April 10, 2024
Close this search box.
Close this search box.
April 10, 2024
Close this search box.

Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

Learning Torah is supposed to be enjoyable but it is more than that. We have the opportunity to rethink our attitudes to learning Torah as we celebrate the completion of the Daf HaYomi cycle. Most recently, Dirshu hosted thousands of people at Prudential Center in Newark, NJ, to celebrate the completion of its Kinyan Torah Daf HaYomi program on Sunday, February 9, 2020, an event I attended as a guest of Dirshu that particularly highlighted this and associated issues.

Rav Shmuel Borenstein (20th cen., Poland), in the introduction to his Eglei Tal, disputes those who criticize people who enjoy their Torah studies as learning shelo lishmah, for an alternative purpose. What is the right purpose? Rav Borenstein offers a classic answer: part of the goal of learning Torah should be for the joy it provides – “Pikudei Hashem yesharim, mesamchei lev – the laws of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart” (Tehillim 19:9). To the young student, relatively new to the Talmud, this seems like a real challenge. The early years of development require mastering textual skills. You have to break your teeth over hard words, difficult sentence structures and complex styles of argumentation. However, once you master the basic skills, you can quickly get to the ideas, the back-and-forth debate; you enter the exciting and profound world of the Sages, the Jewish dialogue that spans the ages, continuing in our own time as well.

We take this joy of learning so seriously that we are forbidden to learn Torah on Tisha B’Av so the joy doesn’t interfere with our mourning (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 554:1). Similarly, Rav David Halevi Segal (17th cen., Poland; Taz, Yoreh De’ah 222:43) rules that although generally, if someone vows not to receive benefit from you, they may still fulfill a mitzvah through you since mitzvos are not intended for our pleasure, but learning Torah is different. If you vow not to benefit from someone, you may not learn Torah from his books because Torah is meant to give joy. And on a real, personal level, joy is necessary. If you do not experience this joy, you cannot realistically learn Torah for an extended period of time. Perhaps this is the reason the Sages say that you can only learn a subject that you want to learn (Avodah Zarah 19a).

Among the many benefits of Daf HaYomi are the thrill of constantly changing subjects, the satisfaction of covering ground and the intellectual stimulation of communal learning. Torah grew tremendously in Poland in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries due to many reasons. One element of this success was the decision of the rabbinic leadership that every yeshiva in Poland must learn the same masechta, to assist the publication of the Lublin Shas, which began publishing in 1559. An unexpected result was the additional intellectual flourishing as people across Greater Poland – young and old, student and layman – learned the same subject. Talmud study was electrified by this communal cross-pollination of ideas. Daf HaYomi accomplishes the same, bringing joy and intellectual satisfaction to thousands of Talmud students around the world learning the same page every day (Be’Ohalei Yaakov, pp. 70-71).

At the Dirshu siyum, the celebrants who finished Shas had not only completed the full Daf HaYomi cycle but had taken monthly exams on the material, including quarterly cumulative tests on all the material studied to date. By the end of the over-seven-year cycle, the Kinyan Torah participants passed comprehensive exams on the entire Talmud. All the attendees shared the joy of those celebrating the completion with lively music and dancing, and electrifying speeches from leading roshei yeshiva and admorim. In addition to the joy, there was an element of awe of those completing the Dirshu cycle.

Despite all the truth of the joy of learning Torah, there is an opposing side to it, one that has to guide our daily actions. The Mishnah (Avos 5:14) says that there are four types of people who go to the beis medrash: 1) those who walk and fail to do, 2) those who do but do not walk, 3) those who walk and do, 4) those who fail to both walk and do. There is something missing in this Mishnah – learning Torah. One of these two terms must mean learning but commentaries struggle over which – “walk” or “do.” Rashi and others believe that doing means learning but that raises the question why the Mishnah praises those who walk to learn. Preparing for any mitzvah is sometimes necessary. Do we praise someone who builds a sukkah or brings a shofar to shul? Apparently, according to this interpretation, there is something unique about learning Torah that raises the profile of walking to where you will learn. I think we can understand it as an important element of learning Torah, which highlights the benefits of Daf HaYomi and particularly the Dirshu program.

The Gemara (Brachos 5a) seems to contradict itself within a few lines. First it says that learning Torah prevents suffering. Later on that page, the Gemara says that G-d gave three gifts to the Jewish people, each accompanied by suffering: Torah, Israel and the World to Come. If Torah study prevents suffering, how could it have been given through suffering?

I have not seen any commentaries that address this question but can think of a few possible answers. I would like to suggest that the hard work put into Torah learning – the exhausting and overwhelming effort – serves as an outlet for the suffering you would otherwise deserve. Learning Torah isn’t supposed to be easy. Even once you master the textual skills, you must put in all your strength – and then some – in order to understand and retain Torah. Learning Torah is a never-ending task of mental and physical exertion. This intense effort is called ameilus baTorah.

The book of Iyov (5:7) says that man is born to toil, which the Gemara (Sanhedrin 99b) interprets as referring to the toil of Torah. We were created in order to work hard, putting the bulk of our energy into learning Torah. If we do it casually, half-paying attention while learning, and then relaxing in leisure activities, we have fulfilled a great mitzvah – we dare not minimize that. But we haven’t learned Torah fully because ameilus is part of the mitzvah to learn, not a preparation for it like building a sukkah. Learning Torah inherently requires sacrifice, tremendous exertion, all of our energy.

Rav Dovid Hofstedter, the founder and Nasi of Dirshu, recently published a commentary to Pirkei Avos, titled Dorash Dovid. On the Mishnah (5:23) “Lefum tzaara agra – according to the pain is the reward,” Rav Hofstedter quotes the Maharal (16th cen., Austria), who anticipates that some people might try to artificially make mitzvos harder in order to gain greater reward. Taking the hard path to fulfill mitzvos, the Maharal says, does not bring us closer to G-d and therefore does not merit greater reward. Except, Rav Hofstedter argues, citing the Vilna Gaon’s example, for learning Torah. Ameilus is part of the mitzvah of learning Torah and therefore we benefit when we work hard to tease out the meaning of the sacred texts. Today we have many tools to assist our learning but we cannot let them replace good, old-fashioned hard work.

Because of this element of ameilus, learning Torah is painful, even as it is enjoyable. We love the learning but push ourselves to our limits in ameilus. Paradoxically, this is how Torah can save you from suffering.

If you, like most people, have done something deserving punishment, you can suffer the actual Divine punishment, or you can feel pain through the sweat and toil of learning Torah. Your hard work in learning, your ameilus baTorah, your suffering in order to attain Torah knowledge, preempts and exempts you from some of the suffering of punishment.

The Gemara (Yoma 86a) divides sins into four categories, of which the third is punished with kares, being cut off. However, a person can avoid this punishment through a combination of repentance, Yom Kippur and suffering. Rabbeinu Yonah Gerondi (13th cen., Spain; Shaarei Teshuvah 4:11) advises readers how to avoid the suffering prescribed for someone in this category. Such a penitent must give charity, perform kind acts such as visiting the sick, and above all study Torah. Immersion in Torah study involves ameilus, physical and mental exertion, which serves in place of the suffering of punishment.

Daf HaYomi learners who rise early every day or learn late into the night, fighting the exhaustion to learn Gemara, engage in real sacrifice. They suffer physically as they push themselves to learn more. Dirshu participants undertake a seemingly impossible regimen of review, devoting every free moment and then some to going forward in Daf HaYomi and going backwards in review. Their days merge into nights as they summon inner resources they didn’t know they had in order to push themselves to their limits. Dirshu teaches ameilus, a lesson that lasts beyond the Daf HaYomi cycle into all aspects of our Torah study.

The ameilus aspect of Torah learning can be seen in an unusual interpretation of the Zohar. The Torah (Shemos 1:14) says that upon enslaving the Jews, the Egyptians made our lives bitter with hard work, mortar (chomer) and bricks (leveinim). The Zohar says that “chomer” here refers to kal v’chomer, the logical argument, and “leveinim” means libun halachah, clarifying the law. Rav Avigdor Nebenzahl, in his recently published MiTziyon Michlal Yofi (ad loc.), asks why the Egyptians are described as enslaving the Jews with Torah study when they really made us slaves who built store-cities in Egypt, as the verse continues.

Rav Nebenzahl quotes his father-in-law, Rav Chaim Zev Finkel, who explains that Avraham was told that his descendants would be enslaved and suffer in a foreign land. We could have fulfilled that through devoted Torah study or through actual slavery. Only the tribe of Levi followed the first path and therefore never served as slaves to the Egyptians.

On the one hand, this shows the power of Torah – that it can exempt us from slavery. On the other, it highlights the extent to which we must apply ourselves. We must work so hard at learning Torah that we suffer physically and emotionally in order to acquire the Torah. It must be true effort, exhaustive effort, 110%. (Although consult with an experienced educator to ensure you do this in a healthy way.)

This is the message of walking to the beis medrash, mentioned in Avos. We have to work for Torah, not just take it leisurely. Our effort is an important part of the mitzvah. Ameilus demonstrates our commitment to learn even when inconvenient. It shows that we feel compelled to learn.

The Gemara (Kiddushin 31a) says that someone who is commanded to fulfill a mitzvah and does so is greater than someone who is not commanded and does so. This seems counterintuitive. Isn’t a voluntary gesture greater than a compelled one? Tosafos (ad loc., s.v. gadol) explain that someone commanded worries over the mitzvah, taking great care to make sure he fulfills it. In contrast, someone who is not commanded need not worry because he can choose not to fulfill the mitzvah if it becomes inconvenient.

Rav Yitzchak Blazer (19th cen., Russia; Kochvei Or, no. 8) learns from this Tosafos that worrying over a mitzvah enhances it. The greater the pain involved, the concern and the anxiety, invoke the rule mentioned above that “according to the pain, is the reward.” On the other hand, continues Rav Blazer, someone who fails to worry over a mitzvah, who fulfills it when convenient and otherwise not, treats the mitzvah like someone uncommanded. Because of his attitude, he can only receive reward like someone not commanded.

If we commit to Torah like we are supposed to, and learn every moment we have with as much intensity as we can muster, we enslave ourselves to something joyous and life-giving. If we learn Torah casually and comfortably, we still fulfill a mitzvah but we lack the commandedness, the compulsion, the commitment. Ameilus in learning is an inherent part of the mitzvah, a sign that we feel commanded to learn Torah.

Is there any greater commitment than Daf HaYomi? You are a slave to the Daf. If you miss one day’s learning, you have to make it up. This is the commandedness of the Torah, the consistency and commitment expected of people obligated to learn Torah.

Time, alone, does not fully describe our obligation to work hard in Torah. We need to exert our brainpower and also do the tasks many consider less pleasant. Most important among them is chazarah, review. If we learn something once without reviewing it many times, we will forget it. Our lives are so full of information, especially in this hyper-connected age, that we easily forget information we fail to review. Ameilus demands that we review thoroughly and repeatedly or lose what we have learned.

At the Dirshu siyum in Newark, Rav Yerucham Olshin, shlita, Rosh Yeshiva of Beth Medrash Govoha in Lakewood, quoted Rashi in Brachos (5a s.v. ve’im) that the definition of a talmid chacham is someone who constantly reviews his learning. This is the Dirshu way. Through exams, our learning is accountable and constantly reviewed. Dirshu places order around the learning process, turning budding scholars into masters of Shas who learn and review constantly.

By Rabbi Gil Student

Leave a Comment

Most Popular Articles