heed and listen” –which Moshe and the kohanim proclaim to Benei Yisrael in Parashat Ki-Tavo (27:9). One explanation given is that the word “haskeit” stems from the word “kat,” which means “group,” and thus Moshe here admonishes Benei Yisrael that the process of “shema” – of learning and understanding Torah – must be done in groups. As the Gemara comments, “Torah can be acquired only in a group.”
Elaborating on this concept, the Gemara proceeds to cite a startling statement in the name of Rabbi Yossi ben Rabbi Chanina: “A sword shall fall upon the…Torah scholars who sit in solitude and involve themselves in Torah… Not only that, but they are sinners.” Rabbi Yossi’s remark makes it clear that learning independently is not only imperfect, and less than ideal, but is also “sinful,” to the point where accomplished scholars are worthy of punishment if they study alone.
How might we understand the Gemara’s comment? While we can certainly recognize and appreciate the value and importance of learning in groups, of exposure to different opinions, ways of thinking, and analytical styles, what makes independent learning “sinful”?
Rav Yehuda Leib Ginsburg, in his Yalkut Yehuda, explains that since Torah is supposed to be studied in groups, one who studies independently does not study properly, and thus his learning does not qualify as valid study. As such, the scholar essentially wastes his time. If one does not study Torah in the manner prescribed by the Torah, then his involvement in learning does not fulfill the mitzva of Torah study, and thus he is guilty of the grievous sin of wasting time. Rav Ginsburg makes the remarkable statement that just as Chazal considered gamblers sinful because “they do not involve themselves in settling the world,” as they do not engage in constructive work that serves mankind, those who learn Torah improperly are considered “sinful” for the same reason. Once their learning loses its value, they are guilty of wasting time rather than engaging in meaningful and productive pursuits. Chazal felt so strongly about the importance of group study, of scholars exposing themselves to different viewpoints and perspectives as an integral part of the talmud Torah process, that they considered exclusively private Torah study a waste of time, and deemed such scholarly pursuits worthless and bereft of value.