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"Torah Protects" - Who, and From What?
The Maharsha They Don't Teach
Rav Reuven Leuchter, in a recent issue of Mishpacha magazine about the Gaza war, writes:
Our contribution to the war effort is primarily spiritual: to daven and learn Torah to protect the soldiers and all Jews from harm. Chazal tell us that behind every Jewish military victory are the tefillos and Torah of those not on the battlefield. A Jew’s tearful prayers can break through Heaven’s gates even if they’re sealed shut, and every word of Torah is magna u’matzla — it protects and saves.
The phrase “Torah magna u’matzla” is thrown around very often as an explanation of why yeshiva students are performing a more important defense of Israel by learning Torah rather than serving in the IDF. But the question is, are those who trumpet the paramount value of Torah interested in studying what the Torah actually says about this concept?
The phrase originates in the Talmud in Sota. Rashi there explains that magna means protecting from yisurin (affliction, misfortune) and matzla refers to saving from the evil inclination. The context is as follows:
Rav Yosef said that with regard to a mitzva, at the time when one is engaged in its performance it protects one from misfortune and saves one from the evil inclination; at the time when one is not engaged in its performance, it protects one from misfortune but it does not save one from the evil inclination. With regard to Torah study, both at the time when one is engaged in it and at the time when one is not engaged in it, it protects one from misfortune and saves one from the evil inclination. (Sotah 21a, translation from Sefaria)
The Gemara then says:
Rabba objects to this explanation: If that is so, then with regard to Doeg (see I Samuel, chapters 21–22) and Ahithophel (see II Samuel, chapter 16), who were both wise scholars despite their wickedness, did they not engage in the study of Torah? Why did it not protect them from sinning? Rather, Rava said: With regard to Torah study, at the time when one is engaged in it, it protects and saves; at the time when one is not engaged in it, it protects one from misfortune but it does not save one from the evil inclination. With regard to a mitzva, both at the time when one is engaged in its performance and at the time when one is not engaged in its performance, it protects one from misfortune but it does not save one from the evil inclination.
Enter Maharsha, Rav Shmuel Eliezer HaLevi Eidels (1555 – 1631), a towering Rabbinic scholar who is considered one of the standard authorities on the Talmud. He raises the following question:
אלא אמר רבא תורה כו' בעידנא דלא עסיק אגוני מגנא כו'. ק"ק דאכתי כיון דמגנא לעולם למה מתו דואג ואחיתופל קודם זמנם כדאמרינן פרק חלק אמאי לא הגינה תורה עליהם
This is a little difficult, for still, since Torah protects forever, why did Do’eg and Achitophel die before their due time, as is said in Perek Chelek (Sanhedrin 106b); why didn’t their Torah protect them?
Maharsha answers as follows:
וי"ל דלא קאמר תורה מגנא אלא מפורעניות ויסורין ולא ממיתה וק"ל
One can say that it was not said that “Torah protects” except from hardship and suffering, and not from death. And this is easy to understand.
Boom. In a single sentence, Maharsha has completely and utterly neutralized those who cite “Torah protects” as a reason for yeshivah to replace army service. It doesn’t save you from being killed.
Maharsha also points out, in the account of Rabbi Akiva learning Torah under threat of death from the Roman Empire (Berachot 61b), that Rabbi Akiva was deliberately sacrificing his life by doing so. He was not relying upon his Torah to protect him.
Another Talmudic reference to the protection of Torah occurs in a different context. The idea of “Torah protecting” does not just refer to protection from human terrorist attacks, but also from illness and disease:
Rabbi Yoḥanan would announce: Be careful of the flies found on those afflicted with ra’atan, as they are carriers of the disease. Rabbi Zeira would not sit in a spot where the wind blew from the direction of someone afflicted with ra’atan. Rabbi Elazar would not enter the tent of one afflicted with ra’atan, and Rabbi Ami and Rabbi Asi would not eat eggs from an alley in which someone afflicted with ra’atan lived. Conversely, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi would attach himself to them and study Torah, saying as justification the verse: “The Torah is a loving hind and a graceful doe” (Proverbs 5:19). If it bestows grace on those who learn it, does it not protect them from illness? (Ketubot 77b)
As several authorities point out, this Gemara is explicitly teaching that the idea of relying on Torah protection is not relevant to the vast majority of people, even if they are extraordinary Torah giants like Rabbi Yochanan, Rabbi Zeira and others. Only a truly singular person like Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi would rely on such a concept.
Needless to say, there is nobody today who can claim to be on a higher level than Rabbi Yochanan.
There’s also a larger point to be made here. There’s a reason why we don’t issue practical rulings in halacha based on aggadic statements. Two reasons, actually. The first is that aggadic statements simply lack the same authority as halachic ones (for extensive discussion on this, see Rabbi Chaim Eisen’s article in Hakira). Second is that aggadic statements are very easy to interpret in a host of different ways, and to qualify their application in all kinds of ways. They teach values and concepts; it’s irresponsible to take them at their simplest meaning and translate them into concrete rules. And it’s certainly negligent to ignore the history of rabbinic commentary on these statements.
If only people who champion the overriding importance of Torah study would take their Torah study more seriously.
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