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Is Leisure Kosher?

 

leisureThe Jewish attitude to leisure is complex and reveals a fundamental divide over religion. The New York Times recently reported that a Chasidic camp had ceased sports activities (link). If taken at face value, the article implies that Judaism, or at least the Satmar version, forbids any leisure activity. Is this an accurate depiction of Jewish thought?

I’m not sure I fully believe the article’s description. It also says that the boys learn “a total of more than six hours throughout the day.” While that is a lot of time, it does not constitute a full day. It sounds like a learning camp, where the boys learn Torah more than most other camps but still have plenty of recreational activities. They may not play sports but they clearly do many other fun things when they are not learning.

Be that as it may, this article offers us an opportunity to discuss leisure and fun in the Jewish tradition. When discussing leisure, we do not mean idleness, laziness and mischievous play–all of which have been denounced (batalah, atzlus, sechok). We mean down time, a break from serious, productive activity. I am not sure whether such a concept existed in pre-modern times but a similar question is whether one may take an afternoon nap, as we will discuss.

A Jewish man is required to spend all his free time studying Torah (see Shulchan Arukh, Yoreh Deah 246:25). All time engaged in unnecessary activities is wasted, bitul Torah. However, no one can concentrate continuously. Constant study is unattainable. We need breaks, down time, naps, leisure–all kosher, of course, both in spirit and in content. In contemporary Judaism, I see three main attitudes toward leisure.

Constructive Leisure

The first is leisure as an opportunity for personal development. R. Norman Lamm wrote an essay titled “A Jewish Ethics of Leisure” (in Faith & Doubt: Studies in Traditional Jewish Thought) in which he advances the idea that leisure is a time for expanding one’s personality. It is a time of creativity, expression, discovery and transformation. If I may take liberty in expanding his presentation, people exercise different aspects of your brain during leisure, often arriving at intellectual and emotional discoveries by indirect means. Additionally, leisure includes the arts, which spark ideas and contemplation. In this sense, leisure is a form of non-traditional study and self-development.

Furthermore, leisure includes exercise, which is important for health (see Mishneh Torah, Hilkhos Dei’os ch. 4). Sports, hiking and working out are important avenues for maintaining and improving health. It is this aspect that is similar to a nap. A nap can improve some people’s health, depending on their situation. For them, naps are a form of medicine and therefore a mitzvah.

Hiking adds to exercise the dimension of appreciating nature, God’s creation. This can increase our belief in and awe of God. In all these senses, leisure is a mitzvah.

Distractive Leisure

But leisure is much more, or rather much less, than that. I have read a few stories about famous rabbis who, at some point in their lives, were ordered by doctors to spend extensive time without thinking deeply. Apparently, they had overexerted themselves in their studies and suffered from some sort of nervous breakdown. Because of such a personal experience, R. Yisrael Meir Kagan (the Chafetz Chaim) reportedly would blow out the candles (turn out the lights) in his yeshiva’s study hall at night to force the students to go to bed and take a break.

Life is full of different kinds of pressures and everyone responds differently to them. Leisure provides a much needed occasional relief from these pressures. Like a nap relieves exhaustion, a break relieves pressure. On this aspect, the Shulchan Arukh (Orach Chaim 231:1) rules that if you need a nap in order to learn Torah, you may take one. Even though a nap is bitul Torah (Rashi, Sukah 26a sv. lishon), it is permissible if it furthers the study of Torah. Similarly, a break that helps you study Torah afterward is also permissible.

The key, writes the Shulchan Arukh, is the following verse: “In all your ways acknowledge Him” (Prov. 3:6). The Sages (see Berakhos 63a) explained this verse to mean that everything you do, whether specifically a mitzvah or not, should be intended for the sake of a mitzvah. As long as you intend your actions–eating, sleeping, discussing–as a form of worship, as a religious activity, then it constitutes a mitzvah.

The Chovos Ha-Levavos (Avodah, ch. 4) offers a classic explanation of this concept that serves as a foundation of modern thought. Most people see things in this world in three categories: required (mitzvah), forbidden (issur) and neutral (reshus). However, this is incorrect. Something neutral that is done for the sake of Heaven becomes a mitzvah while if done for other reasons is part of issur. Even the aspects of life that do not fall under direct commandment are still subject to religious evaluation based on intention.

With this in mind, we can confidently say that leisure le-sheim Shamayim, for positive religious purposes, is a mitzvah, even if not in the technical sense of fulfilling a commandment. If it gives you a much-needed break, provides some balance in your life and relieves some of your pressure, then it is a mitzvah.

But when leisure becomes a goal in itself, it is improper. Just like an unnecessary nap is forbidden, so too is an unnecessary break. Fun must be for the sake of a break (she-lo li-shmah), and not for the sake of fun. It must be a means to a religious end and not an end in itself.

Excessive leisure is not a break but a goal. For this reason, I believe, R. Shlomo Aviner only approves of a little standup comedy (with kosher content) and not too much. Similarly, R. Yisrael Lifschitz (Tiferes Yisrael, Avos ch. 6 n. 84, quoted in Piskei Teshuvos 155:4) allows for a little shmoozing, because it relaxes the soul. Levity, joy, fun is part of a healthy personality. When used for religious purposes, it is itself a religious tool. Otherwise, it is forbidden (link).

Disruptive Leisure

There is a third attitude I see in contemporary Judaism that I find troubling. Some see Judaism as a series of ritual behaviors, with the time in between unguided by religion. They may consider Judaism to be a very encompassing religion, with many daily activities. However, other than the rituals, everything else is non-religious (barring explicit prohibitions). Therefore, as long as they pray with a minyan, wear tefillin, learn some Torah, recite blessings, etc.–all praiseworthy–they can spend their free time as they wish.

If so, there is no question about leisure. If it isn’t forbidden and doesn’t interfere with other religious obligations, why should Judaism object? You have fulfilled all your obligations to God!

I do not believe this is a legitimate view. Going back to the Chovos Ha-Levavos and the Shulchan Arukh, everything we do has to involve God. Judaism is an all-encompassing religion. Everything is either religiously positive or negative. There is no neutral territory. There is certainly room for personal tastes and judgments, for decisions on how to allocate one’s time. But if done for the wrong intentions, these judgmental areas are not neutral but negative.

Leisure is not a gift but an opportunity. An opportunity to expand our horizons, to grow our understanding of ourselves and the world, and to relax and recharge our batteries. When used as a tool to become better Jews, leisure is a religiously positive activity. But when abused or overused, leisure becomes a religious trap. I have no doubt that too many people consume too much popular entertainment, using it as an end rather than as a means. In our affluent society, this is perhaps among our biggest challenges, distracting us from true religiosity through dulling entertainment. Together, we must all shift our attitudes and learn to use our time wisely.

(See also this essay by Avi Woolf: Does Modern Orthodoxy Not Believe In Fun?)

 

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Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the founder, publisher and editor-in-chief of Torah Musings.

 
The opinions and facts here are presented solely by the author. Torah Musings assumes no responsibility for them. Please address religious questions to your rabbi.
 

9 Responses

  1. Ephrayim says:

    as long as they pray with a minyan, wear tefillin, learn some Torah, recite blessings, etc.–all praiseworthy–they can spend their free time as they wish…I do not believe this is a legitimate view.

    This essay is predicated on the understanding that it is incumbent on all (male) Jews to always learn Torah except when engaging in other types of constructive behavior. Ergo, if the leisure is not to build character or reinvigorate one for more Torah learning the leisure is illegitimate. However, this is far from simple. A full discussion of the chiyuv of talmud Torah is not possible here and has already been written up in many places. Let me just quote a few prominent authorities which disagree with this assertion.

    אבן האזל – הלכות מלכים, ג, ו
    ונראה דכאן אנו דנים באיסור המלך לשתות אף שרוצה להתענג בשתיה וכן בהלכה ו’ שרוצה להיות מצוי אצל אשתו. וזה אינו אלא במלך, אבל בהדיוט מותר לו להתענג אף שזה יגרום לבטול תורה בהכרח על ידי השכרות או בעילת הנשים. ולהדיוט אינו אסור אלא לבטל תורה בלי כל סיבה שאז אם הוא מסיר לבו מהתורה עובר על “ופן יסורו מלבבך כל ימי חייך”, ועוד הרבה פסוקים מחיובי תלמוד תורה.

    (ערוך השולחן אורח חיים, קנו, ב (על דברי השו״ע ״ומכל מקום לא יעשה מלאכתו עיקר אלא עראי״
    ויראה לי דזהו בתלמיד חכם שעיקר עסקו בתורה כמבואר ביורה דעה סימן רמו. אבל בבעל בית סתם לא שייך זה ועל סתם בעל בית אין מוטל חיוב רק לקבוע עתים לתורה. ואותם שואלים ביום הדין קבעת עתים לתורה. דלתלמיד חכם שעיקר עסקו בתורה לא שייך לומר קבעת עתים שהרי החיוב עליו ללמוד תמיד כל היום וכל הלילה לבד מה שמוכרח לפרנסתו.

    Throughout history we have had talmidei chachamim skilled and knowledgeable in many fields. It is impossible to attribute their comprehensive knowledge to what they studied while in the bathroom or to their leisure breaks from Torah learning. The view of the Even Ha’Azel has always been around. The Aruch HaShulachan takes a slightly different view but it also allows for leisure activities for non-talmidei chachamim (but not for talmidei chachamim, however, it is possible that he is referring to the Talmudic talmid chacham which we no longer have, and thus anybody nowadays may engage in such activities).

    • Gil Student says:

      Some things are halakhah ve-ein morin kein, particularly the Rama in YD 246:1 (about sh’as ha-dechak). Regardless, this is irrelevant because it does not exempt people from the requirement that kol ma’asekha yihyu le-sheim Shamayim.

      • Ephrayim says:

        Who decided that this is הלכה ואין מורין כן? Aruch HaShulchan codified this without any such qualification.

        No one is saying that it is good to use one’s time for leisure activities. Both Torah and common sense say that one should make the best of one’s time. The question only is what is permitted use of time. By asking “is leisure kosher” you seemed to be addressing this issue. Since you are addressing the strict halacha, sources that exhort proper time management and decry leisurely activity are irrelevant. Therefore וכל מעשיך יהיו לשם שמים is irrelevant here because this is a general idea that the Torah strongly encourages but not an absolute halachic chiyuv. Similarly Micha’s קדושים תהיו is irrelevant for the same reason.

        To be honest, if we were to tally all of authorities who have expressed an opinion about this matter the overwhelming majority would agree that there is a constant chiyuv of talmid Torah which is only suspended for necessary or otherwise important and constructive endeavors. I was just pointing out that 1. there are legitimate dissenting views; and 2. that this seems to have been the actual practical halacha for the longest time and implicit in the actions of many great talmidei chachamim.

        • Gil Student says:

          I got the idea that this is halakhah ve-ein morin kein from the Gemara (Menachos 99b): ודבר זה אסור לאומרו בפני עם הארץ. You could counter that the Shakh says we do not pasken like that view, and I would respond that the Mareh Kohen points out that our text of the Hagahos Maimoniyos is different than the Shakh’s. Be that as it may, I had the Gemara in mind.

          As to the idea that this is “strict halacha,” I can’t see how anyone could have gotten that idea from reading this essay. Additionally, since the Shulchan Aruch and other codes felt that “kol ma’asekha yihyu le-shem Shamayim” is binding, it cannot be merely dismissed as unimportant. Judaism in its totality is binding, not just blank and white halakhah.

          • Ephrayim says:

            I was not referring to kriat shma shachrit varvit but to the Aruch HaShulchan that I quoted in my first comment. I see no analogy between saying talmud Torah is not a full time chiyuv and saying one can be yotzeh talmud Torah (bedieved) with kriat shma.

            Nobody is dismissing kol maasecha or any other important proverb. But if the discussion is halacha we must make sure not to muddle proverbs into the discussion.

            I read your essay as a confluence of halacha and hashkafa. Please excuse my comments if I misunderstood you. You did however start off your essay with this exact halachic point:
            A Jewish man is required to spend all his free time studying Torah (see Shulchan Arukh, Yoreh Deah 246:25). All time engaged in unnecessary activities is wasted, bitul Torah.
            My comments should at least serve to clarify this wrongly unequivocal statement.

            • Gil Student says:

              I see. I don’t read the Arukh HaShulchan the same way you are. I see him as agreeing with the Rema. A person clearly is allowed to stop his learning to work. But what if you work all day and night? How do you deal with the requirement to make your learning permanent and your work temporary? The Aruch HaShulchan is saying that if you are working, you’re OK but you should still set aside set times for learning. He is saying nothing additional about leisure.

              The Even HaAzel is very interesting and I was not aware of it. I’d like to take a look at it and other of his comments to get the full context. Thank you for bringing it to my attention.

              • Ephrayim says:

                It’s true that the Aruch HaShulchan says nothing about leisure, but he also doesn’t say what you make him out to say. Aruch HaShulchan presents his opinion as explaining what Rama himself really meant (whether he really thought he was arguing is ambiguous and this is a common problem with rabbinic decorum). He simply states that תורתו קבע ומלאכתו עראי does not apply to a balabus. There is no hint or reason to explain him as if he were saying that if you can’t make Torah עיקר then do the best you can even if it is עראי. He in fact explains that the chiyuv to learn all the time only applies a talmid chacham whose job it is to learn. A balabus has different chiyuv and so as long as he is koveiah itim he has fulfilled it. A talmid chacham can never have “free time” because his job is to be learning at all times except for the time he uses for his personal needs. However, a balabus can, and he may use it as he desires, so as long as it does not involve anything assur.

  2. joel rich says:

    My father taught me that time is our most valuable and perishable resource, how we spend it in practice defines who we are.

    2 points:
    1. This allocation is not subject to neat algorithms and requires a tremendous amount of continual self discipline and honesty
    2. In your formulation isn’t there a tendency to continually scrimp on the relaxation as a “necessary evil”?
    3,There is a broader time allocation question – is there one and only one allocation which maximizes HKB”H’s happiness with us or are there multiple equal allocations?

  3. micha says:

    To quote R’ Shimon Shkop, the haqdamah to Shaarei Yosher:

    לכן נראה לפי עניות דעתי, שבמצוה זו ["קדושים תהין"] כלול כל יסוד ושורש מגמת תכלית חיינו, שיהיו כל עבודתנו ועמלנו תמיד מוקדשים לטובת הכלל, שלא נשתמש בשום מעשה ותנועה, הנאה ותענוג שלא יהיה בזה איזה ענין לטובת זולתנו, וכמובן בכל הקדשות שהוא התיחדות למטרה נכבדה, הנה כשהאדם מישר הליכותיו ושואף שתמיד יהיו דרכי חייו מוקדשים להכלל, אז כל מה שעושה גם לעצמו להבראת גופו ונפשו הוא מתיחס גם כן אל מצות קדושה, שעל ידי זה יטיב גם לרבים, שבטובתו לעצמו הוא מטיב עם הרבים הצריכים לו, אבל אם הוא נהנה הנאה מן סוג המותריות, שאינן דרושות להבראת גופו ונפשו, הנאה זו היא נגד הקדושה, שבזה הוא מטיב לעצמו לרגע לפי דמיונו, ולזולתו אין שום תועלת.

    And so, it appears to my limited understanding that this mitzvah ["Be holy, for I Am Holy"] includes the entire foundation and root of the purpose of our lives. All of our work and effort should constantly be sanctified to doing good for the community. We should not use any act, movement, or get benefit or enjoyment that doesn’t have in it some element of helping another. And as understood, all holiness is being set apart for an honorable purpose which is that a person straightens his path and strives constantly to make his lifestyle dedicated to the community. Then, anything he does even for himself, for the health of his body and soul he also associates to the mitzvah of being holy, for through this he can also do good for the masses. Through the good he does for himself he can do good for the many who rely on him. But if he derives benefit from some kind of permissible thing that isn’t needed for the health of his body and soul, that benefit is in opposition to holiness. For in this he is benefiting himself (for that moment as it seems to him), but to no one else does it have any value.

 
 

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