Rabbi Mordechai Willig
Rabbi Mordechai Willig

Parshat Yitro - Torah and Secular Studies

In Parshat Yitro we read about kabbalat hatorah. The centrality of limmud hatorah, and its relationship with the need for parnasah are issues which face all of us. For individuals who are planning careers the question is: Are secular studies permissible for everyone when they are necessary to provide for a livelihood? The answer is: for almost everyone.

The Gemara presents a disagreement between Rabbi Yishmael and Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai (Rashbi). Rashbi says a person should learn Torah the entire day and somehow he will find a way to support himself and his family. Rabbi Yishmael disagrees and maintains that a person is required to act in accordance with the verse, "veasafta deganecha vetirashcha veyitzharecha" (Deut. 11:14) in order to fulfill the will of Hashem. As Rabbi Yishmael puts it: hanheg bahen minhag derech eretz- a person should combine Torah with derech eretz. Literally, derech eretz means "the way of the world," which, in this context means earning a parnasah (Berachot 35b).

Admittedly, in those days, parnasah did not mean attending a university. The phrase, "veasafta deganecha", clearly refers to earning a livelihood through farming. Nevertheless, this can be extended beyond simply farming since, even during the time of the Talmud, it was not limited to that. A "strict constructionist" may argue that Rabbi Yishmael limited his opinion only to farming and did not allow one to be a shoemaker or a tailor, for example. It would seem, however, that Rabbi Yishmael's opinion is that one may study in order to earn a living, however that may be defined. In fact, not only is it permissible according to Rabbi Yishmael ; it is advisable. And, without giving a formal pesak the Gemara seems to follow this opinion by citing the famous remark following this controversy: Amar Abaye harbeh asu keRebbi Yishmael vealta beyadan, keRebbi Shimon ben Yochai velo alta beyadan. Many followed the approach of Rabbi Yishmael and succeeded; while those who followed the approach of Rashbi did not succeed. One could therefore, conclude, that secular studies; at least in the context of enabling one to make a living are not for everyone.

The Shulchan Aruch presents all the laws relating to a Jew's daily schedule starting from waking in the morning through davening Shacharit and eating breakfast. It then continues, "achar cach yelech leoskav dechol torah sheein imma melachah sofah betelah vegoreret avon." Clearly it is important for everyone to have a parnasah. It is true that the Shulchan Aruch continues, "umikol makom lo yaaseh melachto ikar elah arai vetorato keva vezeh yitkayem beyado." This is a quotation from the aforecited Gemara that a person is obligated to consider Torah as his main preoccupation, and parnasah related activities as his secondary occupation. Torah is the ikar; parnasah is the tafel. Nevertheless, it is clear from both the Gemara and the Shulchan Aruch that a person has an obligation to make a living. The Shulchan Aruch lists no exceptions to this rule. It would therefore seem that, in this context, secular studies are for everyone. To be sure, this does not mean that every person is required to engage in study. For example, someone could be a successful businessman, invest in the stock market and make a fortune - all without secular studies. If that is how one wants to make a living, that is his option. But if one decides to make a living through a trade or a profession which requires a certain level of secular studies, it would seem that, based on the Shulchan Aruch, it would be permissible for everyone.

However, this is not quite the case. In his commentary on the above cited statement in the Shulchan Aruch the Biur Halachah notes as follows: katvu hasefarim shezehu neemar liklal haolam shein kulam yecholim lizakot laalot lemadregah ramah zu liheyot oskam rak batorah levadah, aval anashim yechidim yuchal lehimatze bechol et beofen zeh (vezehu sheamru beBerachot 36b harbeh asu keRashbi velo alta beyadan, ratza lomar davka harbeh) veHakadosh Baruch Hu bevadai yamtzi lahem parnasatam, vekeein zeh katav haRambam perek 13 mehilchot shemitin veyovlot velo shevet levi bilvad vechulei, ayein sham, ubifrat im kevar nimtzeu anashim sherotzim lehaspik lo tzarchav kedei sheyaasok betorah bevadai lo shayach zeh, veyisachar vezevulun yochiach.

It is clear from this statement that if a select few can devote themselves entirely to the study of Torah, they should do so and not engage in any other activity for parnasah. We can therefore say that secular studies, for this purpose, are for almost everyone.

Of course, the big question is who are the few that should devote themselves exclusively to Torah study, as explained in the Biur Halachah, and who are the "klal haolam" who should otherwise work to earn a living? It seems that each individual should decide for himself into which category he best fits.

Rav Chayim of Volozhin writes that an individual who has the capacity to study Torah ll his life, "chovah mutelet alav," to do so (Nefesh HaChayim 1:8). But what does the word "chovah" mean in this context? Is he, indeed, obligated to do so? This is somewhat problematic because of a very famous question raised by all the meforshim. We have already seen the disagreement in the Gemara between Rashbi who says that a person should study Torah all day and Rabbi Yishmael who says that a person should work to earn a livelihood. The Tosafot Rabbi Yehudah Hachasid points out that this contradicts another Gemara where we find the exact opposite positions being taken regarding this same issue of how much Torah a person is obligated to learn to the exclusion of everything else. There is Rashbi who says that a person should study Torah a little in the morning and a little in the evening while it is Rabbi Yishmael who says a person should study Torah all the time. Rabbi Yishmael interprets the verse, "vehagita bo yomam valayla," (Josh. 1:8) as an obligation to study Torah "all day and all night," while according to Rashbi, one can fulfill this obligation even by the recital of the morning and evening shema. In attempting to show the consistency of Rashbi's opinion, the Tosafot Rabbi Yehudah Hachasid says, "elah mitzva bealma hu dekeamar mipnei bittul torah." When Rashbi says in Berachot that a person is supposed to study all day and all night, he does not mean that there is an obligation to learn Torah all day. The obligation can technically be fulfilled even by the most minute learning during the day and during the evening. But ideally, for a mitzva bealma, - to do Hashem's will - it should be all day.

then why does Rav Chayim of Volozhin use the expression, "chovah mutelet alav?" One gets the impression that if a person has no financial needs, he is obligated to study Torah all day. Yet, from the Tosafot Rabbi Yehudah Hachasid it would seem that such intense Torah study is laudable and advisable and even represents the will of Hashem, still, the strict expression of "obligation" or "chiyuv" would not be appropriate. Perhaps Rav Chayim understands that one who has the capacity to study Torah all his life is an exception to the rule.

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