Torah as a Value

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valuesby R. Gil Student

The latest issue of Klal Perspectives addresses the role of the yeshiva graduate layman. How can he maintain his self esteem when he no longer follows his training to focus primarily on Torah study? The Mishnah says to make Torah study our primary activity (keva) and earning a living secondary. Very few can do that in today’s economy.

Rav Mordechai Willig answered this in a lecture adapted into an article published in the first issue of the Torah U-Madda Journal. The Rambam (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhos Talmud Torah 1:12) writes that a man should spend most of his day learning Torah, dividing his day into 3 hours for work, 9 for Torah study and the rest for sleeping, eating and other necessities. How can anyone today do that? Using the language of ikar and tafel, which for our purposes I will translate as primary and secondary, he suggests that we refocus the concept into a matter of values, albeit without entirely losing the time priorities.

He writes (Torah U-Madda Journal, vol. 1 p. 98):

The only caveat (in study secular subject to earn a living) is, and this is critical, that the person has to know what is primary and what is secondary.

This value judgment is true in two sense: the sense of time and the sense of value… If a person cannot achieve that kind of ratio in his daily schedule, he should at least maintain the proper priorities. This is the sense of values, the sense of what is ultimately important in his life.

This position is espoused by the ba’alei musar. They maintain that [the statement of the Sages to “make your Torah primary and your work secondary”] even though they knew that people in Europe didn’t follow the Rambam’s daily schedule. Most people were clearly spending more time on earning a livelihood than on their Torah learning. Still the ba’alei musar kept emphasizing that the major interest of every Jew must be [Torah study]. If making a living takes nine hours and only three are left for Torah, so be it. But those three have to be the most important ones of the day. The others are only there to help a person physically survive.

I add that beyond learning, Torah should excite you. It should be your passion. When you are falling asleep, you should be thinking about a Torah problem. When you stand idly in the elevator, rather than playing with your phone you should be trying to resolve a difficult text. In that way, you never leave Torah even if you are in the office for over twelve hours a day (I’m heading into my thirteenth right now, taking a dinner break). When Torah is the highlight of your day, it is truly primary even if you lack much time to devote to it.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Editor of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student has served two terms on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and currently serves as the Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He serves on the Editorial Boards of Jewish Action magazine, the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society and the Achieve Journal of Behavioral Health, Religion & Community, as well as the Board of OU Press. He has published five English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

3 comments

  1. R’ Reisman said much the same thing in a shiur that will appear in a special audioroundup. This approach works for me but my observation is that there are many who aren’t excited by Torah learning, and it’s not all because of improper chinuch. What do we tell them?

    • It’s fine for YU people, being a derivative of the Litvishe yeshiva movement, to promote a learning-centric ideal. (It is even more natural when the point of comparison is the time and effort the talmidim invest in their secular studies to compare it to talmud Torah in particular.)

      I wouldn’t take that to mean the ideal RMW describes is the only valid ideal, disenfranchising other derakhim.

      In any case, iqar vs tafeil works for Torah in general. One can view the iqar of having a job as providing a venue for developing one’s middos, whereas earning an income is a side effect.

      Or, to quote R’ Shimon Shkop:
      The beginning of the receiving of the Torah through Moses was a symbol and sign for all of the Jewish people who receive the Torah [since]. Just as Hashem told Moses, “Carve for yourself two stone Tablets”, so too it is advice for all who receive the Torah. Each must prepare Tablets for himself, to write upon them the word of Hashem. According to his readiness in preparing the Tablets, so will be his ability to receive. …

      To my mind, one can use this idea to elaborate what our sages explained in Nedarim (folio 38[a]) on the verse “carve for yourself”. Moses didn’t get rich except through the extras of the Tablets. This is an amazing idea – [is it possible that] Hashem couldn’t find any way to make Moses wealthy except through the extras of the Tablets? But through what we said, we can explain this. Through this change of how Tablets are to be readied, there was given opportunity for those who receive the Torah to fear, to accept upon themselves the yoke of Torah. …

      For this reason the Holy One showed Moses as a sign to all who accept the Torah that He would prepare for them their income through the making of the Tablet; any “extras that are carved away” will provide them with income.

  2. I add that beyond learning, Torah should excite you. It should be your passion. When you are falling asleep, you should be thinking about a Torah problem. When you stand idly in the elevator, rather than playing with your phone you should be trying to resolve a difficult text. In that way, you never leave Torah even if you are in the office for over twelve hours a day (I’m heading into my thirteenth right now, taking a dinner break).

    Additionally, the Rav’s Halakhic Man should be taught to frum college students. It is valuable to have the goal of being able to view one’s work through the lens of the halacha. Even work can be a religious event with some perspective and knowledge. Indeed, Rav Chaim Volozhin says this pretty much in his commentary to Avot 2:2 (http://hebrewbooks.org/pdfpager.aspx?req=14555&st=&pgnum=28)

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