Beit Midrash

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

The Torah study is dedicatedin the memory of

Hana Bat Chaim

Part 2

The Laws of Torah Study

Which should receive priority: Torah, Talmud, or Halakha? What takes preference, studying or helping the needy? Should marriage be delayed for the sake of Torah study? Rabbi Eliezer Melamed provides answers to these and other interesting questions.


Rabbi Eliezer Melamed

2 min read
Scripture, Mishnah, and Talmud
The Torah encompasses numerous and varied fields, and therefore one of the first questions that arise regarding Torah study is: What is the preferred order of study?
The Talmud (Kiddushin 30b) offers fundamental 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, Scripture, includes all of the books of the Tanakh (Bible). The second third encompasses the body of work called Mishnah and includes all of the "Mishnayot," "Baraithot," binding Halakhic decisions, as well as the Scriptural commentary and interpretations of the Mishnaic Sages. In previous generations, the study of Mishnah indeed involved learning all binding Halakhic decisions; today, though, knowledge of practical law can be acquired from works compiled after the completion of the Talmud. Such works (e.g. Rabbi Yoseph Karo's "Shulchan Arukh" and other Halakhic codes which summarize the laws in brief) include Halakhic clarifications of both the Sages of the Talmud, and the early rabbinic Sages from the tenth-fifteenth centuries. Consequently, the Mishnaic third of an individual's study must today focus primarily on books of practical law.
The final third of a Jew's study-time should be devoted to the study of Talmud. This means understanding the reason and rationale that underpin the binding Halakhic decisions which appear in the Mishnah and various Halakhic codes. Lubavitch's "Alter Rebbe," Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, explains that the best way to accomplish this is either by studying the Talmud itself with the commentary of Rabbenu Asher, the "Rosh," or by studying Rabbi Yaakov ben Asher's monumental code of Jewish law, the "Tur," with Rabbi Yoseph Karo's commentary, known as the "Beit Yosef" (Shulchan Arukh HaRav, Hilkhot Talmud Torah, 2:1). In the "Rosh" and the "Beit Yosef," the logic behind the laws is satisfactorily covered. In this manner, it is possible for the student, without too much trouble, to become familiarized with all of the practical laws of the Torah together with their reasons. It is worth mentioning that the analysis of questions in Jewish thought likewise falls under the heading of Talmud.

Having discussed these three study ingredients, let us address the question of study hours.
Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, "Rambam," and Rabbi Yoseph Karo, write that a Jew's daily study time should be divided into three equal parts: a third dedicated to Scripture, a third to Mishnah and Halakha, and a third to the reasoning and rationale behind the laws. And though the amount of time needed for the study of Tanakh is considerably less than that needed for the study of Mishnah and Halakha, and though the field of practical law pales in comparison to that of Talmudic analysis - the bottom line is that, at least initially, one's study must be divided into three equal parts. When, in due time, one has covered the entire Tanakh, it is permissible to reduce the amount of time dedicated to it. Similarly, once one has sufficiently covered the practical law, he may turn his attention to Talmudic and Aggadic analysis.
But, according to Rabbenu Nisim, the "Ran," the Sages did not mean to imply that one must divide his study time into three equal parts; rather, from the outset, it is advisable to dedicate more time to the study of Jewish law than to Scripture, and more time to Talmudic analysis than to the study of the law itself. Essentially, what the Sages wish to convey is that one should study all three fields on a daily basis - each field receiving the necessary attention according to its scope.
Rabbi Yaakov ben Meir, "Rabbenu Tam," expresses a third opinion, stating that today one who studies the Talmud alone already fulfills his threefold obligation, for the Talmud itself contains Scriptural verses, Mishnayot and Halakhot, and, of course, the reasoning and logic behind the laws of the Torah.
Regarding a final decision on this matter, we find that while it is permissible to follow the opinion of Rabbenu Tam (see Rema and Shakh, 246:5), most authorities agree that one should set aside time for the study of both Tanakh and Halakha independently (Rambam, Hilkhot Talmud Torah 1:11; Shulchan Arukh 246:5; Bach; and Shulchan Arukh HaRav, Hilkhot Talmud Torah 2:2).

Torah Study vs. Other Commandments
A fundamental question which arises from time to time is, how should a person who is faced with a choice between either studying Torah or fulfilling some other Mitzvah act? Which takes precedent, study or deed?
This is a very good question. On the one hand, it is well known that the Mitzvah to study Torah is the most important of all commandments. On the other hand, the entire purpose of the Torah is to guide us in our daily life. This is the reason that God gave us the Mitzvoth. Furthermore, the Sages teach that the entire aim of acquiring Torah wisdom is repentance and meritorious acts; if a Jew does not perform the commandments of the Torah, what is the purpose of studying Torah at all? According to the Sages, one who studies Torah, yet does not fulfill its commandments, would be better off not studying at all. For such a person the Torah even becomes like a poison, and his punishment is greater than he who neither studied nor performed Mitzvoth to begin with (Talmud, tractate Berakhoth 17a and Yoma 72b).

Accordingly, the rule of thumb in such a case is that if the Mitzvah in question is one that cannot be performed by somebody else, a person must interrupt his Torah study in order to perform it (Moed Katan, 9:1).
Let us be even more specific. Some commandments are incumbent upon every single Jew. Such Mitzvoth call upon one who is presently occupied with Torah study to stop what he is doing in order to perform the commandment. For example, one who is studying Torah must interrupt his study in order to put on Tefillin, recite the "Shema," wave the Four Species, etc. Likewise, if a parent requests help from his or her son, the son is obliged to close his books and assist the parent.
There are other commandments, though, which are not incumbent upon every Jew. Regarding such commandments, the question becomes: Is there somebody else available who can fulfill the Mitzvah? For example, if somebody is in need of a loan, and nobody else can give it to him, one must stop his study in order to provide the loan. Similarly, if a funeral procession is taking place and there are not enough people available in order to honor fittingly the deceased, one must interrupt his study in order to accompany the departed. If, though, there are enough people, it is preferable that one continue his study.
This is the case, too, in a situation where one wishes to turn to a friend for help. It is best to approach first somebody who is not studying in order not to cause an interruption in study. Only if he is unable to find somebody else should he approach somebody who is studying.

The Mitzvah to Know Torah vs. Other Mitzvoth
In light of the aforementioned rule of thumb - i.e., if a commandment cannot be performed by somebody else, a person must interrupt his Torah study in order to perform it himself - a most important principle should be made mention of. As noted, the Mitzvah to study Torah is twofold in nature: There is an obligation to know all of the fundamental principles of the Torah, and there is an obligation to continue delving deeper into the wisdom of the Torah, even after having internalized all of the fundamentals. On the whole, the Mitzvah to know all of the fundamental principles of the Torah occupies youngsters or newly observant Jews who did not study Torah in their childhood.
The rule that one must interrupt his study in order to perform a commandment that cannot be performed by somebody else holds true only in situations where a mastery of the Torah fundamentals does not stand to suffer. If, though, it is clear that fulfilling a particular Mitzvah will lead to the negation of the obligation to know Torah fundamentals, this latter obligation takes precedent.
Therefore, when Yeshiva high schools are approached by representatives of organizations interested in recruiting students for various Mitzvah-oriented volunteer tasks (e.g., caring for the elderly and the sick; participating in first-aid or civil guard duty; assisting the bereaved by completing a necessary quorum of ten at memorial services of the deceased), Yeshiva principles and teachers alike must asses the situation carefully. If it appears that as a result of their volunteer work, the students will not acquire necessary Torah fundamentals, they must advise the students to continue with their studies and refrain from volunteer work. This, despite the fact that no other volunteers will be found.
All of the above holds true for voluntary Mitzvoth - the kind which are not incumbent upon every single Jew. But commandments which are binding upon every single Jew override the Mitzvah to study Torah. Accordingly, Torah study is interrupted in order to put on Tefillin, to recite the Grace after Meals, to hear the blowing of the Shofar on Rosh HaShannah, to wave the Four Species on Succoth, and to eat Matzah on Passover. The reason for this is that these "personal" Mitzvoth do not demand much time; a Jew is therefore able to perform all such commandments, and still have enough time left over to study and know the Torah. (Shulchan Arukh HaRav, Hilkhot Talmud Torah 3:1, and Kuntres Acharon ad loc.).

Torah Study and Marriage
In the preceding section we learned an important fundamental rule: Though the performance of Mitzvoth generally overrides the obligation to study Torah, if the fulfillment of a particular Mitzvah will lead to a situation where one will remain ignorant of Torah fundamentals, Torah study takes precedent. That every Jew be versed in the fundamentals of the Torah is an obligation of the utmost importance.
This is the reason that marriage is delayed. Were this not the case, one would have to marry at the age of thirteen, for at thirteen a Jew becomes obligated to fulfill the commandments - and there is a commandment to marry. Because, though, at this age the youngster must learn the basics of Judaism, the age for marriage is delayed. In order to reach a necessary level of Torah understanding, our Sages advise learning until the age of twenty (Mishnah, Avot 5:21).
In the time of the Mishnah, one would complete the Tanakh by the age of ten; the Mishnah, Halakha, and Midrash by the age of fifteen; the reasons behind the law along with concepts of Jewish though and ethics by the age of twenty. Accordingly, the Sages instructed young men to marry between the ages of eighteen and twenty. For at this point one is close to having mastered the fundamentals of the Torah, and he can leave the study hall in order to establishing a family. And even if one decides to marry immediately upon turning eighteen, he will still be able to finish his studies, for family obligations are not so demanding during the first two years of marriage.
After the student has learned all the Torah's fundamentals, the Mitzvah to marry becomes incumbent upon him, and it is forbidden for him, at this point, to decide that he prefers advancing further in Torah, for only the Mitzvah to learn Torah fundamentals allows for the suspension of the Mitzvah to marry.
Today, due to a number of factors, the age of marriage is pushed off even further than it had been in previous generations. One of the reasons for this is that the Halakhic works of the later rabbinic sages issues of Jewish law have multiplied and become more specific. In practice, then, it takes more time today to learn the fundamentals of Torah. For this reason, most students in our time are advised to put off marriage until after the age of twenty.
Nevertheless, one who finds it difficult to wait is best off marrying sooner and returning to studies after the wedding. In such cases it is to be expected that the study will drag on for a longer period of time than usual. The young husband will have to spend time with his family and earning a living, and will therefore be unable to dedicate all of his time to studies. All things considered, he should be able to complete his acquisition of Torah fundamentals within a number of years.
Furthermore, a student who is certain that marriage will not prevent him from acquiring the necessary basics of Torah - for example, he comes from a wealthy family, or is capable of earning a decent living with a minimal amount of effort - is advised to marry early despite the fact that he has not yet completed his studies. For, as we have seen, there is a Mitzvah to marry at an earlier age, and the only reason that marriage is pushed off is for the purpose of acquiring Torah fundamentals (See Kiddushin 29b, Shulchan Arukh, Yoreh Deah 246: 2; see also Shulchan Arukh HaRav, Hilkhot Talmud Torah 3:1, and Kuntres Acharon ad loc.).

How Many Hours a Day Should be Spent Studying?
Thus far we have addressed questions relating to the type of study with which each Jew must occupy himself during his youth - study which, according to the Sages, continues until approximately the age of twenty. Another important question is, how much time is an adult obligated to spend studying Torah each day?
There appear, at first glance, to be differing and irreconcilable opinions among the Sages. On the one hand, we fine statements to the effect that the majority of a Jew's waking hours should be spent in Torah study. For example, the Sages teach "Make your Torah permanent, and your labor temporary." Rabbi Yishmael indeed held that a Jew should make his Torah study permanent - i.e., should study most of the day - and spend only a small part of his day earning a living (Berakhoth 35b).
On the other hand, we find a wealth of sources which clearly state that most of a Jew's day should be spent in earning a living. For example, in the Talmudic tractate Niddah (70b), the question arises: How can a person become wealthy? The answer given is: He should increase his business dealings, carry out transactions in an honest manner, and beg for compassion from He Who presides over all wealth (i.e., God). This implies that most of ones time should be spent working. In addition, tractate Berakhoth (4b) describes the life of a Jew who returns home from the field in the late afternoon and proceeds to study for a while.
This seeming paradox can be resolved in the following manner: One who is cut out to be a Torah scholar - whether because of inbred talents or because of personal nature and desire - is obligated to "make his Torah permanent, and his labor temporary." One, though, who does not feel that this is his path, is better off spending more of his time working. This sort of person is permitted to spend most of his day earning a living, and may even become financially well off. He must simply be careful to set aside fixed times for studying Torah in order to review the fundamentals and even somewhat widen his Torah knowledge. If a person who follows this route finds himself overloaded with work on any particular day, he should do his best to learn at least one chapter in the morning and one chapter in the evening. If he is unable to find time even for this, he may fulfill his daily obligation of Torah study via the recitation of the "Shema" in the morning and evening prayers. (Menachaot 99b, Shakh Yoreh Deah 241a). To the contrary, this sort of individual should make efforts to earn large sums of money in order to provide for the needy and support students of Torah (See Shulchan Arukh HaRav, Hilkhot Talmud Torah 3:4; see also Orot HaTorah 9:6).
Yet, even one who displays talent in a particular field of work must be careful about two things. Firstly, he must be careful not to forget that which he has learned. In order to prevent this from happening, one must set aside regular times for review. Secondly, he must not waste his time with superfluous recreation. For, so long as a person occupies himself with earning a livelihood, he is not deemed guilty of "Bittul Torah" (lit., nullifying the Torah), but if one simply wastes his time in excessive rest and recreation, he violates the prohibition against "Bittul Torah." In the words of the Sages: " 'Speak of them' (Deuteronomy 6:7) - of them, but not of other things" (Yoma 19b).
It is also important to note that Halakhic authorities advise that one who has only a limited amount of time for studying each day should not learn only Talmud. Rather, he should learn Jewish law, its underlying reasons and sources, and concepts of Jewish thought based upon the Midrash (Drisha, Shakh, Taz on Yoreh Deah 246; Shulchan Arukh HaRav, Hilkhot Talmud Torah 2:9).

The Obligation to Remember What One Learns
An important aspect of the commandment to study Torah is its goal. The objective of Torah study is to know and remember everything that one learns. Many think that the most important part of studying is understanding what one studies, and are unaware that, in truth, remembering one's studies is the true goal.
Hence, the Sages teach: " 'Repeat them...' (Deuteronomy 6:7) - make sure that the Torah be etched in your memory, so that if somebody asks you a question, you not fumble for the answer but respond immediately." (Kiddushin 30a). In other words, the obligation is to know and remember well the Torah. In this manner, one is fittingly equipped to fulfill the commandments of the Torah. An additional reason that it is exceedingly important that the words of the Torah be ingrained in one's mind is that in this manner one becomes attached to the Torah and to the One who gave us the Torah. In this manner one's entire existence is elevated and sanctified.
One who is lax and does not review his studies, thus forgetting things that he had learned, violates a negative commandment, as it is written, "Only be careful to protect your soul exceedingly, lest you forget these things" (Deuteronomy 4:9; Menachot 99b). In addition, the Sages teach that a person who forgets even one thing he studied is viewed by the Torah as having become liable of the death sentence, for he discards the words of the living God. If, though, one's forgetting was the result of unavoidable circumstances - for example, he was absorbed in his profession and was therefore unable to make time for study - he does not become "liable of the death sentence." Yet, as soon as he manages to find free time, he must review his studies (Avot 3:8).
In this vein the Talmud teaches: "Rabbi Yehoshua ben Korcha says, 'Whoever studies Torah and then forgets what he learned resembles a woman who gives birth and then buries her child' " (Sanhedrin 99a).
Constant review of ones studies evidences an intimate bond between the student and the words of the Torah. It is well known that Rabbi Eliyahu ben Shlomo, better known as the "Gaon of Vilna," would evaluate his students according to their attitude toward repeated review. If a student appeared to be bored by review, the Gaon knew that he would not succeed in his studies; but, if a student's desire and joy grew with each repetition, he knew that the student would be capable of making impressive progress in his studies.

A Never-Ending Mitzvah
The unique thing about Torah study is that it is a never-ending Mitzvah. A Jew can never claim to have finished studying Torah, for there is really no end to the number of ideas that are stored in the Torah. In addition, the purpose of studying Torah is not merely to know how to behave and how to view the world; rather, the act of study itself is considered a most elevated Mitzvah. For, when studying Torah one is in fact grappling with the Divine word as it reveals itself in the world. And there is no Mitzvah that bonds man with God more than the Mitzvah of studying Torah. The fundamental difference between the commandment to study Torah and other commandments is that Torah is connected to the spiritual-eternal realm, and therefore the obligation to study is continuously incumbent. Other Mitzvoth, though, are connected to the physical-temporal realm of existence and are therefore dependent on time, place, and person. For example, the Mitzvoth of festivals and prayers are dependent upon time. One can neither celebrate the Festival of Passover in the middle of the winter, nor wear Tefillin on Sabbath or at nighttime. Similarly, there are Mitzvoth dependent upon place. For example, the obligation to separate tithes and priestly dues from produce is incumbent only in Israel and only upon a Jew who grows grains or fruits. In the same respect, many of the Mitzvoth which involve relationships between human beings are dependent upon the plight of individuals, for it is not every day that we happen upon somebody who is need of help; furthermore, an impoverished person is unable to fulfill the obligation of giving charity in all of its fullness. Some Mitzvoth are incumbent upon "Cohenim" (priests) alone, while others obligate all Jews.
The obligation to study Torah, though, because it reflects the eternal realm, is forever binding - day or night, in youth or in old age, as the verse states: "You must meditate upon it day and night" (Joshua 1:8), and as Rambam writes: "Until what age is one obligated to study Torah? Until the day one dies, as the verse states: 'Lest they (i.e., the words of the Torah) leave your heart all the days of your life.' And when one does not study, one forgets" (Hilkhot Talmud Torah 1:10).
In addition, Rambam writes: "Every Jew - rich or poor, healthy or sick, young or very old and weak - is obligated to study Torah. Even a destitute person who lives off of charity and goes begging from door to door, or a husband and father of children, must set fixed times, day and night, for studying Torah, as the verse states: "You must meditate upon it day and night" (Joshua 1:8).

The Crown of Torah
The Sages teach that "the Jewish people are adorned with three crowns." A crown symbolizes honor, and there are three types of honorable people in the Jewish nation. Among the three crowns, two are handed down via inheritance, and one is attained through man's own efforts. The one which is gotten through effort is the most prestigious of them all. The crowns are: The Crown of Torah, the Crown of Priesthood, and the Crown of Kingship. Aaron was given the Crown of Priesthood, as the verse states: "There shall be an everlasting covenant of priesthood for him and for his offspring;" the Crown of Kingship went to David, as the verse states: "His seed will exist forever and his throne like the sun before me;" the crown of Torah, though, is available to every Jew, as the verse states: "Moses commanded us Torah, an inheritance of the congregation of Jacob," whoever desires can come and take it. Lest one claim, "The other two crowns are more important than the Crown of Torah, another verse states: "By me (i.e., the Torah) kings reign and princes decree justice..." - From here it is evident that the Crown of Torah is greater than the other two crowns (Rambam, Hilkhot Talmud Torah 3:1, according to Yoma 72a, b).
The fact that the Crown of Torah is greater than the other two crowns carries Halakhic implications. For example, if a number of needy persons come asking for charity and there is not enough money in the charity box to support all of them, the law states that a Cohen receives before a Levi, a Levi before an Israel (ordinary Jew), and an Israel before a "Mamzer" (bastard). All this holds true in a case where they are of equal intelligence; but if a Mamzer happens to be Torah scholar, and a Cohen Gadol (high priest) an ignoramus, the Mamzer Torah scholar takes precedence.
Indeed, it is a noteworthy fact that in Judaism there is no greater status than that of Torah scholar, and this status is available to all Jews. There are numerous examples of children of paupers who eventually grew to Torah greatness, becoming leading Sages of the Jewish people. Rabbi Akiva, for example, was the destitute son of converts, yet merited becoming one of the great Jewish luminaries of all times. Also Hillel the Elder, who though extremely poor studied Torah tirelessly, grew in Torah to become a great leader of the Jewish people.

Readiness to Receive Torah
Torah is unlike natural sciences. Such subjects can be studied and understood well enough without any prior character improvement. Torah, though, is the word of God, and as such cannot be internalized in one's mind and heart without proper preparation. The sort of preparation needed falls under the heading of character refinement. A person whose character traits have not been refined will not be capable of properly grasping the Torah. Incidentally, one of the explanations given in order to account for the fact that of all the nations, the Jewish people alone were chosen to receive the Torah is that "this nation possesses three distinctive character traits: [Its members are] compassionate, modest, and charitable" (Yevamot 79a). These character traits are the foundation of the Torah.
Of all the numerous undesirable character traits - all of which detract from and impair Torah study - there is no trait as destructive as haughtiness. The words of Torah are likened to water, as the verse states, "Every person that thirsts, come to the water" (Isaiah 55:1). This idea teaches us that the Torah gives life to the world like water, and that just as water flows down to low places, so too, the Torah cannot find its way into the minds of the haughty and self-righteous. Rather, only one who is humble and modest is capable of receiving the God's Divine word (Taanit 7a).
Moreover, one who is overly attached to the physical side of existence will find it impossible to ascend and bond himself to God's Torah. Accordingly, if a person wishes to grow in Torah and to be crowned by the crown of Torah, he should not allow himself to be led astray by various distractions. Nor should he attempt to attain wealth and honor together with his Torah knowledge. Rather, he must be ready to give himself over totally for the sake of Torah study. And even if this means eating bread and salt, drinking water in moderation, and sleeping on the earth - if one truly desires acquiring Torah, one must labor continuously for Torah knowledge, for only one who dedicates all of his energy to acquiring Torah will merit attaining it (see Rambam Hilkhot Talmud Torah 3:6).

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