The Mitzvah of Talmud Torah, Torah Study

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

In my experience, many Jews treat the obligation to study Torah as if the commandment is to perform an action—we eat matzah Pesah night, we (ideally) study some Torah daily. I think traditional sources consider it primarily an issue of acquiring a certain body of knowledge, although the acquisition does require daily involvement. Let’s look at this very fundamental mitzvah, one I found because She’iltot in Parshat Toledot spoke about a mitzvah to establish a place of Torah study (not a mitzvah Rambam or Sefer Ha-Hinuch count).

Learn It, Teach It, Know It

Rambam’s Obligation 11 says God commanded us to learn the wisdom of the Torah and to teach it, the reason it is called Talmud Torah, the learning and teaching, sourcing it to the phrase in the first paragraph of Shema, ve-shinantam le-vanecha, literally you shall teach it to your sons. To show how it incorporates all the elements he mentioned, he notes Sifrei says “your sons” includes any student, and takes ve-shinantam to imply being sharp (shinena, in Aramaic, refers to a sharp one), we are supposed to know the Torah so well, we can answer questions immediately, not need to stammer through an answer.

[To me, this already shows where we could confuse a mitzvah of knowledge for a mitzvah of activity; to attain and retain the level of knowledge towards which the mitzvah wants us to aspire takes more time than most of us have to give it. We get used to carving out time for Torah study, and think once we have put in the time, we have done our bit.]

The Torah has multiple verses for the commandment, Rambam says, and the Talmud has multiple places where it asserts the importance of being involved with Torah always.

Rambam’s last point in Sefer Ha-Mitzvot is contentious today, the exemption of women, inferred in Kiddushin 29b from the verse’s referring to teaching one’s sons. Our review of the requirements of the mitzvah will put the exemption of women in a new light, I believe.

Knowledge of the Mitzvot

Sefer Ha-Hinuch 419 echoes Rambam’s “to learn the wisdom of the Torah,” adding, “that is to say, how we will perform the mitzvot and avoid all God prevented us from doing, and to know the laws of the Torah in the truest way.” Rather than mehudadin, sharp in our mouths, the way Rambam recorded the Sifrei on ve-shinantamSefer Ha-Hinuch has mesudarin, well-ordered, in your mouths.

We might think his focus on mitzvot narrows the obligation considerably—we only need to learn the mitzvah-related parts of Torah– but I suspect he would say everything we consider Jewish behavior has its roots in a mitzvah. Ethics or morality or character development might seem to us good ideas not specifically mitzvah connected, but I believe Sefer Ha-Hinuch would have countered with the mitzvah source (such as halichah bi-drachav, walking in God’s Ways, which obligates us in all sorts of character development and acts of kindness).

If I read him correctly, he thinks the mitzvah of Talmud Torah is about studying and knowing the range of how Jews should think, feel, and act.  To me, support for this broader version of Sefer Ha-Hinuch is his reason for the mitzvah, that by learning a man comes to know God’s Ways, without which s/he will not know and be like an animal. (This reason makes the exclusion of women more problematic, because they, too, need to know God’s Ways).

Starting Young

Sefer Ha-Hinuch takes us through some of the details, Sukkah 42a saying a father should start his son with Torah as soon as the boy can speak, teaching him Devarim 33;4, Moshe commanded us a Torah, and the first verse of Shema. [To me, another sign the mitzvah aims for knowledge, because the father is being told to teach his son in a way the boy will absorb from his earliest consciousness, so it becomes part of the fiber of his person.]

From there, the father teaches the son verses bit by bit, until the boy is ready for study with the local teacher, by the Gemara’s reckoning age six or seven. [They started later than we do because they demanded more effort of their students, as we will see.] Sefer Ha-Hinuch cautions the father not to pressure the boy too much until he has the time to develop fully (for his bones to fill with marrow is one of his examples, an idea I had not known).

Once the child is old enough, we are supposed to place his neck in the yoke of Torah, a metaphor for how all-encompassing his education is supposed to be. Sefer Ha-HInuch notes the story on Kiddushin 30a, Zevulun b. Dan’s grandfather taught him the entirety of Torah knowledge. While the Gemara eventually limits the basic obligation to mikra, the Written Torah (Rambam seems to include all of Tanach, Rashi the Torah), Sefer Ha-Hinuch adds the more we teach, the better.

The mitzvah starts with the father, includes the grandfather (the only mitzvah I know of where the Torah obligates grandparents), and—if neither of them do their job—devolves to any male Jewish adult.

Nor does it cease until the day of one’s death, because Devarim 4;9 warns against letting “these matters” be removed from our hearts all the days of our lives. [This might have seemed like it was about the act of Torah study, we must involve ourselves in study throughout our lives, except the prooftext shows we study in order to retain knowledge.]

The Curriculum and the Mitzvah

Kiddushin 30a tells Jews to divide their Torah study time in three, letting us know the basic obligation isn’t the whole story. A third of the time should be spent on Written Torah, a third on Oral, which he defines as familiarizing oneself to the point of fluency in the versions of the Mishnah and baraitot (I think meaning to be sure one knows the correct language). The definition seems faithful to what the Gemara would have meant, except the knowledge of the Gemara seems almost certainly to be part of Oral Law, as Rambam said, yet Sefer Ha-Hinuch does not mention it.

The last third is Talmud, which Sefer HaHinuch said meant knowing matters from their root (I believe he is referencing Rambam in Mishneh Torah, who understood Talmud to mean to understand the system well enough to know how to accurately derive laws and ideas from the Torah on one’s own).

Where Rambam in Mishneh Torah says this division applies to the early stages of education, Sefer Ha-Hinuch says one may not neglect one element for others, they are all essential to Torah [famously, Rabbenu Tam claimed the Babylonian Talmud covered all three, meaning a Jew could focus solely on the Gemara and fulfill the call of this passage in Kiddushin.]

A Sisyphean Task Leads to Institutionalized Study

Sefer Ha-Hinuch says all Jews, rich/poor, health/suffering, must set fixed times to study Torah morning and night, based on Yehoshu’a 1;8, meditate on it day and night.  While that verse is in navi, not necessarily as authoritative as the Biblical verses, what we have seen suggests a perspective on its role in defining the mitzvah.

The basic obligation is to know mikra, Written Torah, with a significant hope for greater knowledge, covering all three parts of the curriculum, or even (ideally) going all the way to the kind of knowledge Zevulun b. Dan’s grandfather gave him. Certainly the more we are to strive to know, but even just knowledge of Written Torah, makes the mitzvah never-ending, because we are required to maintain this knowledge throughout life’s travails, until the moment we leave this world.

In such a framework, I think we understand better Yehoshu’a being told to be sure to meditate on Torah day and night. Infinite tasks tempt us to delay, well-aware we will never finish, tempting us to minimize missing a session here or there, a day of study, a year of study, because we’re not going to ever finish them anyway. To avoid that, the solution is to work a bit each day, perhaps a seemingly insignificant bit, but a bit. That’s not the mitzvah, that’s the way to avoid losing contact with the mitzvah.

He also quotes Kiddushin 40b, the first element of a person’s being judged after his death is about his study of Torah.

The “Exclusion” of Women

There are sources that discourage women’s Torah study in general, but those are not my concern here. Our mitzvah exempts women, experienced by many women as exclusionary; were the sole reason for the mitzvah to have been Sefer Ha-Hinuch’s, for example, we can easily understand why it would be off-putting—if this is how to know God’s Ways, and the Torah has no interest in women doing it, well.

I suggest we have seen enough to offer a less problematic explanation: once we know Torah study is about being sure to acquire a certain body of knowledge, especially with the sense of its infinity, I find it more plausible to argue the Torah saw no reason for all segments of society to labor under this infinite responsibility [I remember my father, a”h, telling me his reaction when a law school professor quoted Oliver Wendell Holmes, “the law is not a brooding omnipresence in the sky. [For the pedants among us, yes, Holmes actually wrote the common law.]

Somebody has to be present in a family without the permanent urge to go off and chip away at one’s Torah ignorance, I suggest. [I think similarly about women’s exemption from mitzvot aseh she-hazman grama in general, but that’s a different discussion.]

Sefer Ha-Hinuch quotes a bit more than Rambam of the passage in Kiddushin which derived the obligation of Torah study involving fathers and sons. In an exegetical move too complicated to summarize briefly, Kiddushin 29a understands the Torah to link one’s personal mitzvah of Torah study to a mitzvah to teach others and to have been taught by others. To ensure passage of knowledge of these nationally crucial ideas, the Torah told one segment of society to be the bearers of this knowledge, and to pass it on.

Women, I think the Gemara assumed, had other responsibilities, so the Torah put this onus and duty on the men.

It’s a Little, and It’s a Lot

Years ago, I told a high school student my theory, that the basic mitzvah means all Jewish men know how to read and understand the Written Torah. He wasn’t sure what I meant, so I clarified that it would at least include each adult Jewish male being able to open the Torah at any point, read and understand it (and pass it on to anyone interested, including especially his sons and grandsons).

This high schooler did not believe people could do that, open a humash at randomread, and translate. I demonstrated that I could (luckily, he picked passages where I could!), and he said, “we should take you on the road!” As a carnival attraction.

It’s a mitzvah I fear has been warped in two ways: people think if they commit a reasonable amount of time to it, they have fulfilled it; and, two, people forget there is a well-defined accomplishable minimum of knowledge to fulfill the mitzvah. Many instead reach for bodies of knowledge they may not be ready for. [At seforim sales, I used to be struck by the English translations of very difficult works, as if not being able to read them in the original isn’t evidence the person isn’t ready to study that book!]

To know God’s Torah, a mitzvah on every Jewish man, start with God’s Torah and work from there, some in the morning, some at night. Every day, working to know it all, to the extent of one’s capabilities.

About Gidon Rothstein

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