Shiur #28: Studying Torah and Family Responsibility

  • Rav Yitzchak Blau

 

TALMUDIC AGGADA

By Rav Yitzchak Blau

 

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Dedicated by the Wise and Etshalom families
in memory of Rabbi Aaron M. Wise, whose yahrzeit is 21 Tamuz.
Y'hi Zikhro Barukh.

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In memory of our beloved father and grandfather,
Fred Stone, Ya'acov Ben Yitzchak,
whose yahrzeit will be Sunday 25 Tammuz, July 15th.
Ellen, Stanley, Jacob Chaya, Zack, Yael, Ezra, Yoni, Eliana, and Gabi Stone.

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Shiur 28: Studying Torah and Family Responsibility

 

 

Towards the end of R. Shimon bar Yochai’s wedding party, R. Chanania ben Chakhinai was traveling to study.  He (R. Shimon) said to him: “Wait for me until I can come with you.”  He did not wait for him.  He went and learned for twelve years.  By the time he returned, the streets of the city had changed, and he could not find his way home.  He went and sat on the river bank.  He heard people calling: “Daughter of Chakhinai, daughter of Chakhinai, fill your pitcher and go.”  He said:  “This must be my daughter.”  He followed her.  His wife was sitting and kneading dough.  She raised her eyes and saw him.  Her heart was shocked and her spirit departed.  He said: “Master of the universe, is this the reward for this poor woman?”  He asked for mercy, and she was revived.

 

R. Chama bar Bisa went and sat for twelve years in the beit midrash (study hall).  When he returned home, he said; “I will not do as the son of Chakhinai did.”  He went and sat in the beit midrash.  He sent a note home.  R. Oshaya, his son, came to the beit midrash, sat before him, and asked him halakhic questions.  He saw that the boy’s learning was very sharp and became depressed.  He said: “If I had been here, I would have a child like this.”  He went home.  His son came in, and he (the father) stood up.  He thought that the boy had come to ask him more questions.  His wife said to him: “Does a father stand up before his son?”  Rami bar Hama said about him: “‘And the threefold cord will not quickly be torn’ (Kohelet 4:12) – this refers to R. Oshaya the son of R. Chama bar Bisa.”  (Ketubot 62b)

 

            Do these stories portray extended time away from home for the sake of Torah study positively or negatively?  R. Yosef Chayyim, in his Ben Yehoyada, chooses the former interpretation. He argues that the first story reveals R. Chanania’s great dedication to Torah.  He refuses to wait for R. Shimon, because he cannot stand even a minor delay in his quest for Torah knowledge.  Therefore, he merits the swift miracle of his wife’s revival.  We could read the second tale as a success story as well; despite his father’s absence, R. Oshaya has become a Talmudic prodigy.

 

            Prof. Yonah Frankel offers the opposite reading in his Iyunim be-Olamo ha-Ruchani shel Sippur haAggada (pp. 100-115; the next few paragraphs are indebted to his analysis).  Several clues in these stories confirm Prof. Frankel’s interpretation.  The townspeople refer to R. Chanania’s daughter as the child of Chakhinai (the grandfather).  An absent father has been away for so long that he played no role in his daughter’s upbringing.  Naturally, the townspeople start to relate to the only paternal figure present as her father.

  

            R. Chanania’s inability to seamlessly rejoin the family life also supports Prof. Frankel’s reading.  He cannot simply approach his daughter after a long hiatus; he must follow her home to first speak with his wife.  The reunion with his wife also fails because her heart cannot handle the shock at his sudden return.  The changes in the city’s infrastructure take on powerful symbolic meaning.  After twelve years away, you cannot simply go home again.  His lack of willingness to wait for R. Shimon also strikes a symbolic chord.  R. Chanania does not appreciate the domestic responsibility – the seven days of celebration following the wedding – which delays R. Shimon.

 

            Looking at parallel versions of aggadic and midrashic stories often proves instructive.  Another version of the R. Chanania story appears in Vayikra Rabba (21:8).  That account contrasts the actions of R. Chanania with his peer in the beit midrash, R. Shimon bar Yochai.  R. Shimon sends letters home from the yeshiva, whereas R. Chanania does not.   Even when R. Chanania’s wife requests that he come home to help marry off their daughter, he does not leave until his rebbe, R. Akiva, sends him home.  That midrash explicitly portrays R. Chanania in a negative light.  While one could distinguish between that midrash and the version in Ketubot, Prof. Frankel’s arguments provide a solid basis for seeing R. Chanania negatively in both accounts.

 

            What about the second story translated above?  R. Chama consciously attempts to avoid the mistakes of R. Chanania.  Rather than shock his wife with a sudden reappearance, he first goes to the study hall and lets his wife know that he has returned.  However, his plan does not truly address the issue.  His strategy prevents his wife from fainting, but does it compensate for the lost years with family?  R. Chama does not recognize his own son.  Even though the boy has flourished academically without a father present, R. Chama has played no role in his child’s education.  The episodes at the study hall and at home indicate that he cannot easily step back into the fatherly role.

 

            Immediately following these two stories, the Talmud reports the story of R. Akiva leaving his home for a very long period of learning.  The gemara clearly endorses R. Akiva’s actions, and that story has been cited to bolster dedication to Torah for married men.  Including the preceding stories in our educational discussion introduces the need to balance Torah study with strong commitment and devotion to family.

 

            What distinguishes R. Akiva’s successful time away from home from the difficulties of other scholars?  In R. Akiva’s case, the initiative for his study comes from his wife.  She marries him on condition that he become learned, and he returns to the study hall when he overhears her wish that he continue his studies.  Presumably, a husband has more leeway to sacrifice time with his family to pursue scholarship when he does so, at least partially, in order to please his wife.  I should also note that the gemara’s description of two sets of twelve years is likely an exaggeration.  The gemara often uses the numbers twelve and twenty-four to symbolize a large amount (for some examples, see Torat Chayyim Bava Metzia 84a) 

      

            Perhaps the juxtaposition of the R. Akiva episode with the other stories highlights the need to find an appropriate balance between work or study pursuits and family life.   On the one hand, it is quite irresponsible to avoid domestic duties and focus solely on one’s professional or scholarly goals.  Beyond the question of responsibility, family provides a healthy perspective on the work place.  When a mechanekh starts to take his job too seriously, a walk to the park with his eight-year-old daughter serves as an important reminder that other things also matter in life.  Teachers and students need to leave the study hall, both in order to be integral parts of their families, and in order to realize that life provides other rewards beyond one’s profession (especially during rougher weeks in the beit midrash.)

 

               Conversely, a parent dare not define their existence solely in terms of family.  A mother who says that her entire life is to be of service to her children is not doing them a favor.  It likely means that she will overly interfere in their lives and not allow them to function independently.  Since her identity is solely based on interaction with her children, she can never take a step back when necessary.  It is far healthier for her to have her own jobs, pursuits, and hobbies and also help children and grandchildren when appropriate.  This balance enables her to experience a sense of self-worth beyond her role as the family matriarch.

 

            Torah study, personal achievement, and family life are all important and indispensable goals.  In the ideal situation, these various aspirations complement one another more than they conflict.