July 22, 2024
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July 22, 2024
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Our overview of Bereishis and Shemos, focusing in on transformative moments in human history, touched on: Creation, the challenges that led to the Flood and the Dispersion, the selection of Avraham Avinu, the designation of Klal Yisrael during the prologue to Matan Torah, and the commandment and implementation of building the Mishkan following Matan Torah. We have suggested that life is about serving Hashem in and through this world; schar (reward) will come when it does. Every individual should do his best to identify his kochos (strengths) and use them in service of the klal (community) and the world. In that way, we can all earn the rarefied rank of a soldier in the Great Battalion.

However, one could argue that this survey skipped the most significant event of the entire period: Matan Torah itself!


V’Talmud Torah K’Neged Kulam

One needs to look no further than the Beraisa in Peah, recited every morning after Birchos HaTorah, to recognize the overwhelming significance of learning Torah: Eilu devarim she’adam ochel peiroseihem ba’olam hazeh v’ha’keren kayemes lo l’olam haba, v’eilu hein: kibbud av v’eim, u’gemilus chassadim… v’talmud Torah k’neged kulam. The Rambam (Talmud Torah 3:1) restates that as “there is no mitzvah among all the mitzvos which is equal to talmud Torah.” Perek Kinyan Torah, a Beraisa attached to the end of Pirkei Avos, is entirely dedicated to the overarching significance of talmud Torah.

What is the significance of Kabbalas HaTorah according to the perspective we’ve been developing? What role does Torah play in the life of a soldier in the Great Battalion?


Osek B’Mitzvah and Osek B’Torah

Rav Aharon Lichtenstein suggested that talmud Torah is not simply a super-mitzvah.1 Rather, learning Torah is meant to accomplish a specific goal — most fundamentally, it is meant to lead to observance of the other six hundred and twelve mitzvos. More ideally, it is meant to infuse observance with an understanding of the values and ideals conveyed by the mitzvos. This perspective was expressed by the Gemara in Kiddushin: After debating which was more important, talmud (learning) or maaseh (practice), the conclusion was talmud gadol, she’meivi l’ydei maaseh—learning is great, for it leads to practice. Learning is meant to lead to practice.

Imagine a budding talmid chacham working on a sugyah (topic) relating to the laws of kibbud av v’eim, (honoring your father and mother). Working hard to clarify the nuances of kavod vs. yirah, he scarcely notices his mother walk up to his desk. Finally, he looks up; his mother asks, “I have to head out for a few minutes. Please take a short break and make me a salad for lunch” — a clear fulfillment of kibbud eim, a mitzvah which is ee efshar laasos al yedei acheirim, (cannot be fulfilled through others). If our scholar would respond, “I’m so sorry, Imma, but I need to finish up this sugyah — I can’t really take a break now,” what does that say about his learning? His talmud is not meivi l’yedei maaseh — by refusing to take up the mitzvah that presented itself, he is showing that his learning is disconnected from practice. If learning is meant to be oriented towards practice, then practice should always trump the learning, at least temporarily. Given that the essential nature of talmud Torah is its connection to maaseh mitzvah, learning which does not yield that practice is actually not considered learning at all. If so, it would be impossible to apply osek b’mitzvah patur min hamitzvah (one who’s busy with the mitzvah is absolved from doing another mitzvah) to talmud Torah: by choosing to ignore the mitzvah and continue learning, that itself disqualifies the learning from being considered a fulfillment of the mitzvah of talmud Torah!

This fascinating exploration reveals the fundamental nature of talmud Torah: learning is not meant to remain purely theoretical, learned for its own sake, but applied to active life.2 In the words of Yevamos 109b: “Anyone who says they have exclusively Torah, doesn’t even have Torah, as Devarim 5:1 says, “v’limadtem… laasosam — and learn them in order to do them.” One who is involved in practice (asiyah) also has learning (limud), but one who is not involved in practice does not have learning.” The same pasuk is used in Kiddushin 29a to teach that although a father is obligated to teach his son Torah, if he himself is not sufficiently learned in the basics of halachic practice, he must first teach himself. His first priority must be learning in order to be able to practice properly; only after that is he ready to invest in teaching his children.

Returning to the above statement of talmud Torah k’neged kulam, the Rambam explains that the reason talmud Torah is equal to all other mitzvos is because talmud leads to practice: she’ha’talmud meivi lidei maaseh.3 Talmud Torah is seen as so colossally important because to some extent, every other mitzvah depends on talmud Torah for its proper practice. It serves as the foundation of a life dedicated to avodas Hashem, guided and inspired by the breadth and depth of Torah. That happens in two parallel ways, both of which are necessary: first, through kiyum hamitzvos, and second, by extrapolating from the ethos of halacha to glean guidance on the difficult decisions of daily life.

While the first path is familiar, the second sounds more intriguing. What does it mean to develop an “ethos of halacha”? The Rav develops this perspective on talmud Torah in a little-known sefer called “Halachic Mind”; we’ll explore it in more depth next week.

Tzvi Goldstein graduated from Yeshiva University with semicha and a degree in psychology. After making aliyah, he taught in Yeshivat HaKotel for five years and now edits sefarim for a number of publishers. He recently published a sefer with Mosaica Press called Halachic Worldviews, exploring Rav Soloveitchik’s approach to developing hashkafa from halacha, and writes at tgb613.substack.com. You can reach him at
[email protected].


1 See his essay on the topic in his sefer Minchas Aviv — “Osek B’Torah Patur Min HaMitzvah.”

2 See also Rav Hirsch’s commentary to Birchos HaTorah in his siddur for a parallel perspective.

3 Hilchos Talmud Torah 3:3. Maharsha to Sukkah 29b, d.h. bishvil arba devarim says the same.

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