Rabbi Yitzchok Etshalom
Siyyum on Hilkhot Talmud Torah
In memory of my brother,
Yonatan Hillel b. haRav Asher Aharon - Elul 18
Yehi Zikhro Barukh - may his memory be a blessing to us all
Now that we have completed (for the first of many times) the
study of Hilkhot Talmud Torah, we have an opportunity to look
back over these seven chapters in the Mishneh Torah with a more
educated and experienced eye.
Several questions of structure and style come to the fore:
(1) Rambam reckons "Talmud Torah" as one Mitzvah - even though it
includes learning, teaching children (and later descendants) and
teaching non-related students. (TT 1:2) Among others, Sa'adiah
reckons two Mitzvot - learning and teaching. Some (e.g. Y're'im)
even consider three - learning, teaching children and teaching
students. Why does Rambam consider the entire system of Talmud
Torah as one Mitzvah?
(2) Why did Rambam include Talmud Torah in his first book -
"Mada"? The other four subjects in Mada are: Basic tenets of the
religion (Yesodei haTorah), interpersonal and intrapersonal
attitudes and behaviors (De'ot), idolatry (Avodah Zarah) and
repentance/return (Teshuvah). These four are fundamentals of
faith, upon which our individual and national existences are
built. Wouldn't Talmud Torah have "fit" better in Sefer Ahavah -
which describes those specific Mitzvot we do to demonstrate our
love for God (e.g. prayer, blessings, Tefillin etc.)?
(3) We are familiar with Birkat haMitzvot - before performing
many Mitzvot, we recite a blessing to God. (MT Berakhot 1:3)
Throughout the Mishneh Torah, Rambam presents the formulation of
the blessing within the given section of law; if you want to find
the proper blessing for Tefillin, you will find it in Hilkhot
Tefillin (4:4); if you want to find the blessing for Hannuka
candles, it is in Hilkhot Hannuka (3:4) etc. We would expect,
therefore, to find the blessings recited before study to be found
in Hilkhot Talmud Torah. Such is not the case - they are found
in Tefilla 7:10-11. Why aren't these Berakhot presented in
Hilkhot Talmud Torah?
(4) Besides "Talmud Torah", the only other Mitzva discussed in
Hilkhot Talmud Torah is honor for teachers and scholars. Wouldn't
these have been more appropriately placed in Hilkhot Mamrim,
where the position and reverence for Beit-Din is described?
(5) The first line in Hilkhot Talmud Torah is anomalous:
"Women...are exempt from Talmud Torah..." Why does Rambam begin
these Halakhot by telling us who doesn't have to fulfill them?
(6) Structurally, the layout of Hilkhot Talmud Torah is strange:
Rambam begins by teaching us that we must teach our children,
grandchildren and everyone else (1:1-7), then how much and how
often we must study (1:8-13) - then he returns to the issue of
teaching children (2:1-7) - and again revisits the value and
glory of study (not teaching) through all of chapter 3. Chapter
4 again returns to the teaching aspect, describing the proper
set-up for the study hall etc. Why does Rambam toggle back and
forth from studying to teaching?
(7) Wouldn't Chapter 3, with it's praise for Torah study, have
been a perfect final chapter - instead of the scholar who bears
enmity and vengeance "like a snake" towards someone who has
There are two verses in the Torah which are the sources for the
Mitzvah of Talmud Torah:
(a) *Veshinantam* (Teach them diligently) to your children and
talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when
you lie down and when you rise. (Devarim [Deuteronomy] 6:7);
(b) Teach them to your children to talk about them when you are
at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you
rise. (Devarim 11:19).
The Sifri and Gemara have several comments on each verse.
However, the comments on the first verse relate to personal
learning (e.g. "'talk about them' - and not about other matters";
"*Veshinantam* - that the words of Torah should be sharp in your
mouth") or teaching other students (e.g. "'your children' refers
to the students..."); whereas the second verse is understood as
directed towards teaching Torah to children (e.g. "as soon as a
child speaks, his father...teaches him Torah").
As indicated above, some Rishonim reckon teaching and learning as
separate Mitzvot - some even go so far as to count teaching
students and teaching children separately. However, a close look
at the second verse will provide an argument in favor of seeing
them as one Mitzvah.
"Teach them to your children to talk about them" - in other
words, we are obligated to teach our children to speak words of
Torah - "when you are at home..." - shouldn't it say "when THEY
are at home..."?
There are two ways of explaining this verse. Either the Torah is
commanding us when we are to teach our children (basically, all
the time); or else the Torah is teaching us that the way we teach
them is by our own behavior - at all times! Although the
straightest translation of "Beshivt'kha..." is "WHEN you lie
down" - it may also be understood as "through your lying down..."
I would like to suggest that Rambam understood that this lesson
cuts to the core of Talmud Torah. Teaching our children is not
something we can isolate from our own behavior or from our own
learning. If we are not learning at every opportunity, studying
Torah "when we are at home and when we are away..." then we
cannot reasonably expect our children to behave differently.
They learn not only by what we say but, much more powerfully and
impactfully, by what we do. Since teaching our children is
intertwined with teaching ourselves - in Halakhic terms, one is
"M'aqev" the other (similar to the four fringes on a garment - if
one is missing, the other three serve no purpose) - the same must
hold true for teaching others besides our children. Therefore,
Rambam considers learning, teaching children and teaching others
- although each has unique parameters and levels of obligation -
to be one Mitzva.
It is interesting to note that the first verse is understood as
directed towards students and the second towards children. In
addition, one might ask in reference to whom does the "students"
obligation apply? After all, you can't be obligated to teach
your students - before they are your students! If, as Rambam says
(1:2), every sage is obligated to teach "all of the students" -
what makes them his students in the first place?
There is a significant difference between the two verses which,
once understood, will clarify the matter. In the second verse,
we are told to teach these words to our children, that they may
speak of them... In the first verse, however, our teaching and
our own learning are simultaneously addressed: Teach your
children and (you) speak these words. This first verse must be
addressed to one who is already (somewhat) proficient in "these
words" (as the word *Veshinantam* implies - a sharpness and
familiarity with the words). Thus, anyone who is a master of
Torah is obligated to share that knowledge with everyone else who
isn't such a master - these, then, are the students. (note that
Rambam did not say that he is obligated to teach HIS students -
rather all of the THE students. Anyone who is not a peer of this
master is one of THE students - and the master has the obligation
to teach him.)
As we have already demonstrated, Talmud Torah is not an act which
can be compartmentalized - in order to properly fulfill the
Torah's command to train our children to learn and to share our
knowledge with "the students" - we must, ourselves, be constantly
and consistently involved with Torah study. As Rambam points out
(3:3), no other Mitzva can equal Talmud Torah. This is not only
true in measures of time spent in study versus other Mitzvot - it
is also a statement of the role of this Mitzva.
Whereas other Mitzvot, like Tefillin, remembering Shabbat, living
in a Sukka etc. are expressions of the relationship between the
Jewish people (and the Jewish individual) and God - Talmud Torah
is part of the definition of that relationship.
We live in a Sukka because we are thankful to God for the Exodus,
we are celebrating the harvest etc. - all of these are
expressions of the tight bond with which we are bound to God.
We study Torah because that is what defines our relationship -
Just as we believe in God, we love and fear Him and believe in
His unity (Yesodei haTorah); Just as we try to emulate/imitate
Him within the human realm (De'ot); Just as we mend this
relationship when we have corrupted it (Teshuva) and just as we
avoid any sort of foreign beliefs or practices associated with
them (Avodah Zarah) - similarly we speak the words of his Torah
and meditate upon it at all times because it is the most constant
and elevated bond with God that we can maintain - through our
intellect, that which makes us truly human and reflects the
"Image of God" in which we are created.
True, the study of Torah is also an expression of that bond. As
such, it is a form of worship as are prayer, blessings etc. The
Sifri, commenting on the verse: "Follow God your God and fear
Him, observe His Mitzvot and heed His voice, *V'oto Ta'avodu*
(worship Him) and cleave to Him." (Devarim 13:5), states "Avodu
beTorato, Avodu beMiqdasho" - worship Him through (studying) His
Torah, worship Him in His sanctuary. (Sifri 85)
However, that component of Talmud Torah is not addressed in
Hilkhot Talmud Torah - and properly belongs in Hilkhot Tefilla
(Laws of Prayer) - where daily devotional service is presented.
It is for that reason that Rambam formulates the blessings said
over Torah study in Hilkhot Tefilla, as those relate to Torah
study as worship and, as other worship forms (e.g. Tefillin,
Shofar) demand a blessing, so too with Torah-study. However,
note that Rambam maintains that these blessings are said every
morning, regardless of how much time one spends at study during
the day or even if one was studying all night without
interruption. R. Hayyim Soloveitchik explains that unlike other
Birkot haMitzvot, these blessings are recited over the Torah
itself, not over the Mitzva of study.
Whereas it is appropriate to recite a blessing before performing
a Mitzvah which is an expression of our relationship with God
(similar to a husband saying to his wife: "I bought these flowers
for you"), it is unnecessary, superfluous and overstating the
obvious to recite a blessing over Torah study which is part of
the definition of that relationship (same husband, same wife:
"I'm living in the same house as you").
[note that whereas the Ba'alei haTosafot formulate Birkat haTorah
in the usual fashion: "La'asoq bedivrei Torah" - (Who has
sanctified us through His Mitzvot and commanded us to be engaged
in words of Torah) - which follows the form of Birkat haMitzvot,
including the verb "La'asoq" (similar to "to tie Tefillin", "to
hear the sound of the Shofar" etc.); Rambam's version is "Al
Divrei Torah" - (Who has sanctified us through His Mitzvot and
commanded us regarding words of Torah) - with the verb missing,
it is hard to include Birkat haTorah in the category of Birkat
haMitzvot. See the various readings at BT Berakhot 11b.]
As we shall soon see, Rambam structured Hilkhot Talmud Torah to
reflect an entire life-cycle of learning. The seven chapters of
Hilkhot Talmud Torah may be an intentional allusion to the
"complete cycle" represented by seven - Shabbat, Sabbatical and
Jubilee years, seven weeks of the Omer etc. (I am indebted to my
wife, Stefanie, for pointing this out to me).
The pinnacle of Torah study is a total identification of the
individual with Torah - the ideal "Ben-Torah". Not only a
"walking Shas (Talmud)" - but someone whose level of Torah
knowledge AND Torah sensitivity is so intrinsic to his being that
he intuits responses and reactions to questions and dilemmas
which are brought to him - and his responses are Torah-responses.
Not only his students and those who are in his "inner circle"
realize this but, in most cases, his reputation quickly spreads.
When this is achieved, that individual bears the honor of Torah -
and has the right/responsibility to protect this honor. That
honor is the basic context within which Nidui (banning) is
addressed; although there are specific violations for which Nidui
is imposed, it has a much wider scope and range when imposed for
violating the honor of a scholar. The scholar may declare such
Nidui on his own, may lift it on his own, and, according to some
Rishonim, only this type of Nidui has no set time-limit. Rambam
included the honor for scholars and the consequences of violating
that honor because they are the goal of Talmud Torah - reaching
the point of personal identification with Torah.
Rambam begins by "laying out" the basics of the path to becoming
a Ben Torah.
Instead of beginning the Halakhot with the usual "It is a Mitzva
from the Torah...", which would put Talmud Torah into the same
grouping as other Mitzvot, he begins by clarifying who is
included in the potential for achieving this type of
personification (1:1). (I will leave the debate about women's
role in Torah leadership and teaching for another time - suffice
it to say that there are many valid opinions across the spectrum
of women's involvement in Torah study, teaching and leadership).
Rambam then establishes the basic parameters of this structure -
learning, teaching children and teaching students. Following
chronological order, he starts with the children - (1:3-7) - but
since, as we pointed out, teaching children cannot be divorced
from one's own learning, he then sets up the parameters of Torah
study for each individual - how much each day, under what
conditions etc. (1:8-13).
Chapter 2 is entirely devoted to teaching the children - at what
age, how far we take them to school, the responsibilities of the
teacher etc. Until this point, the main object of our study has
been the father, acting on behalf of - or towards - his children.
Chapter 3 now addresses the student as a personally responsible
member of the Talmud Torah community. The child has grown up and
is now presented with all of the glory of Torah study - and those
elements to avoid.
Chapter 4 is addressed to the same young - yet personally
responsible - Torah student. Notice that the father is nowhere
to be found in the description of the schoolhouse in Chapter 4 -
this is now the Beit Midrash, where the students bring themselves
to study. Ê
Chapter 5, which begins to address the issue of honor for
teachers/scholars, is a natural continuation from Chapter 4. The
student in the Beit Midrash is not only part of a community of
students, he is also part of a relationship with his Rebbi - who
has, to a large extent, replaced the father of chapters 1 & 2.
Chapter 6 details the honor due to all scholars, regardless of
their personal and direct impact on the student - but, now the
student begins to understand the great glory of Torah. Unlike
his own teacher, to whom the debt is owed on account of personal
involvement in "raising" the student (parallel to parents), the
scholar is honored because he embodies the Torah. This is the
goal of the student - to become a Talmid Hakham and a Hakham
whose very existence is Torah. To get to the point where his
declarations have the weight of law (as in Nidui) and where his
honor is the honor of Torah, such that he doesn't have the right
to forgo it but must fight for it (end of Chapter 7) - that is
the ultimate in Torah study. That level of "honor" is, of
course, nothing but a symptom of the greatness of the individual
who interprets and explains God's Torah to the rest of us.
In summation, we now understand why Rambam reckoned Talmud Torah
as one Mitzva - it is one integrated life-long and
all-encompassing Mitzva of involvement with Torah learning. It
is more than an expression of our love for God, which would rank
it among the Mitzvot of Sefer Ahavah - it is also a definition of
that relationship, placing it squarely in the middle of Sefer
Mada. Since the component of Torah study which is "devotional"
and expressive of our relationship with God is not addressed in
Hilkhot Talmud Torah - the blessing is also not mentioned here.
Rambam instead is describing a life-long path of Torah growth,
from the child who is taught by his father to the Gadol beYisrael
- the great teachers and leaders of our people who personify
Torah. The chapter of "praise for Torah" (Chapter 3) is
rightfully placed where the child is now approaching Talmud Torah
on his own terms and deciding how sincerely to make the
commitment to becoming a Ben Torah in the fullest sense of the