Obligation to Learn Torah

by Neil Cohen

For this section of the shiur, I am indebted to Harav Aharon Lichtenstein and Rav Reuven Ziegler

Torah study is a basic mitzvah. Although its source is found in many places, often quoted is the discussion in the Talmud at Kiddushin 29b which refers to Devarim 11:19 which states: “And you shall teach them your children, talking of them, when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise up.”

If the father does not teach the son, the son must teach himself, as it says in Devarim 5:1: “And Moses called unto all Israel, and said unto them: "Hear, O Israel, the statutes and the ordinances which I speak in your ears this day, that you may learn them, and observe to do them.""

This obligation is codified by Moses ben Maimon (known as Maimonides or Rambam [1138–1204]) in his compilation of halacha, Mishneh Torah, in the section Hilchot Talmud Torah.

It is also the eleventh of the 248 positive mitzvot in Rambam’s Sefer Ha’mitzvot; and number fourteen of the 77 positive mitzvot that can be fulfilled today as listed in by Israel Meir (HaKohen) Kagan (known as the Chofetz Chaim [1839–1933]) in his Sefer Ha’mitzvot Ha’katzar.

So we must learn Torah. But how? For how long? Where to begin? I hope to illuminate these questions in my shiur this evening.

In Pirkei Avot at 1:15, Shammai says: “Make your Torah keva.” The word keva is translated in the Chief Rabbi’s siddur as a “fixed habit” whereas Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau in his commentary on Pirkei Avot translates it as “permanent”. Additionally, our Sages teach (for example, at Mishnah Peah 1:1; Moed Katan 9b) that Torah study is equal to all of the other commandments combined and that the reward for the study of Torah is equal to the combined rewards of all other commandments.

Returning to Pirkei Avot, Rashi’s commentary offers two explanations of the word keva:

  • You should not set aside times for Torah, but rather you should make it permanent the entire day; and

  • You should set aside times to learn four or five chapters every day

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Rashi is not talking about a person who spends his entire day, or even most of it, learning; but rather in terms of what this person would do if he had other responsibilities: nevertheless, he would make Torah his primary objective.

          

What does Rashi’s first explanation mean (that you should make Torah permanent the entire day)? Most commentators agree that it means that Torah learning should be a permanent factor around which your day revolves: the central fact of your life. Having said that, how much you will actually be able to learn will depend on your circumstances, but the attitude is what’s important: that your commitment to Torah is the framework through which you view your life.

So far as Rashi’s second explanation is concerned (Set aside time to learn four or five chapters a day), this is regarded as a daily minimum, since it is human nature to respond at least to a lower limit.

Therefore, it can be said that Rashi’s two explanations do not conflict with one other. The first provides a direction without setting any kind of upper limit; and the second provides a minimal practical framework for study.

What do Rash’s explanations mean in practical terms? What should one actually learn? There’s a huge amount out there, so what should we actually study?

One view is stated in the Talmud (Kiddushin 30b) which offers basic guidance in this regard: "Rabbi Safra said in the name of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chanina: “One should always divide his study time into three: A third should be devoted to Scripture, a third to Mishnah, and a third to Talmud.””

The first third, according to this teaching, is devoted to studying Scripture with its commentaries. The second is devoted to studying Mishnah, which implies also the study of binding halachic decisions. The final third of one's time must be devoted to the study of Talmud, which means acquiring an understanding of the reason and rationale behind the halachic decisions.

For this section of the shiur, I am indebted to the explanation given by Rabbi Eliezer Melamed, Head of Yeshivat Har Bracha and a prolific author on Jewish Law. His works include the Peninei Halacha series.

According to Rabbi Eliezer Melamed, since the written Torah given to Moses at Sinai is the foundation of everything, therefore one must learn all five books of the Torah according to their plain meaning (p’shat), with Rashi's commentary. In addition, one must learn all of the books of the Prophets (Nevi’im) and the Writings (Ketuvim), since all of them are included in the Scriptures.

 

Incredibly, in the time of the Sages, by the age of ten the children would have finished studying the entire Tanakh with an understanding of its plain meaning.

Having accomplished this, one must learn all of the basics of halacha. The basic text for learning practical Jewish law is the Shulchan Arukh (a compendium of halacha, compiled by Yosef Karo in 1563 and published in Venice two years later).

The source for starting with the more practical laws is the verse, at Devarim 5:1, which I mentioned a moment ago: "..learn them, and observe to do them”. That is, one must learn with the goal of knowing how to observe and practice them. In this vein the Sages taught (Kiddushin 40b): "Great is Torah study that leads to performance."

So it is important to first learn practical halacha. In order to achieve this, it is recommended that one learn from the following sections of the Shulchan Arukh: almost the entire portion of Orach Chaim which contains the laws of prayer, tzitzit, and tefillin. In addition, it contains the laws of meals and blessings, and the laws of shabbos and the chagim. One should also learn approximately half of Yoreh De’ah which contains the laws of kashrut, family purity, honouring parents, mezuzah, circumcision, and other important laws. One should also learn the parts of Choshen Mishpat and Even Ha’ezer which deal with the laws of damages, loans, returning lost articles, along with the laws of marriage and establishing a family.

All of these laws should be learned along with their basic explanations as they appear in the Talmud. The remaining laws, which are less practical, can be learned in brief. (As an aside here, the Chofetz Chaim, firmly believing that in the uncertainty of pre-Second World War Europe he was living right before the time of Moshiach and the rebuilding of the Temple, stressed the learning of laws concerning sacrifices, the Temple, and related topics. So we can see that what is practical halacha can change over time and in different circumstances).

According to Rabbi Eliezer Melamed, one should also learn the basic principles of Jewish faith and ethics. For example, contained in the Rabbinic midrashim, Midrash Rabba, and Tanchuma.

As you will know, the amount of learned resources nowadays, particularly in the age of the internet, is almost limitless. So where to start? It is suggested that one must choose books or resources which summarise the fundamentals of the Talmud, the Rishonim (the leading commentators of the 11th to 15th centuries, for example Rambam), and the Acharonim (the later commentators from the 16th century onwards, for example, from Moshe Chaim Luzzatto (Ramchal) in the 18th century, right through to Rabbi Moshe Feinstein in the 20th century).

Here are a few other halachot of Torah learning:

  • In order to help us appreciate our Torah study, we recite two blessings (Orach Chaim 47:5). These blessings are said when we wake up in the morning, and they remain in effect until we go to sleep at night (Orach Chaim 47:10).

  • Based on Talmudic statements, chavrusa learning - studying in pairs - was a key feature of yeshivas in the eras of the Tannaim (Rabbis of the Mishnaic period, the first and second centuries) and Amoraim (Rabbis of the Talmudic period, in the third to sixth centuries). This traditional study method has survived to the present day.

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In Pirkei Avot 1:6 we read that Rabbi Yehoshua ben Perachya urged students to "Make for yourself a Rav and acquire for yourself a chaver".

  • Since the Torah is sacred, it may not be studied in the presence of something unclean or a bad odour (Yoreh De’ah 246:26). Certainly, one may not study Torah in a bathroom Orach Chaim 85:2).

  • The obligation encompasses not only study but remembering what one has leaned through continuous review. Our Sages teach (Kiddushin 30a): "Repeat them..." deriving from Deuteronomy 6:7.

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Pirkei Avot (3:8) quotes from Deuteronomy 4:9: “Only guard yourself, and guard yourself diligently, lest you forget the things that your eyes saw”.

  • The obligation is fulfilled when hearing divrei Torah. This is because of the concept called shomei’a k’oneh, which literally means, “hearing is like verbalising.” For example, when a person listens to someone delivering a shiur, he fulfills the mitzvah of Torah study, because it is as if he said the shiur himself (Hilchot Talmud Torah 2:12).

  • It is a mitzvah to make a siyum (celebratory meal) to celebrate the completion of studying a Torah work (Orach Chaim 551:10). A siyum may be held for the completion of a biblical book, or tractate of mishnah or Talmud that was studied intensely for an extended period of time (as opposed to casual reading) (Yoreh De’ah 246:26). A special text, called Hadran (an Aramaic word meaning "we will return"), is recited at the siyum, acknowledging the special opportunity of Torah study and praying for more such opportunities.

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Ideally, the siyum should be attended by at least ten adult males so that a special Kaddish can be said. The theme of this Kaddish, called Kaddish D'itchadita, is that, in the merit of Torah study, the world will be renewed, including the eventual revival of the dead.

One of most famous siyums is the Siyum Ha'shas marking the completion of the entire Talmud in the Daf Yomi study program, in which one page of Talmud is studied each day. This takes seven and a half years. The twelfth Siyum Ha'shas took place in August 2012 at the 82,500 seat MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey.

I now turn to another extract from Pirkei Avot.

At 3:17, we read the following:

Rabbi Eliezer the son of Azariah would also say: One whose wisdom is greater than his deeds, what is he comparable to? To a tree with many branches and few roots; comes a storm and uproots it, and turns it on its face. As is stated, "He shall be as a lone tree in a wasteland, and shall not see when good comes; he shall dwell parched in the desert, a salt land, uninhabited" (Jeremiah 17:6). But one whose deeds are greater than his wisdom, to what is he compared? To a tree with many roots and few branches, whom all the storms in the world cannot budge from its place. As is stated: "He shall be as a tree planted upon water, who spreads his roots by the river; who fears not when comes heat, whose leaf is ever lush; who worries not in a year of drought, and ceases not to yield fruit" (Jeremiah 17:8).

What does this teach us? Irving Bunim (an influential lay leader of Orthodox Jewry in America from the 1930’s until 1980), in his Ethics from Sinai, suggests the following: that the person whose wisdom exceeds his deeds, who sees in his wisdom an end in itself which he need not translate into actual achievements through and for Torah, is “top heavy” and “overextended”. His loyalty to Judaism has an insufficient foundation: it is an edifice that can easily topple. And should various “winds” begin to blow – such as winds of passion and arrogance – his meagre roots of abstract, intellectual wisdom will not be able to hold him in position.

If, however, ones Judaism is matter of total commitment that involves your total being – emotions, intellect and behaviour - then you are deeply rooted in Torah and the Divine and will be unaffected by the winds we just spoke of.

Interestingly, as Irving Bunim points out, the mishnah just mentioned requires that our deeds exceed our wisdom. Only then, says Rabbi Eliezer, will we have roots and stability of character. In a similar vein, as the Jewish nation stood before Mount Sinai they responded (Exodus 24:7) Na’aseh ve’nishma”: “We will do and we will obey”. At the foot of Sinai, the Jewish nation committed themselves to do, to act as the Torah would require, even before they fully understood. This is a lesson for us all I think: words without action are insufficient.

Finally, I am indebted to that great Eastern European scholar and gentleman, Tevye the Dairyman. In his famous observation on life, “If I were a Rich Man”, verse 5, he says:

If I were rich, I'd have the time that I lack

To sit in the synagogue and pray

And maybe have a seat by the Eastern wall

And I'd discuss the holy books with the learned men, several hours every day

That would be the sweetest thing of all

 

Thank you.

Neil Cohen

Tikkun leil 2016

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