Tuesday, September 10, 2013

K'neged Kulam!

Any discussion about the over-emphasis given to studying Torah has to begin with the following statement of Chazal: "Talmud Torah k'neged kulam," usually translated as "Studying Torah is equal to all other mitzvos." This is commonly cited as a trump card for shutting down any discussion relating to people's obligations:
"Why don't you work to support your family?"
   "Talmud Torah k'neged kulam!"
"Why don't you teach your children a trade, as Chazal instruct?"
   "Talmud Torah k'neged kulam!"
"Why don't charedim share the burden of military service and supporting the economy?"
   "Talmud Torah k'neged kulam!"
And, predictably, someone cited it in the comments to the previous post, presumably in order to claim that it's impossible to over-emphasize the mitzvah of Talmud Torah, since Talmud Torah k'neged kulam.

Here, then, is a list of reasons as to why Talmud Torah k'neged kulam does not mean what it is commonly thought to mean.

1. Who says that Talmud Torah means studying Torah? And what does "studying Torah" mean?

As R. Dr. Yehudah Levi notes in his classic book "Torah Study," the phrase Talmud Torah, properly translated, seems to refer to teaching Torah rather than learning Torah. This is also implied by the Gemara, which derives the mitzvah of Talmud Torah from the passuk of veshinantam levanecha, "you shall teach it to your sons."

Certainly, later authorities took it to mean studying Torah. But it is not clear that Chazal meant it that way, at least not in every instance. And it certainly seems to be the case that even learning Torah was, as far as Chazal and the Rishonim were concerned, primarily about knowing how to observe halachah and how to teach others to observe halachah.

2. Other mitzvos are also described as being k'neged kulam!

There are several mitzvos about which Chazal say that they are equal to all other mitzvos together. These are the mitzvah of living in Eretz Yisrael, Shabbos, Bris Milah, Tzitzis, and Gemilas Chasadim. (See this link for sources and discussion.) Can you imagine if someone were to propose one of these sources in a similar context in which people say Talmud Torah k'neged kulam?

3. K'neged kulam does not mean that it exempts a person from other obligations! 

Chazal, the very authorities who said Talmud Torah k'neged kulam, also said that a person is obligated to teach their son a trade, and to take a lowly profession rather than beg for charity. And they did not issue a blanket exemption from military service for people who study Torah.

4. It's clearly an exaggeration.

In practice, nobody, not even Chazal, take Talmud Torah k'neged kulam to mean that any given moment of Torah study is equal in value to all other mitzvos combined. If they did, then there would never be grounds to do an optional mitzvah, much less to institute any kind of non-critical act, religious or otherwise, that could take people away from a moment of Torah study. And so it's clearly an exaggeration.

5. The mirror text shows that it's not literal.

The statement Talmud Torah k'neged kulam comes from a Mishnah in Pe'ah. As a reader pointed out, there is a precise mirror image text in the Tosefta, which gives a similar, negative list. It lists the cardinal sins that we are all familiar with: adultery, murder, and idolatry. It then says, "And lashon hara k'neged kulam." From there we have the same line of reasoning. Lashon hara is bad, but is it really worse than adultery? Than murder? Obviously, Chazal's point is that lashon hara is far reaching, and often plants the seeds which may well lead to sins like adultery and murder. Its potential influence is more powerful than the other three.

So, having said all that, what does Talmud Torah k'neged kulam actually mean? Even assuming that it refers to Torah study rather than Torah teaching, it would mean something along the lines of the Gemara in Kiddushin 40b, where the question is asked, which is greater, study or action? One view, of Rabbi Tarfon the non-heretic, is that action is greater, but the consensus is that study is greater - and the reason given is that study leads to action! This is as per the Rishonim who describe the purpose of Torah study as knowing how to observe the mitzvos. You can't know how to live life properly unless you learn how. Rambam explicitly explains the Mishnah this way:
רמב"ם פירוש המשניות - מסכת פאה פרק א משנה א
וכשתחקור על הענין הזה תמצא ת"ת שקול כנגד הכל, כי בת"ת יזכה האדם לכל זה, כמו שביארנו בתחלת דברינו שהתלמוד מביא לידי מעשה:

When Chazal said that learning/ teaching Torah is equal to all other mitzvos, they meant that learning and/or teaching how to keep the mitzvos is of fundamental importance. And that's all.

(UPDATE: See too this follow-up post)


  1. Rabbi Slifkin, I agree with your basicassertion that Talmud Torah Keneged Kulam obviously does not mean what it is presented as meaning in present times, but how would you explain the idea in the gemera of being patur from doing other mitzvos while learning if it is "efshar laasos al yidei acheirim"?

  2. I always wondered why k'neged is translated as 'equal' in this instance.

    The k'negdo in ezer k'negdo is usually translated as 'mate' (as in help mate) and therefore talmud torah is correspondingly 'mated' to all other mitzvot.

  3. FSG, what's the question? If there's something that needs doing, and someone else is freely available to do it, then, all else being equal, you should keep learning.

  4. But if Limud is primarily al minat laasot (which I think we both agree on), it would seem counterintuitive, and furthermore if the mitzvah in question is a form of chessed, why logically should learning trump that if its primary focus is to refine ones character, isn't the chessed opportunity availabe are more direct way of reaching that same goal?

  5. Good point, but on the other hand, learning helps know how to act in the long term. As a parable, think of a medical student being told to stick to his studies if there's a patient that can be taken care of by someone else. (That's my response al regel achas.)

  6. K'neged almost means "opposite to". So if one sees one's every action in terms of "What would the Torah have me do in this situation" then one is putting Talmud Torah k'neged kulam.
    At any rate there is a Chasam Sofer (which I'm told gets excised from many modern editions) where he specifically deals with full time study and using it as an excuse not to work when living in Israel. He asks a simple question: if I'm studying Torah all the time can I now avoid putting on tefilling or waving a lulav? After all, I'm learning Torah and those would take away from that. But no one says don't put on tefillin...

  7. The mishna is being read in light of the tremendous even almost abnormal (to quote RA Lichtenstien ) that halacha puts on talmud torah. Everything besides for mitzva shei ifshar laasos al yede acherim is nidche which is unique in halacha. Not so with tzitzis or tefillah. Its only bc we are not fully osek batorah that we daven (yerushalmi brachos 8b) while the approach to work chazal articulate is indeed as you present it, the emphasis on talmud torah is overwhelming. Look at the reactions of ran and ritva to the memra of rav gidel nedarim 8b.

  8. The mishna is read in light of how halacha treats talmud torah. MK9b the reactions of ritva nd ran nedarim 8b and yerushalmi brachos 8b.

  9. What really is Torah learning?

    One can not learn to drive a car from a book, one must get behind the wheel. (it looks like I have a thing for cars)

    As the Torah states Shemos 24:7 Nasha V'Nishma = we will do and we will learn.

    This is teaching that in order to truly learn Torah one MUST perform the mitzvahs.

    Without doing you can not have real learning.

    To me this is what "Talmud Torah k'neged kulam," really means. To perform the commandments of the Torah for the sake of learning Torah (in addition for the pure purpose of doing God's will) comes before everything else.

    The mitzvahs therefore takes on a more deeper and more meaningful (double) status, and a more positive effect on one's learning and understanding.

  10. If you ever hear one of these bad "kneged kulam" arguments from someone who learns only eight hours a day, would you say to him, "Hey, you have no right to say that until you learn nine hours a day, like the Rationalist Rambam."

  11. Talmud torah keneged kulam is like tzitzis keneged kulam. If you wear tzitzis it is supposed to remind you of all the mitzvos and lead you to do them. If you learn torah it is supposed to give you knowledge and motivation to do the mitzvos. In each case the "kulam" is the main thing and the talmud/tzitzis are a way of achieving it. Chazal say harsh things about one who is lomed shelo al menas laasos, which would apply to anyone who says "I can't do that mitzvah, I'm too busy learning".

  12. What we say after Birkot Hatorah is about the reward that we get. Talmud Torah Keneged Kulam in that context means that the reward for learning Torah is as great as all the other good deeds such as visiting the sick.

    It doesn't mean that one should ignore the rest of the list and only learn Torah. If anything, it implies that a little Talmud Torah goes a long way.

  13. Dear Rabbi Slifkin,

    There is explicit mistake. The 1st mishna in Pea and the famous baraita do not intend to say that studying of Tora is equal to the rest of commandments. The baraita lists of specific kind of commandments - those of them from one enjoys in "this world" (so long he is alive) yet the main reward is kept to the World To Come (the Heaven). BTW I hope it's obvious that there is no full list, the baraita just lists several examples. And regarding to the studying of Tora, the baraita says that a) it's among such commandments too and b) joy and happiness from the studying of Tora is so big that it can be compared with joy and happiness from respecting the parents, hospitality and bringing a peace between a husband and his wife together.

    Other statements like "commandment X is equal to the entire Tora" also should be understood according to the context. For example, when our Sages said that Shabat is equal to the rest of commandments, they referred to a specific issue too. If you get used to watch action movies instead of studying of Tora, this is apparently bad kind of practice, but it still does not make you heretic; however if you get used to smoke in Shabat, it does.

    God forbid, our Sages never meant that the studying of Tora can replace respecting the parents or hospitality! (Or serving in army, assuming we have appropriate army to serve in it.) They supplement each other, do not replace.

    Hillel Brodsky

  14. Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik explained the concept of “Talmud Torah k’Neged Kulam” as meaning
    that it brings the person
    to do all the other mitzvot. (The Rav Thinking Aloud, p. 69)

  15. Rabbi Slifkin,

    There is another proof that can be brought to bolster your idea. I believe it is from a Gemara in the Yerushalmi which gives a similar, negative list. It lists the cardinal sins that we are all familiar with: adultery, murder, and idolatry. It then says, 'And Lashon Hara is Kineged Kulam.' From there we have the same line of reasoning. Lashon Hara is bad, but is it really worse than adultery? Than murder? Obviously, the gemara's point is that Lashon Hara is far reaching, and often plants the seeds which may well lead to sins like adultery and murder. Its' potential influence is more powerful than the other three. Torah study is greatest in that it [should] inspire to do more good. To do those things which make objective impact on peoples lives: hachnasat orchim, bikur cholim, tzedakah, mesameyach chatan v'kalah, etc. Torah study may have higher, metaphysical powers, but it's not our job to speculate on that possibility. When possible, we deal in objective reality.

  16. I found it -

    תוספתא פאה א, ב:

    על אילו דברים נפרעין מן אדם בעולם הזה והקרן קיימת לעולם הבא:
    על עבודה זרה ועל גלוי עריות ועל שפיכות דמים,
    ועל לשון הרע כנגד כולם.

    I will update the post accordingly.

  17. Realistically SpeakingSeptember 11, 2013 at 8:16 PM

    Sounds like your'e preaching to the choir.
    The larger issue is the meaning of "Laasos". Some will argue that the more Torah one learns the better he will do ANY mitzva. Or that Torah is the Kedusha behind any mitzvah, or the Tanya that says Torah is the Soveiv Kol Almin while Mitzvos are the Memalei Kol ALmin. Or the Ramchal that emphasizes Torah Ohr vs Neir Mitzvah.
    All of the above confuses people - not to mention Shaar Daled of Nefesh Hachayim or the contemporary sefer Binyan Olam!
    We need you to clarify how all of the above concepts and lilmod al mnas laasos are not mutually exclusive. I, for one, will be most appreciative!

  18. Brown-
    Your point about the Yerushalmi saying that Lashon HaRa was also "k'neget kulam" was a real "home run". Very well said!

  19. FSG,
    The usual rule is that one who is performing one mitzvah is exempt from performing another conflicting mitzvah, regardless of whether the other mitzvah can be done by someone else. Requiring someone to interrupt torah study to perform another mitzvah when the other mitzvah can't be done by someone else is an exception to the general rule. The reason for treating torah study differently from other mitzvot in this regard is because study must be for the purpose of doing.

  20. Realistically Speaking said: "the Tanya that says Torah is the Soveiv Kol Almin while Mitzvos are the Memalei Kol Almin".

    I think you have the order wrong--Torah is Memalei, Mitzvos are Soveiv. It is explained well here: www.chabad.org/dailystudy/tanya.asp?tdate=12/14/2012
    In short, mitzvos are likened to "garments" for the soul, by means of which a person perceives G-dliness in Olom HaBa. Knowledge of Torah is also a mitzvah, and therefore a "garment", but it is one that the person "ingests", in that he comprehends something of G-d's Wisdom--it serves both as "food" for the soul, as well as a "garment".

    I don't think it's so confusing.

  21. LEW,
    But even if it is not efshar laasot al yidei acheirim, is it so pashut that one should not prefer to perform an actual asiya as opposed to its "hechsher"?

    "The reason for treating torah study differently from other mitzvot in this regard is because study must be for the purpose of doing."
    Would you consider learning the gemaros about kodshim talmud torah or not (not to mention the lomdus associated with it)?

  22. Brooklyn refugee sheigitzSeptember 12, 2013 at 5:16 PM

    keep 'em coming!!

  23. FSG asked (rhetorically, I assume, based on his previous comments): "Would you consider learning the gemaros about kodshim talmud torah or not (not to mention the lomdus associated with it)?"

    I saw a statement of the Steipler Gaon which said that the learning of Nashim and Nezikin in yeshivot was to sharpen the intellect; if a ba'al habayis has a gemara to choose to learn, if he has completed the ones for practical everyday living, he should learn Zevachim and Menachos, since someone who learns the laws of korbonos is as if he brought them.

  24. FSG,

    Thanks for your thoughtful reply. I think you and I disagree as to what is the unusual case that requires explanation. You, having fully adopted the view that the purpose of Torah study is knowing how to observe the mitzvot, find it unusual that sometimes one doesn't have to interrupt Torah study. I approach the question by initially treating talmud torah like any other mitzvah, in which the principle "osek b'mitzvah patur min hamitzvah" (one who is performing a mitzvah is exempt from another [conflicting] mitzvah) is the norm and deviations from that norm require explanation.

    Turning to your specific questions, you first asked "But even if it is not efshar laasot al yidei acheirim, is it so pashut that one should not prefer to perform an actual asiya as opposed to its 'hechsher'?" I don't understand the question. If the other mitzvah is "ee efshar laasot al y'dei acheirim" (not possible to be done by someone else), one is obligated to interrupt torah study to do the other mitzvah.

    In the alternative case, where the other mitzvah can be done by someone else, I agree that it's not so pashut and I could imagine the halachah being other than it is, despite the principle of osek b'mitzvah patur min hamitzvah. In support of the halachah being that one does not have to interrupt torah study, I point out that studying torah is a mitzvah in its own right -- an actual asiya, as you put it -- as well as a hechsher (preparation) for other mitzvot.

    With regard to your second question, learning kodashim most certainly is talmud torah. We pray for restoration of the temple and sacrifices. And if it's not so much halachah l'maaseh today, who knows about tomorrow?

  25. dear rabbi slifkin, the chofex chaim says that loshon hora kineged kulam is talking about a "bal loshon hora" who is in fact worse off than a murderer (rambam). so therefore tora can and is interpreted as the greatest mitzvah. The chofex chaim famously gave a parable about a sick patient that all the doctors were working on different body parts,one on the hands and one on the feet, one on his eyes etc..and as they were working on him they felt he had no pulse.So immediately they all left alone the other body parts to work on his heart. so the chafex chaim said,the pulse of Judaism is tora,the hands and legs and the rest of the body parts are the other mitzvos. The gimara asks sota 21a, with what are women zoche to olam haba? Now, what kind of question is that? they have the many many mitzvos whats the problem? not only that,they have certain mitzvos that men don't even have? so many achronim answer,including the chida arizal and others that the main living in olam haba is thru tora!

  26. tr, one of the main themes of this blog is that the Judaism of the late Acharonim is very, very different from the Judaism of Chazal and the Rishonim.

  27. Here's the bottom line: it's not like the idea that Talmud tora is greater is not found in the gimara, it's not like it's being pulled out of a hat. There are gimras that support it for example the mishna in paeh, the gimara I mentioned "with what are women zoche".Talmud tora is greater than hatzolas nifashosmegila 16b, mamzer Talmud chacham comes before kohen gadol amha'aretz, hashem was mas mivater on giluay arayos shfichas domim and avoda zara but not on Talmud tora. "kol chafotzecha lo yishvu bo" we find all over that a great person in the Talmud was someone that was a Talmud chacam. not a bal chesed.We stand up for him. why not for a bal chesed? we find all kinds of denim of Talmud chacham mivaze Talmud chacham etc.... however you have a few gimaras that talk about tztis etc..so for every 10 gimaras we have one farkert. so how do we reconcile the 2. we can either fit the one with the ten or vice versa. The opinion of the gidolay olam of the last 500 YEARS say fit one with the other ten. you however,disagree and say fit 10 with one. who do you excpect a rationally thinking person would follow. btw mishana in avos (not the chofex chaim) 2 people sitting together and not learning tora is a moshav lietzim.

  28. regarding the fsg vs rabbi slifkin discussion. The context in which the gimara is sayin it's halacha that when it's efsher al yiday acher,is that kol chafutechu lo yishvu bu yikara hee mipninim,in other words, torah is MORE significant than other mitzvos, for example,take "escorting the dead, if there are others available to do it,then you cannot stop learning,that is only because Talmud tora is greater than livayas hamies, so had you gone at a time when learning was not an option, you would have been mikayim a mitzvah! It is not similar to the analogy you gave of a student/doctor,because there the point is for the sick man to get healed.Not that the one who heals earns points or mitzvos. In fact if a person is in middle of learninghe MAY be mafsik for a davar rishus like going shopping,but may NOT stop for another mitzvah,since he is now prioritizing that mitzvah over limud hatora. see dibros moshe kidushin


Comments for this blog are moderated. Please see this post about the comments policy for details. ANONYMOUS COMMENTS WILL NOT BE POSTED - please use either your real name or a pseudonym.