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Beit Midrash Series Ein Ayah

The Relative Values of History and Torah

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(condensed from Ein Ayah, Shabbat 1:68)

Gemara: Rav Kahana said: When Rabbi Yishmael the son of Rabbi Yossi became sick, they sent to him [the following message]: "Our master, tell us two or three things that you told us in the name of your father." He sent back: "This is what Father said: …" [The teachings were all about the history of the latter part of the Second Commonwealth.]

Ein Ayah: There is a difference between the study of Torah, which is fundamental within Judaism, and other areas of study, even those that are necessary. All other areas of study that have practical purposes are of value according to their use and the necessity for them. Exaggerating the value of the subject matter is counter-productive. In contrast, the improvement that Torah makes in one who studies it exceeds the practical value of the knowledge he absorbs by virtue of his involvement in Torah study in and of itself, as the pasuk says: "The Torah of his G-d is in his heart" (Tehillim 37:31).
The exact details of national history must be known by some within the nation. The unfolding of events is part of a nation’s heritage, which has a positive impact on the love people have for their nation. However, one cannot compare the value of knowing Jewish history to the value of knowing the intricacies of the Torah. Knowing every detail of the Torah is a special value that emanates from the sanctity of Israel, which separates us from every other nation. That is different from knowledge of national history, which applies to every nation. While it is true that our knowledge of our history is more important than others’ for theirs, that is because of the special role we have in the world.
In summary, knowledge of national history is dear to us, but it is important to be careful to realize that it should not be placed on the same pedestal as the sanctity of the words of Torah. The one exception to this is those historical events which Hashem chose to write directly in the Torah. About these we say that "the words of the servants of the forefathers" are themselves considered words of Torah because the Divine Providence saw fit to include them in the Torah. However, in regard to the basic concept of the recording of events, it must always be remembered that there is a difference between the sacred and the mundane. Then people will not make the mistake of thinking that all matters of Torah are valuable specifically by virtue of their connection to that which is national.
It is important to show that involvement in Torah study is special, beyond the knowledge that it provides. That is why our beracha before Torah study is "… to be involved in the words of Torah." That is not the case regarding history. While our love of the nation makes it important that certain facts about it not be forgotten, that should be done without equating its value to that of Torah.
For that reason, Rabbi Yishmael, who was a repository of historical information transmitted by his father, did not place stress on teaching these matters to his disciples during his lifetime. It was enough that the information would survive, which it did within his mind. It did not pay to waste precious moments of Torah study to share them. However, when he became ill with what was apparently the disease from which he died, and there was a chance that valuable information could become lost for eternity, his disciples requested of him to relay certain matters of history to them.
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