When an ultra-Orthodox young man appears before the IDF draft board to receive his exemption from serving in the army, he does not say “I am ultra-Orthodox.” He declares that “his Torah study is his trade.”
That phrase in Jewish tradition refers to someone who is so dedicated to Torah study that he cannot do anything else. We are talking about unique individuals who separate themselves from the physical world and engage in Torah study alone.
The Talmud teaches that these people are so committed to Torah study that they shouldn’t pause their studies for prayer! The great Rabbi Yochanan comments that this category only applies to someone like Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai but it doesn’t apply to people like himself. The Talmud relates that many people tried to live in accordance with Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai’s way of life in which Torah was his trade and he did not work for a living — and they failed.
The Talmud makes it clear that “Torah is his trade” is a category limited to a select few in each generation. It doesn’t apply to the great Rabbi Yochanan, and didn’t apply to most of the people in generations filled with the greatest of Torah scholars.
The 400 ultra-Orthodox men whom Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion agreed to exempt from army service fell into this category. These 400 young Torah scholars – constituting 0.07% of the population in Israel at that time – matched the historic tradition of a select few in each generation who studied Torah day and night as their only pursuit.
As time went along, more young men started to learn in yeshiva, and the issue of ever-increasing blanket exemptions for yeshiva boys arose again and again. This ultimately led to a decision in 1975 that limited the number of exemptions to 800 — a ruling that was never adhered to. That small number and percentage of the population exempt from serving has now reached over 60,000, creeping toward 20 percent of all draft-eligible males.
Many have bemoaned the inequality and unfairness of such a high percentage of young men receiving draft exemptions. While I agree with these claims, there is another reason why these numbers are disgraceful: they disgrace the Torah.
The term “his Torah is his trade” is not simply a code word to say “I am ultra-Orthodox.” It means that all the person ever wants to do is study Torah. But when every single Haredi who wants to study in yeshiva claims “Torah is my trade” it reduces the meaning of that phrase, and dishonors the glory of Torah.
No one would ever consider exempting 95% of yeshiva boys from prayers due to their non-stop Torah study without distraction. They are not on this level, which has always been reserved for a select few in each generation. Anyone who has spent any time in a yeshiva or kollel knows that most of the young men there do not fall into this category. This is not to say anything negative about them — these fine yeshiva students simply don’t spend every moment they have studying Torah.
But more so: the moment every single yeshiva boy claims that “his Torah is his trade,” we as a people have lost the meaning and reverence that should be attached to that phrase. And those young men who truly fall under this category — who deserve their exemption from military service and are worthy of the admiration and praise of the entire nation — become instead the subject of the nation’s derision amid the controversy surrounding their not serving in the IDF.
The time has come to make a clear distinction between the elite scholars who do nothing other than study Torah, and those yeshiva students who study Torah but have other interests, and do not spend all their time studying Torah.
Those who can truly claim that “his Torah is his trade” should stay in the study halls and reach the highest levels of Torah scholarship imaginable. Their days and nights engrossed in nothing but Torah study should serve as their service to the State of Israel and the Jewish people. And all the rest — the overwhelming majority of students in the Haredi yeshiva system — should study Torah for a few years after high school if they choose to do so, and then serve the country, either in the IDF or National Service.
And this is precisely what the Yesh Atid law passed in 2014 — which the current government cancelled — accomplished. It identified the Torah study of select, elite scholars as their service to Israel, and required those who are not being accurate when declaring “his Torah is his trade” to leave yeshiva after a few years, and serve the country through a variety of service options. Full implementation of this law would put this source of tension between the secular and religious communities to rest, would enable tens of thousands of yeshiva boys to combine Torah study with IDF or National Service, help pave the way for their joining the workforce, and restore the glory of the Torah and the scholars who truly fit the time-honored category of “his Torah is his trade.”