The Mitzvah of Talmud Torah

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Parshat VaEtchanan

Despite its centrality to a man’s Jewish life, I believe many of us do not know basics of the mitzvah of Talmud Torah, commonly translated as Torah study. (It is, increasingly, also important or central to many women’s religious lives; why women were not obligated in this mitzvah, the derivation of the idea, what the Gemara and later authorities thought/think of women’s learning, is all too involved to discuss here; I have discussed it on other occasions, such as in my book, We’re Missing the Point).

Let’s see what Rambam and Sefer HaChinukh teach us about it.

Rambam’s Short Version

Rambam’s Obligation Eleven requires us to learn chokhmat ha-Torah, the wisdom of the Torah, and to teach it, the whole process called Talmud Torah, presented in the verse in Shemave-shinantam le-vanekha, you shall teach it to your children. Note, first, the mitzvah is about study and teaching, not just study, and the teaching is to your children, those who will take our place in the world when we are gone.

Rambam includes Sifrei’s comment that banekha, your sons, really means all students, as students of prophecy were called benei ha-nevi’imSifrei also said ve-shinantam implies thorough knowledge, to be able to answer readily when someone asks you a question. Rambam includes that here, too, as well as reference to the Gemara’s many calls for us to involve ourselves with Torah always.

Rambam’s chosen citations—he does not intend Sefer HaMitzvot to be a comprehensive review of a mitzvah—tell us how he understood the mitzvah. Today, in my experience, many of us are sure the mitzvah is to learn Torah, when we can, what appeals to us. Rambam thought tradition told us the mitzvah was to learn as much as we possibly can, with a minimum standard, that we are supposed to—all of us, not just great figures—have fluent knowledge of the written Torah.

The Wisdom of the Torah, Sefer HaChinukh Style

Sefer HaChinukh 419 of course echoes Rambam’s definition, with enlightening additions. He says “chokhmat ha-Torah” means how to perform the mitzvot, avoid what Hashem told us not to do. That might sound like he was a strict constructionist of sorts, the sum total of the Torah’s wisdom consists of halakha, what to do and what not to do.

Except in his reason for the mitzvah, he says it is well known that study allows a person to know God’s ways, without which the person has no understanding of the world and is akin to an animal. [Talmud Torah aside, he has just said a mouthful worth pondering: even if we assume he was exaggerating, there is an important extent to which Jewish tradition—including Rambam, that rationalist—thought complete ignorance of God meant the person was missing an essential element of being human. Part of what separates us from the animals is our relationship with God, and without one…enough said.]

Unless we think technical halakha is a sufficient guide to God’s Ways, I think Sefer HaChinukh is signaling that the wisdom of the Torah is not fully covered by what we would call halakha.

[Of course, he may have thought halakha referred to all mitzvot, including such expansive ones as loving and fearing God, emulating God’s Attributes, and the like. While those have less exact rules, they, too, might be thought of as halakha.

Digression for a story, skippable if you just want the mitzvah: I once convinced a school to teach Sefer HaChinukh as its halakha curriculum, expose the students to thirty-forty mitzvot a year, with basic halakhic rules, instead of just studying one topic like tefilla or kashrut. In the middle of the year, I checked in with a teacher as to how it was going, and he said he didn’t like it.

I asked why, and he said, “this isn’t halakha, it’s hashkafa (Jewish thought).” He was teaching the mitzvah of kibbud av va-em, caring for parents.]

Some Laws of Learning

The laws Sefer HaChinukh shares say much about how to view the mitzvah, too. Sukka 42a tells us a father should start teaching his sons as soon as they can talk, make Devarim 33;4, Tora tziva lanu Moshe, and the first line of Shema, among their first words. From there, the process goes gently until the age of six or seven, depending on the child, at which point he is brought to school (as Sefer HaChinukh has it, but watch where he goes from here). He warns against burdening the child before he has the strength for it.

Arukh HaShulchan Yoreh De’ah 245;2 thinks the child completes learning how to talk in his fifth year, making it a good time to start to introduce verses into the child’s lexicon. He thinks Avot’s idea of ben chamesh la-mikra, at five to study Torah, means as the child grows to be five. Bringing him to school at ben shesh, a child of six, is for Arukh HaShulchan actually what we call five.

Once he does have the physical strength, we are to place the yoke of Torah on the child, make him drink and eat it, learn as much of it as possible. He cites Kiddushin 30a’s story of Zevulun b. Dan, whose grandfather taught him all of Torah, Written, Oral, Midrashic, and more.

Not a Burden, Not to Take Lightly

[We have to be careful with phrases like “as much as possible.” Some have taken it too much as a purely physical issue, make children who are not cut out for it spends hours and hours in an endeavor they are not ready for emotionally or spiritually, with disastrous consequences. On the other hand, possibly as many parents and schools err in the other direction, let their students off with much less Torah study than they could engage with productively.

At a different school than the one I referred to earlier, I once suggested not letting students take AP classes—college level work—until they had completed what the school/community defined as the high school Torah curriculum/knowledge they had to master. If they were done with high school math or English, they could have more time to make up holes in their Torah education. They scoffed at the idea.]

The Gemara concludes this is not necessary, defines basic fulfillment of the mitzvah as all of mikra, either the five books of the Torah or all of Tanakh. But it tells us the story to let us know there is a value in more as well, the closer we come to Zevulun b. Dan and his grandfather, the better we will have done.

It takes time, more perhaps than we are comfortable realizing. Arukh HaShulchan Yoreh De’ah 245;12 says the teacher is supposed to learn with the students all day and some of the night, to educate them in the necessity of both day and night study, is not to leave them idle other than Fridays and the eves of holidays, with early dismissal on Rosh Chodesh and Chanukka.

I’m interested less in the specifics than the attitude. There’s much to be learned, an obligation to learn as much of it as each of us can, and that takes time.

The Basic Mitzvah

Sefer Hachinukh says any father who does not teach his sons to the point they can read the Torah and understand its simple sense, has not fulfilled the mitzva. I always thought this was what the Gemara thought the mitzvah was, Jews are required to know at least all of the written Torah. However, Arukh HaShulchan Yoreh De’ah 245;5 thinks that is just the definition of accustoming the child to Torah study, for him to do the rest when he grows older.

His view splits the mitzvah into two parts, the father’s and the child’s. The father is supposed to bring his son into the rhythm of study, defined as all of the Written Torah, but the mitzvah includes lots more.

[Last story: Years ago, I was chatting with an accomplished elementary school educator, and I expressed my view that students graduating elementary school should have at least learned all of Chumash, all the five books. His response? It can’t be done. Obviously, he meant in the kinds of schools where he was involved, given the demands of various curricular constituencies.

It still means those kinds of schools have abandoned the goal of serving as fathers’ agents to fulfill the basic mitzvah of Talmud Torah, let alone an enhanced version of it.]

Also a Personal Obligation

Should the father not teach the child, the grown child must study, because the verse links learning to performance—how can one properly keep the Torah without studying it? Nor does the obligation end, as a verse in this week’s portion, 4;9, warns us against letting the words of Torah leave our hearts all the days of our lives, and without constant study, we forget.

Neither poverty nor wealth excuse the failure to study. God’s order to Yehoshu’a to think of Torah day and night led to the assumption we are all supposed to set times for study in the morning and at night, and our ultimate judgment starts with the question of whether we were sufficiently involved in study. Later in the mitzvah, he throws in Hillel’s warning from Pirke Avot to reject the temptation to say, “I’ll learn when I find the time,” because one might not find the time [my Rosh Yeshiva, R. Aharon Lichtenstein, zt”l, used to say, will definitely not find the time]. Unless we make sure to set up our lives that way.

Kiddushin 30a also tells us to divide our study time into three equal parts, Mikra, Mishna, and Talmud, despite the basic mitzvah referring only to Written Torah. Those three terms likely mean (Rashi, Rambam, and Sefer HaChinukh have very similar definitions) the Written Torah (for Rambam, all Tanakh), the Oral Law [my teacher Prof. Twersky, zt”l, pointed out that Rambam seems to have considered all the Torah ideas propounded up until a persons’ time among the Oral Law; for him, for example, Geonic works were Torah She-be’al Peh], with Talmud being to develop a full, deeper understanding  of those laws [with nuances about what “deeper” means].

A Communal Element

Beyond the father and the child, Baba Batra 25a credits Yehoshu’a b. Gamla for having instituted a communal responsibility to provide elementary education, a melamed tinnokot, someone to teach young children. He was worried about fatherless orphans, who would have no one to teach them. Sefer HaChinukh seems to me to have understood the institution to be more, to be a statement about the necessity of basic Jewish education in every Jewish community.

Fascinatingly, Arukh HaShulchan 245;10 thinks that anyone who can afford it should not send their child to the communal school, should pay separately for a private tutor, so as not to crowd out those who cannot afford it, for whom the school was established. He says he ruled that way in practice; I think today we think having those students in the school helps everyone, because those parents pay full tuition and contribute to the scholarship fund. From all the fuss over public education in the US, it also seems likely that students from economically advantaged homes can help the environment and resources of the school, making it a plus to include them.

Still, it needs to be said, those with greater means must not squeeze out those with lesser. Arukh HaShulchan is more amenable to the idea of a grandfather with limited means relying on the local school, even if he could in theory pay for private tutelage.

Food for thought as we consider the mitzvah of Talmud Torah in this week’s parsha.

About Gidon Rothstein

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