Religious Zionism and Kollel

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by R. Gil Student

The issue of kollel study serves as the basis of many heated debates in the Orthodox community. The right wing advance full-time Torah study as the standard while the Modern Orthodox promote work, studying Torah while in college and while working. However, a number of Modern Orthodox communities house local kollelim, sponsored by Yeshiva University, indicating a middle ground that requires elaboration. What is perhaps the founding text of Religious Zionism discusses this issue and demonstrates a nuanced middle position that I think represents the dominant Modern Orthodox view.

In 1862, Rav Tzvi Hirsch Kalischer published his magnum opus, Derishas Tziyon, calling for Jewish settlement in Israel and the reinstitution of animal sacrifices in Jerusalem. The book made waves, generating discussion among leading rabbis for decades. In particular, Rav Kalischer raised funds for the organization Chevras Yishuv Eretz Yisrael, which sponsored the existing settlement in Israel and its proposed expansion.

In the book’s Preface, Rav Kalischer discusses possible objections to his fundraising request. Among them is that the expansion of agricultural work opportunities in Israel would draw its impoverished inhabitants away from studying Torah. Rav Kalischer responds on two levels. First, not everyone in the Israeli settlements are learning Torah. If they work, they will be able to support their local Torah scholars. However, he adds that he is only referring to the elderly and weak. Young, strong men should work the land and study Torah in their free time. The Talmud (Berakhos 35b) quotes Rava as telling people that he did not want to see them in the study hall during the harvest and pressing times of Nissan and Tishrei so they would earn money.

Rav Kalischer adds two more points. First, working in Israel–developing the land–is an additional mitzvah. Second, people who work for a living, who are not compensated for their Torah study, learn with entirely pure intentions. He quotes Tanna Devei Eliyahu Zuta (18) and Berakhos (7a) that someone who works for a living and learns Torah, i.e. who is financially self-sufficient, will be rewarded in this world and the next.

All this seems to argue for kollel for retirees only. Those who are able to work should do so and learn Torah in their free time. In 1866, Rav Kalischer republished Derishas Tziyon with additional comments called Rishon Le-Tziyon. In his additions to the Preface, Rav Kalischer adds more nuance to his position on kollel.

Berakhos (35b) records a debate between R. Yishmael and R. Shimon Bar Yochai. The former believed you should learn Torah when you are not working. The latter believed you should always learn Torah. The Gemara concludes that many tried R. Shimon Bar Yochai’s approach and failed, implying that the proper approach is to work, as stated by the Tanna Devei Eliyahu mentioned above.

Rav Kalischer adds three more points. We have to be realistic: Not everyone who works will rise to the challenge and learn Torah in all his free time. Rav Kalisher quotes the Maharsha’s commentary to Berakhos (17a) that people will inevitably learn different amounts outside of work. As long as their intentions are pure, they will be rewarded equally in heaven.

Additionally, Rav Kalischer expresses concern that a young man will spend all his time working without learning Torah at all. An ambitious worker will set his sights high and spend all his time progressing in his career. When will he learn? Therefore, it is important for a young man to spend time in yeshiva without any worries beyond learning Torah. Kollel has its place for the young, to develop their skills and command of Torah.

However, some people will show such dedication to Torah that they should dedicate their lives to learning it full time. Rav Kalischer states that none of his comments refer to those who rise on the ladder of spirituality and permanently find their place in the study hall. Such people should learn Torah without restriction.

In the end, Rav Kalischer’s view seems to be that full-time yeshiva and/or kollel is appropriate for the young, the old and those few unique individuals who exhibit exceptional devotion and promise. The majority of people should spend the majority of their lives working, contributing materially to society and learning Torah as much as possible in their free time. In practice, much of the Chareidi world–particularly outside of Israel–functions this way, as well. However, they see kollel study as the ideal while Rav Kalischer, and the Modern Orthodox community, sees working as the ideal.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Editor of, 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 currently is serving his third term on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and also serves as the Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He serves on the Editorial Board of Jewish Action magazineand the Board of OU Press. He has published four 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.

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