Towards the upcoming festival of Shavuos, on which we received (and continue to receive annually) the Torah, we dedicate this article to the mitzvah of Torah study.
As we will show, the mitzvah of Torah study breaks all boundaries: boundaries of space, time and personality. We will discuss the two distinct branches of the mitzvah: the obligation to study Torah, and the mitzvah to actually acquire knowledge of the Torah. As we will see, these are not the same, and in certain situations we have to choose between them.
There is no day more suitable for studying Torah than Shavuos—the festival of receiving the Torah. To the extent that we are able to internalize the greatness of the obligation of Torah study and the sublime virtue of its learning, we will acquire the vessels with which to receive our own portion of Torah.
Without Personal Boundary
The Rambam writes:
“Every Jew is under an obligation to study Torah, whether poor or rich, in sound health or ailing, in the vigor of youth or very old and feeble. Even a person who is so poor that he is maintained by charity or goes begging door to door, and even one with a family to support, is under the obligation to set aside a definite period during the day and at night for the study of Torah, as it says: ‘And you shall meditate upon it day and night (Yehoshua 1:8).’”
The scriptural expression “you shall meditate upon it day and night,” is understood by the Rambam to imply an obligation of Torah study that applies to every human condition. There is no person, and no human condition, which exempts a person from the obligation to study Torah day and night.
Chazal (Avos de-Rabbi Nasan 3:6) likewise write that a person must study, “in youth and in old age, in poverty and in wealth, in times of plenty and in times of hunger.” In support, the Midrash cites the verse: “In the morning sow your seed, and in the evening do not withdraw your hand,” where morning and evening are interpreted as referring to different periods of human life.
The Power of Torah Study
If we should ask ourselves: From where can a person draw the strength to study Torah in every circumstance and every stage of life? We can draw an answer from the following anecdote.
A blind Jew, a Torah scholar from the town of Slotzk, once came in to Rav Isser Zalman Meltzer. The Jew placed two volumes of chidushei Torah in front of Rav Isser Zalman—Torah insights that he had conceived of and written before he became blind. The Jew told Rav Isser Zalman to look at a certain place in the book and said, “This piece was my last chiddush.”
Rav Isser Zalman asked the Jew what he meant by saying that it was his “last chiddush.”
The blind man explained that when he wrote that particular insight he was already an older man. He had worked for years on these volumes, and upon reaching that piece he said to himself: “I’ve had enough. It is difficult to come up with new Torah insights. I am calling it quits. From now on I will learn, but not with the same intensity and thoroughness. I just don’t have the strength anymore.” The man told Rav Isser Zalman that immediately after making that decision, he became blind.
The man went to the doctors and specialists of the day, seeking a cure. They examined him and told him, “With the way your eyes are now, you should have been blind ten years ago.”
The strength to study the Torah draws from Torah study itself. As long as a person is compelled to study the Torah, the Torah, as it were, gives him the strength to continue doing so, even under the most difficult conditions.
“Now I Have Come”: The Jewish Pastime
At the time of war against the inhabitants of Jericho, the verse states (Yehoshua 5:13): “And it was when Yehoshua was in Jericho, and he raised his eyes and he saw a man standing opposite him with a drawn sword in his hand. And Yehoshua went over to him and said to him, ‘Are you one of ours or are you one of our enemies?’ And he said, ‘No, for I am an officer of the legions of G-d.’”
The Gemara (Megillah 3a) elaborates on the details of the conversation between the Divine angel and Yehoshua: “The angel said to Yehoshua, ‘Yesterday, you missed bringing the afternoon (Tamid) offering. And tonight, you are idle from Torah studies.’ Yehoshua asked, ‘Which (of the two) is the main reason you came?’ The angel replied, ‘I came for the present’—indicating that the main reason was laxity in Torah study. Immediately, Yehoshua went to study Torah.”
Although they had been fighting a fierce battle for Jericho, the Jewish soldiers were expected to return to their study of Torah at night, as soon as they could. To refrain from doing so was so serious an offense that a Divine messenger was sent as an officer with a drawn sword: Their failure to engage in Torah study made them vulnerable in combat.
Why did the angel not tell Yehoshua directly that he had been sent on account of laxity in Torah study? Why did he use the cryptic expression: “I came for the present”?
It appears that the angel of Hashem was sent to teach a special lesson: Torah study is always contemporary, always “present.” Even in the battle camp, there is time (in the night, as Rashi explains) to study Torah; the obligation applies even in these extreme circumstances.
Each nation and each group has its pastime: Some play soccer or baseball. (Most people are content to watch others play.) Some tend to the garden. Others enjoy reading or music.
Among the Jewish people, somebody with spare time studies Torah! The activity of Torah study defines a person’s identity, and is an obligation and not merely a pastime: Even one who doesn’t have spare time is obligated to make time to study Torah.
All times are thus equal with respect to Torah study. When a person needs to, he must go to work and earn his living. He also has to eat, to sleep, to play with the kids, and indeed to participate in recreational activities—each according to his requirements.
But when he is not performing the necessary tasks of life, he must return to the default Jewish occupation of Torah study (see Shulchan Aruch Ha-Rav 3:6; Mishnah Berurah 155:4; see also here and here, where we have expounded on this theme).
The Mitzvah of Knowing the Torah
We have thus seen that it is inappropriate, and even forbidden, for a Jew to waste his time. Whenever he can, his obligation is to study Torah.
On this matter we find explicit words of Chazal (Yoma 19b), who comment on the words, “You shall speak them (words of Torah)”: “You have the right to speak of them, and not about other matters.”
It is important to realize that in addition to the obligation to study Torah, there is also an obligation to know the Torah. In order to achieve this, we must study rigorously, and review many times, to ensure that we do not forget what we learn.
Of this the Torah writes “learn (ve-shinantem) them,” from which Chazal (Kiddushin 30a) derive that knowledge of Torah precepts must be sharp and precise in one’s mind. If somebody asks him a question on a portion of Torah that he has studied, he should have a ready answer.
Moreover, somebody who studies Torah but allows himself to forget it, might transgress the Torah violation, “Beware … lest you forget the things.” (Devarim 4:9) According to some rishonim this implies a Torah prohibition against forgetting the Torah one studies. However the Rambam does not count the prohibition in his list of mitzvos, and some explain that he sees the prohibition as rabbinic (see Shemiras Haguf Vehanefesh, introduction to Chap. 17).
The Shulchan Aruch Ha-Rav (see Kuntress Acharon to Chap. 3) and Rav Yisrael Salanter (Or Yisrael 27) divide the mitzvah of Torah study into two distinct parts: Study of Torah, and Knowledge of the Torah.
Although both are obligatory, they write that knowing the Torah takes precedence. Where the two conflict, knowledge of Torah defers Torah study. For instance, if it will enhance one’s Torah knowledge, a person should journey to a distant place to hear a shiur or to study under a particular rabbi, even though he will spend less time in Torah study.
It should be noted that the Rambam lists only one mitzvah of Torah study. According to his approach, it seems that the obligation to know the Torah underlies the obligation of Torah study: To ensure his knowledge, a person is obligated to continue studying until his last day.
The Yere’im, however, lists two distinct mitzvos: one of Torah study (254), and another to have clear knowledge of Torah precepts (414).
Setting Aside Time for Torah Study
To ensure that we will know as much Torah as possible and also to fulfill the basic obligation of Torah study, it is imperative that a person set aside regular time for Torah study. Many authorities place great emphasis on this, following the Talmudic teaching that the second question a person is asked by the Heavenly Tribunal is whether he established fixed times for Torah study (Shabbos 31a).
After dwelling on the obligation to know all parts of the Torah, the Mishnah Berurah (Biur Halachah 155, s.v. es lilmod) emphasizes that each person should be sure to fix a set time for Torah study in the day and in the night, so that he should acquire knowledge of the Torah.
He concludes: “A person who is not diligent in fixing set times for Torah study will surely remain empty of Torah knowledge, Heaven forbid. And what will he answer on the Day of Judgment?” The most basic obligation in Torah study is to ensure that one has set times for doing so—under all circumstances, in all conditions.
Preference of Practical Halachah
Although we stand obligated to study and know the entire Torah, preference should be given to those halachos that are of high practical relevance (see below in the name of the Shach and Derisha). This principle is stated in the verse (Devarim 5:1), “You shall study them, and you shall observe them.” As Chazal explain (Kiddushin 40b): “Great is Torah study, for it brings a person to deed.” The fundamental purpose of Torah study is to bring a person to Torah observance.
Relying on this basic idea, many authorities explain that a person’s primary focus in Torah study should be knowledge of Torah observance. For instance, Rav Yisrael Salanter (Or Yisrael 27) writes, “The purpose of the mitzvah of knowing the Torah is that a person should know the laws of the Torah and its ordinances clearly… how to carry out and observe the entire Torah and its mitzvos.” Similarly, the Ha-Meir la-Olam (2:12) writes, “The main point of the instruction to study Torah is for its observance, for without study one will be unable to perform.”
This principle is cited by many authorities.
The Shulchan Aruch Ha-Rav (2:9) explains that a person should concentrate on matters of practical relevance, meaning that he should know at least the majority of Orach Chaim (laws pertaining to day-to-day life), the minority part of Yoreh De’ah (laws of prohibitions, such as forbidden foods, niddah, and so on), significant parts of Choshen Mishpat and some parts of Even Ha-Ezer.
In a similar vein, the Mishnah Berurah stresses that without proper knowledge of the laws of Shabbos, desecration of the Shabbos is unavoidable (Introduction to Volume 3).
Aside from the laws that everybody encounters regularly, each person must ensure that he is well versed in the laws pertaining to his particular occupation: a businessman must know the laws of commerce, and a gabbai the laws of Torah reading (the Rabbi goes on vacation…) and so on.
This leaves us with an important lesson for our own allocation of time for Torah study. Regrettably, there are many who set aside time for Torah study, yet fail to maximize the use of their time to acquire vital knowledge of halachah.
In particular, those whose time is quite limited (most working people) should ensure that the time is not taken up only by learning Daf Yomi or studying in pilpul style, but that an adequate part is dedicated to matters of practical relevance.
This principle is explicit in the Shach (Yoreh De’ah 246:5, citing the Derishah), who writes, “A person must study the books of the poskim such as the Rif and the Rosh and so on, for this is the root and mainstay of our Torah.”
The Or Ha-Chaim (Rishon Le-Zion, Yoreh De’ah 246:1) likewise writes that a person should first study the practical laws, “and after he knows the laws of Jewish practice, he can fulfill the obligation of, ‘You shall mediate upon it day and night.’”
It is possible that an allusion to this idea can even be found in the great expression of our ancestors, who accepted the Torah with the words, “We will do and we will hear.” Before “hearing” (studying) the entire Torah, our first obligation is “to do”—to ensure that our Torah observance is in line, a goal that is only achieved by careful study of the halachos relevant to our lives.