Shiur #35: Torah Study (9) Torah Study and Derekh Eretz (Part III)

  • Harav Baruch Gigi

I. The Balance According to Rav Moshe Feinstein

            In the previous shiurim we dealt with the opinions of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and Rabbi Yishmael, and the various ways to understand them. We surveyed various approaches to the relationship between uninterrupted Torah study and a worldly occupation.

            In this shiur we will present another perspective, in light of the words of Rav Moshe Feinstein in one of his responsa. In this responsum, Rav Feinstein discusses the question of whether a person is obligated to restrict his worldly occupation to the barest minimum that would satisfy the needs of his family, so that he is able to occupy himself with Torah study as much as possible.

            We will begin by citing Rav Feinstein's words and analyzing them. These words will serve as the basis for a broader approach that seeks a more harmonious perspective to life. We will then suggest a more balanced approach to the obligations upon a person in this world.

            Rav Feinstein writes as follows:

Since every individual requires  food, drink, clothing and shelter, there are certain hours during the day that one is exempt from [Torah] study, and also certain times that one is forbidden to study [Torah]. During the time that one must work for food, drink and shelter, as is necessary, for his own physical maintenance, and for a married person, also for his wife and children, he is forbidden to study [Torah]. But he is permitted to work enough to be able to afford food that is good for his health, like meat and milk products, and to enjoy a little pleasure, which also broadens a man's heart, and to attain everything that his wife and minor children need and desire, to the standard of average people. But more than this is forbidden, for then he transgresses the positive commandment to study Torah…

And if he had land, he would not be permitted to work it more than what is necessary for his own maintenance and for the maintenance of the members of his household, as they did in the generation of King Chizkiyahu, as is stated in the Gemara. And regarding that generation it says: "And it shall come to pass in that day, that every place, where there were a thousand vines worth a thousand silver shekels, shall even be for briers and thorns" (Yeshaya 7:23). Even though a thousand vines are sold for a thousand silver shekels [for they are expensive as there are not many vineyards; Rashi], they will be for briers and thorns [for they allow them to go to ruin, so that they may occupy themselves in Torah study]. It turns out that the generation of Chizkiyahu acted in accordance with the Torah's obligation.

But in all the [other] generations, even the better ones, such as the generations of David and Shlomo, all of Israel did not properly fulfill the obligation of Torah study, and there were many among them who occupied themselves with amassing wealth. But in the days of Chizkiyahu all of Israel occupied themselves exclusively with Torah, as is stated in Sanhedrin 94b. And the novelty of Chizkiyahu's generation was only that all of Israel acted in accordance with the Torah obligation concerning the mitzva of Torah study. For in all the generations, even those of the other righteous kings, there were people who occupied themselves with amassing silver and gold, whereas in the generation of Chizkiyahu, all of Israel occupied themselves with Torah.

But the Rambam does not speak about this in terms of a prohibition, or write that one is forbidden to engage in work beyond what is necessary for his own expenses, and those of his wife and his household, in the manner of the expenses of average people. He does not say that anyone who removes his time from Torah study more than this transgresses the positive commandment to study Torah and the negative commandment regarding forgetting it.

Rather he speaks in terms of the importance [of Torah study] in Hilkhot Talmud Torah 3:6: "A person whose heart inspires him to fulfill this mitzva in a fitting manner and to become crowned with the crown of Torah should not divert his attention to other matters. He should not set his intent on acquiring Torah together with wealth and honor simultaneously." Here it is stated explicitly that no such obligation falls on each and every member of Israel, but rather that one whose heart inspires him to fulfill this mitzva of Torah study in a fitting manner and to become crowned with the crown of Torah should know that he must not divert his attention to other matters, or set his intent on acquiring Torah together with wealth and honor simultaneously.

Thus, this is not a law or obligation, but rather the Rambam shows the way to one whose heart inspires him to fulfill this mitzva of Torah study in a fitting manner, but he does not obligate every individual to act in this way. And thus it becomes obligatory for one who vows to fulfill the mitzva of Torah study in a fitting way to act in this manner. The implication is that those who engage in work and business, even more than necessary for the standard of average people, but even to get rich, do not transgress a prohibition, though they do not fulfill the mitzva of Torah study in a proper manner. And therefore it is understandable that there were those who did not occupy themselves with Torah study in the generations of the other righteous kings.

And even though reading one chapter in the morning and one chapter in the evening is certainly obligatory, one does not become a Torah scholar this way. And King Chizkiyahu arranged that all of Israel would study Torah, so that they should become Torah scholars, namely, that every member of Israel should work only for that which necessary for himself and for his household, in the manner of average people, but not more in order to get rich. And this is more than what is obligatory, so that all of Israel should fulfill this great mitzva in proper manner. And thus we understand that the greatest Torah authorities and the most God-fearing people only worked enough to cover their essential needs.

This is also the opinion of the Tur and the Shulchan Arukh (Yoreh De'a 246:21) and all the codifiers. But nevertheless we find in the Rambam and in all the codifiers a wording of obligation, for in Hilkhot Talmud Torah 1:8 he writes: "Every Jewish man is obligated to study Torah"; and in 1:10 he writes: "Until when is a person obligated to study Torah? Until the day he dies"; and in 1:11 he writes: "A person is obligated to divide his study time in three." This is also the wording of the Tur and the Shulchan Arukh (246:1, 3, 4), which is puzzling.

We must say then that the obligation of Torah study is essentially a permanent obligation without time limits. But the obligation is such that one is permitted to go out to make a living for all his needs, even if they are only for pleasure, and to sleep, and to sit and merely rest if he enjoys that, and this is not considered a violation of the mitzva. (Iggerot Moshe, Yoreh De'a, IV, no. 36, letter 5).

            To summarize Rav Feinstein's position:

1. A person is obligated to study Torah all the time, every day, until the day he dies. Since the obligation is not limited by time, a person must occupy himself with the Torah in every free moment, when he is not occupied with earning a living or taking care of his needs. In any event, a person is obligated to clear time every day to learn at least one chapter in the morning and one chapter in the evening.

2. People are permitted to engage in their livelihoods, even to become wealthy enough for unnecessary pleasures, although this exceeds what is necessary to satisfy the needs of average people. This is not considered a violation of Torah study, provided that one makes sure to study one chapter in the morning and one chapter in the evening.

3. The ideal is that a person should study Torah whenever he can, and occupy himself in his livelihood only in order to provide for his own needs and for the needs of the other members of his household, in accordance with the accepted standards of average people.

4. Anyone who wishes to grow in Torah should restrict his occupation with his livelihood to the minimum, to that which is essential for maintaining himself and the other members of his household.

            Rav Moshe Feinstein accepts the principle mentioned in the previous shiur, according to which the obligation to study Torah applies in a person's free time. But he broadens the allowance to occupy oneself in worldly matters beyond what is necessary for one's livelihood. Rav Feinstein recognizes the broader needs of well-being and pleasure.

            This also appears in a precise reading of the words of the Rambam (Hilkhot Talmud Torah 3:6) regarding one who wishes to become crowned with the crown of Torah, that he should not set his intent on acquiring Torah together with wealth. This implies that one who wishes to acquire wealth does not violate any prohibition, provided that he fulfills the required obligation of Torah study. At the same time, the Rambam recommends that one restrict his occupation with attaining wealth in favor of more significant Torah study.

            The allowance that is granted to a person to occupy himself with his livelihood, even to amass wealth, allows not only occupation with acquiring wealth, but also exploitation of that wealth for leisure, rest, and the pleasures that a person desires.

            The aspiration of the individual and of society should be to fulfill the Divine purpose recorded in the Torah: "You shall be holy men to Me" (Shemot 22:30). As the Kotzker Rebbe famously said, God demands of people that they be holy men and not angels, as he has enough angels in heaven.

Man's mission on earth lies in finding the necessary balance between fulfilling his needs and realizing his purpose; between fulfilling his earthly and human passions and desires, in all their diversity, and realizing his purpose of building a spiritual personality that seeks holiness and purity. As part of realizing this purpose, a person must enrich his spiritual world with expanses of Torah and knowledge, and build a society that is strong in spirit and desires closeness to God.

Just as people's faces are different, so too their personalities are different (Berakhot 58b), and so are the balances towards which they strive. As already mentioned above, people differ with respect to the level of their aspiration for the holy, and with respect to the intensity with which they adopt occupation with the word of God and His Torah. As long as the fundamental aspiration to join the two worlds exists, the person is following a course that leads to the house of God.

This balance is the ladder of the service of God, a ladder that stands on the ground, the top reaching heaven. A person is always somewhere on that ladder, sometimes ascending, and sometimes, God forbid, descending. As David says about man's aspirations:

Who shall ascend into the mountain of the Lord? Or who shall stand in His holy place? (Tehilim 24:3)

II. Everyone Can Be A Member of the Tribe of Levi

            Even though the Ramban explicitly decides in favor of the position that advocates engaging in Torah study alongside worldly occupation, as we demonstrated earlier from his words in Hilkhot Talmud Torah 3:10-11, he makes a statement elsewhere that appears to contradict this approach. Thus writes the Rambam at the end of Hilkhot Shemita ve-Yovel:

Why did the Levites not receive a portion in the inheritance of Eretz Yisrael and in the spoils of war like their brethren? Because they were set aside to serve God and minister unto Him and to instruct people at large in His just paths and righteous judgments, as it is stated (Devarim 33:10): "They will teach Your judgments to Ya'akov and Your Torah to Israel." Therefore they were set apart from the ways of the world. They do not wage war like the remainder of the Jewish people, nor do they receive an inheritance, nor do they acquire for themselves through their physical power. Instead, they are God's legion, as it is stated (Devarim 33:11): "God has blessed His legion" and He provides for them, as it is stated (Bemidbar 18:20): "I am your portion and your inheritance."

This does not only refer to the biological tribe of Levi, but any one of the inhabitants of the world whose spirit generously motivates him and he is moved to set himself aside and stand before God to serve Him and minister to Him and to know God, proceeding justly as God made him, removing from his neck the yoke of the many reckonings which people seek, he is sanctified as Holy of Holies. God will be His portion and heritage forever and will provide what is sufficient for him in this world like He provides for the priests and the Levites. And thus David declared (Tehilim 16:5): "God is the lot of my portion; You are my cup, You support my lot." (Hilkhot Shemita ve-Yovel 13:12-13)

            Rambam's comments about the tribe of Levi have a source in the Torah. In Parashat Korach it says that the Levites are appointed over the service of the Tent of Meeting, and the people of Israel are commanded to give the Levites a tenth of their crops "for their service which they serve, even the service of the Tent of Meeting" (Bemidbar 18:11). A sort of partnership exists between the people of Israel and the tribe of Levi; the former work their fields and the latter serve in the Temple and share in the produce.

            However, when the Rambam mentions the Levites he emphasizes their responsibility for the dissemination of the Torah and the ways of God alongside their service in the Temple. In accordance with this, he defines the Levites as God's portion and inheritance.

            In addition, the Rambam expands the definition to include any member of the human race[1] whose spirit motivates him to sanctify himself as Holy of Holies, and who removes from his neck the yoke of the many reckonings which people seek. At first glance, these words contradict what he says in Hilkhot Talmud Torah, according to which a person must not study Torah to the point that he must derive his livelihood from charity, but rather he must combine Torah study with a worldly occupation.

            Many Acharonim resolve the contradiction by distinguishing between the conduct of the community at large and the conduct of elite individuals. The path that is appropriate for the community at large is what appears in the words of the Rambam in Hilkhot Talmud Torah, regarding the importance of Torah combined with worldly occupation, for the energy taken up by both of them keeps sin out of mind, and if you eat the toil of your hands, you will be happy and it will be good for you. Elite individuals, on the other hand, can remove the yoke of worldly occupation from their necks.

            This is what Rav Chayyim of Volozhin says in his Nefesh ha-Chayyim:

"Many have followed the advice of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, and it has not been successful" (Berakhot 35b). This applies specifically to the "many." For surely it is almost impossible for the masses to persevere all their lives exclusively occupying themselves with Torah, without turning even for a short time to some occupation with their livelihood. About this they said in Avot: "All study of the Torah where there is no worldly occupation, etc."

But an [elite] individual, who can occupy himself all his life exclusively in His Torah and service, is certainly obligated not to separate himself even for a short time from Torah and service to occupy himself with his livelihood, God forbid. This is in accordance with the opinion of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. (Nefesh ha-Chayyim, I, chapter 8)

   And he adds there in a note:

Therefore in the first passage of Keri'at Shema it says: "And with all of your might (me'odekha, in the singular)" (Devarim 6:5). And in the passage of Ve-haya it does not say: "with all of your might" (me'odekhem, in the plural). For the passage of Shema is formulated entirely in the singular. And an individual, who is capable of doing so, must fulfill: "This book of the Torah shall not depart from your mouth," literally. Therefore it says: "With all of your might," which means with all your money, as it is written in the Mishna at the end of Berakhot. That is to say, he should not occupy himself with his livelihood at all.

But as for the passage of Ve-haya, which is formulated in the plural – the masses are just about forced into occupying themselves at least to a small extent with earning money for their livelihood. Therefore, it does not say: "With all of your might." (… And according to Rabbi Yishmael, this is His desire regarding the conduct of the community at large. And they disagree about God's desire and about the highest level of the conduct of the community at large). (Nefesh ha-Chayyim, ibid., in note.)

            However, a careful examination of the wording of the Rambam shows that what he says in Hilkhot Shemita ve-Yovel does not contradict what he says in Hilkhot Talmud Torah. Were it the Rambam's intention to create a new category regarding the relationship between Torah study and worldly occupation, he should have done so in Hilkhot Talmud Torah, even if it was only the way of individuals. In Hilkhot Talmud Torah (3:6), the Rambam speaks of a person who wishes to be crowned with the crown of Torah and his behavior. Were the Rambam speaking here in Hilkhot Shemita of a higher level, he should have mentioned it there in Hilkhot Talmud Torah.

            In his commentary to the Rambam, Rav Yosef Kapih notes this point, and strongly attacks "those with stubborn hearts, distorted ideas, and no knowledge," who wish to use these words of the Rambam to derive an exemption from worldly occupation for the Levites and for any one of the inhabitants of the world whose spirit generously motivates them.

            The truth is that the Rambam does not exempt anybody from the basic obligation not to derive one's livelihood from charity. The yoke that elite individuals remove from their necks is the yoke of the many reckonings which people seek in their aspirations for wealth and fulfillment of their worldly desires. What he says here in Hilkhot Shemita corresponds to his very words in Hilkhot Talmud Torah regarding those who wish to crown themselves with the crown of Torah.

            The comparison that the Rambam draws between this group of people and the Levites and priests is that they too were separated from intensive worldly occupation in order to teach and disseminate the Torah in Israel. So too we must understand the expansion, according to which any one of the inhabitants of the world whose spirit generously motivates him to set himself aside and occupy himself for most of his life with the knowledge of God, will merit heavenly assistance in the realization of his aspirations.

            At the end of the passage, the Rambam writes:

And thus David declared (Tehilim 16:5): "God is the lot of my portion; You are my cup, You support my lot."

            David dedicated his life to the service of God, and certainly did not remove himself from worldly occupation. As king of Israel, he led his nation, guided them in the execution of justice and judgment, worried about their livelihoods and well-being, and went out to war against his enemies until God gave him rest from all his enemies around him.

            Nevertheless, David did not immerse himself in worldly matters, but rather he dedicated great efforts to occupy himself with God's Torah and to cleave to him. As he himself states:

At midnight I will rise to give thanks to You because of Your righteous judgments. (Tehilim 119:62) -

As these words were explained by Chazal in Berakhot (3b-4a).

            It is further stated in the Gemara:

"A prayer of David… Keep my soul, for I am pious" (Tehilim 86:1-2). Levi and Rabbi Yitzchak [disagree]. One says: Thus spoke David before the Holy One, blessed be He; Master of the universe, am I not pious? All the kings of the East and the West sleep to the third hour [of the day], but I, at midnight I rise to give thanks to You. (Berakhot 4a)

            This is what the Rambam means in Hilkhot Shemita ve-Yovel, that one whose spirit motivates him to aspire to closeness to God and restrict his worldly occupation to the barest minimum, will surely merit that God will come to his assistance.[2]

 


[1] The words, "any one of the inhabitants of the world," imply even a non-Jew whose spirit motivates him to act in this manner.

[2] This is also the answer to those who use these words of the Rambam to exempt Yeshiva students from army service. According to what we have said, it was not the Rambam's intention to exempt one sector from the yoke and cast it on another. What he meant was that a person who chooses to go in this direction restricts by himself the yoke of worldly occupation, in order to load himself with the yoke of the Torah, without casting his yoke on others that they should work for him. This exemption certainly does not apply to an obligatory war, which involves rescuing fellow members of Israel from the hands of the enemy, as is stated in Sota, for in the case of an obligatory war, even a bridegroom goes out from his room and a bride from her bridal canopy. And the Arukh adds: "And all the more so, Torah scholars" (see Sota 10a, in the marginal note in the name of the Arukh).