Beit Midrash

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

The Torah study is dedicated in the memory of

Asher Ben Chaim

Part 3

The Laws of Torah Study

How many hours a day should a person study? What is the goal in studying Torah, understanding or remembering? What does it take to become a Torah scholar? Rabbi Eliezer Melamed provides answers to these and other interesting questions.


Rabbi Eliezer Melamed

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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