by 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.