May 21, 2024
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אָמַר רַבִּי יְהוֹשֻׁעַ בֶּן לֵוִי … וְהַלֻּחֹת מַעֲשֵׂה אֱלֹקים הֵמָּה וְהַמִּכְתָּב מִכְתַּב אֱלֹקים הוּא חָרוּת עַל הַלֻּחֹת, אַל תִּקְרָא חָרוּת אֶלָּא חֵרוּת, שֶׁאֵין לְךָ בֶן חוֹרִין אֶלָּא מִי שֶׁעוֹסֵק בְּתַלְמוּד תּוֹרָה.
וְכָל מִי שֶׁעוֹסֵק בְּתַלְמוּד תּוֹרָה הֲרֵי זֶה מִתְעַלֶּה, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (במדבר כא) וּמִמַּתָּנָה נַחֲלִיאֵל וּמִנַּחֲלִיאֵל בָּמוֹת: (אבות ו:ב)
רַבִּי נְחוּנְיָא בֶּן הַקָּנָה אוֹמֵר, כָּל הַמְקַבֵּל עָלָיו עֹל תּוֹרָה, מַעֲבִירִין מִמֶּנּוּ עֹל מַלְכוּת וְעֹל דֶּרֶךְ אֶרֶץ.
וְכָל הַפּוֹרֵק מִמֶּנּו עֹל תּוֹרָה, נוֹתְנִין עָלָיו עֹל מַלְכוּת וְעֹל דֶּרֶךְ אֶרֶץ: (אבות ג:ה)

The Link of Freedom to Torah

Rebbe Yehoshua ben Levi taught: “Ein lecha ben chorin ela mi she’osek b’talmud Torah — Only those involved in Torah learning are (truly) free.” Rabbi Yehoshua derived this idea from the Torah’s description of the writing on the luchot as “charut,” a word spelled the same way as “cheirut — free.” What did Rabbi Yehoshua mean by that? In what way are those not involved in Torah learning not free?

Many commentaries connect Rabbi Yehoshua’s statement to an earlier one of Rabbi Nechunya ben Hakanah: “The ol (yoke) of malchut and of derech eretz are removed from anyone who accepts the yoke of Torah.” (Ruach Chaim Avot 6:2, Rambam Avot 3:5) Man is put in this world to work and chooses what kind of work to focus his energies upon. He can opt for backbreaking work in the fields or “work” with his mouth by learning Torah instead. If he chooses the latter, he is “freed” from the former (Bereishit Rabbah 13:7, Eliyahu Rabbah 13:7).

How does that happen? How does a person who accepts the yoke of Torah have other responsibilities removed from him?

Rashi and the Rambam explain that other people do his work for him. Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai (Masechet Brachot 35b) famously applied this idea to the second parsha of Kriyat Shema. He explained that the parsha’s reference to our working in the field (Sefer Devarim 11:14) must refer to a time when the Jewish people were not fully committed to Hashem’s will. At a time when we are — though — our work is done for us by others.

How does this happen? Who does the work for those learning Torah and why?

A Divine Directive

Rabbeinu Yonah (quoting Sefer Ezra 7:24 and Talmud Bavli, Masechet Bava Batra 8a) explains that our mishna mandates the exemption of those fully immersed in Torah learning (“torato umanuto”) from both contributing to community tax collection, as well as the responsibility to join the rotation of government-required work. Other people are required to cover the talmid chacham’s share.

Rabbi Yochanan (Masechet Shabbat 114a and Masechet Yoma 72b) understood this principle in an even broader way. He taught that — in addition to covering the talmid chacham’s share of communal responsibilities — people are also responsible to do the talmid chacham’s personal work for him. All of us should express our appreciation of the importance of Torah, by working to facilitate the Torah learning of those who choose to devote themselves to it.

A Divine Promise

The Rambam himself explains the mishna differently. Instead of a divine directive, the Rambam understood the mishna as a divine promise. Rabbi Nechunya (and Rabbi Yehoshua by association) teaches us that Hashem spares those committed to Torah from the challenges and burdens most people endure. (See Divrei Hayamim 2:12) The person devoted to Torah learning is freed from the yokes of malchut and derech eretz by Hashem, not other people.

The midrash (Midrash Tanchuma, Parshat Vezot Habracha 5) quotes this idea in Hashem’s name in reference to ol malchut Shamayim. Moshe asked Hashem how He expected people suffering persecution in exile to devote time to Torah learning. Moshe wondered how people could commit themselves to the yoke of Torah learning, while suffering under the yoke of shibud galuyot (exile). Hashem replied, “Kol ha’osek baTorah, nitzol mishibud galuyot — Hashem saves those involved in Torah from the yoke of exile,” (see Masechet Bava Batra 8a, Masechet Avodah Zarah 5a).

The Gemara (Masechet Sanhedrin 94b, quoting Yeshayahu 10:27) summarizes this idea beautifully — by asserting that it was the oil that Chizkiyahu used to light up the batei midrash and batei knesset that merited the removal of the ol of Sancheirev from the Jewish people.

The Machzor Vitri and Bartenura apply this idea to the yoke of derech eretz as well. It is Hashem, who ensures that those committed to Torah learning are unhindered by the need to (work too hard to) earn a living. The Gemara (Masechet Kiddushin 82b) quotes Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar, who points out that Hashem takes care of animals without them having to work for a living. Hashem would take care of our needs as well (with minimum effort on our part), if we lived our lives correctly.

Before man ate from the eitz hadaat, he had what he needed without having to work “by the sweat of his brow,” (Sefer Bereishit 3:19. See also Rashi there). Rabbi Shimon and Rabbi Nechunya teach us that if we focus our lives on Torah learning, we are still — even after the original sin — able to tap into the pre-sin ideal of survival without difficult work.

The Chasidim Harishonim were an excellent historical example of this principle. The Chasidim Harishonim spent nine hours a day davening. The Gemara (Masechet Berachot 32b) wonders how their work got done, and answers that Hashem ensured that their work was completed quickly and easily. How long our tasks take and how hard they are to complete hinges on whether we devote ourselves to something (else) that Hashem wants to help us find the time and headspace for.

The Chicken and the Egg

People often feel like they do not have the time to commit to Torah learning, because they are saddled with work and other burdens. The mishna teaches us that — in truth — the linkage goes the other way. We are saddled with burdens, because we do not commit ourselves to Torah learning.

May we devote ourselves properly to what matters most, so we do not have to spend our time on what matters less.

We have seen how many associate the freedom — mentioned by Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi in the sixth perek — with the removal of the yokes, mentioned in the third perek. Next week, we will iy”H see a second — more intrinsic — understanding of the freedom that Rabbi Yehoshua describes.


Rabbi Reuven Taragin is the dean of overseas students at Yeshivat HaKotel.

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