Does Rambam Support Kollel?
The following mailing was sent out last week by the Bais HaVaad Halacha Center of Lakewood:
Taking Tzedakah Money To Sit & Learn
Question: We have stated that one should avoid taking tzedakah if he has the option of supporting himself. Today, there are thousands of people learning in Kollel. Many of them are supported by the public’s generosity. Since they technically could get a job and support themselves, is learning full-time a contradiction to the Gemara’s statement that one should avoid taking charity?
Answer: It is true that Chazal say it is preferable to take any job than to live off of tzedakah; however, the Rambam says that anyone who accepts to spend his days learning Torah should be supported by the public.
In olden times, Shevet Levi sat and learned all day and they were taken care of by the rest of the nation. The Rambam says that anyone who so desires can emulate Shevet Levi and accept to learn full-time while the public supports him.
These people are needed to sustain the world through their Torah studies, and, therefore, are an exception to the above-stated rule that one should do any kind of labor in order to avoid accepting charity. All Poskim agree that this is true and maintain that supporting such men is an ideal form of tzedakah.
The Chofetz Chaim speaks about this in many places and says that the best use of tzedakah funds is to support poor Torah scholars who wouldn’t be able to learn otherwise without your help. These funds directly contribute to the dissemination of Torah through the generations and are necessary to sustain the world.
Here is a letter that I sent to them:
To Bais HaVaad Halacha Center:
I was astounded to see you claim that “the Rambam says that anyone who accepts to spend his days learning Torah should be supported by the public.” Rambam, in discussing the laws of learning Torah, emphatically states the exact opposite:
“One who makes up his mind to involve himself with Torah and not to work, and to support himself from charity, has profaned God’s Name and brought the Torah into contempt, extinguished the light of religion, brought evil upon himself, and has taken away his life from the World-to-Come...” (Hilchos Talmud Torah 3:10)
I do not understand how you could discuss Rambam's view without quoting his explicit statement that such a lifestyle is utterly, utterly wrong. (This is even though the state of Torah study in his part of the world was generally rather poor, especially compared to today.)
Apparently, in presenting Rambam’s position as being the exact opposite of what he says in Hilchos Talmud Torah, you were misled by Rambam’s statement at the very end of Hilchos Shemittah Ve'Yovel. It follows a halachah where Rambam notes that the tribe of Levi did not receive a share of the Land of Israel to develop, nor serve in the army, but instead their role was to serve God and teach Torah to Israel. Rambam follows this by stating as follows:
"Not only the Tribe of Levi, but each and every individual human being, whose spirit moves him and whose knowledge gives him understanding to set himself apart in order to stand before the Lord, to serve Him, to worship Him, and to know Him, who walks upright as God created him to do, and releases himself from the yoke of the many foolish considerations which trouble people - such an individual is as consecrated as the Holy of Holies, and his portion and inheritance shall be in the Lord forever and ever. The Lord will grant him adequate sustenance in this world, just as He granted to the priests and to the Levites. Thus did David, peace upon him, say, O Lord, the portion of my inheritance and of my cup, You maintain my lot."
Presumably, it is based on this that you claimed that “In olden times, Shevet Levi sat and learned all day and they were taken care of by the rest of the nation. The Rambam says that anyone who so desires can emulate Shevet Levi and accept to learn full-time while the public supports him.”
However, Rambam does not, and could not, mean anything of the sort. Obviously he could not be completely contradicting what he said in the very laws that deal with Talmud Torah. What has happened is that you have not paid attention to two statements of Rambam which make clear that there are two crucial differences.
First of all, insofar as Rambam does equate Torah scholars with the tribe of Levi with regard to material sustenance, he makes the meaning of this clear elsewhere:
"Anyone who makes economic use of the honor of the Torah takes his life from this world... However, the Torah permits scholars to give their money to others to invest in profitable businesses (on their behalf)... and to receive priority in buying and selling merchandise in the marketplace. These are benefits that God granted them, just as He granted the offering to the Kohanim and the tithes to the Levite... for merchants occasionally do such things for each other as a courtesy, even if there is no Torah scholarship to warrant it. A Torah scholar should certainly be treated at least as well as a respectable ignoramus." (Commentary to the Mishnah, Avos 4:7)
In Rambam's view, Torah scholars, like Kohanim and Leviim, receive benefits, though the benefits are of a different nature. They involve the investment of funds, and assistance in business, rather than financial grants. This is similar to the Yissacher-Zevulun relationship, which, according to Chazal, was nothing at all like it is popularized today; rather, it involved Zevulun marketing the produce that Yissacher farmed.
The second crucial difference is that according to Rambam, the tribe of Levi did not “sit and learn all day,” as you write. The Levites' special mission was not learning Torah; it was teaching Torah:
"Why did the tribe of Levi not acquire a share in the Land of Israel and in its spoils together with their brothers? Because this tribe was set apart to serve God and to minister to Him, to teach His straight ways and righteous ordinances to the multitudes, as it is written: “They shall teach Jacob Your ordinances and Israel Your Law” (Deut. 33,10). (Mishneh Torah, Hilchos Shemittah VeYovel 13:12)
According to Rambam, someone learning in kollel is simply in no way doing what Levites did. The Levites were not sitting and learning all day; they were primarily teachers.
In conclusion: In Hilchos Shemittah VeYovel, Rambam is not remotely describing someone studying in kollel, being supported by charitable contributions. His view on this remains as he expresses it elsewhere: that such a person "has profaned God’s Name and brought the Torah into contempt." I look forward to your issuing a correction.
(Incidentally, it is true that Rambam was somewhat of an aberration from normative tradition in his views on these matters, but not as much as one might think. He does, reluctantly, permit teaching the Written Torah for money, where such is the norm, and although he opposes receiving money for teaching Oral Torah, he does not do so with the same vehemence that he opposes taking money for studying Torah – see Hilchos Talmud Torah 1:8-10. Other Rishonim often permitted taking money for teaching Torah, though almost never for studying Torah.
The general attitude is perhaps best expressed by the Ramoh in Yoreh Deah, 246:21. He first states the primary view, that it is forbidden and wrong for Torah scholars to receive funding; he then notes a "yesh omrim," an alternate lenient view that it is permissible for rabbis to receive funding, and finally brings an even more lenient view that even students may receive funding. Along with the presentation of this as an extremely lenient “yesh omrim”, Ramoh notes that it is still preferable for Torah students to be self-supportive, if possible. Presumably this is because this was the clear value system of Chazal, and perhaps this is why the phenomenon of mass Kollel was unknown for most of our history. Along the same lines, Chazal were very clear that a person has to give his children the necessary education to be financially independent.)