The Mitzvah of Talmud Torah
In this week’s parsha we read that (Vayikra 26:3), “if you go in My statutes,” then Hashem will bestow on Klal Yisrael unlimited blessings. Rashi explains that this does not merely refer to the fulfillment of the mitzvos, as it also says in the possuk, “and if you keep My mitzvos and you do them.” Rather, the possuk of “if you go in My statutes,” refers to the fact that one must toil in Torah learning in order to receive the brachos.
Since this mitzvah of Talmud Torah, learning and teaching Torah, is such a central theme in the parsha, and since Chag HaShavuos, zman matan Toraseinu, is rapidly approaching, let us examine some of the halachic issues involved in the mitzvah of Talmud Torah.
A UNIQUE MITZVAH
The mitzvah of learning and teaching Torah is a unique mitzvah. A child under the age of bar/bas mitzvah is exempt from performing all mitzvos. Similarly, according to Torah Law, there is no obligation on the father to train his child in the performance of mitzvos. Rather, there is a mitzvah based on a possuk in Nach (Mishlei 22:6), “train the youth according to his way.” Nevertheless, when it comes to Talmud Torah, the Torah commands a father to teach his son, as it says (Devarim 11:19), “And you shall teach them to your sons” (Kiddushin 29b).
Not only is one obligated to teach his son Torah, but he must also teach his grandson Torah, as it says (Devarim 4:9), “And you shall inform them to your sons and to your grandsons.” Additionally, there is a mitzvah to teach Torah even to those who are not one’s biological children. This is derived from the possuk (ibid. 6:7), “And you shall teach them well to your sons.” Chazal derive that “your sons” refers to one’s students (Yalkut Shimoni, VaEschanan, #841; Rambam, Hilchos Talmud Torah 1:2; Shulchan Aruch Yoreh Deah 245:3).
Another interesting distinction between Talmud Torah and other mitzvos is that the requirement to train children in the performance of other mitzvos is only applicable when the child is old enough to perform that mitzvah. Thus, the Gemara (Succah 42a) states that a child who knows how to shake a lulav is obligated in lulav; a child who knows how to wrap himself in a talis is obligated in the mitzvah of tzitzis. With Talmud Torah, on the other hand, the mitzvah begins as soon as the child can talk, well before he can comprehend what he is saying (ibid; Rambam Hilchos Talmud Torah 1:6). At that point, the father is chayev to teach the child the possuk “Torah tzivah lanu Moshe, etc.” and the first possuk of Shema (Shulchan Aruch Yoreh Deah 245:5).
THE RESPONSIBILITY: THEN AND NOW
A father is obligated min haTorah to either teach his son Torah or hire someone to do so. The question is: How much Torah does the father have to teach his child? This depends on which period of history we are discussing, because over the course of time, the father’s chiyuv has changed. Let us explain.
Originally, the father was responsible to teach his son “kol haTorah kulah” – the entire Torah. This includes: Torah, Nevi’im, Kesuvim, all of the halachos based on the pessukim, the explanations and reasons of the Taryag mitzvos, all of the Agadaic drashos of the pessukim, the Mishnayos and Braisos and the Gemaros that explain them.
The reason why this tremendous obligation fell on the father was because of the nature of Torah she’bichsav and Torah she’baal peh during the earlier generations. At that time, the twenty-four sifrei Tanach were all written solely in the format of our Sifrei Torah – without vowels or cantillation marks (trop). These elements were transmitted orally from one generation to the next. Also, the vast amount of literature which comprised Torah she’baal peh was still studied orally, as it was forbidden to commit any of it to writing until the days of Rebbi Yehuda HaNassi (approximately 100 years after the Churban).
Thus, in order to become proficient in Torah she’bichsav and Torah she’baal peh required years of rigorous study. This is why a full five years were spent mastering Tanach and then another five years on Mishnah. Only at the age of fifteen was a young man sufficiently versed to be able to begin learning Gemara (Avos 5:21).
However, now that our Tanachs are printed with the vowels and cantillation marks and Torah she’baal peh is written, the father’s responsibility has changed. He is only chayev to teach his son Chumash, which is the basis for the Taryag mitzvos and the halachos contained therein, and to see to it that the child becomes self-proficient in learning Gemara and halacha. Since both Torah she’bichsav and Torah she’baal peh are readily accessible, a child can be expected to learn them on his own once he has the basic tools for learning and comprehension (Shulchan Aruch HaRav, Hilchos Talmud Torah, chapter 1).
It is possible that this is one of the reasons why the system of teaching Torah to children in most schools is not in line with the Mishnah in Pirkei Avos quoted earlier. Although according to the Mishnah, a child should devote five years to learning Tanach and then another five years to Mishnah before starting Gemara at the age of fifteen, in most schools Gemara is introduced when the children are approximately ten years old. Since it is no longer necessary to learn material by heart, less time is required for Chumash and Mishnah.
ONE’S OWN OBLIGATION
We find in Tanach many pessukim that deal with the mitzvah of Talmud Torah. These include: 1) “And you shall learn them and be careful to perform them” (Devarim 5:1), 2) “And shall teach them thoroughly” (ibid. 6:7), 3) “Only beware for yourself… lest you forget the things that your eyes have beheld and lest you remove them from your heart all the days of your life” (ibid. 4:9), 4) “This book of the Torah shall not depart from your mouth, rather you should contemplate it day and night” (Yehoshua 1:8).
There is much discussion among the Rishonim and poskim what the specific mitzvos of Talmud Torah are, from which pessukim they are derived and whether they are all included in one general mitzvah or they are separate mitzvos. To fully explain the various opinions is beyond the scope of this article. However, with regards to a person’s own obligation to learn Torah, we find the following mitzvos: 1) To learn Torah, even if one’s father did not teach him, 2) to know the entire Torah, both Torah she’bichsav and Torah she’baal peh, 3) to learn all the time, even if one knows the entire Torah, 4) to set aside specific times to learn and 5) not to forget one’s learning. (See: Tosafos Brachos 11b, s.v., she’kvar; Mordechai ad. loc. # 27; Sefer HaChinuch #419; Rambam, Hilchos Talmud Torah 1:10; Shulchan Aruch Yoreh Deah 246:3; Shulchan Aruch HaRav, Hilchos Talmud Torah 2:1, and Kuntres Acharon ad loc.; 3:1 in Kuntres Acharon; Mishnah Berurah 155:4; Sefer Chayei Moshe, chap. 2.)
The Shulchan Aruch writes (Yoreh Deah 246:1): “Every Jewish man is obligated in Talmud Torah; whether poor or wealthy; whether healthy or sick; whether young or old; even a pauper that collects from door to door, and even a husband and father; is obligated to set aside for himself time for learning during the day and during the night, as it says, “and you shall contemplate it day and night.” The Rama adds, “If one is in a difficult situation, even if he only read Shema in the morning and evening, this is considered [the fulfillment of the verse (Yeshayahu 59:21)], “They will not be withdrawn from your mouth.” (It has been suggested that the Rama’s quoting of this particular possuk is in fact a printing error, and the Rama is actually referring to the possuk in Yehoshua 1:8, quoted earlier. See Haga’os Maimanios, Hilchos Talmud Torah 1:7; Sefer Chayei Moshe, chap. 2, footnote 109.)
Additionally, the Mechaber in Orach Chaim (155:1) writes that “this time should be fixed and he should not pass it up even if he thinks that he can make a profit.” By setting aside a specific time for learning, one indicates that Talmud Torah is important to him.
The poskim maintain that the most opportune time to set aside for learning is immediately after davening. Two reasons are given for this: 1) By doing so, one fulfills the verse “they advance from strength to strength” (Tehillim 84:8), which indicates that it is always proper to do one mitzvah after another. It is for this reason that the poskim recommend building a succah immediately after Yom Kippur. 2) It is considered prudent to learn before going to work out of concern that one will get involved in his activities and forget to learn (Mishnah Berurah 155:2). It would seem that one also fulfills these two reasons if he learns before davening.
If something unavoidable occurs and he cannot learn during his set seder in the morning, he should make it up at night. This is based on a Gemara (Eiruvin 65a) that if one cannot fulfill his usual learning obligation during the day because he is too busy, he may “borrow” during the day and “pay back” during the night (Mishnah Berurah 155:4).
Nevertheless, even if one cannot learn his usual seder in the morning, he should learn at least one halacha or one possuk before leaving shul (ibid.).
Although there is a chiyuv to set aside time during the day and the night for Talmud Torah, sometimes a person finds himself in a situation where this is difficult. When this occurs, he can fulfill his obligation by learning a minimal amount in the morning and evening (Shulchan Aruch HaRav, Hilchos Talmud Torah 3:4). It is reported that Rabbeinu Yosef Colon – the Maharik, a fifteenth century halachic authority, when very involved in business dealings, would learn one line from a sefer in the morning and one line in the evening to fulfill the mitzvah of “v’hagisa bo yomam valaylah” (Yosef Ometz [Frankfurt], pg. 266).
If someone is so busy that even this minimal amount of learning is impossible, he can fulfill his daily requirement of Talmud Torah by the reading of Kri’as Shema during davening in the morning and evening (Rama, Yoreh Deah 246:1 and Shach 1).
BE CAREFUL OF A NEDER
If one learns a certain amount of material each day, e.g., a daf Gemara, a perek Mishnayos, three se’ifim of Shulchan Aruch, and for whatever reason, he did not learn his quota on a particular day, he should see to do so at the earliest opportunity during the evening. This is because the Gemara says (Nedarim 7a) that one who accepts upon himself to learn a particular amount has in essence made a neder to do so, and therefore he must fulfill this neder as soon as possible. This is true even if he did not explicitly verbalize his intention to learn a certain quota. Since he accepted upon himself to do so, it is considered a “minhag tov” and is considered to be a neder. Therefore, it is advisable that before committing oneself to a particular learning quota, he should make the condition that he is doing so “bli neder” (Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 238:2 and Mishnah Berurah 5).
There is a disagreement among the poskim whether one must make up the missing amount that evening or if he can wait until the next day. The Mishnah Berurah (4) quotes the Pri Megadim that since the following day has its own obligations, he must learn his quota on that evening, otherwise it will be considered as “a twisted thing that cannot be made straight” (Koheles 1:15). However, others maintain that the missed learning can be made up on the following day (Pischei Teshuvah Yoreh Deah 246:1).
THINKING IN LEARNING
Does one fulfill the mitzvah of Talmud Torah by “thinking in learning” or does one have to verbalize the words of Torah? This is actually debated in the sources. Some maintain that whenever one is able to verbalize, he must do so in order to fulfill the mitzvah. This is based on the fact that the phrase “from your mouth” appears in the possuk, “This book of the Torah shall not depart from your mouth” (Yehoshua 1:8). When one is not able to actually verbalize, for example, if he wishes to contemplate a particular topic in order to understand it more deeply, then he fulfills the mitzvah even while just thinking (Shulchan Aruch HaRav, Hilchos Talmud Torah 2:12). It is interesting to note that the angel, referred to as “the Maggid,” who learned with the Beis Yosef, related to him that had permission been granted for the eye to behold elements of the spiritual world, it would see angels being created from the words of Torah that emanate from one’s mouth (Kaf HaChaim 238:2).
Others maintain that one fulfills the mitzvah of Talmud Torah even without verbalization (Rabbeinu Yonah 3:2; Sha’agas Aryeh #24). However, it is preferable to say the words out loud as this helps one to remember the material (Shulchan Aruch Yoreh Deah 246:22).
HEARING DIVREI TORAH
Although there is a dispute whether one fulfills the mitzvah of Talmud Torah by “thinking in learning,” one does fulfill the mitzvah when hearing divrei Torah. This is because of the concept called “shomei’a k’oneh,” which literally means, “hearing is like verbalizing.” This idea is widely used in halacha. For example, when a person recites kiddush or havdalah for others, even though only he recites the bracha, everyone listening fulfills his obligation, because it is as if they verbalized the bracha themselves. The same applies to divrei Torah. For example, when a person listens to someone delivering a shiur, he fulfills the mitzvah of Talmud Torah, because it is as if he said the shiur himself (Shulchan Aruch HaRav, Hilchos Talmud Torah 2:12).
However, since by listening to divrei Torah one fulfills the mitzvah of Talmud Torah because of the concept of “shomei’a k’oneh,” some maintain that where this concept is not applicable, it would not be considered as if one verbalized the words of Torah himself. For example: With regards to kiddush or havdalah, one has to hear the bracha from a person. One cannot fulfill his obligation by hearing a recorded bracha. Therefore, if one listens to a recorded shiur, he is not verbalizing divrei Torah, rather he is only “thinking in learning” (Shu’t VaYevarech Dovid #177, s.v., milvad, quoted in Chayei Moshe, chap. 2, footnote #18).
TALMUD TORAH AND WOMEN
There are two aspects to Torah learning: 1) It is an end unto itself, i.e., one must learn Torah for the sake of learning Torah, and 2) it is a vehicle through which one learns how to perform the mitzvos. Women are only obligated in the second aspect of Torah learning. Therefore a father must see to it that his daughter learns the halachos of the mitzvos which are relevant to her. It is for this reason that women recite birchos HaTorah, as they must learn what pertains to them (Rama Yoreh Deah 246:6; Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 47:14 and Biur Halacha ad loc.; Sefer Chinuch HaBanim La’Mitzvos [Rav Y.Y. Neuwirth], pg. 10).
Additionally, there is a mitzvah to teach women Chumash, Nach and the ethical teachings of Chazal in order to strengthen their emunah. This is especially true in our generation when the general attitude of the street is anti-religious (Likutei Halachos of the Chofetz Chaim, Sotah, chap. 3).
The fact that women are exempt from the first aspect of Talmud Torah is based on the following possuk (Devarim 11:19): “And you shall teach them to your sons.” Chazal derive from the fact that the Torah specifies “sons,” that there is no mitzvah for women to learn Torah. Also, just as a woman is not obligated to learn Torah, so too, she is not obligated to teach her sons Torah (Kiddushin 29). However, if a woman helps her husband or children so that they can learn Torah, she receives an equal share of their reward (Sotah 21a).
In fact, a woman will receive more reward for assisting her husband and children with their learning than for learning Torah herself. In order to understand this, a brief introduction is required. Regarding the quantity of reward given for any particular mitzvah, there are two categories of people: 1) metzuveh v’oseh – one who is commanded to do the mitzvah, and he does so, and 2) eino metzuveh v’oseh – one who, although not commanded to do the mitzvah, does so any way out of a desire to perform the mitzvah voluntarily. An example of the latter group is a woman who hears the shofar on Rosh HaShanah. Technically speaking, women are exempt from this mitzvah, yet they have voluntarily accepted it upon themselves. Of these two groups, for the performance of any particular mitzvah, those in the first will receive more reward than those in the second.
Therefore, since with regards to Talmud Torah a man is metzuveh v’oseh, his reward is greater than a woman’s who is an einah metzuvah v’osah. Hence, a woman who assists her husband and sons in their performance of Talmud Torah and thereby shares their reward with them will receive a greater reward than if she had learned Torah herself (Shulchan Aruch HaRav 1:14).
UNDERSTANDING THE MATERIAL
We find various opinions in the poskim whether or not one must understand what he is learning, in order to fulfill the mitzvah of Talmud Torah.
The Magen Avraham (50:2) differentiates between Tefillah and learning. Although with regards to Tefillah, lechatchilah one should understand what he is saying, nevertheless, if he davens in Lashon HaKodesh he has fulfilled his obligation even if he does not understand, because Hashem knows what he wants. In contrast, if one does not understand what he is learning, it is not considered learning. (See also Eishel Avraham [Butshatsh] 47:1.)
However, one of the Rishonim discusses whether or not women are required to recite birchos haTorah prior to their recital of the parshiyos hakarbonos when they do not understand what they are saying. He concludes that birchos haTorah is nevertheless required even though they lack comprehension of what is being said (Shu’t Maharil HaChadashos 45:2). Similarly, the Shelah HaKadosh (vol. I, Shavuos, s.v., lo sachmod) derives from the fact that the possuk says regarding the mitzvah of Talmud Torah, “and you shall read it day and night,” that reading alone is considered learning Torah, even without comprehension. (See also Kad HaKemach, s.v., Torah.)
The Shulchan Aruch HaRav (Hilchos Talmud Torah 2:12) maintains a third opinion. He writes that one fulfills the mitzvah of Talmud Torah as long as he enunciates the words, even if he does not understand what he is saying. Therefore, even an ignoramus who does not understand anything can recite birchos HaTorah. However, he concludes that this is only true regarding Torah she’bichsav. With Torah she’baal peh, one must comprehend what he is reading.
According to the Chida (Sefer Morah b’Etzba, 2:42), the learning of Zohar surpasses other subjects even if one does not understand what he is learning. (See also Shu’t Chaim She’al, vol. I, #76).
TEFILOS BEFORE AND AFTER
Before beginning to learn and upon concluding the learning session, one should recite the special tefilos composed by Rebbi Nechunyah ben Hakanah (Berachos 28b; Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 110:8; Mishnah Berurah 36). The text of these tefilos appears in most siddurim and in the beginning of many Gemaros.
Although the tefilah makes reference to one’s “colleagues” and therefore would indicate that it is intended for one who is learning with a group, the Acharonim maintain that it should be said even by one who is learning alone (Mishnah Berurah 110:35).
FINISH ON A GOOD NOTE
The Rama writes in Hilchos Kri’as HaTorah that one should begin and conclude the leining with an opportune topic (Orach Chaim 138). Although this halacha applies specifically to Kri’as HaTorah, there are sources which indicate that it is proper to finish learning on a positive note (Derech Eretz Zuta chap. 2; Yosef Ometz [Frankfurt] pg. 270). Incidentally, this is the reason why some Mesechtos conclude with a passage unrelated to the previous discussion. Since the previous topic was not a fortuitous one, the Gemara added another statement on a different topic in order to finish on a good note. This is based on a Gemara (Brachos 31a) that the Nevi’im would conclude their prophecies with words of praise or consolation (Tosafos, Niddah 73a, s.v., tanna; Maharsha at end of Succah). As an interesting aside, it is for this reason that the Chasam Sofer was careful even to conclude non-Torah related conversations on a positive note (Minhagei Chasam Sofer).
There is a custom not to conclude one’s learning session at the end of a perek. Rather, one either leaves the end of the perek for the next session or if one finishes the perek, he learns a few lines from the next perek (Leket Yosher Yoreh Deah pg. 39).
LIMUD TORAH IS A CHOK
We began this article with Rashi’s explanation to the first possuk in Parshas Bechukosai, that one must toil in his Torah studies. The question has been asked why the Torah chose the word, “Bechukosai” to indicate this mitzvah of Torah learning; “chok” usually refers to a mitzvah whose reason is not known to man. This is difficult, because since we must fulfill the mitzvos of the Torah, it is quite obvious that one must learn in order to properly keep these mitzvos.
Rav Aharon Yehudah Leib Shteinman shlit’a explains that if the entire purpose of Torah learning was just to know how to do the mitzvos, it would be sufficient to learn condensed halachic works with instructions for each mitzvah. However, the mitzvah of Talmud Torah through amall, toil, is indeed a chok (Ayeles HaShachar, Vayikra).