1. Women, slaves and minors are exempt from Talmud Torah.
However, regarding a minor, his father is obligated to teach him
Torah, as it says: "And you shall teach them to your sons to
speak them" (Devarim [Deuteronomy] 11:19) A woman is not
obligated to teach her son; because anyone who is obligated to
study is obligated to teach.
Q1: Why does Rambam begin the entire discussion with a
declaration of who is exempt from this Mitzvah? This is certainly
atypical of Rambam's style.
YE: Mitzvat Talmud Torah can be seen as two independent
obligations: An obligation to learn how to do Mitzvot - what
Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein refers to as "operative learning" -
and the intellectual pursuit of Torah. However, there is room to
distinguish: Whereas you certainly are fulfilling Mitzvat Talmud
Torah when you study how to put on Tefillin or what is a clear
distinguishing feature in a lost item (Siman Muvhaq) - these are
also part of the Mitzvot of Tefillin and Hashavat Avedah
(returning lost items). In other words, not only am I obligated
to wear Tefillin, but, just as I am obligated to acquire or
borrow a pair of Tefillin in order to fulfill the Mitzvah, in the
same way, I am obligated to learn how to do it in order to
fulfill it. Learning Hilkhot Tefillin is a necessary vehicle for
fulfilling Mitzvat Tefillin, hence the learning is an extension
of that particular Mitzvah.
On the other hand, "non-operative" learning - i.e. the study of
concepts, discussing non-Halakhic issues, rejected opinions,
etc. - is pure and simple Mitzvat Talmud Torah. The clearest
indication of this distinction is in regards to the obligation
of Talmud Torah. Women are clearly exempted (BT Kiddushin 29b -
and right here in Talmud Torah 1:1) - yet the Poskim (Halakhic
decisors) agree that women are obligated to learn the details of
the Halakhot that apply to them. Even in the most right-wing
circles, where women are not given access to most of Torah
sheBa'al Peh, they are taught Hilkhot Shabbat, Kashrut and, at
the appropriate time, Hilkhot Nidah.
Now, when we look at the "pure" Mitzvah of Talmud Torah, we find
that not only in the first Halakha, but throughout the beginning
of the first chapter, Rambam concerns himself with teaching as
opposed to learning. Here is the thesis: Mitzvat Talmud Torah is
essentially a participation in *Mesorah* (transmission of the
tradition) (look carefully at the verse quoted in 1:2- more on
that later). The bottom line of Mesorah is not just receiving -
but transmitting to the next generation. Even more - our rabbis
are fairly caustic towards those who learn but do not teach - I
believe it is because they become the last link in one
particular off-shoot of the chain of Mesorah. If the bottom line
of learning is teaching, then all becomes clear. Rambam begins
the Halakhot by declaring who is responsible for participating
in this component of Mesorah - the intellectual transmission of
tradition: By defining who is out, the nature of the chain -
and, as argued above, the nature of the learning becomes clear.
By exempting women, Rambam has made it clear that this is not the
"operative" study of how to keep Mitzvot, but something else
Q2: We should look into - and discuss - the exemption of women
from this Mitzvah. Much has been written on it, but "Ein Beit
Midrash B'lo Hiddush" (Hagigah 3) - it is impossible for
students to study without a novel idea coming out...
YE: The exemption of women here is best explained by the Rov, who
wrote quite a bit on the different Mesorot - the Mesorah of
intellectual, cognitive Torah, of the fathers, and the Mesorah of
emotional and valuating Torah of the mothers. This citation is
found on the Shamash gopher site and at our website under "Rav
Soloveitchik z"tl: Two Chains of Tradition".
Q3: Is the obligation mentioned here essentially upon the
father or upon the son? Do we have a communal obligation to teach
the children of single mothers, of non-observant (or non-Jewish)
fathers etc.? That is the case with B'rit Milah (see BT Kiddushin
29b) - what about here?
YE: In trying to compare this with B'rit Milah, it depends on how
we understand that obligation. Are we obligated to include our
male children in the B'rit - and Mesorah - or are they obligated
to participate in it? This seems to be a dispute among the
Rishonim (see Ritba, Ran and Tosafot on Kiddushin 29a) - but, if
the Mitzvah of B'rit is basically on the child, that is because
each individual must join the covenant -the Torah merely makes
it "easier" and more of a Mesorah-oriented act by "temporarily"
commissioning the father. If that is the case, though, then it is
unlike this Mitzvah of Talmud Torah - where it is the father who
is obligated to produce, strengthen and insure the next link in
the chain of tradition.
Q4: On the last statement there are two problems: Obviously
(it would seem), the mother cannot be held responsible to teach
her son, since she was not obligated to learn, we will assume
that she didn't do so. In addition, Rambam's wording is odd; he
explains her exemption by defining the obligation - but the
wording would have (seemingly) worked better if he had said:
*sheRAK* instead of *sheKOL* - i.e. "Because only one who is
obligated to learn is obligated to teach" - why does he simply
state the obligation without the exclusive RAK, which would have
made the whole sense clearer?
YE: The last question is now easily answered: One who is
obligated to learn is obligated to teach - this is not just an
arbitrary or coincidental connection - it is inherent in what we
are trying to accomplish: One who is obligated to learn is, by
definition, obligated to pass on that learning. By exempting
women from learning on this level of intellectual Mesorah, we
are clearly exempting them from teaching on this level - if they
are not a receiving link, they cannot grasp the next one.