Shiur #27: Torah Study (1)

  • Harav Baruch Gigi


What Is "The Fundamental Principle Upon Which Everything is Based"?

            Having dealt extensively with the issue of loving God and all that stems from it, let us now consider the most important mitzva – the mitzva of Torah study. Through the mitzva of Torah study we connect ourselves to God in the deepest and most fundamental way, as will be explained in our discussion below.

The commandment of Torah study stands at the heart of the first section of Keri'at Shema, and features prominently in the second section as well.

The Rambam writes:

We begin with the section of "Hear O Israel" since it contains [the concept of] the oneness of God, [the commandment of] loving Him and the study of Torah, this being the fundamental principle upon which everything is based. (Hilkhot Keri'at Shema 1:2)

Ostensibly, "the fundamental principle upon which everything is based" is "the study of Torah." Thus, Torah study is the key to acquiring the foundations of the service of God, included recognizing the oneness of God and loving Him.

In previous shiurim, in the course of our discussion of the mitzva of recognizing God's oneness, we cited the words of the Rambam in Hilkhot Yesodei ha-Torah, which indicate that "the fundamental principle upon which everything is based" is not Torah study, but rather knowing God and recognizing His oneness:

This entity is the God of the world and the Lord of the entire earth. He controls the sphere with infinite and unbounded power. This power [exists] without interruption, because the revolving of the sphere would be impossible without someone causing it. [It is] He, blessed be He, who causes it to revolve without a hand or any [other] corporeal dimension.

The knowledge of this concept is a positive commandment, as is stated (Shemot 20:2): "I am the Lord, your God." Anyone who presumes that there is another god transgresses a negative commandment, as it is stated (Shemot 20:3): "You shall have no other gods before Me," and denies a fundamental principle [of faith], because this is the fundamental principle upon which everything is based. (Yesodei ha-Torah 1:5-6)

We see then that in one place the Rambam presents Torah study as "the fundamental principle," while in another place he assigns that title to knowing God and recognizing His oneness. It is difficult to argue that the Rambam wished to bestow this title upon two different things, and therefore it seems that his words must be understood differently: Recognizing God's oneness is the fundamental principle upon which everything is based, but recognizing God's oneness includes loving God and studying His Torah. Since the mitzva of recognizing God's oneness includes the obligation to know Him, and since there can be no full knowledge of God without love or without Torah study, this must be part of the obligation of recognizing God's oneness.

In addition, it can be argued that the Rambam is being deliberately ambiguous, intentionally not determining whether the "fundamental principle" is recognizing God's oneness or Torah study.

According to this, there are two fundamental perspectives. On the one hand, man's basic duty in this world is to know God; his highest ambition should be to attain knowledge of God and recognition of His oneness. In accordance with this, the Rambam formulated his rulings in Hilkhot Yesodei ha-Torah[1] and Hilkhot Talmud Torah. It is clear, however, that the path which a person must take in order to reach this point passes through Torah study, which is the fundamental principle which brings a person to the knowledge of God.

Therefore, when we explain the value and virtue of Torah study, we must begin by examining the roots of the mitzva of serving God.

The Rambam writes in his Sefer ha-Mitzvot as follows:

The fifth mitzva is that we are commanded to serve God. This commandment is repeated many times: "And you shall serve the Lord, your God" (Shemot 23:25); "And you shall serve Him" (Devarim 13:5); "And to serve Him" (Devarim 11:13). Although this commandment is of a general nature, as explained in the Fourth Principle, [and apparently should not be included in the count of the 613 mitzvot,] nevertheless it has a specific quality, since it is the commandment to pray. The Sifre says: "The verse: 'And to serve Him,' means prayer." The Sages also said: "The verse: 'And to serve Him,' means Torah study.”

Serving God includes all of the commandments, as is explicitly stated in Scripture:

And it shall come to pass, if you hearken diligently to My commandments which I command you this day, to love the Lord your God, and to serve Him with all your heart and with all your soul. (Devarim 11:13)

One can love God and serve Him through observance of all of His commandments. Two of the six hundred and thirteen commandments, however, stand out, in that they are referred to by a term that embraces all six hundred and thirteen commandments. Both the mitzva of prayer and the mitzva of Torah study are called "service"; He is to be served through prayer, and He is to be served through Torah study.[2]

What is more, the Rambam deals with a difficulty concerning the inclusion of the mitzva of serving God in the count of the 613 mitzvot, seeing that it is a mitzva of a general nature, which is generally not included in the count. Therefore, the Rambam writes that this commandment is twofold: it includes the general command of the entirety of man's service of God, and a specific command regarding the mitzva of prayer.[3]

Here a question may be raised: How can the same verse speak of a general command, that is, the observance of each and every one of the six hundred and thirteen commandments, and at the same time cast upon us a specific mitzva, that is, prayer?

We will try to answer this question by considering the general mitzva of serving God, and by identifying the various layers of this mitzva.

II. Mitzvot and Sanctifying Oneself With That Which Is Permitted

The most basic level of serving God involves observance of the mitzvot. The Gemara says as follows:

Rav Simlai expounded: Six hundred and thirteen mitzvot were communicated to Moshe, three hundred and sixty-five negative commandments, corresponding to the number of solar days [in the year], and two hundred and forty-eight positive commandments, corresponding to the number of the members of man's body. Rav Hamnuna said: What is the text for this? It is: "Moshe commanded us Torah, an inheritance of the congregation of Yaakov" (Devarim 33:4), "Torah" being in letter-value, equal to six hundred and eleven, "I am" and "You shall have no [other Gods]" [not being reckoned, because] we heard them from the mouth of the Mighty One. (Makkot 23b-24a)

            The obligation to obey all of God's commandments, to perform all of the positive mitzvot and refrain from violating any of the negative mitzvot, is the first and most fundamental thing required of a person.

            Even with regard to matters that were not explicitly commanded by God, it falls upon a person to do that which is right and good – to "sanctify himself with that which is permitted to him." The obligation to serve God demands that one establish boundaries even in cases which are permitted according to the letter of the law.

On the verse, "You shall be holy for I am holy" (Vayikra 19:2), the Ramban makes some very fundamental comments:

Therefore, after having listed the matters which He prohibited altogether, Scripture followed these up by a general command that we practice moderation even in matters which are permitted, such as the following. One should minimize sexual intercourse… and he should not engage in it except as required in fulfillment of the commandment thereof. He should also train himself in self-restraint by only drinking wine in small amounts, just as Scripture calls a Nazirite "holy" for abstaining from wine and strong drink, and he should remember the evils which the Torah mentioned as possible results of drinking wine as in the cases of Noah and Lot…. Likewise he should guard his mouth and tongue from being defiled by excessive food and by lewd talk, in the matter that Scripture states: "And every mouth speaks wantonness" (Yeshaya 9:16). And he should purify himself in this respect until he reaches the degree known as complete self-restraint, as the Rabbis said concerning Rabbi Chiyya, that never in his life did he engage in unnecessary talk. It is with reference to these and similar matters that this general commandment "You shall be holy" is concerned, after He had enumerated all individual deeds which are strictly forbidden, so that cleanliness of hands and body are also included in this precept, just like the Rabbis said (Berakhot 53b): "'And you shall sanctify yourselves' - this refers to the washing of hands before meals; 'And be you holy' - this refers to the washing of hands after meals; 'For I am holy' - this alludes to the spiced oil [with which they used to rub their hands after a meal]." For although this washing and perfuming of the hands are commandments of Rabbinic origin, Scripture's main intention is to warn us of such matters, that we should be physically clean and ritually pure, and separated from the common people who soil themselves with luxuries and unseemly things. And such is the way of the Torah that after it lists certain specific prohibitions, it includes them all in a general precept. Thus after detailing laws of warning regarding all business dealings between people, such as not to steal or rob or to wrong one another, and other similar prohibitions, He said in general: "And you shall do that which is right and good" (Devarim 6:18), thus including in a positive commandment the duty of doing that which is right and of agreeing to a compromise [when not to do so would be inequitable]; as well as all requirements to act beyond the line of justice for the sake of pleasing one's fellow man, as I will explain when I reach there with the will of the Holy One, blessed be He. Similarly in the case of Shabbat, He prohibited the performance of certain classes of work by means of a negative commandment, and He included painstaking labors under a general positive commandment, as it is said: "But on the seventh day you shall rest" (Vayikra 23:24). I will yet explain this, with the help of God. (Ramban, Vayikra 19:2)

The Ramban recognizes a command concerning a system-wide broadening of perspective in three areas:

  1. "You shall be holy." This area relates primarily to practices concerning the relationship between man and God and placing limits on the pleasures that a person may enjoy in this world.
  1. "And you shall do what is right and good." This area relates primarily to the way a person must conduct himself vis-à-vis his surrounding society.
  1. The mitzva to rest on Shabbat and festivals. In this case the objective is to preserve the character of the day as a day of rest from all toil and exertion.

III. "With All Your Heart and With All Your Soul"

The Torah states:

And it shall come to pass, if you hearken diligently to My commandments… and serve Him with all your heart and with all your soul. (Devarim 11:13)

            In this verse the demand made of man is much broader than the mere requirement to hearken to and perform God's mitzvot. In addition to the practical observance of the mitzvot, a person is also required to reach a certain level in his actions: "With all your heart and with all your soul."

The Ramban explains this thoroughly in his strictures to the Rambam's Sefer ha-Mitzvot:

The gist of the verse, "And to serve Him with all your heart," is a positive commandment that our service of God be with all our heart, that is to say, with full and favorable intention [to perform the service] for His sake and with no evil thoughts, and that we not perform the mitzvot without intention or based on a doubt that perhaps they will yield some benefit. (Ramban's strictures to the Rambam's Sefer ha-Mitzvot, positive commandment no. 5)

The Ramban presents a person who wishes to serve God with two requirements:

  1. Performance of the mitzvot with full and perfect intention: Fulfilling the mitzvot not only as on obligation on one's physical actions, but also including the intention of the heart.
  1. Belief in the mitzvot: Performing the mitzvot based on a belief in them and in the benefit that they will bring, and not from a position of uncertainty ("even if it doesn't help, it can't hurt”). Since it is God who commanded them, "the ordinances of the Lord are true, they are righteous altogether."[4]

Later in this section, the Ramban writes:

These are general mitzvot. But since He commanded them in the verse, "with all your heart," adding new content that our hearts be completely directed specifically at Him when doing the mitzvot, as I have explained, it is possible that this mitzva is included in the count of 248 positive commandments. For this reason, according to him [the Rambam], the general mitzvot are not counted, because their specifics were already counted; just as we count a mitzva that is repeated twice or three times as only one mitzva, so too we do count a mitzva that is repeated in a general mitzva only once. However, if the repetition adds something new that is fit to be counted, it is counted. (ibid.)

The Ramban is in doubt whether to include the mitzva of serving God in the count of the 613 commandments, despite the fact that it is a general commandment. The reason to include it is that it introduces a novel dimension, that is, serving God with all one's heart and with all one's soul. For this reason he is inclined to count the service of God as a separate mitzva.

The Rambam, on the other hand, does not count the general mitzva of serving God, but rather the specific mitzva of prayer. It is possible that he maintains that the quality of observance – with all one's heart – is not new, but rather included in the very obligation to observe the mitzva.

IV. "In All Your Ways Acknowledge Him"

The highest level of serving God concentrates all human activities and all the spiritual forces around one axis, one objective: "In all your ways acknowledge Him" (Mishlei 3:6). "And let all your actions be done for the sake of God" (Avot 2:12). The service of God should not be limited to the performance of mitzvot, or to actions relating to mitzvot. Rather, one should direct all of his actions, occupations, studies and utterances towards cleaving to God.

The Rambam elaborates on this idea in his introduction to Tractate Avot; Eight Chapters:

As we have explained in the preceding chapter, it is the duty of man to subordinate all of the faculties of his soul to his reason. He must keep his mind's eye fixed constantly upon one goal, namely, the attainment of the knowledge of God, as far as it is possible for mortal man to know him. Consequently, one must adjust all his actions, his whole conduct, and even his very words, so that they lead to this goal, in order that none of his deeds are aimless, thus hinder the attainment of that end. So, his only design in eating, drinking, cohabiting, sleeping, waking, moving about and resting should be the preservation of bodily health, while this in turn, is necessary so that the soul and its agencies may be in sound and perfect condition, so that he may readily acquire wisdom, and gain moral and intellectual virtues, all to the end that he may reach the highest goal of his endeavors….

Know that to live according to this standard is to arrive at a very high degree of perfection, which, due to the difficulty of attainment, only a few, after long and continuous perseverance on the paths of virtue, have succeeded in reaching. If there is a man who has accomplished this – that is, one who exerts all the faculties of his soul, and directs them toward the sole ideal of comprehending God, using all his powers of mind and body, be they great or small, for the attainment of that which leads directly or indirectly to virtue – I would place him in a rank as high as the prophets. Such a man, before he does a single act or deed, considers and reflects whether or not it will bring him to that goal, and if it will, then, and only then, does he do it.

Such striving does the Almighty require of us, according to the words: "You shall love the Lord your God with all of your heart, and with all of your soul, and with all of your might," that is, with all of the faculties of your soul, each faculty having as its sole ideal the love of God. The prophets, similarly, urge us on in saying: "In all your ways know Him," in commenting upon which the Sages said: "Even as regards a transgression" (Berakhot 63a), meaning thereby that your goal for every action should be the truth, even though it may, from a certain point of view, be a transgression. The Sages of blessed memory, too, summed up this idea so concisely, while also elucidating the whole matter so thoroughly, that when one considers the brevity with which they expressed this great and mighty thought in its entirety, about which others have written whole books and yet have not succeeded in adequately explaining it, one truly recognizes that the Rabbis undoubtedly spoke through Divine inspiration. This saying is found among their precepts, and is: "Let all your actions be done for the sake of God."  (Eight Chapters, chapter 5)

As we have already noted, the ultimate goal is knowing God as much as possible, within the limits of human ability. The path that one must follow in order to reach this goal involves performing all of one's actions for the sake of God.

V. Prayer

After we have reached this level of serving God, which is based on the performance of all of one's actions for the sake of God, we can also understand the mitzva of prayer. The foundation of the mitzva of prayer, as it is reflected in the teachings of the Rambam, is man's standing before God.

At the beginning of his Hilkhot Tefila, the Rambam sets down the principle of prayer according to Torah law. The Rambam asserts that the mitzva of prayer allows man to meet God, but does not determine the content, the time, or the quantity of this meeting. In other words, these details are all left to the person, in accordance with his will, his needs and his aspirations.

Nevertheless, the Rambam sets forth the general framework of prayer in three points.

A. The frequency of the obligation: "It is a positive Torah commandment to pray every day, as it is stated: 'You shall serve the Lord, your God'" (Hilkhot Tefila 1:1).

B. The structure of prayer:[5] "This commandment obligates each person to offer supplication and prayer every day and to utter praises of the Holy One, blessed be He; then petition for all his needs with requests and supplications; and finally, give praise and thanks to God for the goodness that He has bestowed upon him; each one according to his own ability." (Hilkhot Tefila 1:2)

C. Direction of prayer: "Everyone would pray facing the Holy Temple, wherever he might be." (Hilkhot Tefila 1:3)

These principles imply that the most important aspect of prayer is the daily nature of turning to God. The precise content of one's prayers are left to the discretion and mood of each individual. The essence of prayer lies in one's standing before God and in appearing before Him every day. This is the basis for serving God, the concentration of all of a person's desires and aspirations toward God.

Daily prayer directs a person to stand before God not only while actually engaged in prayer, but also throughout the day and in the course of the full range of his activities.

In the next shiur, we will, with God's help, reach the main point of how Torah study fits into this system of serving God.


(Translated by David Strauss)


[1] See Rambam, Hilkhot Yesodei ha-Torah 4:13; 7:1; Hilkhot Talmud Torah 1:12. See also Hilkhot Teshuva 10:6, and Radak.

[2] For our purposes, the question whether we are dealing here with a Tannaitic dispute (the discussion of what is service of the heart, prayer or Torah study), or whether both are included and are referred to as service, is of no significance. In any event we do not find any other mitzva, apart from these two, that are designated as service of God. The mitzva of the Divine service in the Temple is not directly connected to our discussion, but we will relate to it as well; see below.

[3] This difficulty does not exist with respect to the mitzva of Torah study, because the particular mitzva of Torah study is derived from a different verse: "And you shall teach them to your children." However, an explanation is still needed as to how Torah study is a focused form of the mitzva of serving God, despite the fact that the directive to serve God is essentially an all-embracing command.

[4] Thus it is explicitly stated in the Torah: "And the Lord commanded us to do all these statutes, to fear the Lord our God, for our good always, that He might preserve us alive, as it is at this day. And it shall be accounted virtue in us, if we take care to do all these commandments before the Lord our God, as He has commanded us" (Devarim 6:24-25).

[5] It should be noted that the reference here is only to thefundamental structure of the essence of prayer, which includes praise, supplication and thanksgiving, which the Gemara derives from biblical verses. No limitation is placed on the content of a person's prayers, as that is left entirely to the individual's discretion.