Thursday, May 30, 2019

Which is Greater, Learning Torah or Keeping Torah?

What is the goal and function of studying Torah? There are numerous sources in Chazal which imply that the (primary) function of studying Torah is in order to know how to observe it:
It is not the exposition that is the main point, but rather the actions. (Mishnah, Avot 1:17; similarly in Sifra, Acharei Mot 9)
Rabbi Eleazar said: What was the blessing that Moses first blessed upon the Torah? Blessed are You, God our Lord, King of the Universe, Who chose this Torah, and sanctified it, and desired those who fulfill it. He did not say “those who toil in it,” and he did not say “those who contemplate it,” bur rather “those who fulfill it”—those who fulfill the words of the Torah. (Midrash Rabba, Devarim 11:6)
Rava would often comment: The purpose of wisdom is repentance and good deeds—that a person should not read and study and then defy his father, his mother, his rabbi, and those greater than him in wisdom and numbers, as it says, “The beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord; all who practice it gain good understanding” (Tehillim 111:10). It does not say, “those who study it,” but rather “those who practice it”—i.e., those who practice for its sake, and not those who practice not for its sake. (Berakhot 17a )
One of the most significant discussions relating to this point is in the Talmud’s account of how a group of Sages debated whether studying Torah is greater than fulfilling it:
Rabbi Tarfon and the Elders were already gathered in the upper chamber of Nitza’s house in Lod, when the following question was raised before them: What is greater, study or practice? Rabbi Tarfon answered, saying: Practice is greater. Rabbi Akiva answered, saying: Study is greater. All of them answered, saying: Study is greater, because study leads to practice. (Kiddushin 40b )
This dispute was resolved with the conclusion that study is greater. That would seem to indeed demonstrate that the study of Torah is an end unto itself, and is the highest form of human endeavor.

And yet matters become more complicated when this is considered carefully. The Talmud’s conclusion is not merely that study is greater. It is that study is greater because it leads to practice. But if study is greater because it leads to practice, then this effectively means that practice is more important! Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm, in his comprehensive and excellent study of this topic, notes that many authorities interpret the Talmud to mean that study is “greater” only in the sense that it takes precedence; you have to study the Torah in order to know how to practice it:
One could thus suggest, as indeed many have, that the assembly’s preference for study is meant only in a chronological sense; it is to be propaedeutic to practice. To be sure, it is indispensable to practice and therefore has to come first, but it serves only as a means to achieve another end, namely, practice, which remains axiologically superior. (Torah Lishmah—Torah for Torah’s Sake in the Works of Rabbi Hayyim of Volozhin and his Contemporaries, p. 141)
We see that the greatness of studying Torah is insofar as it teaches us how to fulfill the Torah, which is the ultimate goal. This is also seen in a passage discussing the form of praise that was set aside for King Chizkiyah:
“They honored (Chizkiyah) in his death” …- they put a Torah scroll on his bed, and they said, “This one fulfilled all that is written in this.” But surely we do the same today (and thus it is no particular honor)? …We say that the person fulfilled the Torah, but we do not say that he expounded Torah (whereas with Chizkiyah, it was said that he expounded Torah). But did the master not say that learning Torah is great, because it leads to practice (and thus the praise given today of Torah scholars, that they fulfill the Torah, is even greater than that given to Chizkiyah)? This [that the greatness of study is insofar as it leads to practice] refers to one’s own learning, and this [that Chizkiyah was honored with] refers to teaching others. (Bava Kama 17a)
Here we see a clear hierarchy. Fulfilling the Torah is greater than studying it; teaching others is even greater, because it leads many people to fulfill it. Again, we see that the greatness of studying Torah is because of how it leads to the fulfillment of the Torah, which is the ultimate goal.


  1. "We see that the greatness of studying Torah is insofar as it teaches us how to fulfill the Torah, which is the ultimate goal."

    Again, this doesn't follow from any of the sources you've quoted. The sources you mentioned say that study is important because it leads to fulfillment of the Torah. They don't say study is important simply because it teaches how to practice, although that is surely one crucial part of leading one to practice. That latter description of Torah seems to be like that of a dry user's manual, to be discarded and picked up again whenever your understanding of how to do a particular mitzvah needs brushing up on. R' Akiva certainly had a solid grasp on how to practice Torah; yet he still believed that study is still very important - probably because it creates a lifestyle in which you are constantly surrounded by God's word, thereby creating the ideal environment to live as a Torah Jew.

    Again, I will quote R' Aharon Lichtenstein, not one to be accused of mysticism:

    One's ultimate aspiration should be to focus on Torah, not kemach...Practically, it means that he should try to maximize his Torah study and his direct avodat Hashem...Talmud Torah is not just a daily obligation, but a general direction in a person's life. "You shall meditate upon it day and night" (Yehoshua 1:8). Through God's revealed word, we can come to know Him, approach Him, relate to Him. This is a value, a goal to be maximized as far as one can.' (By His Light, p. 41)

    1. You're right, I should have phrased it a little differently. The point is though that it's still worlds apart from the popular explanation today.

    2. To elaborate upon your point: Studying Torah is important because it leads to fulfilling Torah, and it does so in two ways - by teaching us how to fulfill Torah, and by putting us in the mindset to actually do it.

    3. Thanks R' Slifkin for the response.

      While that's an upgrade, I still don't think it fully captures the importance of Torah. I would add another thing to the list: part of fulfilling the Torah is knowing God and being close to Him. Learning Torah is a vehicle for knowing God and becoming close to Him. You might respond that knowing God and being close to Him is included in "fulfilling the Torah" - but I believe it actually gets lost in that statement, and so I think it needs to be specifically emphasized. I would also say that knowing God and being close to Him is not only a goal of Torah, but will itself naturally lead someone to observe and fulfill the Mitzvot.

  2. I was once on the phone with a Rosh Yeshiva in Bet Shemesh.
    ME: I would love the opportunity to present in your Beit Midrash to speak about brain death and organ donation in Halacha.
    RABBI: I will never let you lecture in my yeshiva because I know what you are about.
    ME: What am I about?
    RABBI: You are about saving lives. We are not about saving lives. We are about learning Torah Lishmah.
    ME: Is this really the rabbis or some student pulling a prank on me.
    RABBI: No. I'm the Rosh Yeshiva. Goodbye.

  3. This might be interesting:
    About R' Tarfon vs R' Akivah, they both had different starting points and as such they emphasized/prioritized Study or actions. The students conclusion is the explanation of that.

    I don't know much about R' Tarfon's life, but R' Akivah was a SMART anti-Torah boy.

    R' Tarfon probably grew up in a religious home where the default was to do Mitzvot. So, we can argue that to his mind a huge deal of fulfilling Mitzvot was second nature to him. And following that came his idea on "prioritize doing" (because the basics are obvious!).
    Now it makes more sense what R' Akivah prioritized... To him, even a smart person without the proper framework (theory/studies) is clueless about what to do and would definitely get it all wrong (such as Young Akivah literally hating Chachamim).
    The students/conclusion may include people of different upbringings (both Religious and B' Teshuvah) so they see the importance of studying first because it's generally better given that Mitzvot (which is the main religious task) are not as obvious as one might think.
    Mostly conjectures but it made sense to me.

  4. This topic is too macro to be reduced to a single, correct point of view.

  5. I think it is worth citing this mishnah from Avot, chapter 4, as well:

    רַבִּי יִשְׁמָעֵאל ... אוֹמֵר, הַלּוֹמֵד תּוֹרָה עַל מְנָת לְלַמֵּד, מַסְפִּיקִין בְּיָדוֹ לִלְמֹד וּלְלַמֵּד. וְהַלּוֹמֵד עַל מְנָת
    .לַעֲשׂוֹת, מַסְפִּיקִין בְּיָדוֹ לִלְמֹד וּלְלַמֵּד לִשְׁמֹר וְלַעֲשׂוֹת

    Rabbi Yishmael ... says: One who learns Torah in order to teach is granted [the means] to learn and to teach. One who learns in order to practice, is granted [the means] to learn and to teach, to observe and to practice.

  6. The Chaye Adam in the forward to his famous work focuses on exactly the issues you raised in your blog. He asks why so few Talmidei Chachamim of his time (the period of R. Chayim Volozhin) werer so ignorant with regard to basic halachot of daily life and yet expert on the minutiae of Nizikin. His answer: their learning is not focused on Al Menas Laosos, for the sake of practice. He then defines Lishma precisely as Rabbi Lamm and you stated. Learning not for the sake of practice is the type of Lo Lishma which ultimately leads to sin. With this introduction he explains his motivation for writing his Sefer, as a means to overcome this major shortcoming in the yeshiva curriculum. It is definitely worth reading his very contemporary take on the problems of yeshiva education.

    1. Shalom,

      This is fascinating. I will admit that I have never learned through the Chayei Adam but, as this very problem is a particular interest of mine, I am going to go check it out right now.

      I posted a comment on a blog post of R' Slifkin's just a few days ago noting how it never ceases to amaze me how ignorant many frum folks are of how to properly observe some very basic halachot lema'aseh (notably hilchot shabbos).

    2. it never ceases to amaze me how ignorant many frum folks are of how to properly observe some very basic halachot lema'aseh (notably hilchot shabbos)

      This is pointed out in the Mishnah Brurah's intro to the laws of Shabbos.

  7. "[T]his effectively means that practice is more important!"

    Not exactly. A more accurate analysis would be that study is more important as long as it leads to practice. In any other case you can argue that practice is indeed greater.

  8. Again, see that Meshekh Chokhmah on Devarim 28:61. (Link to Sefaria's copy.

    Here was the conclusion of my blog post on it (which really needs editing):
    Rav Meir Simchah haKohein zt”l prioritizes mitzvos as follows:

    Among mitzvos, learning has the lowest inherent priority in life, since we could do that even without being born. Learning derives its value from its being necessary in order to be able to do anything else. Then come other mitzvos. Then comes teaching. And not just the teaching of facts, but the internalization of modes of thought that can come only through shimush, apprenticeship. This is the spiritual development of the next generation, our entire purpose in having been born. In contrast to Rav Shimon Shkop’s notion of imitating Hashem by bestowing chesed on others, where I become unified with all other people primarily in the now. Rav Meir Simcha haKohein sees a person’s value as being unified with the chain of mesorah and the spiritual progress of the human species.

    (Some of this discussion made it into Widen Your Tent § 5.6 (pp 217-220).)

  9. Rabbi Slifkin I do not understand your logic.
    “ The Talmud’s conclusion is not merely that study is greater. It is that study is greater because it leads to practice. But if study is greater because it leads to practice, then this effectively means that practice is more important!”
    1) No it does not mean that practice is more important, the Gemara means what it says, namely Torah study is greater than practice. As we pasken
    היה לפניו עשיית מצוה ותלמוד תורה אם אפשר למצוה להעשות ע"י אחרים לא יפסיק תלמודו ואם לאו יעשה המצוה ויחזור לתלמודו: (Rambam Talmud Torah 4:4)
    2) Your diyuk is embarrassing -
    “But if study is greater because it leads to practice, then this effectively means that practice is more important!” -
    The Gemara means as it says, learning Torah is greater than doing a mitzva because it is talmud Torah + the impetus to do Mitzvos.

    1. @Matis

      A pretty big jump to call his diyuk "embarrassing". See Tosfos' on the cited gemara in Kiddushin 40b (D'H Talmud Gadol) and I think you'll notice that despite the support you brought from the Rambam, it seems it's not a straightforward unanimous understanding of the gemara. Shkoyach.
      (by the way, the halacha you cited was 3:4, not 4:4)

    2. @Matis,

      That Rambam is very clear that asiyat mitzvah takes precedence, if one is in the middle of learning, and there is a mitzvah before him that no one else can do, he stops his learning, does the mitzvah and only afterwards comes back to his learning. This is evident in the case cited by @N8ZL with R’ Yohanan going to the bathroom. Only he could do the mitzvah of him putting on tefillin, so he does so before continuing to learn or even teach torah. The same can be seen in the Haggadah with the ftannaim learning about yetziyat Mitzrayim all night long in b’nei brak. Their students interrupted them for them to do the mitzvah of kriyat shema. Which THEY had to do before continuing their learning.

      Now, an interesting question arises: what happens in a yeshiva when there is a mitzvah that can be performed by someone else, but EVERYONE is learning; who should perform the mitzvah? It’s like the “Kitty Genovese” situation, does everyone just continue learning and letting the mitzvah go unoerformed just because it COULD be performed by someone else but each individual is learning? Maybe it should be the least knowledgeable - the newest student in the yeshiva who should stop his learning and do the mitzvah, because his learning is of the lowest caliber, or maybe It should be the person who knows the most, ithr Rosh Yeshiva , to stop his learning and do the mitzvah because he already knows so much, and the others need all the learning they can get; or maybe it’s the person in closest proximity to the mitzvah or most adept at that particular par mitzvah because he can perform iit most quickly, efficiently, properly and correctly, and then get back to his learning. Or perhaps in such a situation, since everyone is learning, whoever sees a mitzvah to be done must do it and not leave it for anyone else, because simply presuming someone else will do it, (if everyone presumes that) that might mean the mitzvah won’t get done.

      Regardless who does it, each of these possibilities show that the mitzvah MUST take precedence over SOMEONE’S learning. We cannot let the Mitzvah go unperformed, it cannot be ignored. It cannot be left to whither and die like kitty Genovese was.

      Performance of the mitzvah must take precedence over learning as the Rambam says whether because you’re in a situation that the mitzvah is personal and only you can do it or where others probably won’t do it. Only when the Mitzvah WILL be performed by others is a person who is learning excused from doing it.

  10. @ Rabbi Dr. Natan Slifkin

    Rabbi Slifkin, I am not sure if you cross-referenced the gemara in Kiddushin with the one in Bava Kamma on your own, or if it's based on the Tosfos in Kiddushin.
    Tosfos there on Kiddushin 40b (D"H Torah Gadol) brings up the gemara in Bava Kamma and has a beautiful back-and-forth discussion, ultimately merging the two teachings into one overall idea, which supports your overall message of teaching being greater than maaseh. But his concluding words are, in my humble opinion, the most pivotal words relating to the entire topic you are trying to focus on in your recent posts:

    וי"מ דאדם שלא למד עדיין ובא לימלך אם ילמוד תחילה או יעסוק במעשה אומרים לו למוד תחלה לפי שאין עם הארץ חסיד אבל אדם שלמד כבר המעשה טוב יותר מלימוד

    I think these words speak volumes. When it comes to an ignoramus, learning is the priority because he doesn't know anything. But when it comes to someone who is learned, he should be investing his time into the active component of our service to God, doing the mitzvos.

    Now, what about "teaching others" versus "mitzvos/actions"? It seems clear, as you also put forth, that teaching is the highest form. But does that mean that if one is faced with the choice between "teaching" or "doing a mitzvah" that he should select the "teaching" beforehand?
    While teaching indeed seems more praiseworthy than maaseh, I am not fully convinced that it takes precedence over action. And I believe this can be seen in the section in the gemara in Bava Kamma that you skipped over. For me, context is everything.
    After mentioning the honour to Chizkiyah, the gemara then goes on to describe the context of the question "But did the master not say that learning...". Check it out:

    אמר רבה בר בר חנה הוה אזילנא בהדיה דר' יוחנן למשאל שמעתא כי הוה עייל לבית הכסא והוה בעינא מיניה מלתא לא פשיט לן עד דמשי ידיה ומנח תפילין ומברך והדר אמר לן אפילו קיים אמרינן לימד לא אמרינן

    Why in the world is the gemara teaching us about R Yochanan going to the bathroom and afterward putting on his tefillin here? In my humble opinion, the gemara is indicating that upon coming out of the bathroom and washing up, R Yochanan is now faced with a choice: Either (a) Put on Tefillin, or (b) Answer your students' question. In essence, the gemara is demonstrating that R Yochanan right now is faced with the decision to either teach or to do a mitzvah, and he picks the mitzvah before the teaching.
    But I believe there is still a way to support your conclusion! What was R Yochanan teaching them? He was not teaching them something that instructed them how to do the mitzvos. He was teaching them something that was merely an answer to a difficulty within the text of the gemara/Tanach, not a mitzvah per se. So perhaps, if the students would have asked him something like "hey, I dropped a dairy spoon in a meat sink filled with water that was yad soledet bo (lol)", R Yochanan may have indeed answered them prior to putting on his own Tefillin.

    So to sum it up, IMHO, the hierarchy can be as follows:
    (1) The lowest level of learning Torah is someone who is learned and is learning just for the sake of learning (Torah she'lo lishmah)
    (2) A greater form of learning is one who learns Torah in order to know how to fulfill the Torah in action (Torah Lishmah)
    (3) Teaching others Torah, when the content has nothing to do with performance of mitzvos or kiyum ha'Torah ( I may even put this before #2)
    (4) Doing mitzvos/kiyum ha'Torah
    (5) Teaching others how to be mekayem ha'Torah

  11. Great is the learning of Torah.
    Even greater is the teaching of Torah.
    Greatest of all is the donating to the institutions of Torah because then it's your name over the door to the Beis Medrash.
    Great rabbis come and go but the name over the door remaineth forever.

  12. Interesting quote I heard about Reb Chaim Ozer Grodzinski - "When I was young, I thought that the highest level was to say a good sevara; now I know it's to say a good sevara to free an agunah."

  13. See section F of this article


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