Beit Midrash

  • Jewish Laws and Thoughts
  • Observations on Torah Study
To dedicate this lesson

The Torah study is dedicated to the full recovery of

Asher Ishayahu Ben Rivka

part 1

The Laws of Torah Study

Why is Torah study the most important commandment in the Torah? How does one fulfill this Mitzvah? Just how much Torah must one know? Rabbi Eliezer Melamed addresses these and other questions in his distinctly clear style.


Rabbi Eliezer Melamed

1 - The Value of Torah Study
2 - How One Fulfills the Mitzvah
3 - The Mitzvah to "Know" Torah
4 - Talmud and Practical Halakha

1 - The Value of Torah Study
The most important commandment in the Torah is, without a doubt, the commandment to study Torah. The Sages teach that Torah study is equal to all of the other commandments combined. They also teach that the reward for the study of Torah is equal to the combined rewards of all other commandments (Mishna, Peah 1:1; Yerushalmi ad loc; Bavli, Moed Katan 9b).

There are two reasons for the elevated status of the commandment to study Torah. Firstly, without studying Torah one cannot possibly know how to fulfill the Mitzvoth (commandments); secondly, the spiritual significance of this particular Mitzvah is greater than that of any other commandment.
Clearly, without a proper understanding of the workings of the Mitzvoth and their details, it is impossible to correctly fulfill the commandments of the Torah. In the words of the Sages: "Great is Torah study, for it leads to performance" (Kiddushin 40b).

In addition, Torah study is the most spiritual of the Mitzvoth, therefore its status is elevated above that of all other Mitzvoth. Every human being is composed of body and soul. All practical Mitzvoth are carried out via the body and relate to things in the physical world. The Mitzvah of Torah study, though, is played out in the realm of abstract thought, and is therefore the most spiritual of all Mitzvoth. Through the fulfillment of this Mitzvah the soul is granted full expression. Via Torah study we ascend and penetrate a realm beyond that of our corporeal world - we pervade the realm of eternal and absolute existence. By virtue of the Jewish people's learning Torah day and night, a bond is created between our corporeal world and the absolute-eternal world. As a result, the universe continues to exist. If, heaven forbid, the world be without Torah learning for even one moment, it would return to its original state - formless and empty (Genesis 1:1), as it is written, "So says God, were it not for my covenant day and night, I would not maintain the ordinances of heaven and earth (Jeremiah 33:25).
Similarly, regarding the order of creation, the Sages teach that the Torah preceded the universe. Only after God had created the Torah, which embodies all of the ideals and values in the world, did He proceed to create actual universe; in creating the universe the Almighty brought into being all of the divine ideals in the Torah. This being the case, it is understandable how, through the study of Torah, we become united with the spiritual realm - the ultimate source of our physical universe. Indeed, the more intensely and deeply we study Torah, the more we become attached to the source of life. As a result of our study the world is blessed and it evolves and advances.

In light of these two foundations, it is possible to understand the reason for there being two elements of the Mitzvah of Torah study. The first calls for being learned in the Torah. One must know the entire Torah, its details and fine points, not to mention all faith- and moral-related concepts. This is necessary if a Jew wishes to live correctly. The second demands a Jew occupy his time studying the Torah. Even after one has mastered the foundations of the Torah, it is still necessary to advance, and to probe the Torah's surface even deeper, for Torah study is a study that befits the soul, and through it an individual binds himself to the world's ultimate spiritual source.

2 - How One Fulfills the Mitzvah
Ideally, each father should teach his son all of the fundamentals of the Torah, to the point where the son can continue and study on his own, as it is written: Teach your children to speak of them..." (Deuteronomy 11:19). This is the best way to learn Torah. If, though, the father does not know how to teach, he must arrange for his son to study with a tutor until the boy has mastered the fundamentals of the Torah. In addition to the parents' obligation, the Torah scholars of Israel are obligated to teach the nation Torah, as it is written: "And you shall teach them to your children" (Ibid. 6:7). The Sifri explains that students are also called "children." It follows that the Torah scholars of Israel are obligated to gather students and to teach them Torah.

A person whose father did not teach him Torah is obligated, when he matures, to seek out Torah scholars from whom to learn, as it says: "Learn them and safeguard them" (Ibid. 5:1).
One should also be aware that it is not enough for a Jew to occupy himself studying Torah. The Mitzvah is to know the Torah. It is therefore necessary to study diligently, and to review one's studies many times in order not to forget anything. In this vein, it is written: "Repeat them" (Ibid. 6:7). From here the Sages learned that one's study must be both accurate and reviewed well, to the point where, if one is asked a question concerning something that he studied, he be able to provide a correct answer immediately (Talmud, Kiddushin 30a). One who does not review that which he has learned, and consequently forgets his studies violates the prohibition: "Only be careful to protect your soul exceedingly, lest you forget these things."
In addition to the Mitzvah to know the Torah, we are commanded not to carelessly waste time. One who does not work or is not occupied improving the world, or with other Mitzvoth, is forbidden to waste his time with nonsense. Rather, such a person is commanded to study Torah. In this vein it is written: "Speak of them" (Ibid. 6:7), and the Sages explained: "Of them you are permitted to speak, but not other things." And while it is permitted to rest a bit or to travel in order to gather strength for continued studying, it is forbidden to simply waste time for no reason, for the commandment to study Torah is continuously binding upon a Jew, as it is written: "[The words of] this book, the Torah, shall not depart our of your mouth; you must meditate upon it day and night" (Joshua 1:8).

3 - The Mitzvah to "Know" Torah
The Mitzvah to study Torah obligates each Jew to know all of the foundations of the Torah in order that one know how to behave and how to relate to the events in his life according to the guidance of the Torah. One must also understand that the Torah is endless, and that from each letter in the Torah it is possible to learn abundant laws and secrets. This is reflected in the verse: "It's measure is longer than the earth" (Job 11:9). The roots of the Torah are grounded in the eternal, and it is therefore clear that there is no end to the depth of its ideas.

At any rate, the fundamentals of the Torah - the written Torah, together with the laws and their logic - are not without limit, and it is possible for an individual to learn and remember them all. In the days of the Sages of the Talmud, the practice was to learn all of the fundamentals of the Torah by the age of twenty. Following this, men would marry, establish a family, and earn a living while reviewing their studies with added depth. Indeed, this is the preferred practice even today - that, until about the age of twenty, one learn all of the fundamentals of the Torah. Only once this has been done does one began to take up the responsibilities of family life and all that it involves, while at the same time setting aside time on a daily basis for Torah study. This Mitzvah is incumbent on the parents - to assure that their children learn all of the fundamentals of the Torah. One whose father did not fulfill this obligation, is himself obligated, once he has grown, to study all of the Torah's fundamentals.
We shall outline a few of the fundamentals that each Jew is obligated to learn and to know.

Clearly, the written Torah that was given to Moses is the foundation of everything. Therefore, one must learn all five books of the Torah according to their plain meaning, with Rashi's commentary. In addition, one must learn all of the books of the Prophets and the Writings, for all of them are included in the Scriptures. In the time of the Sages, they would begin to teach the children the Scriptures at the age of five, and by the age of ten the children would finish the entire "Tanakh" (Bible) with an understanding of its plain meaning.

Having accomplished this, one must learn all of the basics of Jewish law. The basic text for learning Jewish law is the Shulchan Arukh. It is important to first learn all of the practical laws. For this reason, one should learn almost the entire portion of "Orech Chaim," for it contains the laws of prayer, Tzitzit, and Tefillin. In addition, it contains the laws of meals and blessings, and the laws of Sabbath and the festivals. One should also learn approximately half of "Yoreh Deah" which contains the laws of Kosher foods, the laws of family purity, honoring parents, Mezuzah, circumcision ("Mila"), and other important laws. One should also learn the parts of "Choshen Mishpat" and "Even HaEzer" 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, should be learned in brief, with emphasis being placed on the general fundamentals alone.
The source for starting with more practical laws is the verse "Learn them and safeguard them" (Deuteronomy 5:1) - i.e., one must learn with the goal of knowing how to observe and practice them. In this vein the Sages taught: "Great is Torah study that leads to performance." - i.e., one's primary goal must be to learn those areas which have bearing on the performance of the laws.

In addition, one must learn the basic principles of Jewish faith and ethics, for without a broad and deep understanding of these subjects it is not possible to properly know the Jewish outlook on life. These fundamentals are to be found in the "Tanakh" (Bible), and in the Midrashic teachings of our Sages as they appear in the Talmud, Midrash Rabba, and Tanchuma. But Midrash alone is not enough. Rather, one must proceed to learn a number of the basic books that have been written by leading rabbis over the generations. One of the more important of these books is "The Kuzari," which lays down the fundamentals of the Jewish faith and the Torah of Israel. It is also advisable to study the writings of Rabbi Yehuda Liva, the Maharal of Prague, for they add depth to the Midrash in all areas of faith and ethics, and the writings of Rabbi A.I. Kook, as they examine closely all areas of the Jewish faith while addressing contemporary issues. In addition, one must learn books on ethics such as Rabbi Moshe Chaim Lutzatto's classic "Path of the Just," and Rabbenu Bachya's "Duties of the Heart." Furthermore, each individual must seek out those books that speak to his own soul. Some identify with the writings of Rabbi Moshe Chaim Lutzatto, the "Ramchal." Others discover an important commentary to the Torah, for example, those of "Ramban" or "Or HaChaim;" some find it important to studying Chassidic works, while others identify more with Rambam's "Guide to the Perplexed" and other such books.
In summary, it is most important that every Jew know well all of the laws that are relevant to actual practice.

4 - Talmud and Practical Halakha
We have said that the commandment to study Torah obligates us to learn the entire Torah, both Written and Oral, down the practical law. Those laws which are relevant to practice must be studied thoroughly, and in detail, while the laws which have no bearing on practice should be studied without relating to their finer details. We must, though, take note of a central difficulty when it comes to knowing the basics of the Torah. With the passing of the generations, the number of books has grown to the point where there is no end. Already in the period of the "Rishonim" (tenth to fifteenth centuries) many commentaries on the Talmud began to be compiled. At that time, though, it was customary for students to learn the Talmud with no more than an additional one or two commentaries at the most. In this manner, one was still able to cover the entire Talmud together with the resultant Halakhic decisions in a reasonable amount of time. Yet, in the period of the "Achronim" (fifteenth century to present), the number of books grew substantially, and on each section of Talmud there came into existence numerous commentaries. Law decisions, too, became longer and more detailed; in the period of the Rishonim Rabbis concentrated on laying down general rules, while the Achronim investigated at length the details of the implications of the words of the Rishonim. Regarding these details they added a great many speculations and opinions. The result - the body of Rabbinic literature that exists today is more than a thousand times larger than that which existed in the period of the Rishonim. Consequently, many students delve into many books and examine all of the differing opinions. The time it takes to study each topic has become very great, such that there exists no possibility of covering all of the fundamentals of the Torah.

Therefore, in order to fulfill the commandment of Torah study, the meaning of which is to know the Torah, one must learn books which summarize all of those fundamentals that have been clarified in the in the words of the Talmud, the Rishonim, and the Achronim. Only in this manner is one able to cover all of the fundamentals of Jewish law with a reasonable level of understanding.

Some have advised, for this reason, to study those Talmudic tractates that are most relevant to practice, along with the commentary of Rabbenu Asher, or "Rosh." Others felt it best to study the comprehensive Halakhic work known as "Arba'ah Turim," composed by Rabbi Yaakov son of the "Rosh," together with the "Beit Yaakov" commentary, written by Rabbi Yoseph Karo, which encompasses all of the laws, covering their sources in the Talmud and in the writings of the Rishonim. Yet today, even the "Beit Yoseph" does not encompass the entire body of the Halakha, for all of the novelle, Halakhic decisions, and responsa of the outstanding Torah scholars of the past four hundred years are not included in it. Sadly, there is at present no one book that fulfills all requirements, summarizing the sources in the Scriptures, bringing the main reasoning of the Rishonim and the Achronim, down to the final practical rulings. Despite this, it is possible to create a study program based primarily on those tractates whose subject matter is more practical, and based on the Shulchan Arukh and additional Halakhic works that were written after the Shulchan Arukh. This can be done in such a manner that the more practical laws be studied in depth, while the less practical laws be learned in brief. In this way, most of the students, even those who are not especially talented, will be able to learn all of the fundamentals of the Torah and to take up family life armed with a firm grasp of the necessary practical Torah laws.

Clearly, students vary in nature - some are more talented and others less, and each must learn according to his level. There are those who will learn all of the fundamentals of the laws in brief, and with limited explanation; others will manage to learn all of the fundamentals in depth with profound and detailed explanation. What is important is that each student, with the completion of his studies, should know all of the Mitzvoth, and all of the practical fundamentals of the Halakha.

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