A Halachic Discourse on Torah and Earning a Living

This week’s parashah includes a description of the falling of the manna, the miraculous bread which our forefathers ate for forty years in the desert. Reciting this passage  on daily bases is known to be a segula for parnasah. As Chazal mention in Yerushalmi, he who recites the passage of the manna every day, is promised continues, unfailing livelihood  (mentioned in Mishnah Berurah 1:13).

However, it goes without saying that in order to make a living, one cannot rely exclusively on one segulah or another. Rather, in tandem with prayer (parashas haman included), he must make a reasonable effort to earn a living.

This principle is derived from the teaching of a Gemara (Niddah 70b): “What should a person do in order to become rich? He told them [Rabbi Yehoshua to the people of Alexandria]: He should increase his business dealings, and be honest. They told him: Many have done so, but have not succeeded? Rather, one should pray to He who possesses all wealth, as the verse states, ‘Mine is the silver and Mine is the gold.’ What does this teach us? – That one without the other is insufficient.”

One without the other – work alone, or prayer alone, is not enough. A combination of the two is required.

The concept of working for a living, and in particular the tension between working for a livelihood and the study of Torah, has recently come under intense debate. Is it proper that men immersed in the study of Torah should combine working for a living with their studies, or should they be permitted to study Torah without having to engage in matters of this world? Of course, the range of this question extends beyond purely halachic considerations, and includes social, political, and broader financial considerations. In this article, we will focus on the halachic aspect only.

The Dispute between R. Yishmael and R. Shimon b. Yochai

The Gemara (Berachos 35b) cites a fundamental dispute between Rabbi Yishmael and Rabbi Shimon b. Yochai.: Rabbi Yishmael maintains that one should follow the natural course of derech eretz- the way of the world, and work to earn his livelihood. Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai argues that the opposite is true: One should avoid all contact with worldly matters, and dedicate his life solely to the study of Torah. The rationale behind R. Yishmael’s ruling is that a person should not attempt to breach the normal course of nature. According to R. Shimon, if a person were to do so, “what would be the Torah’s fate?”

In conclusion of the argument, the Gemara cites the words of Abaye: “Many have followed the advice of R. Yishmael, and have seen success. Many have followed the advice of R. Shimon, and have not succeeded.” The Gemara also tells of Rava, who would instruct his disciples to absent themselves from the study halls during the months of Nissan and Tishrei. During these months he instructed them to go out and earn a living that would sustain them (and their families) for the rest of the year. The implication of both statements is that the halachah follows the opinion of R. Yishmael, and a person should combine Torah study with work.

The seemingly opposite approaches of R. Yishmael and R. Shimon are also represented in the Mishnah. On the one hand, the Mishnah in Avos 2:2 states  “It is good to combine Torah study with working (derech eretz), for the toil of both will dispel sin. Torah that is without work will eventually fail, and leads to sin.” The Mishnah leaves little doubt as to which is the correct path that a person should take.[1]

On the other hand, the Mishnah in Avos 3:5 states that “He who accepts upon himself the yoke of Torah is freed of the yoke of derech eretz .” As the Vilna Gaon writes, this corresponds with R. Shimon’s opinion.

The actual halachic ruling, therefore, still requires clarification.

Halachic Ruling in the Dispute

Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 156:1) rules as follows: “A person should work for a living, because Torah that is not combined with work will ultimately fail, and lead to sin.” The wording is drawn from the above Mishnah, and Magen Avraham writes that this follows the opinion of R. Yishmael

However, Machatzis Hashekel refers to the statement of Maharsha (on the above Gemara), and clarifies that the way of R. Shimon remains true, but only for the entirely righteous.  These are few, and therefore the general public must follow the directive of R. Yishmael, and may not rely on themselves as being “entirely righteous.” However, these elite few who are defined as “entirely righteous” – may follow the way of R. Shimon, and, as R. Shimon states, their work will be done by others.

This principle is also expressed by Mishnah Berurah (Biur Halachah, loc. cit.), who writes that the instruction in Shulchan Aruch applies to the community at large, “for not everybody is able to reach the elevated level of being occupied solely with Torah. However,  there are always those few individuals who achieve this level, and Hashem will surely provide their sustenance.”

As support for his stance, Mishnah Berurah cites the famous ruling of Rambam in the end of the laws of Shemittah and Yovel:

Not only the tribe of Levi, but every individual, who  heeded the calling of his soul and higher wisdom to volunteer himself for the service of G-d, walks in the just ways  as G-d created him, and frees himself of the many concepts that people adopt ; he has sanctified himself as holy of holies, his lot is intertwined with Hashem forever and ever, and he will merit to receive in this world that which he requires.

This is also the stance adopted by Peleh Yoetz (erech parnasah), who goes so far as to suggest that there is no effective dispute between R. Shimon and R. Yishmael – for the words of R. Shimon apply only to the selected few pious people. The words of R. Yishmael apply to the general public.

Rambam’s Opinion in Hilchos Talmud Torah

We have mentioned the ruling of Rambam, which is quoted by Mishnah Berurah and other authorities in permitting individuals to adopt the method of R. Shimon. Yet, another equally renowned ruling of Rambam (Talmud Torah 3:10) suggests that this course is not a valid halachic option:

Anybody who decides to study Torah and to abstain from work, with intention of supporting himself through charity is desecrating G-d’s name, devaluing the Torah, bringing upon himself harm and cutting himself off of eternal life. It is forbidden to derive benefit from the Torah in this world, as the Sages have said:  He who benefits from the Torah has removed himself from the world. Elsewhere, they said: Don’t make the Torah a crown to be honored with or a spade for digging. Also, they have taught us: Love work and despise rulership, for any Torah that does not go along with work will eventually come to an end, and cause sin. This person will end up being a thief .Kesef Mishnah expounds further on the words of Rambam in his commentary to the Mishnah, and mentions that the majority of Talmudic Sages, or all of them, worked for their living.

This raises a hard question: How is it possible to abide to the ruling which permits individuals to throw off the yoke of this world, and also adhere to his directives in hilchos Talmud Torah?

Radvaz addresses this question, and explains that Rambam never meant to state that a person is permitted to abandon himself to the mercy of the community. Rather, Rambam means to say that a person may dedicate himself to the study of Torah, and Hashem will ensure that his sustenance is provided, without affecting his Torah study. Rav Chaim Kanievsky (Derech Emunah, Shmemittah Veyovel 13:64) follows similar lines, and explains that those who designate themselves for the service of G-d while simultaneously  making an effort to earn their sustenance, Hashem will bestow His blessing and allow them to support themselves without affecting their Torah study.

A novel approach emerges from Aruch Hashulchan (Yoreh De’ah 246:40). He explains that even Rambam permits an individual to be supported by others, and to dwell exclusively in the tent of Torah. Rambam only means to prohibit a Torah scholar from requesting charity for himself. If the community wishes to support a Torah scholar, this does not  degrade the Torah.  On the contrary, it is its honor and glory.

According to this approach, there is no longer any contradiction between the two rulings of Rambam. The severe prohibition stated by Rambam in the Laws of Torah Study applies only to a Torah scholar who approaches the community and requests financial assistance; the ruling permitting individuals to separate themselves from engaging in the world of commerce refers to individuals whom the community supports of its own volition.

Rulings and Applications in the Modern Day

Not all authorities concur with the seemingly stringent view of Rambam –. Beis Yosef (Yoreh De’ah 256), after citing from Tashbatz (vol. 1, no. 142-148) who disputes Rambam at length, concludes that although it is midas chasidus (preferential) to combine working with study of Torah, this is not a ‘one size fits all’ directive. Most people are unable to effectively balance the two. In his Kesef Mishnah, Beis Yosef refers to the principle whereby wherever the halachah is unclear, one must follow the prevalent custom – and it is certainly the custom for Torah scholars to dedicate their lives exclusively to Torah study, while being supported by the community or individuals.

Bach takes an even more lenient approach, and besides broadly permitting the practice of being supported by others while immersing oneself in Torah study, he writes that a Rosh Yeshiva (or rabbi) is even permitted to amass wealth in receiving gifts and donations. This ruling is cited by Shach (246:21), and although Rema (256:21) cites both Rambam and the dissenting opinion, Mishnah Berurah (Biur Halachah 231) cites numerous authorities that permit the matter.

This lenient opinion is the basis for the general concept of a kollel, in which Torah study has become fairly widespread today.

The transition from a directive for the individual, to a social structure that embraces a large percentage of particular societies, was orchestrated by Chazon Ish (see letters, vol. 1, no. 86), who explained that the need to rebuild the Torah community after the Holocaust requires that study in Kollel should be broadened, therefore treating virtually anyone capable of Torah study as the individual for whom the Kollel system is fitting. (Today, they are still by and by large a tiny minority in the Jewish world.)


For these individuals,  poskim in general are very supportive of full-time Torah study. They encourage those with the abilities to do so, to dedicate themselves to the study of Torah. Iggros Moshe (Yoreh De’ah, vol. 2, no. 116) notes that in our days, it is particularly difficult to combine in-depth Torah study with working, and adds that the temptation of quoting Rambam as a reason to leave (full-time) Torah study is advice rooted in the Evil Inclination (see also Yoreh De’ah, vol. 3, no. 82).


Working and Learning at the Same Time

Forever, the majority will seek to combine working with Torah study. This is the way of the world, as R. Yishmael stated, and this is the way of the general public. In light of this, it is important to consider,  how we should seek to implement the combination. How does Torah study sit together with earning a living?

According to a number of authorities, a person should work only enough to earn his basic necessities (see Mishnah Berurah 156:2; Shulchan Aruch Harav, Talmud Torah 3:3)  and spend the rest of his time in the pursuit of Torah study: “Make Torah your chief occupation, and your work  less important” (Avos 1:15).

Yet, several authorities imply that there is no obligation to minimize one’s working time to the bare essentials, and it is permitted to work in order to amass wealth, to live in comfort, and,  to support others who learn Torah. This position is implied by Shach (Yoreh De’ah 243:7), who explains that Torah scholars are exempt from taxes even when they work for their bare essentials (implying that the mainstream taxpayers work beyond the level of bare essentials).

The same ruling is implied by Terumas Hadeshen (215), who rules that a person can choose to move apartments, despite the objections of his wife, in order to increase his income and improve his lifestyle. Iggros Moshe (Yoreh De’ah, vol. 4, no. 36, sec. 5)states that the obligation to make one’s Torah paramount, and one’s work of lesser importance, is a matter of midas chassidus.[2]

Kevius Ittim for Torah Study

The main thing is that a person designate a fixed time for Torah study. As Rava stated (Kiddushin 31b), one of the first questions a person is asked when he reaches the great Day of Judgment is “Did you set aside times for Torah study?” As Peleh Yoetz writes, even somebody who is unable to study for a lengthy period of time, should ensure that the time he does study is permanent and able to withstand the temptations that so often threaten its continued existence.

From the plural form of the word “ittim,”- times, authorities learn that a person should establish two time-slots for Torah study; One during the day and one at night (see Maharsha). This is stated explicitly by Rambam (Talmud Torah 1:8), who writes that every Jew, even a pauper or somebody with the burden of supporting a large family, must establish set times for Torah study both during the day and at night. Shulchan Aruch Harav adds that even somebody who finds that he is unable to study Torah for the entire designated period should at least study Torah in a part of this time slot.

We cannot end without relating  the Chofetz Chaim’s famous parable on Parashas Chukas:

Chazal (Berachos 43b) write that words of Torah are only fulfilled among those prepared to die for them. This seems to be a hard statement to digest: surely the Torah wants us to live by its laws, not die of them?!

The words of Chazal will be explained through a parable: Once there was a great merchant who owned a large business. He had many customers who patronized his business from all over. His days and night were spent in business, and the merchant had no time to pray in shul, let alone study Torah ..

Years went by, and grey hairs began to sprout on his head. The merchant  felt that his time was slowly approaching, and soon he would have to answer to the great Heavenly Tribunal. With his typical business rationale, he  decided to prepare for the great day.  The merchant began going to shul for prayers, and remaining there two hours after that, immersed in Torah study

Upon coming to his store, after his three-hour foray in shul , his wife could not contain her wonder, “Where have you been? The store is jam-packed with clients! You can’t disappear like that!” The merchant shrugged it off with, “I was busy.” And that was that. When the scenario repeated itself for a second time, his wife could not contain her curiosity any longer, and went out to search for her husband.

Upon finding him in shul, engrossed in Torah study, her eyes literally popped out of her head! What a shock! She began shouting: “What’s wrong with you? Have you gone mad? The store is packed with customers, and you sit here and learn?! Besides the loss of income, we will also lose our regular clientele!”

The merchant replied, “Hear me, dear wife. What would I do if the Angel of Death himself would come and say, ‘Your time has come to depart from this world.’ Would I then be able to say that there is no time, since the store is full of customers? If so, imagine that I am now dead. What do you care if I will come back to life in another two hours, and return to the store to assist you?”

This is Chazal’s  meaning in stating that words of Torah are only fulfilled in those who are prepared to die for them. A person should consider himself as dead to the world. To this claim one cannot reply that he has no spare time. This way, one can immerse himself in the study of Torah, which gives life to those who study and live by it.






[1] The Mishnah likewise states (3:17) that “if there is no flour, there is no Torah” – a person should ensure that he deals in both. The Vilna Gaon states that both this and the previous Mishnah, follow the opinion of R. Yishmael.

[2] The Mishnah can also be explained not in terms of time invested, but in terms of attitude. Even if a person works for most of his day, and in only able to study Torah for a short time, the short time he studies should be “permanent,” the main part of his day, and the time he spends working is “transient,” the lesser part of the day.

Tags: articles Beshalach Parsha parshas shavua Talmud Torah

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