Is It Better To Be Supported In Kollel Or To Work?
Recently I came across a book called Priorities in Tzedaka by a Rabbi Moshe Goldberger. It bears an impressive array of approbations from across the Orthodox spectrum. I was curious to see how it deals with the issue of supporting people in kollel, which is currently a very hot topic in Israel. The topic is dealt with on page 70, and here is what it has to say:
Is it better for someone to sit and learn with support, at a kollel, or to get a job as as to be self-supporting and to continue to learn in his free time?
It is definitely proper for a person to accept support in order to learn full time (Ramoh, Yoreh Deah, 246:21). Our sages teach that it is sinful not to accept support when one can learn more with support. Those who think they know better are being led by the wiles of the Evil Inclination to distract them from more Torah study (Igros Moshe, Yoreh Deah, 2:116).
This took me by surprise, to put it mildly. It has been a while since I learned the topic, but I was pretty sure that this wasn't how I remembered it. Still, human memory can be notoriously unreliable, so I went back to check the sources that he quoted.
Let's begin with the Ramoh in Yoreh Deah, 246:21 that the author quotes as saying that "It is definitely proper for a person to accept support in order to learn full time." Here is what the Ramoh first says:
לא יחשוב האדם לעסוק בתורה ולקנות עושר וכבוד עם הלמוד, כי מי שמעלה מחשבה זו בלבו אינו זוכה לכתרה של תורה, אלא יעשה אותו קבע ומלאכתו עראי, וימעט בעסק ויעסוק בתורה. ויסיר תענוגי הזמן מלבו ויעשה מלאכה כל יום כדי חייו, אם אין לו מה יאכל, ושאר היום והלילה יעסוק בתורה. ומעלה גדולה למי שמתפרנס ממעשה ידיו, שנאמר: יגיע כפיך כי תאכל וגו':
He says that a person should work to support himself, leaving Torah study to other times of day and night, and that it is very praiseworthy to be self-sufficient. Which is not at all surprising, since Chazal taught that Torah study should be accompanied by derech eretz, and in numerous places stressed the importance of being self-sufficient: “A person should hire himself out for alien work rather than requiring assistance from others”; “The man who is self-sufficient is greater than the one who fears Heaven”; etc. The Ramoh continues:
וכל המשים על לבו לעסוק בתורה ולא לעשות מלאכה להתפרנס מן הצדקה, הרי זה מחלל השם ומבזה התורה, שאסור ליהנות מדברי תורה. וכל תורה שאין עמה מלאכה, גוררת עון וסופו ללסטם הבריות.
Here Ramoh drives home this point even further, noting that someone who decides to busy themselves with Torah and live off charity rather than working has desecrated God's Name and brought the Torah into disrepute. He adds that Torah which is not accompanied by work leads to sin and theft (presumably because the Torah scholar/student is incapable of making a living via honest means). Similarly, the Rosh, discussing someone whose Torah is his profession, such that he is exempt from paying various taxes, defines this person as someone who only takes time away from his studies in order to earn a livelihood, “which is his obligation, for the study of Torah with derech eretz is beautiful, and if the Torah is not accompanied by work, it will end in neglect and will cause sin." This reflects the normative position amongst the Rishonim in Ashkenaz, where financing Torah study was unheard of; virtually all Torah scholars were self-supporting, and even financing Torah teaching was only reluctantly permitted by some.
At this point Ramoh notes that there is an exemption for people who are physically incapable of working:
וכל זה בבריא ויכול לעסוק במלאכתו או בדרך ארץ קצת ולהחיות עצמו, אבל זקן או חולה, מותר ליהנות מתורתו ושיספקו לו.
Such people are allowed to receive payment for the Torah that they teach.
So far, Ramoh has been unequivocal that it is forbidden and evil to take money for Torah rather than to be self-supportive. But at this point he introduces a lenient view:
ויש אומרים דאפילו בבריא מותר (בית יוסף בשם תשובת רשב"ץ ח"א, קמ"ז, קמ"ח). ולכן נהגו בכל מקומות ישראל שהרב של עיר יש לו הכנסה וספוק מאנשי העיר, כדי שלא יצטרך לעסוק במלאכה בפני הבריות ויתבזה התורה בפני ההמון...
As Ramoh cites, there is a lenient view, based on R. Shimon b. Tzemach Duran (Rashbatz), that permits Torah scholars to receive funding. Note, however, that Rashbatz specifically limits this to Torah scholars functioning in the role of community rabbi. In the referenced responsum, he argues that since the Kohen Gadol receives material support from the community, how much more so should a Torah scholar be entitled to such support; after all, he is equally performing a service for the community. Ramoh writes that “a person important to the community may accept money from it... without violating the prohibition against benefiting from the Torah, for he is honoring the Torah, not using it." He is not talking about a kollel student!
However, Ramoh proceeds to note that there are those who are even more lenient and permit even students to receive financial support, in order to strengthen Torah study:
ויש מקילין עוד לומר דמותר לחכם ולתלמידיו לקבל הספקות מן הנותנים כדי להחזיק ידי לומדי תורה, שעל ידי זה יכולין לעסוק בתורה בריוח.
So there we have it; after stating the primary view, that it is forbidden and wrong for Torah scholars to receive funding, then noting a "yesh omrim," an alternate lenient view that it is permissible for rabbis to receive funding, we finally have a further lenient view that even students may receive funding. However, Ramoh notes that it is still preferable for Torah students to be self-supportive, if possible:
ומ"מ מי שאפשר לו להתפרנס היטב ממעשה ידיו ולעסוק בתורה, מדת חסידות הוא ומתת אלהים היא, אך אין זה מדת כל אדם, שא"א לכל אדם לעסוק בתורה ולהחכים בה ולהתפרנס בעצמו.
As Rashbatz writes in his responsa, “scholars and disciples who waive their entitlements and provide for themselves by the work of their hands, or by making do with less, will see great reward for their efforts, which are considered as piety. It is better for them to take a little time away from their constant study than to depend on the community for their livelihood.”
Thus, for Rabbi Goldberger, when responding to the question "Is it better for someone to sit and learn with support, at a kollel, or to get a job as as to be self-supporting and to continue to learn in his free time?" to summarize Ramoh's view as "It is definitely proper for a person to accept support in order to learn full time," does not seem particularly accurate.
Now let us move on to the view of R. Moshe Feinstein, in a responsum from 1964. He writes that it is "certainly fine" for kollel students to take payment, based upon this Ramoh. Which, I would humbly submit, is not exactly the Ramoh's position. R. Feinstein notes that R. Yosef Caro in Kesef Mishnah observed that Rambam's prohibition on Torah scholars receiving payment was not shared by other authorities, and permits a Torah scholar to receive funds. This is true; however, R. Yosef Caro specifies that this is only in a case where he is teaching students, acting as a rabbinic judge, or studying in order to take on a teaching/judging role (although elsewhere he appears to be more lenient).
R. Moshe notes that even if it is not permitted for a Torah scholar (/student?) to receive payment according to the sources, it is still permitted based upon Eis la'asos l'Hashem, heferu Torasecha - the license given to overturn Torah law for the sake of the greater good. He writes that the generation is spiritually weak, and that Torah greatness will not be achieved if people do not receive payment for it. And, as Rabbi Goldberger correctly reports, R. Moshe is indeed of the view that "Those who think they know better are being led by the wiles of the Evil Inclination to distract them from more Torah study."
Still, R. Moshe's primary sources are referring to Torah teachers, not Torah students. And he admits that his license may well be based upon emergency measures, rather than expressing the original laws and priorities. And one cannot necessarily extrapolate from the state of Torah-emergency in 1964 to the situation in the twenty-first century, when there are tens of thousands of people in kollel.
In summary, then: while Rabbi Goldberger presents an accurate representation of Rav Moshe's view, I don't think that Rav Moshe's sources or his view are necessarily relevant to the kollel situation today. And certainly, if we are looking at Chazal and the Rishonim, the traditional approach is overwhelmingly that it is much, much better for someone to support themselves by working than to be supported in kollel. It's truly astonishing that there are people who not only do not acknowledge that this was the traditional and dominant view, but are apparently entirely unaware of it!
(See too my monograph on "The Economics of Torah Scholarship in Medieval Jewish Thought and Practice")