When In Doubt, Learn Torah

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by R. Gil Student

I. Don’t Disagree

The mourning practices of Tisha B’Av include a prohibition on learning Torah, an activity that naturally leads to joy. Some authorities forbid learning Torah on the afternoon before Tisha B’Av, so you don’t enter the day full of the joy of Torah. Others permit it because the mourning has not yet started. Rav Yechiel Michel Epstein (Arukh Ha-Shulchan, Orach Chaim 553:4) rules leniently for a compelling reason: Whenever there is a possibility, we should rule leniently to prevent bitul Torah, the loss of Torah study. I believe this line of reasoning can be found in an obscure 16th century debate.

The Gemara (Sanhedrin 110a) says that one who disagrees with his rebbe, his Torah mentor, is as if he disagrees with the divine presence. The prooftext is Num. 26:9, which mentions Dosson and Aviram’s part in Korach’s rebellion against Moshe, also describing it as a rebellion against God. The verse implies that the rebellion against Moshe, their teacher, was equivalent to a rebellion against God.

Rambam (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhos Talmud Torah 5:1-3) includes refraining from disagreeing as part of the elements of honor you are required to show your Torah mentor. Rambam (par. 2) defines disagreeing with your rebbe (cholek al rabo) as: “What is meant by disputing the authority of one’s teacher? A person who establishes a house of study [where] he sits, explains, and teaches without his teacher’s permission in his teacher’s lifetime. [This applies] even when one’s teacher is in another country.” (Touger translation) The Tur (Yoreh De’ah 242) quotes this as authoritative.

II. Cracow Yeshiva

In the early 1580’s, Rav Yosef Katz — brother-in-law of Rav Moshe Isserles, who died in 1572 — found that one of his students had established a yeshiva in the same city, Cracow, without Rav Katz’s permission. Based on the above, Rav Katz and some of his students circulated a ruling to leading rabbis for their signature, forbidding this student from starting the yeshiva without his teacher’s permission. While many rabbis signed, Rav Eliezer Ashkenazi refused. Rav Ashkenazi was raised and studied in Sephardic communities, particularly in Tzefas under Rav Yosef Karo. He served as a judge in Egypt but, due to political concerns, fled. He made his way to Italy and a variety of places, eventually spending his last days in Cracow with someone who would become his good friend, Rav Yosef Katz.

At the time of our concern, Rav Ashkenazi was the rabbi of Posen in Poland and did not yet know Rav Katz personally. Rav Katz had his students reach out to Rav Ashkenazi. Rather than signing, Rav Ashkenazi sent a sharply worded dissent to Rav Katz. We do not have his full letter but Rav Katz, in his reply, quotes much of the letter verbatim (Responsa She’eris Yosef, no. 19) [1]This is quoted in Shakh, Yoreh De’ah 242:2 as Responsa Maharikh from Cracow. An annotated edition of these responsa was published in 1984 by my esteemed professor, Rav Asher Siev.. From what we can tell, Rav Ashkenazi objected that Rambam and Tur represent a minority view. The simple reading of the Gemara is that a student is forbidden to rule contrary to his mentor.

Rav Ashkenazi points out that Rav Moshe Cohen of Lunel (Ramakh, quoted in Kessef Mishneh, ad loc.), Rambam’s French contemporary, says in his glosses on Mishneh Torah that Rambam’s source for his interpretation is unclear. In fact, Ramakh says, in France it was common for students to establish a yeshiva without their teacher’s permission, as long as they were three Persian miles from their teacher. Rav Ashkenazi further notes that Korach did not establish a yeshiva in protest to Moshe. According to the Rambam, what is the Gemara’s prooftext?

III. Responding to Criticism

Rav Katz replies that Ramakh does not disagree with Rambam. He only questions the source of Rambam’s interpretation. However, Rav Katz did not have access to Ramakh’s gloss. He only saw the excerpt quotes in the Kessef Mishneh. In the full gloss, which is available today in the Frankel edition of Mishneh Torah, Ramakh clearly disagrees and mentions common practice in his time, as described above.

Rav Katz also points out that the Gemara’s prooftext was from Dosson and Aviram, who complained about Moshe lording over them (Num. 16:13). It was not a disagreement with their teacher but a rejection of their teacher’s authority over them.

IV. Defending Rambam

Their younger contemporary, Rav Yoel Sirkes, defends Rambam’s position in his Bach (Yoreh De’ah 242). Rav Sirkes points out that Rashi comments on the Gemara (Sanhedrin 110a) that disagreeing with your rebbe means disputing his yeshiva (cholek al yeshivaso), which seems to support Rambam’s view. Since arguing with your teacher is listed separately, disagreeing with him must mean something else. Additionally, a different Gemara (Berakhos 27b) lists disputing your teacher’s yeshiva as one of the things that cause the divine presence to leave.

Rav Sirkes argues that leading a yeshiva is considered having authority (serarah). By establishing a competing yeshiva without permission, you are disputing your teacher’s authority. Similarly, when Korach, Dosson and Aviram laid claim to the priesthood and kingship, they were disputing Moshe’s authority.

Interestingly, Rav Ashkenazi argues that since it is not clear which of the two definitions of a Torah mentor to follow, we should rule leniently to prevent prevent bitul Torah, the loss of Torah study. While Rav Katz and later authorities disagree on the law, they do not necessarily disagree with the argument. In this case, Rav Katz argues that grave danger lies in allowing anyone to open a yeshiva without proper authorization. Since so many rabbis are poorly trained, this could lead to unqualified teachers raising a generation of ignorami. However, the basic argument that we should be lenient when it comes to preventing bitul Torah, as expressed by Rav Eliezer Ashkenazi and later by Rav Yechiel Michel Epstein, remains a powerful tribute to the importance of Torah study.



1This is quoted in Shakh, Yoreh De’ah 242:2 as Responsa Maharikh from Cracow. An annotated edition of these responsa was published in 1984 by my esteemed professor, Rav Asher Siev.

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 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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