Shiur #39: Torah Study (12) Great is the Study of Torah (Part II)

  • Harav Baruch Gigi

I.              Which is greater – study or practice

In this shiur we will continue to discuss the relationship between Torah study and fulfillment of the mitzvot. We will focus on the perspective of the Maharal, who discussed this issue in several places in his writings.

In Netiv ha-Torah the Maharal cites the words of the Yerushalmi in Pe'a, which we brought in the previous shiur. The Maharal there explains the difference between Torah and mitzvot:

And in the Yerushalmi (Pe'a 1:1): "Rabbi Berachya and Rabbi Chiyya of Kfar Techumim [disagreed]. One said: The entire world does not equal one word of Torah. And the other said: Even all of His mitzvot do not equal one word of Torah." The explanation of this matter is as follows: The mitzvot are [performed] with a person's body, whereas the Torah is entirely cognitive. About this the verse states: "For the commandment is a lamp, and the Torah is light" (Mishlei 6:23), as we explained in the introduction to tractate Avot (the introduction to Derekh ha-Chayyim). Therefore, the entire world certainly does not equal one word of Torah, for this world is physical and the Torah is cognitive. Even the mitzvot relate to the body, because a mitzva is physically performed by a person, and therefore all of the mitzvot do not equal one word of Torah. (Netiv ha-Torah, chapter 1)

In his Chiddushei Aggadot on tractate Kiddushin, while discussing which is greater, Torah study or fulfillment of the mitzvot, the Maharal writes:

The main thing is practice, while study, through which one learns to do something, is not as important as the [actual] deed, since the objective is practical, because man is not [entirely] intellectual, for if he were entirely intellectual, Torah study would be the main thing. But man is not wholly intellectual, and therefore the main thing is the [actual] practice… For every action is [performed by] the body, but the Torah is [studied] with the mind. (Chiddushei Aggadot, Kiddushin 40b)

According to the Maharal, the Torah and the mitzvot represent the encounter between the body and soul, between the finite and the infinite. The mitzvot focus on bringing man's body to perfection, whereas the Torah seeks to unite man with the world of the intellect, the world of eternity, the world of communion with God.

Man's mission on earth is self-improvement and attainment of perfection. Hence, the focus is on action that perfects man's body and makes him righteous.

Even Rabbi Akiva, who maintains that Torah study is greater, strives toward practice, but he argues that Torah study which leads to practice is greater:

Because study is the beginning, and the beginning contains the potential for everything. This is what he said: Great is study which brings to practice. And it is known that those things that are earlier in the causal chain are greater, because they cause other things, and it [Torah study] is a cause, and the cause is greater than that which it causes. (Ibid.)

Torah study, which has the power to bring to practice, is greater than practice. This stems not only from the fact that study provides practical knowledge.[1] The Maharal emphasizes that the cause is greater than that which it causes. On the essential plane, Torah study empowers and motivates action. Study bestows upon practice the dimension of eternity and connection to the world of the mind.

We will try to explain this by examining the Maharal's comments on a passage in tractate Mo'ed Katan. The Gemara says:

It is written: "She [= the Torah] is more precious than rubies; and all the things you can desire are not to be compared unto her" (Mishlei 3:15), [implying] that heaven's demands [of you] are comparable to her. It also says: "And all things desirable are not to be compared unto her" (Mishlei 8:11), [implying] that even matters that are desired by heaven are not comparable to her. The former verse applies where the duty can be discharged through others, the latter where the duty cannot be discharged through others. (Mo'ed Katan 9b)

 The Maharal writes about this in Netiv ha-Torah:

And in the first chapter of Mo'ed Katan: It is written: "And all the things you can desire are not to be compared unto her" – but heaven's demands, e.g., the mitzvot, are comparable to her. And it is written: "And all things desirable are not to be compared unto her," which means even the mitzvot, which are desired by heaven. And the Gemara answers: There is no contradiction here, as the first verse refers to a duty that cannot be discharged through others, whereas the second refers to a duty that can be discharged through others.

This means: The Torah is the supreme reason that God gave to the world, and reason is certainly higher than objects that are physical, and higher even than the demands of heaven, which are the mitzvot, for in the end they are actions that a person performs with his physical body, even when he does not know the reason for the mitzva, as we explained in our introduction to tractate Avot, and therefore all of heaven's demands are not comparable to her [Torah study]. But when the duty cannot be discharged through others, the mitzva certainly comes first. This can be explained thus: If a person says: I will study Torah, and not make a sukka or a lulav, the mitzva certainly comes first, because when the mitzva is not performed, there is a great drawback, as the mitzva is an obligation upon man, whereas the Torah is a virtue attained by man, but nevertheless if there is no Torah, the drawback is not so great.

This is the difference between the Torah and the mitzvot, because if a person does not perform the mitzvot, he is utterly lacking, as there are 248 mitzvot, corresponding to man's organs, so that each mitzva perfects a person, for if he lacks the mitzva, it is as if he lacks that organ. Because a mitzva that results from a person's action which is performed with his physical body is closer to the physical person, and if he fails to do [the action], he is lacking. Therefore if the mitzva cannot be discharged by others, it is not fitting for him to seize the Torah which is perfection and a person's virtue, for through the Torah a person becomes intellectual, and if he does not perform a mitzva, he is lacking.

And it is preferable that a person be whole with no lacking, even if he does not reach high virtue, than for him to  lack an intellectual virtue, as the lack cancels the virtue and thus the virtue has no significance. But if the mitzva can be discharged through others, there is no lack when the mitzva is performed, and when there is no lack, the acquisition of Torah takes precedence, as it is a greater virtue and perfection, as has been explained. (Netiv ha-Torah, chapter 1)

According to the Maharal, there are two levels in man's service of God: The level of the perfection of the body and the level of the virtue of Torah. The Torah is what connects man to the world of the intellect and brings him to closeness with the source of cognitive life; God.

There is no reason to be concerned with the second level without first perfecting the first level. A man must perfect what he is lacking before he can acquire new virtues. Man's obligation in this world is to perfect his body, and this is the reason that he was given the Torah and the mitzvot. The goal is first to perfect anything that he is lacking, and only afterwards to rise in his intellectual level.

Sometimes a person can occupy himself in Torah study, which brings him to the highest level, even before he has perfected his body, like study which leads to practice. When a person occupies himself with study that leads to practice, he is striving to perform actions that will lead to the perfection of his body. At the same time, through his very occupation with study, he acquires intellectual and spiritual virtues, which raise him from the mundane world of action and also shine a noble light on his actions.

In this way, as the Rishonim put it,[2] he has both this and that in his hands. Hence, the action that is performed not only leads to the perfection of his body, but also helps him acquire intellectual and spiritual virtues. This is the unique virtue of practice that stems from study.

This can perhaps shed new light on the Mishna in Avot 2:2: "Excellent is Torah study together with derekh eretz." In general, and we too have followed this path, the term derekh eretz is understood as a worldly occupation. This also makes sense according to the rest of the Mishna, which speaks of Torah that is accompanied by work.

However, in light of what we have said above, there is room to propose an alternative explanation. According to what we have said, derekh eretz is human action that leads to the perfection of the body, whether through performing the mitzvot, or through the broader circle of human actions performed in God's world, which bring the world to greater perfection. In this way, man becomes a partner in the world's creation.

When these actions are illuminated by the light of the Torah that accompanies them, it shines light upon them from the worlds of the spirit and eternity. The Torah elevates the actions, the body and earthly reality.

Someone who acts in this world, lives in it and is an inseparable part of it, can suffice with the perfection of his body and his natural surroundings, while striving to fulfill God's mitzvot. A Torah student, on the other hand, consciously chooses to reach beyond the earthly frameworks. He strives to use his mind to reach the treasures of the spirit, which sanctify the world of matter and the body. These levels light the lamps of the commandments and action, and shine with the light of the Torah.

In this spirit we can explain the words of Rabbi Menachem ha-Meiri in Bava Kama:

If he needs to learn, he should give priority to study, since study beautifies one's behavior and perfects it, and the fulfillment of a mitzva is more enhanced when it is performed by one who understands its essence. (Beit ha-Bechira, Bava Kama 17a)

What the Meiri means when he speaks of beautifying and perfecting one's behavior is that the person does not settle for the minute, technical details of the mitzvot. The concept of enhancement is broader, and it relates not only to the performance of the act of the mitzva. Chazal derived the obligation of hiddur mitzva, enhancement of a mitzva, from the verse: "This is my God, and I will beautify Him" (Shemot 15:2), a verse which attributes beauty and decoration to God. Beautifying the mitzvot, then, means creating a more profound and fundamental relationship with God.

Study which activates the mind and connects the student to He who gave the Torah, perfects one's action and elevates it to the spiritual plane.

This also appears in the words of the Maharal in Netiv ha-Torah¸ where he relates to the passage in tractate Kiddushin:

Rabbi Tarfon maintained that practice is greater, because he thought that practice involves the perfection of a person, who perfects himself through the performance of the action. Even though the Torah is certainly very important because the Torah is intellectual, nevertheless, the mitzva which perfects a person is greater, as was explained above.

Similarly, even though wine is more esteemed than bread, as it gladdens God and man, nevertheless bread sustains and perfects man. Therefore, the virtue of bread which perfects man is superior to that of wine which adds a level, but does not perfect man. So too, an action which perfects man is greater than the Torah which does not perfect man. Therefore he maintains that practice is greater. They all answered that Torah study is greater, as it brings to practice. This means that besides the virtue of Torah that it is intellectual perfection, Torah study also brings to practice, and everything is at the level of the Torah, and therefore Torah study is greater.[3] (Netiv ha-Torah, chapter 1)

The Maharal first emphasizes the ideal relationship between Torah study and the fulfillment of mitzvot, by likening it to the relationship between wine and bread. Bread is more basic, as it nourishes people, and without it man cannot survive. In contrast, wine is more elevated, since it gladdens God and man, as stated in the verse: "And wine that makes glad the heart of man; oil to brighten his face, and bread which sustains the heart of man" (Tehilim 104:15). In similar fashion, while practice is the basic need of man, Torah study is more important, and it bestows higher rank upon one who occupies himself with it.

But in the end they all agreed and said: Study is greater as it leads to practice. Since study brings to practice, occupation in Torah study also has the power of practice. In other words, a person can attain the virtue of Torah study and illuminate his actions with it.

The Maharal says about this that "everything is at the level of the Torah," that is to say, even practice attains the level of the Torah in the end.

II. A disagreement about the focus of the connection between Torah study and practice

Thus far we have understood that there is tension between study and practice on two levels: In terms of their essential importance, and in terms of priority in practice. We wish to propose another perspective on the positions of the Tannaim.

It seems that nobody attaches greater importance to Torah study than Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai, who says in the Yerushalmi, tractate Berakhot:

People like us who are occupied with Torah study do not interrupt [their study] even for the reading of Shema. (Yerushalmi, Berakhot 1:2)

Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai was even suspected of completely ignoring the need for practice:

Does not Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai agree that one must learn in order to do, and not learn not in order to do, for one who learns not in order to do, it would be better had he not been created.[4] (Ibid.)

It appears that Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai saw Torah study as the focus that drives our spiritual lives. Therefore, a person who is deeply immersed in his dedication to Torah study which connects him to the Giver of the Torah, and sees it as the word of God, automatically sees the performance of the mitzvot as stemming from his study in a direct and natural manner. Practice, from this perspective, is but the product of intensive study, which is the essential act. The whole essence of practice lies in its dialogue with the world of study, as it stems from the connection that develops in the soul of the student between him and the Torah, between him and God.

In this sense, Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai continues in the path of his master, Rabbi Akiva, who sits in the King's palace and affixes crowns to the letters of the Torah. It is Rabbi Akiva who maintains that Torah study is greater. In a certain way, the disciple goes beyond his master, as he takes dedication to Torah study to the furthest limits of human ability.[5]

In contrast, Rabbi Tarfon also understands that man cannot survive without study, but he sees a reverse relationship between study and practice. Rabbi Tarfon sees study as laying the groundwork for practice and leading to it. According to Rabbi Tarfon, man's principle connection to God is through the performance of all the mitzvot, actions which spin threads that bind him to the Creator.

The goal of study, according to Rabbi Tarfon, is to allow for the spinning of such threads. Not just in the sense of "An ignoramus is not sin-fearing" (Avot 2:5), but great is Torah which elevates a person above all his actions, and glorifies and magnifies those actions.

They all answered and said: Great is study, as it leads to practice. According to what we have said, this conclusion can be understood on one of two levels, either as an agreed-upon formulation, or as a practical determination.

First of all, as stated, it can be argued that we are dealing with a diplomatic solution, the creation of a formulation that both sides can live with and interpret as they wish. As we emphasized earlier, Rabbi Tarfon would explain it to mean that study is greater because it provides knowledge for the practice, on the one hand, and the greatness that elevates the person, on the other (similar to what Rashi says in Bava Kama 17a, that indeed practice is greater). In contrast, Rabbi Akiva would explain it to mean that Torah study is greater because it strengthens man's connection to the Torah and to God, and plants within him the need for action, which realizes the connection to God that was developed through his learning.

However, it seems more likely that we are dealing with a practical ruling, which provides parallel space to both values, to the importance of study alongside the importance of practice. Practice enriches study and study enriches practice. One who studies forms a personality that is full of strength and full of connection to the word of God, and this strength also radiates to his life in practice, enabling a more profound fulfillment of mitzvot.

In this way, a person achieves a high level of Torah study and a deeply meaningful fulfillment of mitzvot. As the Rishonim put it, "both this and that are in his hands."

(Translated by David Strauss) 


[1] Among other things, this stems from the fact that many people who have fulfilled the mitzvot throughout the generations never studied in a systematic manner and instead performed the mitzvot by rote, based on what they saw in their homes. This tradition was passed down from father to son and from mother to daughter.  

[2] See Rashi and Ritva, Kiddushin (ibid.).

[3] A man of Torah contemplates the world of mitzvot, and the entire earthly world, which the mitzvot come to perfect, from a perspective that draws everything into the world of the spirit. In this way, he sees physical reality as an expression of God's appearance in the world. He defines reality in halakhic categories, and thus also in Divine categories.

[4] See there for the answer to this question.

[5] See Yerushalmi (ibid.) regarding Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai's vision of two mouths, so that he not have to interrupt his study even for a moment.