As Shavuos approaches, a question that often comes to mind is the matter of toiling in Torah study.
Many have the custom of learning Torah during the entire night of Shavuos, which of course requires considerable toil and effort, and is no easy feat. Yet, we are content to make the investment, at least once a year, for the sake of the Torah, the Sefer Ha-Bris with which Hashem struck His covenant with the Jewish People. Just as we are prepared to toil for the sake of our spouses and family, so we are ready to toil for the sake of the Torah, in which our relationship with Hashem is manifest.
But what are the halachic parameters of toiling for the sake of Torah study? Is there a special virtue of Torah study under duress? Should one make a point of toiling and investing energy, even when the same Torah could be studied in serenity and comfort? And how to these issues reflect on our use of seforim that “make life easier,” or, today, of computerized Torah programs that allow us to search and find Torah material easily?
These questions, among others, are discussed below.
You Shall Eat Bread with Salt
The baraisa (Avos 6:4) teaches us the following: “Such is the path of Torah: You shall eat bread with salt, and drink water in small measure, sleep upon the ground, and live a life of deprivation; and in Torah you shall toil.”
The simple understanding of the instruction is that a person should deny himself worldly comforts and pleasure, and that doing so is integral to an elevated form of Torah study. Likewise, we find in the Gemara (Shabbos 83b) that Torah finds a true abode only with one who is “prepared to kill himself (figuratively) in the tent of Torah.”
Indeed, the assumption that toiling in Torah study implies that a person should not indulge in the comforts of the world emerges from a teaching mentioned in Tosafos (Kesubos 104a), who write that before a person prays for success in Torah study, he should pray that delicacies not enter into his mouth.
Apparently, Tosafos understands that the two simply do not go together: somebody who partakes of worldly pleasures will be on a lesser level in his Torah study.
The Reward for Torah Study
Yet, the Midrash indicates that this is not as simple as it might seem.
Parashas Bechukosai begins its blessings with the words: “If you follow My statutes” (Vayikra 26:3). Rashi, citing the Midrash, explains: “Does this refer to fulfilling the commandments? Surely when it says, “…and if you observe My commandments,” this covers fulfillment of the commandments. What then does the injunction to “follow My statutes” add? It means toiling in Torah.”
The reward for those who toil in Torah is elucidated in the ensuing passages: “I shall give your rains at their proper time, and the land shall give its produce, and the trees of the field shall give their fruit” (Vayikra 26:4). We will eat our fill, as the verses continue, and dwell safely upon our land. Clearly, being in such a position is not expected to conflict with our toiling in Torah, but to complement it.
Many passages in Scripture express the national peak of the Jewish People in terms of physical comfort and opulence: “Yehuda and Israel are plenty, as sand upon the sea—eating, drinking, and joyous” (I Melachim 4:20). It does not stand to reason that this situation involves a contradiction to Torah study; if so, this would hardly be a reward to be coveted.
How is this theme reconciled with the instruction of “you shall eat bread with salt”?
One solution is found in Rashi on Avos, who explains that the instruction to eat bread with salt does not apply to somebody who has the means for better eating. Rather, it means to say that even if a person is poor and has nothing to eat but bread and salt, still he should not refrain from Torah study (see also Taz, Orach Chaim 246:5). This is clearly a very different approach to that of Tosafos, who write that consuming tasty foods diminishes one’s level of Torah study.
The Rambam, it seems, agrees with the approach of Tosafos. In his words: The words of Torah will not be permanently acquired by a person who applies himself feebly [to obtain] them, and not by those who study amid pleasure and [an abundance] of food and drink. Rather, one must give up his life for them, constantly straining his body to the point of discomfort, without granting sleep to his eyes or slumber to his eyelids” (Talmud Torah 3:12).
Rabbi Yehuda HaNassi’s Table
The Gemara teaches that toward the end of his life, Rabbi Yehuda HaNassi raised his ten fingers toward Heaven, and uttered the words: “Master of the Universe, it is revealed and known before You that I toiled with my ten fingers in the Torah, and I did not derive any benefit from the world even with my little finger. May it be Your will that there be peace in my repose” (Kesubos 104a).
But Rebbi’s table, as the Gemara teaches elsewhere (Avoda Zara 11a) was a wealthy table, and never lacked even the finest delicacies—“radish and squash, in summer and in winter.” How then could he declare that he derived no benefit from the world?
Tosafos (Avoda Zara 11a) raise this question, and, in keeping with their approach whereby worldly benefit conflicts with Torah study, they reply that Rebbi’s table was replete with guests. While guests would partake of the delicacies, Rebbi refrained from doing so.
However, other commentaries (see for instance, Shita Mekubetzes, Kesubos 104a, citing Rashi) assume that if delicacies were on the table, it stands to reason that Rebbi partook of them, and did not refrain from deriving benefit from the world.
As for the contradiction with Rebbi’s prayer at the time of his death, the Vilna Gaon (annotations to Orach Chaim 231) writes that if a person’s intention when he eats is for the purpose of serving Hashem, rather than for deriving pleasure, then even when he consumes delicacies, this is not considered “deriving benefit from the world.”
In a similar vein, it can be suggested that the fundamental issue (of eating bread and water) is not whether a person consumes this food or that, but rather the question of where a person focuses his occupation and attention.
A person whose principal focus is on the pleasures of life will not be able to engage in the toil of Torah, for his attention is occupied with worldly pleasure—a vocation at odds with toiling in the spiritual elevation of Torah. Rebbi’s statement was therefore that his toil of Torah was not countered by pleasures of this world, in which he invested no attention and focus. However the other opinion maintains that this is still not sufficient.
Constant Toil in Torah
The Rambam explains that the obligation to study Torah never wanes: “Until what age is one obligated to study Torah? Until the day one dies, as the verse states: ‘Lest they [the words of the Torah] leave your heart all the days of your life.’ And when one does not study, one forgets.” (Torah Study 1:10)
The Rambam adds that the obligation is universal: “Every Jew—rich or poor, healthy or sick, young or very old and weak—is obligated to study Torah. Even a destitute person who lives off charity and goes begging from door to door, or a husband and father of children, must set fixed times, day and night, for studying Torah, as the verse states: ‘You shall speak it day and night.’”
The same Pasuk, “You shall speak it day and night” (Yehoshua 1:8) is noted by Tosafos (Berachos 11b) as the source for a constant obligation of Torah study: every free moment of the day and the night.
In fact, the Gemara (Menachos 99b; Nedarim 8a) notes that according to one opinion, “Even somebody who did no more than recite Kriyas Shema in the morning and the evening has fulfilled the mitzvah of, ‘You shall speak it day and night.’” However, the Ran explains that although reading Kriyas Shema in the day and the night fulfills the instruction of the prophet, it is not sufficient to fulfill the broader obligation of Torah study, which demands that “words of Torah must be sharp upon your mouth.” Reaching this level requires great diligence in Torah study.
The Rema (Yoreh De’ah 246:1) likewise rules that only in extenuating circumstances may one fulfill his obligation of Torah study with only morning and evening recitations of the Shema. Under ordinary circumstances, one must study Torah as diligently as one is able. A similar position is noted by many other authorities (see Ritva, Nedarim; Semag, Asei 12; however, see Radvaz, Vol. 3, no. 416; see also Mishnah Berurah 155:4; Kovetz Shiurim, Vol. 2, no. 11).
The Written and Oral Law
The Midrash Tanchuma (Noach 3) writes that in the matter of toiling in Torah study, there is a distinction between the Written Law (Torah Shebichtav) and the Oral Law (Torah Shebe’al peh):
“The second part of the Shema contains the words ‘With all your heart, with all your soul,’ but the words ‘with all your might’ are omitted. These words are omitted to inform us that anyone who loves material riches and earthly pleasures is incapable of studying the Oral Law. There is considerable anguish and sleeplessness in it; one neglects himself on its account. Therefore, its reward is in the hereafter, as it is said: ‘The people that walk in darkness have seen a great light’ (Yeshayahu 9:1).”
The Midrash therefore explains that the Jewish People were willing to accept the Written Law from Hashem, “because the Written Law was brief and required no striving and suffering,” but were unwilling to accept the Oral Law, which needed to be forced upon them. Hashem therefore “arched the mountain over them like a vessel,” and told the people: “If you accept the Torah, well and good; but if not, your grave will be there.” According to the Tanchuma, this was done specifically for the Oral Law.
Concerning the Oral Law, the Talmud makes a qualitative difference between somebody who studies a passage one hundred times, and somebody who does so one hundred and one times: Only the second, who put in the extra effort, is considered somebody who “serves Hashem” (Chagiga 9b). Certainly, studying the complexities of the Oral Law, with its complicated discussions and its fine distinctions, is no easy feat. It is here that our toil in Torah is most necessary and prominent.
What Kind of Toil?
In the introduction to Otzar Mefarshei HaTalmud, a compendium that brings together many opinions on each passage of Talmud, Rav Yitzchak Hutner wrote that using the series of volumes does not contradict the principle of toiling in Torah. Toiling in Torah study, Rav Hutner explains, refers to the toil of study, and not to the toil of searching for books. Bringing them together in a single volume is therefore a great benefit, and does not negate the concept of toiling in Torah.
However, in Leket Yosher (Vol. 2, p. 39), a biographical work on the Terumas Hadeshen (Rabbi Yisrael Isserlin), we find that the Terumas Hadeshen criticized somebody who studied Torah with others while seated around a round table, which could be rotated to move seforim from one person to another. He viewed this contraption, which was fashioned by a “spoiled and wealthy young man,” in a negative light because, he said, toiling in fetching their books will increase the quality of the study, and help students remember their learning.
Proof for his position may be found in the Gemara. The Gemara (Menachos 7A) tells how Avimi, one of the Amoraim, forgot Maseches Menachos and therefore, went to the house of his student, Rav Chisda, to ask a question. The Gemara questions why Avimi didn’t ask his student to come to him. The Gemara answers that going to his student would help Avimi to remember what he learned. Rashi comments that this conforms with the principle, “Believe one who says I toiled and found (But not one who says I found but did not toil).” This indicates quite clearly that physical toil is necessary in order to acquire Torah.
Concerning computer programs, we should on the one hand welcome computer programs and applications that make Torah study more accessible to many. However, this should complement, rather than replace, traditional methods of Torah study that involve intellectual effort, actual toil in Torah study, and each person’s striving to reach his own understanding.
Each one of us has his own portion in Torah, including his portion in Torah study. Each has his own understating, his own preference of what to study, his own pace. But to achieve that portion, we all need to make the maximum effort.
As we have seen, there are different approaches to what that effort entails. Does it require us to refrain from pleasures of the world? Does it mean we should toil even in simple acts like fetching books? Without a doubt, it does include setting aside fixed times for Torah study (which should only be changed under exceptional circumstances) and investing real energy and sacrifice for the study of Torah. This obligation applies to all (see Shulchan Aruch Harav 3:6).
While our resources—resources of time, of energy, of freedom of mind—are limited throughout the year, Shavuos presents an opportunity to dedicate ourselves to Torah study. It need not be the entire night. Even two or three hours of Torah study, if that is what one is capable of, is supremely meaningful.
With our Torah study in hand, we can truly rejoice on Shavuos in the giving of the Torah, and in our intimate relationship with its Giver.