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21a: Learning Torah Sitting or Standing (1)

Rav Ezra Bick

A scan of the classic printed daf can be found at:

Key words and phrases in Hebrew and Aramaic are marked in blue, and their translation/explanation can be seen by placing the cursor over them. 

From time to time, the shiur will include instructions to stop reading and do some task on your own. This will be marked by a

red pause box
 It is highly recommended that you follow those instructions. I am working on a way to have your computer melt if you don't, but as of yet, the technical details are still beyond me.


Last week, we began the third perek of Masechet Megilla. Since chazara, review, is an essential part of study, I suggest you immediately stop and read over the 2 lines of mishna and 5 lines of gemara that we learned last week, if possible with Rashi, and ascertain that you can understand them. As usual, I shall patiently wait while you do so.



Pausing for chazara. Take your time.


The last thing we learned was the statement of R. Abahu that a teacher should not sit on a couch while his students sit on the floor. They both should be, as Rashi stated explicitly, on the same level.

One of the students of this shiur asked (in an email) an interesting question. If a teacher should not "speak down" to his students from a position of authority, why is it common for teachers to stand while their students sit. Is this not the same relationship as speaking from a couch to students sitting on the ground?

The answer, I think, is clear once we understand the symbolic meaning of the couch (mita) and the floor. Sitting on the floor is a clear symbol of poverty (and also mourning), and is typical of the lower classes. Sitting on a couch is a symbol of aristocracy. The disapproval of the Talmud of the relative position of the two, the teacher on his couch and the student on the floor, derives not so much from the relative height per se, as from the symbolic difference in social status it suggests. This does not pertain at all to one standing and one sitting; in fact, it might be claimed that sitting represents a higher status than standing, in certain circumstances.

Later, we shall return to the question of standing for the reading of the Torah. But first, let us continue in the gemara.


Tanu Rabbanan: From the days of Moshe until the Rabban Gamliel, Torah was only learned standing.

When Rabban Gamliel died, weakness descended to the world, and they began to learn sitting.

And this is (the explanation for) what is taught: When Rabban Gamliel died, the honor of the Torah was nullified.

ת"ר: מימות משה ועד רבן גמליאל לא היו למדין תורה אלא מעומד.


 משמת רבן גמליאל ירד חולי לעולם והיו למדין תורה מיושב.


 והיינו דתנן: משמת רבן גמליאל בטל כבוד התורה.

Since here it is not speaking of the reading of the Torah, but simply of learning Torah, it would appear that even private learning is included. If we think a bit, this conclusion is practically mandated, since the beraita rules as a matter of law that the Torah is read (in public) standing. The mishna  was written two generations after the death of Rabban Gamliel, so as a matter of accepted halakha there is a ruling that one must stand during the reading of Torah, whereas the custom of standing while learning Torah has been discontinued since the death of Rabban Gamliel (the grandfather of R. Yehuda Hanassi, the author of the Mishna).

This means that the law requiring standing during the reading of the Torah and the law, or practice, where they used to stand while learning Torah, are not identical.

Question: What is the nature of the original practice to stand while learning? What is the reason for this practice?


I'll wait while you think about this...
OR - I will supply a hint...


HINT - Consider the last line of the citation:

"And this is (the explanation for) what is taught...."

The gemara states that when Rabban Gamliel died, and they began to sit during Torah study, "the honor of the Torah was nullified." This clearly implies that the standing during Torah study was a n expression of honoring Torah. "Honor" (kavod) is a basic value in Halakha, which applies to several categories - parents, general humanity (kvod habriot), God, as well as Torah. Giving honor (or perhaps "respect" is a better translation) to the Torah (tnu kavod laTorah) is an obligation that appears in several different contexts. The most familiar in Jewish practice is probably the obligation to stand when a sefer Torah is present. Apparently, standing is a basic means of expressing honor and respect. One honors the physical embodiment of Torah - a Torah scroll - by standing in its presence, and one honors the presence of Torah as a metaphysical entity by standing when one studies Torah.

We can conclude that the obligation to honor the Torah is set aside when one is weak. We shall shortly see other examples of the relative nature of this obligation, which is set aside when a greater purpose is present and conflicts with it. However, the obligation to stand during the reading of the Torah has not been annulled, so apparently it derives from a different source than the general honor of the Torah. We shall return to this question - what is the source of the obligation to stand during Torah reading - later, in next week's shiur.

Let us continue in the gemara.


One verse states: "And I sat on the mountain;" and one verse states, "And I stood on the mountain."

(1) Rav said: He stands and studies; he sits and reviews.

(2) R. Chanina said: Neither standing nor sitting, but bowing.

(3) R. Yochanan said: "sitting" means "lingering" as is written, "you sat in Kadesh many days."

(4) Rava said: Easy (subjects) standing; hard sitting.

כתוב אחד אומר, "ואשב בהר"; וכתוב אחר אומר , "ואנכי עמדתי בהר".

אמר רב: עומד ולומד; יושב ושונה.

ר' חנינא אמר: לא עומד ולא יושב אלא שוחה.

רבי יוחנן אמר: אין ישיבה אלא לשון עכבה, שנאמר, "ותשבו בקדש ימים רבים.

רבא אמר: רכות עומד; וקשות יושב.


A note on the printed text. This section is based on a perceived contradiction between two verses. The verses are quoted. Where are they from? In the printed text of the Talmud, verses are marked with a small circle, which refers to the source printed in tiny letters in the margin of the gemara text (between the gemara and either Rashi or the Tosafot). Take a look at the illustration below.

The two verses are underlined in red, the tiny circles before the quotation refers to the two red-circled references in the margin. The first is from דברים ט' (Deut.9), the second from דברים י' (Deut. 10). (The scan is barely able to handle such small print - and, to be honest, at my age, I can barely read the letters in my printed Talmud!).

    The gemara presented a contradiction between descriptions of the time Moshe spent on Mt. Sinai. One describes him as sitting; one as standing. The gemara gives four answers. No. 1 & 4 assign two different times to the two different descriptions, so that both descriptions are correct, referring to different times; no. 2 creates a compromise position which is meant to indicate that both descriptions are true at the same time; and no.3 claims that one description ("sitting") has been misunderstood, so that there is in fact no contradiction at all. Let us now understand the distinctions introduced in answers 1 and 4.

    Answer 1 - Rav: Rav distinguished between "studying" and "reviewing." Why should the first require standing but not the second? Rashi subtly changes the point of studying and reviewing.


    Studies. From the mouth of God:

    Sits and reviews. A second time, by himself, what he has studied.

    ולומד. מפי הגבורה:

    יושב ושונה. שנית לבדו מה שלמד:

    In other words, the real difference between studying and reviewing is that he studied with God, the teacher, but reviewed on his own. According to Rav, Moshe stood on Mt. Sinai to show respect and honor not for the Torah (since there is no difference between the Torah the first time and the second), but for God.

    Answer 4 - Rava: Rava distinguishes between easy and hard subjects. Rashi explains:


    Easy. Things that are simple and easy, which a man understands quickly:

    רכות: דברים רכים ונוחים שאדם מהיר לשומעם:

    Now there is no reason why difficult subjects show require less respect than hard ones. The reasoning here is clearly that even though one should  stand for the hard subjects as well, standing will interfere with comprehension. In order to understand the more difficult sections of the Torah, Moshe sits in order to be able to better concentrate.

    This is similar to the statement of the gemara above that the increased general weakness of the scholars after the death of Rabban Gamliel permitted sitting. The reasoning is as follows: It is important to show honor and respect for the Torah - but not at the expense of comprehension. Learning Torah is more important than honoring  Torah. If honoring Torah by standing will interfere with comprehension, than it is better to sit and learn properly. Even Moshe needed to sit to understand the more difficult sections of the Torah; after Rabban Gamliel's death, everyone needed to sit comfortably in order to understand all parts of the Torah, and consequently the obligation to stand was effectually abolished.

    I am going to leave the other two answers of the gemara for the time being. First, I want to return to the previous statement of the gemara, where we saw that before the time of Rabban Gamliel, Torah was studied while standing, and the previous statement, that one should not teach while seated to students who are on the ground.

    We are going to take a look at the commentary of the Ran. The Ran (Rabeinu Nissim of Gerona, 14th century Spain) is one of the last great Talmudic commentators of Spain. His commentary is technically to the Rif and not the Talmud. The Rif (R. Yitzchak Alfasi, 12th century North Africa) basically authored an abridgement of the Talmud, with short comments relating to halakhic conclusions of the Talmudic sugya. It was widely studied in Spain in place of the Talmud itself and therefore was often the basis for works of Spanish commentators. The commentators of the 11th-15th centuries are collectively called "Rishonim"  ("early ones").

    The Ran (14th century Spain) points out that both statements are contradicted by several sources in the Talmud. (My explanatory notes are in red). 


    People ask, we find in perek Hasocher et HaPoalim (BM 24b) that Rabban Gamliel and R. Yehoshua b. Korcha were sitting on benches, and R. Elazar and R. Shimon were sitting before them on the ground. And in the first perek of Sanhedrin (17b) we also find that there were four in Yavneh and R. Shimon HaTeimani was discussing before them on the ground. And also in the times of (King) David, we find in Moed Katan (16b) that Ira HaYairi was teaching Israel (while sitting) on pillows and cushions and David only agreed to be on the ground.

    (The question is twofold: First, the teacher and the student were not on the same level, and secondly, this was before the time of Rabban Gamliel, and neither was standing).

    The answer is that just as the gemara answers, "easy standing; hard sitting," so too for difficult topics they would sit on benches, for if they would have sat on the ground with their disciples they would not have been able to properly analyze them.

    Or else (another answer), in one case it was before they (the students) were ordained; in the other case it was after they were ordained, for then it is proper for the teacher to show them honor.


      • (Ran, Megilla, 11b - the Ran is printed as a commentary on the Rif, which is appended to the standard editions of the Talmud]).


    The first answer of the Ran is based on the answer of Rava to the contradiction concerning Moshe's position on Mt. Sinai. We explained that the answer of Rava was based on the assumption that the obligation to honor the Torah by standing is set aside if this will interfere with the quality of the learning. The Ran extends this to the prohibition to sit higher than one's students. Not only is sitting preferable to standing for difficult topics, but it is conceivable that sitting on a bench is preferable to sitting on the floor. The principle is that in all cases, the conditions which will ensure full comprehension take precedence over formal requirements of honor. Hence Ira HaYairi sat (and did not stand) on a couch (and not on the floor), since apparently he was engaged in a particular difficult topic for which he needed to be comfortable in order to properly concentrate.

    The second answer of the Ran relates only to the question about the relative positions of the teacher and the students. In effect, the Ran abolishes the prohibition, by limiting it to students who are ordained; in other words, who are important Rabbis in their own right. This changes the nature of the prohibition from one of interpersonal ethics or educational strategy to another example of kavod haTorah. It is not proper to lord over Torah scholars (even if they are on a lower level than the teacher), but there is no problem of lording over students per se.


    That's it for today. We did not learn a great deal of Talmudic text today, but we have managed to widen our scope to one of the Rishonim. Next week, we shall continue both in the gemara and in our extended analysis.

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