8/20/202316 min read

The Obligation to Learn Torah


Three crowns1 were given to the Jewish People:2 The crown of the Torah, the crown of the priesthood and the crown of the monarchy. The crown of the Torah is of a higher nature than the other two. Aaron, the brother of Moses, and his descendants obtained the crown of the priesthood. King David and his descendants were worthy of the crown of the monarchy. The crown of the Torah is available for every single Jew as it says, ‘The Torah was commanded to us by Moses and is the inheritance of the Community of Jacob.’3

The purpose of learning Torah is to enable one to understand and emulate the ways of the Almighty and to perfect one's deeds and character traits.

This article will address the following issues:

1. The mitzvah of Torah study.

2. Torah and an Occupation (Torah Im Derekh Eretz).

3. What is the halakhah regarding Torah and an occupation?

4. Does ability have any bearing on the obligation to study Torah?

5. The pedagogy of teaching Torah.

1. The Mitzvah of Torah Study

It is a positive commandment4 to learn Torah and teach it. This is learnt from Deuteronomy 6:7, “and you shall teach them (the words of Torah) diligently to your children.” The Sifri learns two additional obligations from this verse:

a) There is a mitzvah to learn for oneself.5 ‘The words of Torah should be sharp and clear in a person’s mouth, that he should not stammer over them.’

b) There is a mitzvah to teach students.6

The mitzvah to teach Torah to one’s children and grandchildren is learned from Deuteronomy 4:9: “and you shall make them known to your children and your children’s children.”7 The purpose of learning Torah is to enable a person to understand the ways of the Almighty.

There is no other mitzvah among all the other mitzvot worth as much as Talmud Torah. Talmud Torah is equivalent to all the mitzvot, because learning leads to action. Therefore, learning Torah comes before other mitzvot. 8

A person will first be judged on learning Torah before his other deeds.9 This is why our sages said that it is good to learn Torah, whatever ones motives. A person who has ulterior motives and learns Torah will eventually purify his motives.10

A person should learn to limit his other desires and learn more Torah.11 A person should work as much as his needs require and learn Torah the remainder of his time.12 The more difficulty a person has learning Torah, the more his reward.13

2. Torah and an Occupation (Torah Im Derekh Eretz)

The Talmud in Berakhot 35b states the following:

Our Rabbis taught: ‘And you shall gather in your grain.’14 What is to be learned from these words? Since it says,15 ‘This book of the law shall not depart out of your mouth,’ I might think that this injunction is to be taken literally. Therefore it says, ‘And you shall gather in your grain’, which implies that you are to combine the study of Torah with a worldly occupation. This is the view of Rabbi Yishmael.

Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai says, “Is that possible? If a man plows in the plowing season, and sows in the sowing season, and reaps in the reaping season, and threshes in the threshing season, and winnows in the season of wind, what is to become of the Torah? (No-one will have time to learn.) No, but when Israel perform the will of the Almighty, their work is performed by others, as it says. ‘And strangers shall stand and feed your flocks…’16, and when Israel do not perform the will of the Almighty their work is carried out by themselves, as it says, ‘And you shall gather in your grain.’ Nor is this all, but the work of others also is done by them, as it says. ‘And you shall serve your enemy…’”

Said Abaye: “Many have followed the advice of Yishmael, and it has worked well; others have followed Rabbi Shimon b. Yohai and it has not been successful.” Raba said to the Rabbis: “I would ask you not to appear before me during Nissan and Tishri so that you should not be anxious about your food supply during the rest of the year.”

Rabbah ben Bar Hanah said in the name of Rabbi Yohanan, quoting Rabbi Judah b. Ila’i: “See what a difference there is between the earlier and the later generations. The earlier generations made the study of the Torah their main concern and their ordinary work subsidiary to it, and both prospered in their hands. The later generations made their ordinary work their main concern and their study of the Torah subsidiary, and neither prospered in their hands.”

This famous debate between Rabbi Yishmael and Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai is the main source of our topic in the Oral Law.


Rabbi Yishmael says the verse that deals with God’s blessing in the Shema clearly states “And I will give grass in your field for your animals and you will gather your crops.” Therefore we have a duty to labor to gather our crops. We have to engage in the ways of the world.

Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai argues “If a person will plow his field at the time of plowing and plant the crops at the time of planting and sow the seeds at the time of sowing, what will happen to the Torah?”

Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai is understood to be saying that the obligation to learn Torah is so great that it overrides the importance of earning a living for oneself.17

However in the Talmud Menahot 99b18 Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai makes a statement that seems to be diametrically opposed to this: “Even if a person only read the Shema in the morning and evening he fulfilled19 the mitzvah of “This sefer Torah should not depart from your mouth and you will engage in it day and night.” (Joshua 1:8)


1. The commentator Siftei Cohen (Shakh)20 on Yoreh Deah 246 answers this glaring contradiction by saying that there is a textual error in the Talmud Menahot and the true author of this statement was Rabbi Shimon Ben Yehosedek and not Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai.21

More Contradictions

Surprisingly, there are a number of other sayings that are attributed to Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai that seemingly contradict his statement in Berakhot.

The Talmud in Nedarim 49b quotes the following: ‘When Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai would go to the Bet Midrash he would carry a basket on his shoulders and say: “Great is work, as it honors those who engage in it!”22 The Mekhilta in Parashat Beshallah quotes Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai as saying “The Torah was given to the generation who ate manna, because in today’s generation one has to work.”

More Answers

2. The Menorat Hamaor, Rabbi Yitzhak Abuhab23 states: ‘For people who are poor and do not have the time to learn Torah because they are too busy making a living, even Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai would agree that they could fulfill their mitzvah by reading the Shema in the morning and evening. However a person who has earned his living and does not need to work and is now engaged in unnecessary occupation would not fulfill his mitzvah of learning Torah just by reading the Shema in the morning and evening.’ According to this explanation Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai is referring to two different people in unlike situations. According to the Menorat Hamaor, Rabbi Yishmael and Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai are arguing about a person who has a business and is well off. He only needs to go to work to inspect his laborers so that he doesn’t lose business and become poor. In that case, Rabbi Yishmael allows him to work but Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai says since that he has earned enough of a livelihood already, he is now obliged to spend all his time learning Torah. The law follows Rabbi Yishmael.

3. The Nezer Kodesh answers the seeming contradiction in the statements of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai thus: A learned individual should spend his time learning, whereas a person who does not know how to learn can fulfill his obligation by reading the Shema in the morning and evening.

4. The Radbaz24 brings an opinion that,25 The minimum obligation in the mitzvah of Talmud Torah is reading the Shema in the morning and evening, but if a person wants to learn the whole day, he is still fulfilling a mitzvah. We find the idea of minimum obligations in the Laws of Terumah26 and Peah, also with the laws of Tosefet Shabbat27 there is a minimal amount to add to Shabbat, and anything beyond that is voluntary.

5. The Sedei Hemed answers these seeming contradictions in the opinion of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai with the Talmud in Shabbat 33b which relates the story of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai and his son Rabbi Elazar, who were hiding in a cave in Meron to escape Roman persecution.28 During this period they were studying Torah all the time. After twelve years they exited the cave and witnessed farmers tilling the soil and planting crops. They exclaimed “They leave eternal life and engage in temporal affairs!” Everywhere they looked a fire started. Then they heard a voice from heaven. “Did you come out to destroy the world? Return to your cave!” They returned to the cave.

When they came out twelve months later, they met a person who was gathering branches of myrtle. They asked him what he was doing. He replied that he was gathering myrtle for the honor of Shabbat. Rabbi Shimon praised him and the rest of Benei Yisrael.

The Sedei Hemed says that prior to receiving the message of rebuke from heaven, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai was of the opinion that it is forbidden for a man to engage in any trade except for the learning of the Torah. However, after he was rebuked he changed his opinion and then stated that reading the Shema morning and evening was enough to fulfill one’s obligation.

6. Rabbi Yehudah Hahasid29 states that Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai always held that the minimum amount of Talmud Torah to which a person was obligated was reading the Shema in the morning and evening. However, he held that it was a hiddur (better quality mitzvah) to engage in learning Torah rather than work.

A Question on Rabbi Yishmael

There is also a contradiction to be found in the Talmud regarding Rabbi Yishmael’s opinion. In Berakhot (quoted above) Rabbi Yishmael states that a person should have a trade. Furthermore the Talmud Yerushalmi30 also states that Rabbi Yishmael is of the opinion that it is a mitzvah to teach one’s son a trade. However, in Talmud Menahot 99b he has an interesting conversation with Ben Damah, his nephew.

Ben Damah, the nephew of Rabbi Yishmael, once asked Rabbi Yishmael, “May one such as I who have studied the whole of the Torah learn Greek wisdom?” He thereupon read to him the following verse, “‘This book of the law shall not depart out of your mouth, but you shall meditate in it day and night.’31 Go and find a time that is neither day nor night and then learn Greek wisdom.”


The Tzepihat Midvash answers the contradiction in Rabbi Yishmael’s opinion thus: Rabbi Yishmael allows any intellectual pursuit for the sake of earning a living. However, to pursue other studies for no reason other than expanding one’s knowledge would be forbidden because it would be at the expense of Talmud Torah.32

Tosaphot33 explicitly states that learning Greek wisdom would be allowed if a person read the Shema morning and evening and had some need to learn Greek wisdom. His source is in Sotah 49b, the Talmud states that the Rabbis allowed the household of Rabban Gamliel to learn Greek wisdom because they were close to the authorities and knowledge of Greek culture would help ingratiate them with the authorities for the general welfare of the nation.

3. What is the Halakhah Regarding Torah and an Occupation

Rambam, in the Laws of Talmud Torah,34 follows the opinion of Rabbi Yishmael as follows:

“A person who thinks to engage in Torah and not do any work and support himself from charity desecrates God’s name, disgraces the Torah, puts out the flame of religion, causes evil to himself, and removes himself from the world to come.

Furthermore, the rabbis commanded us not to make the Torah a crown to further ourselves by and not a spade to dig with. Love work and hate the rabbinate. Any Torah that is not accompanied by work is eventually annulled and causes sin. Eventually this person (because of financial need) will steal from others.

It is a great level for a person to earn his own living through the toil of his hands. This was the way of the early pious ones.” 35

Rambam, in his commentary on the Mishnah, in Pirke Avot, brings proofs from various rabbis mentioned in the Talmud who refused to be supported by charity and insisted on earning their own keep. Rabbi Yosef Karo in his commentary Kessef Mishnah dismisses the Rambam’s proofs one by one, as follows:

a) The Talmud in Yoma 35b tells us that Hillel Hazaken would earn his living by chopping firewood.36 It would seem that Hillel was of the opinion that a person should work as well as learn. The Kessef Mishnah argues, however that Hillel only worked when he was starting to learn, as there were tens of thousands of scholars in his day and only those who had reached eminence were supported with public funds. When Hillel had already become great, it is highly doubtful that he retained his old job of chopping firewood.

b) Rabbi Hanina Ben Dosa is mentioned by the Talmud in Berakhot 17b as living on subsistence level, and even then he did not accept help from others. It must be that he held that it was forbidden to learn Torah at other people’s expense.

Rabbi Yosef Karo also refutes this proof. If Rabbi Hanina had needed help, all he had to do was pray. The Talmud in Taanit 25a tells us that once when his wife complained about their poverty, he prayed and a solid gold leg of a table suddenly materialized. Eventually he prayed for it to be taken back and it was.37 The fact that Rabbi Hanina did not pray for help implied that he did not want to benefit from this world,38 which is also why the community did not support him, not because it was forbidden to take financial help.

c) Rambam brings a proof from Karna (Ketubot 105a), who would earn his living by checking barrels of wine to see which ones would last and which barrels should be opened.39 Rabbi Karo agrees that if a Torah scholar has an easy and well-paying job and is able to learn and work, he is forbidden to leave that job and be supported by the community.

d) The fact that Rav Huna would irrigate his own fields is also not a proof that taking money is forbidden. Rav Huna was a wealthy landowner and that is why others did not support him.

e) Rambam’s next proof is from the Talmud in Gittin 67b. Rav Yosef and Rav Sheshet were engaged in strenuous labor. Their comment was “How great is labor, for it warms up those who engage in it.” Rabbi Yosef Karo also dismisses this proof by quoting Rashi who explains that they only engaged in strenuous labor because it was freezing cold weather and the exercise was keeping them warm.40

The Kessef Mishnah concludes that the intention of the Rambam is that a person should not stop working and throw himself on the community for support in order to learn Torah. He should first learn a trade. If it is enough to support him, well and good, if not, he may rely on community support. We have a general rule that whenever there is any doubt about a particular halakhah, observe the minhag. The minhag was that all the great Rabbis of Israel before and after the time of the Rambam would be compensated by the community.

Even if the halakhah is like the opinion of the Rambam in his commentary on the Mishnah, it is possible that all the great Rabbis over the generations agreed that the Torah would not be able to be learned due to financial pressure and would be forgotten if the Rabbis were not supported by the community. It is an emergency decree that Rabbis may be supported financially by the community.41

The third place in which the Rambam deals with this issue is in his laws of Shemittah Ve’Yovel.42 After discussing the laws concerning the Levites, who were not allowed to be landowners and farmers, but would have to devote themselves to the spiritual needs of the people and teach Torah. Rambam seems to follow the opinion of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai, as concerns an elite group of serious, devoted individuals.

“Not only the tribe of Levy, but any inhabitant of this world who volunteers his spirit and understands by himself the need to separate [from materialistic and pleasure-seeking society, in order] to stand before God to serve Him and to know Him and to be righteous as God had created him, and removes from himself the calculations of other people and their desires, is considered sanctified and holy.”

The obvious explanation is that Rambam is addressing two different groups:

a) Average people who don’t have a particularly strong inclination for Divine service. For this group of individuals, it is imperative to have a correct balance of material and spiritual aspirations and endeavors.

b) People who have a strong desire to sanctify themselves and make the service of God their primary function in life. These individuals are self-motivated and may thus devote themselves to spirituality and may be supported by others.

Rabbi Yosef Karo addresses this first group of individuals in his Shulhan Arukh43 as follows:

‘Then, [after morning prayers and learning] a person should go to work, because Torah study unaccompanied by a means of earning a living will eventually disintegrate and lead to iniquity. For poverty will cause a person to transgress the will of his Creator. Nevertheless, a person should not make his labor the principal part of his life, but his Torah studies should be the focal point of his energies, and his business affairs should be subordinated to it.’

Rabbi Ovadia Yosef is of the opinion that the ideal path is to stay in Yeshivah or Kollel and be supported by others in order to learn Torah.

This is also the opinion of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein who states:44

It is proper to take support in order to be able to study Torah. This is the conclusion of the Shulhan Arukh in Yoreh Deah 246:21. The Maharshal45 also says that, if not for this, Torah would have been forgotten long ago, because of the difficulty of studying Torah along with engaging in a profession. Maharshal concludes that, “It is a sin for one to refrain from taking support, even if he knows a skill with which to provide for himself, so as not to shortchange his Torah study.”

This is a definite halakhic ruling which was followed in all generations, either as a Torah law or out of necessity, according to the Torah; there is no reason to refrain from this out of piety.

I also want to add that people who claim that they follow the opinion of the Rambam and prefer to engage in other jobs out of piety are being fooled by the evil inclination, who convinces them in this manner to interrupt their Torah study. At first they learn intensely; but slowly their learning time diminishes until they discontinue even their small amount of study. Eventually, they forget even what they have learned in the past.

We must realize that, if our earlier sages, who were like angels compared to us, said that it is impossible to become a great Torah sage and work for sustenance at the same time, then, surely we must follow their example. In addition, we do not have the great, righteous women who were willing to forego all comfort and live in dire poverty, such as existed in previous generations. No person should be haughty and claim that he is different and is able to do both.

4. Does Ability Have Any Bearing on the Obligation to Study Torah?

The Talmud in Hulin 24a discusses the case of a person who is unable to be a scholar due to lack of ability.46 The Talmud questions a contradiction between two verses in the Torah regarding the starting age of service of the Levites in the sanctuary.

One verse in Numbers 8:24 says: ‘From twenty five years old and up,’47 and another verse in Numbers 4:3 says: ‘From thirty years old and up.’48 Now one cannot accept the age of thirty because of the verse which mentions twenty-five, and one cannot accept the age of twenty-five because of the verse which mentions thirty. How are these verses to be reconciled? At the age of twenty-five the Levite enters the service (of the sanctuary) for training, and at the age of thirty he performs service. Hence the dictum: If a student does not see a sign of blessing [progress] in his studies after five years, he never will. Rabbi Yossi says, “After three years, for it is written in Daniel 1:49 That they be trained three years. And that they be taught the learning and the tongue of the Babylonians.” And the former opinion, how does he explain these latter verses? — He would say that the Babylonian language is an exception, for it is easy [to master]. And Rabbi Yossi? — He would say that the Temple service is an exception, for its rules are difficult.

5. The Pedagogy of Talmud Torah

The Mishnah in Pirke Avot50 states:

At the age of five a child should start to study the written law, i.e. the twenty-four books of the Bible. At the age of ten he should start studying the Mishnah and at fifteen start studying the Talmud.

The implication of the Mishnah is that by the age of ten a person should be sufficiently proficient in the written law so as to be able to move on to the Mishnah. At the age of fifteen a person should be so proficient with the Mishnah that he should continue with Talmud study.

This Mishnah used to be widely practiced by Sepharadim until this century. Sephardic schools always encouraged youngsters to memorize the whole of Tanach at an early age. Mishnayot were then taught and then the Talmud was studied. The focus of Sepharadim has been on learning Talmud to obtain halakhah le maaseh (practical Jewish law).

The Talmud51 says that a person should divide his time spent learning into three parts: a third in Written Law (twenty-four books of the Bible), a third in Mishnah and a third in Talmud. The Rambam52 explains this to mean that a third of the time should be spent learning the written law, a third learning oral law, and a third to learn the laws of the Mitzvot, what is permitted and what is prohibited. Both the Tur and Shulhan Arukh53 follow his opinion.

The Perishah, Shakh, and Mishnah Berurah,54 all important halakhic commentators, are of the opinion that learning halakhah is especially important for people who go to work and only have a small amount of time each day to learn Torah. They do not fulfill their obligation of Talmud Torah just by learning Talmud with Rashi and Tosaphot. The first priority for a Jew is to know how to conduct himself in any given situation. Halakhah, which means way, is a guide which we have to follow and it is imperative that every Jew have a working halakhic knowledge. As the Talmud states: A person should learn a minimum of two halakhot a day.55 Only a learned Torah scholar who learns nine hours a day should learn Talmud with Rashi and Tosaphot.

Rabbi Ovadia Yosef is of the opinion that a person who has limited time to learn should devote his efforts to learning halakhah and nothing else. He bases this view on the language of Rambam and the opinions of Rabbi Yosef Levy Ibn Migash and Rabbi Yonatan Eybeshutz. They claimed that it was possible for a person to be learned in all the arguments and rationales mentioned in the Talmud, and the commentators, and yet be ignorant when it came to the fine points of Jewish law, because of his lack of studying halakhah.

The ideal is that a person who has an occupation should attend both a halakhah class and a class on Talmud (Daf Yomi). Rabbi Yoseph advocates that a person who goes to work should learn Hok le-Yisrael, a compendium of the Parasha of the week, Prophets, various Mishnayot, parts of Talmud and halakhot for each day of the year.56

The Shulhan Arukh57 explains the verse in Joshua 1, which first mentions the obligation of studying Torah day and night as referring to fixing times to learn both in the day and in the night.


There are different levels in the obligation of Torah study:

A person who has a keen mind and the ability, drive and penchant to study Torah is strongly encouraged to do so full time, even if it means that he should accept support from the community.

If a person is unable to learn Torah, either because he does not know how to learn at all, or he does not have the penchant or ability, or because he is just too busy with essential matters, he should at least support those that are able to learn58 and learn practical halakhah to be able to run his life according to the Torah.