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Bechukosai – Toiling in Torah Study

Commenting on the first words of Parashas Bechukosai—”If you will follow My statutes”—Rashi cites the well-known explanation of Chazal: “That you shall toil in Torah study.”

As the day of Shavuos approaches, we take the opportunity to discuss a particular angle of Torah study: The extent of the obligation to toil in Torah study, and the direction in which our toiling should be directed.

The Obligation of Torah Study

Dwelling on the essential obligation of Torah study, we find one opinion in the Gemara that states somewhat surprisingly (Menachos 99b; Nedarim 8a): “Even one who did no more than read Krias Shema in the morning and the evening has fulfilled the precept of ‘You shall mediate upon them day and night’ (Yehoshua 1:8).”

Is the entire obligation of Torah study fulfilled merely by reading the Shema in the day and the night?

Rishonim answer this question in the negative. The Ran explains that although reading Krias Shema in the day and the night is sufficient to fulfill the instruction of the prophet (Torah study in the day and the night), it is not sufficient to fulfill the general obligation of Torah study. Of this general obligation, the Gemara writes that one must reach a level whereby “words of Torah are sharp in your mouth,” a level that requires great diligence in Torah study.

Other authorities write that the halachah does not follow the Talmudic interpretation whereby reciting the Shema fulfills the principle obligation of Torah study. Tosafos (Berachos 11b), for example, cites the very verse that “You must meditate in Torah day and night” as the source for the obligation to engage in constant Torah study—every free moment of the day and night.

Following similar lines, the Rema (Yoreh De’ah 246:1) rules that one may rely on morning and evening readings of the Shema only in extenuating circumstances. Under ordinary circumstances, one must be sure to study Torah as diligent as one is able. A similar position is expressed by a number of authorities (see Ritva, Nedarim; Semag, Asei 12; however, see Radvaz, Vol. 3, no. 416).

Quantifying Torah Study

Can the time for the obligation of Torah study be quantified? It cannot. The time of each person’s obligation of Torah study is different, and varies according to personal circumstances.

The principle, as set out by a number of authorities, is that one must study the Torah in the time that is ‘free’ (see Mishnah Berurah 155:4). As Rav Elchanan Wasserman (Kovetz Shiurim, Vol. 2, no. 11) writes, during the time that a person spends at work, there is no obligation to study Torah: The obligation of Torah study is incumbent during the time that a person is not at work.

Authorities dispute whether a person is permitted to work beyond his basic needs, or whether a person should strive to work the bare minimum, and devote the maximum time to the pursuit of Torah study. Circumstances of the modern workplace make the former option hard to fulfill, and we have discussed this dispute in greater detail elsewhere (see here).

However, it is clear that the basic obligation of Torah study is universal to all (see Shulchan Aruch Harav 3:6), and even the busiest of business people must be particular to be kove’a ittim la-Torah—to ensure that he has fixed daily times for Torah study.

Dividing One’s Time

Having established the actual obligation of Torah study, we must address the question of what parts of the Torah take priority in fulfilling the obligation.

The Gemara (Kiddushin 30b) offers basic guidance in this regard: “Rabbi Safra said in the name of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chanina: ‘One should always divide his study-time into three: A third should be devoted to Scripture, a third to Mishnah, and a third to Talmud.'”

The first third, according to this teaching, is devoted to studying Scripture, with its commentaries. The second is devoted to studying the Mishnah, which implies the study of binding halachic decisions. Today, this might include works such as the Shulchan Aruch, and other halachic codes and compilations. The final third of one’s time must be devoted to the study of the Talmud, which means acquiring an understanding of the reason and rationale behind the halachic decisions of the Mishnah and codes. According to the Shulchan Aruch Harav (Laws of Torah Study 2:1), one can accomplish this by studying the Talmud with the commentary of the Rosh, or by studying the Tur and Beis Yosef.

Although the Rambam quotes the teaching of the Gemara verbatim, the Ran (Avodah Zarah, p. 5b of Rif) writes that Chazal did not mean to imply that one must divide one’s study time into three equal parts. Rather, it is advisable to dedicate more time to the study of Jewish law than to Scripture, and more time to Talmudic analysis than to the study of the law itself. Essentially, what the Sages wish to convey is that one should study all three fields on a daily basis, each field receiving the necessary attention according to its scope.

Moreover, according to Rabbenu Tam, one who studies the Talmud alone already fulfills his threefold obligation, for the Talmud itself contains Scriptural verses, Mishnayos, and Halachos, as well as the reasoning and logic behind the laws of the Torah.

The Rema rules that it is permitted to follow the opinion of Rabbenu Tam on this matter (Yoreh De’ah 246:5). However many authorities maintain that one should set aside time for the study of Tanach and Halachah independently (Rambam, Laws of Torah Study 1:11; Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De’ah 246:5; Bach; Shulchan Aruch Harav 2:2).

The Shach quotes from the Prisha that working people who don’t have many hours to study Torah should not devote their entire study time to Gemara. Rather, they should spend time studying the practical halachah. Nowadays, this can be accomplished by studying texts like the Mishnah Berurah, Kitzur Shulchan Aruch, and so on (see Mishnah Berurah 155:3, who emphasizes that working people should ensure they learn works of halachah).

The Obligation to Remember One’s Learning

An important aspect of the commandment to study Torah is its goal. The objective of Torah study is to know and remember the Torah. Although understanding that which one’s studies is a crucial element of Torah study, remembering one’s studies is no less important, and time must be devoted to ensuring that one remembers that which one learns.

For this reason, Chazal teach: “Study them continually’ (Devarim 6:7)—ensure that that the Torah is etched in your memory, so that if somebody asks you a question, you should not fumble for the answer, but respond immediately” (Kiddushin 30a). In other words, the obligation is to know and remember the Torah, so that one is readily able to fulfill its instructions.

Moreover, one who is lax and does not review his studies, thereby forgetting things that he has learned, violates a negative commandment: “Only be careful to protect your soul exceedingly, lest you forget these things” (Devarim 4:9; Menachos 99b). In addition, Chazal mention strict punishment for a person who forgets even one thing he studied, for by so doing he discards the words of the living G-d. This does not apply to one whose forgetting is a result of unavoidable circumstances.

In this vein the Gemara teaches: “Rabbi Yehoshua ben Korcha says, ‘Whoever studies Torah and then forgets what he learned resembles a woman who gives birth and then buries her child'” (Sanhedrin 99a).

Thus before moving on to new material one is obligated to review in order to ensure that he remembers whatever he has learned.

The Quality/Quantity Dilemma

Often, a person is confronted by a dilemma of quantity of Torah study, against the quality of the study.

One facet of this dilemma is the question of whether to study for more time, or whether to sleep more in order to ensure that one’s study will be of a higher quality. Another possible scenario is the question of whether to travel to a place where one’s study will be of a higher quality e.g. a shiur or a particularly conducive environment of Torah study. On the one hand, the learning will benefit, yet on the other, the time of Torah study will fall, due to the time taken for travel. Which takes precedence: quality or quantity?

The answer to these questions can be derived from a distinction drawn by the Shulchan Aruch Harav (Torah Study, Chap. 3, K.A. 1) between the mitzvah of Torah study, and the mitzvah of knowing the entire Torah. Although both are obligatory, the Shulchan Aruch Harav explains that the mitzvah of knowing the Torah takes precedence over the mitzvah of spending time on Torah study, mentioning a number of practical applications. A similar position is expressed by Rav Yisrael Salanter (Or Yisrael, no. 27).

Based on the precedence of Torah knowledge over Torah study, it is clear that dilemmas of Torah study should be resolved based on results. It is therefore worth sacrificing time of Torah study for the higher quality of the learning, for higher quality learning will inevitably yield better results of Torah knowledge. Likewise, it would be advisable to sleep a sufficient time to ensure that one’s Torah study is efficient, and will yield optimal results.

It is in this vein that one can understand a remarkable teaching of the Taz (Even Ha’ezer 25:1), who applies the verse “It is futile for you, O those who awaken early,” to Torah scholars who awaken early and sacrifice the quality of their Torah study. A Torah scholar who sleeps more, and therefore reaches the same Torah achievement in a shorter time, will receive no less reward than the early bird!

Toil in Torah is thus primarily a matter of quality and not merely a matter of quantity.

A Mitzvah without Boundaries

The unique thing about Torah study is that it is a never-ending mitzvah. A Jew can never claim to have finished studying Torah, for there is really no end to the number of ideas that the Torah includes.

In addition, the purpose of studying Torah is not merely to know how to behave and how to view the world; rather, the act of study itself is considered a most elevated mitzvah.

In the act of studying the Torah, a person engages with the Divine word itself, bonding him with Hashem to a greater degree than all other mitzvos (Derech Hashem, Part 1, Chap. 4, no. 9). Therefore, unlike other mitzvos that are bound by time, place, and person, the mitzvah of Torah study is universal, applying to all Jewish males, at all times, and in all places.

The Obligation of Toil in Torah

Reflecting the unbounded nature of the 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: “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 must meditate upon it day and night.'”

A similar lesson is taught concerning the time when the Jews first entered the land of Israel. 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 angel of G-d and Yehoshua: “The angel said to Yehoshua, ‘Yesterday, you missed bringing the afternoon (Tamid) offering. And tonight, you are idle from Torah studies.’ Joshua asked, ‘What is the main reason why you came?’ The angel replied, ‘I came for the present,’ indicating that the main reason was the laxity in Torah study. Immediately, Joshua 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 such a serious offence, that a Divine messenger was sent forth as an officer with a drawn sword, to teach that their failure to engage in Torah study made them vulnerable to be slain in combat.

As we look forward to the Shavuos holiday, we must realize while the giving of the Torah is cause for great joy it also creates a great responsibility. It is a great joy, for the word of Hashem is among us, for us to study, to mediate, and to guide us in every phase of our lives. At the same time, it creates a great responsibility, for it obligates us to toil in Torah study. May we both experience the joy, and live up to the responsibility.

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