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Why the Mitzvah of Talmud Torah is Special
The previous post, "What is the Highest Form of Human Endeavor?", produced a vigorous response. Rabbi Stefansky and others argued that there are many passages in the Gemara that seem to describe learning Torah as the greatest endeavor:
"Rav Yosef said: Talmud Torah is greater than saving lives" (Megilla 16b)
"Rav said: Torah study is greater than building the Beis HaMikdash" (Megillah 19b)
"[God said to David:] One day that you sit and busy yourself with Torah is better to me than a thousand offerings that your son Solomon will bring on the altar." (Shabbat 30a)
However, there are also other passages which contain similar descriptions about other mitzvos:
"Charity is greater than all the sacrifices" (Sukkah 49b)
"Charity and acts of kindness are the equivalent of all the mitzvos of the Torah" (Jerusalem Talmud, Pe'ah 1:1)
Rabbi Stefansky countered that there are many more such descriptions about Torah. Indeed there are, but this does not negate the statements about charity. All these statements about the importance of learning Torah are no different than the phrase Talmud Torah k'neged kulam, which has its counterpart in several other statements about other mitzvos being k'neged kulam. They are a combination of exaggerations, aggadic prose, and a result of the fact that learning Torah is of foundational importance because it enables you to do the other mitzvos.
Rabbi Stefansky also argued that the Gemara in Sanhedrin 99b explicitly states that man was created to toil in Torah. This seems to conclusively prove that learning Torah is the ultimate human endeavor!
Yet the Talmud derives this from a protracted and very subtle exegesis:
Rabbi Elazar said: Every man was created in order to toil, as it is written, “For man is born to toil” (Job 5:7). I still do not know, however, if he was created for the toil of the mouth or for the toil of work; but when the verse says, “[The toiling soul…] his mouth compels him,” this tells me that he was created for the toil of the mouth. I still do not know, however, if he was created for the toil of Torah or for the toil of speech; when the verse says, “This book of Torah should not depart from your mouth,” this tells me that he was created for the toil of Torah. (Sanhedrin 99b)
If learning Torah was really and truly the goal of our existence, wouldn't there be something actually in the Torah a little more explicit?! The statement in Sanhedrin is a nice drush. An obscure exegesis can hardly be taken as the foundational directive for human existence. (See too Maharsha, who (a) suggests that it is actually referring to teaching rather than studying Torah, and (b) seems to understand Rabbi Elazar more in terms of saying that toil in this world is inevitable, and it is better to fulfill this by way of Torah.)
Another point to consider is this: What about women? Those who claim that Torah study (which is taken to mean learning Gemara, lishmah) is the goal of creation tend to also be of the view that women should not be learning Gemara. So if the goal of creation is Torah study, does that mean that women do not fulfill the goal of creation, and can only enable it via men?!
The only clear source for Chazal's position on this topic is the passage where they explicitly, en masse, set out to discuss it. This is the passage in Kiddushin 40b mentioned in the previous post, where the Sages argued about which is greater, study or action, and they conclude that study is greater - because it leads to action. We see that the greatness of Torah is insofar as it teaches us how to fulfill the Torah, which is the ultimate goal. Tosafos adds that for someone who is ignorant, study is more important, so that he knows how to observe Torah, but for a learned person, it's more important to be spending his time fulfilling the Torah than to be studying it.
There is a related Gemara in Bava Kama 17a about the unparalleled honor bestowed upon Chizkiyah after his passing. A Torah scroll was placed on Chizkiyah's bed, and it was declared that he fulfilled all that is written in it. The Gemara asks that surely the same is said about other people. One answer given is that regarding Chizkiyah it was said that he expounded Torah, whereas regarding others it is only said that they fulfilled Torah. But, asks the Gemara, surely the greatness of studying Torah is that it leads to fulfilling it (and thus it is greater to praise people by saying that they fulfilled Torah)! The Gemara answers that it was said about Chizkiyah that he taught Torah. Rashi explains that while fulfilling Torah is superior than studying Torah, teaching Torah to others is yet better. Tosafos there notes that teaching is superior because it brings many people to fulfill the Torah. Again, we see that the ultimate goal of existence is not that man should study Torah; rather, it is that man should fulfill the Torah. (For a detailed discussion regarding this passage, and possibly errors in its transmission, see Yosef Witztum, "Kiyyem Zeh Mah Shekatuv Bezeh," Netuim 6:59-72.)
From both of these passages, we see that the tremendous value attached to studying Torah is due to its instructional role in teaching us how to fulfill the Torah. There is certainly also value in studying Torah even with non-practical applications, but the primary value of it is in its instructional role.
There is one final significant point to be made. Today, when people want to try to explain why it is so important to learn Torah, they resort to mystical explanations about connecting to the Shechinah and creating spiritual worlds. (They have to do that, because there is otherwise no rational explanation as to why learning Torah would be the goal of existence.) And yet, in all the discussion of the Gemara and Rishonim as to whether studying Torah or fulfilling Torah is greater, not a single authority mentions any such mystical notions. All the discussion in the Gemara and Rishonim about the particular importance of Torah study are in terms of its instructional value.
There are "regular" mitzvos, like blowing shofar, shiluach hakein, building a sukkah, etc. And there are especially significant mitzvos, such as Shabbos, charity, and yishuv ha'aretz. Of the especially significant mitzvos, learning Torah is unique. But this is (primarily) because of its instructional value. The ultimate goal of creation is not to learn Torah, it is to live Torah - to fulfill it.