Bitul Torah: The Spiritual Need to Stop Learning

The most disruptive word in the entire English language is merely six letters, yet the toxic slew of feelings that accompany the emotional confinement that is the word should, render its effect thousands of miles long. We’ve all been there. After a long day of Torah learning, parenting or mental exertion at one of our intensely demanding white collar jobs, we’re just about spent. The only thing we want to do is retreat into our all embracing cocoon, eat a hot dinner and get into bed. Yet for some reason, the same thing always happens. “I should really learn another daf of Talmud or another perek of Tanach right now.” “I should really be more productive and catch up on my book club.” “I should really take advantage of tonight and start writing the next chapter of my dissertation.”

All too often, to the great demise of the self, we should on ourselves, bombarding our bodies and souls with guilt and unrealistic expectations, trading our mental well being for society’s benchmarks of success: lack of time and productivity. For some reason, we convince ourselves that engaging in any activity that falls within the confines of self care and that falls outside the realm of productivity is unequivocally unacceptable. We have to keep up. We have to keep going. We have to be busy. We should be doing more.

I wish that I could say that the phenomenon of society lionizing an unhealthy fast paced lifestyle was only an ideal in the secular, material driven, western world, but sadly, that is far from the truth. Unfortunately, our community’s Torah institutions, namely yeshivot and seminaries, are staunch advocates of rooting out any inklings of Bitul Torah, a false guise that allows our religious leaders to systematically guilt the members of our community into a nonstop cycle of negative self talk, an inability to live in the now and a feeling that any activity that is not spent learning torah is a waste of time. Bitul Torah is the religious community’s swing at macroeconomics, an insiders term that requires individuals to engage in a constant assessment of opportunity cost, demanding that students at all times consider whether or not their current activity is a productive use of time when compared to the prospect of learning Torah.

For example, “Is playing another game of chess Bitul Torah?” or, “Is watching a documentary Bitul Torah?” Often, the looming threat of Bitul Torah is asserted in a more patronizing way. It is common for talmidim and talmidot to scold one another when they find their peers engaging in an activity that seems silly or frivolous-with the common rebuke- “come on guys, that’s such Bitul Torah.” Sometimes the luxury of an audible rebuke isn’t afforded, as the “Bitul Torah Offenders” are merely greeted with a sideways glance.

The scary thing about the “Bitul Torah Culture” is that on the surface it makes total sense. In a vacuum, the propensity to be mindful about the ways in which we spend our time is a value par excellence. However, the psychological pitfalls that this mindset causes, along with its implications are nothing short of toxic.

The “Bitul Torah Culture” is problematic because it:

  • Implies that G-d can only be found in Torah learning
  • It forces people out of the present moment as every single second of every single day is spent analyzing what you could be doing -namely learning Torah- instead focusing on what you already are doing
  • It stigmatizes activities that encourage self care such as play, rest, relaxation and leisure
  • It forces us to push ourselves to our breaking point as we try to cram in as much Torah learning as possible regardless of how exhausted, hungry, anxious or depressed we are, to the point that we think that it’s a religious ideal to cut sleep, mealtimes and exercise, instead allocating those “saved” hours towards Torah learning.

As someone who personally adopted and then fell victim to “The Bitul Torah Culture”, I am left with the obvious questions: How did we get here? How did the Jewish community get here? And most importantly, how did I get here?

How did I get to a place where I was learning 14 hours a day nonstop in yeshiva, to the point that I was sleeping and eating the bare minimum as to not detract time from my Torah Learning. Why is it that during the rare times that I found myself hanging out with my friends and just “chilling” that I heard a voice inside my head scolding them and their frivolous conversations, with the accusation being “how could these kids be talking about such meaningless things. Who cares what your favorite type of soup is? They just waste so much time” only to find myself totally divested from the conversation, lost in the riff raff of my mind in some future fabrication of the present, or alternative scenario where I was sitting alone with my books.

I was so focused on missing out on learning Torah that I was missing out on life. And I am not alone.

Rebbe Nachman of Bratslav, in his Hasidic Masterpiece Likutei Moharan, discusses at length the necessity for individuals to purposefully engage in Bitul Torah, at least once per day. Rebbe Nachman, in Likutei MoHaran (Tanyana 78:2) writes that:

דַּע, כִּי עִקָּר הַחַיִּים הִיא הַתּוֹרָה, כְּמוֹ שֶׁכָּתוּב: כִּי הוּא חַיֶּיךָ וְאֹרֶךְ יָמֶיךָ (דברים ל), וְכָל הַפּוֹרֵשׁ מִן הַתּוֹרָה כְּפוֹרֵשׁ מִן הַחַיִּים. וְעַל־כֵּן לִכְאוֹרָה הַדָּבָר תָּמוּהַּ וְנִפְלָא, אֵיךְ אֶפְשָׁר לִפְרֹשׁ עַצְמוֹ מִן הַתּוֹרָה אֲפִלּוּ שָׁעָה קַלָּה.

Know, that the most important aspect of life is (learning) Torah, as it’s written in the verse, “for (The Torah) is you life and the length of your days. (Devarim 30), and anyone who separates themselves from (learning) Torah is as if they are separating themselves from life itself as the verse says before, Torah is your life. And from here emerges an obvious question: how is it possible for someone to distance themselves from (learning) Torah even for one second if Torah is life, than separating yourself from Torah is seperating yourself from life itself

Rebbe Nachman, in the introduction to the aforementioned piece, espouses the typical orthodox mindset when it comes to learning Torah. Oftentimes, we deduce that Torah learning is Judaism’s main ideal, and thus, we become obsessed with serving G-d in the maximum capacity. We delude ourselves into thinking that service of G-d comes from Torah and Torah learning alone as we are unable to conceive of a reality where stopping Torah learning can be anything short of death itself. Since Torah is life, Bitul Torah must be death, as we rapidly cling to our sefarim, like David Hamelech at the end of his days, attempting to ward off the angel of death.

Rebbe Nachman then flips the script, as he turns the message of Bitul Torah on its head. He continues by saying:

וּבֶאֱמֶת זֶהוּ מִן הַנִּמְנָע וּבִלְתִּי אֶפְשָׁר לִהְיוֹת דָּבוּק בְּהַתּוֹרָה, תָּמִיד יוֹמָם וָלַיְלָה, בְּלִי הֶפְסֵק רֶגַע, וְכָל בַּעַל־תּוֹרָה, הֵן לַמְדָן שֶׁעוֹסֵק בְּלִמּוּד הַתּוֹרָה בְּגמפ”ת [בִּגְמָרָא, פֵּרוּשׁ רַשִׁ”י] וְכַיּוֹצֵא, כָּל אֶחָד כְּפִי עֶרְכּוֹ, כְּפִי עֵסֶק לִמּוּדוֹ, בְּהֶכְרֵחַ שֶׁיִּבָּטֵל מֵהַתּוֹרָה אֵיזֶה שָׁעָה בַּיּוֹם. וְכֵן אֲפִלּוּ בַּעַל הַשָּׂגָה, וַאֲפִלּוּ מִי שֶׁהוּא גָּבוֹהַּ יוֹתֵר וְיוֹתֵר לְמַעְלָה לְמַעְלָה, אַף־עַל־פִּי־כֵן בְּהֶכְרֵחַ שֶׁיַּפְסִיק וְיִבָטֵּל מֵהַשָּׂגָתוֹ אֵיזֶה זְמַן, כִּי אִי אֶפְשָׁר לִהְיוֹת דָּבוּק תָּמִיד בְּתוֹרָה וְהַשָּׂגָה בְּלִי הֶפְסֵק

The truth is that it is unavoidable and it is impossible to constantly be connected to Torah, day and night, without a single break, and this is the case even for a Torah learner who learns Torah, Gemara and Rashi. Similarly, everyone according to their status, and according to their capacity for learning, needs to engage in Bitul Torah every day for a certain amount of time. This applies even for a great sage, and even someone who has reached tremendous heights, he too has to engage in Bitul Torah, because it is impossible to remain connected to Torah always with no breaks.

Rebbe Nachman, in the latter half of his piece, unabashedly calls for daily cessation of Torah learning. He remarks that no matter how great the sage, every Jew needs to take time out of their day to put their seforim down. We have to put an end to the feeling that Torah learning is the only valuable form of religious experience. We have to deliberately choose to engage with G-d in both his world and his sacred text.

Why then, would Rebbe Nachman, a tremendous Talmid Chacham and devout Torah Sage, demand that his followers intentionally abandon the Torah? To answer this question, another question must be asked: What type of person could motivate 50,000 people to abandon their wives and children and to give up the comfort of their homes to annually pilgrimage to a small desolate town in the heart of the freezing Ukraine to spend 3 days in sub par conditions immersed in communal prayer around the remains of deceased spiritual leader?

The Teachings of Rebbe Nachman, and the teachings of Chassidus at large, move people because they go beyond the logistical legal minutiae of the law; instead they permeate the heart. They resonate in our psyche. They speak a common language and they draw from real life experiences.  And in doing so they move us. They give us something to latch onto: they give us a box to place our struggles in, and a place to frame our hardships.

Rebbe Nachman calls on us to stop learning Torah because he understands the physiological harm that this mindset can cause. The constant obsession over maximizing our time removes us from the present moment until we’re so stuck determining the best use of our time that we end up scenario swapping in our heads and doing nothing.

It is worth noting that Reb Nachman was most likely himself someone who fell victim to “the Bitul Torah Trap”. Rav Natan of Bratzlav, the primary scribe of Rebbe Nachman and the man responsible for codifying all of Rebbe Nachman’s teachings, describes in Shivchei HaRan (9) how a young, 20 year old Rebbe Nachman, would fast from Shabbat to Shabbat, presumably in effort not to waste a single moment and to break his lust for food. Furthermore, Rebbe Nachman would bribe his Talmud teacher with 3 gold coins for every additional page of Talmud taught to the young Nachman. (Shivchei HaRan 4) Rebbe Nachman knew that the Torah was life, yet one can argue that he also experienced the Torah as death, as the Gemara in Masechet Taanit says (7a) בתורה שלא לשמה נעשית לו סם המות, that anyone who engages in Torah not for its sake, the Torah is made into a potion of death.

This is not to say that Rebbe Nachman had impure motives when learning Torah, rather it is to say that in pursuing the potion of life, he fell into the trap of death. Rebbe Nachman, at length in his writings, speaks about מרה שחורה, the bitter blackness, the depression that he constantly dealt with. It is for this reason and this reason alone that Rebbe Nachman can confidently claim that we need to put down our guard and our seforim from time to time. We need to let go of productivity as a status symbol, and everyday we need to take a guilt free break. For our psychological wellbeing we need to stop learning. We need Bitul Torah, and we need to play.

The Gemara in Avoda Zara (3b) tells a fascinating anecdote about the way in which Hashem spends his day. The Gemara discusses how Hashem divides his twelve hour day into four symmetrical blocks:

  • For the first three hours of the day G-d sits and learns his Torah
  • For the next three hours G-d  judges the entire world
  • For the next three hours G-d sustains the entire world
  • And for the last three hours G-d plays with the Leviathan, a giant sea creature that  he created

The Rambam, in the introduction to Hilchot De’ot (1:5) famously reiterates the positive commandment of וְהָלַכְתָּ בִּדְרָכָיו, to walk in God’s ways, which means, according to the Rambam, to emulate G-d’s ways. Just like G-d is compassionate, we too should be compassionate; just like G-d is holy, we too should be holy. And just like G-d takes a break from learning Torah and spends one fourth of his day engaging in a mindless playfulness, as he sits for hours on end provoking a giant sea monster who was created by him solely for his joy and amusement, so too, we, who are commanded to emulate G-d’s ways must too spent time each day being spontaneous and playing. We need to learn how to recognize that G-d is not only found in the beis medrash but that he’s also found on the football field, in the swimming pool, in an amusement park and most importantly in our friends. Connecting to G-d means connecting to his ways, and one of G-d’s ways is stopping to learn to cultivate creative play, even if doing so upsets the biggest fish in the sea.

In fact, the need for Bitul Torah extends way beyond Torah itself. Most of us aren’t learning full time in Torah institutions; we spend our days filling our roles as parents, students, husbands, wives or employees, yet we fall victim to “The Bitul Torah” trap, or the need to always feel productive, and it’s unhealthy implications. We all need time to play.

Brene Brown in her book The Gifts of Imperfection quotes a study by leading psychiatrist Dr. Stuart Brown that “play(ing) shapes our brain, helps us foster empathy, helps us navigate complex social groups and is at the core of creativity and innovation.” (P. 100) Guilting ourselves over Bitul Torah implies that G-d is found in Torah alone, when really Chassidus tells us the exact opposite.

Chabad Chassidus, teaches us that there is really no place devoid of G-d presence. The mission statement of our lives is to create a דירה בתחתונים, a place downlow for the Divine to dwell, a mission that is accomplished via the recognition that the Divine already is בתחתונים, downlow, as the Kotzker Rebbe teaches “Hashem is found wherever you let him in.”

Furthermore, the Alter Rebbe teaches in Shaar HaYichud VehaEmunah that in truth there is nothing outside of G-d. The Alter Rebbe teaches that:

והנה שם אלהים הוא שם מדת הגבורה והצמצום ולכן הוא גם כן בגימטריא הטבע לפי שמסתיר האור שלמעלה המהוה ומחיה העולם ונראה כאילו העולם עומד ומתנהג בדרך הטבע

When we refer to G-d by the name “Elokim” we are alluding to the secret of Tzimtzum, as the numeric value of the name “Elokim” is the same as the numeric value of the word “nature”, implying that G-d, through the process of tzimtzum, concealed his endless light that continuously sustains all of existence, to the point that the world appears as if it runs according to nature.

In essence, G-d, in effort to give us free will and protect us from his entire overwhelming presence, concealed his endless all encompassing light to the point that G-d hid himself in nature, hence, one of the names of G-d is numerically equivalent to the hebrew word for nature. G-d is everywhere, but G-d is hiding; and he is inviting us to participate in a lifetime of game of hide and seek with him. The Alter Rebbe is teaching us the secret of tzimtzum, i.e, the Divine concealment: that G-d is merely hiding in nature, and in truth, there is no place devoid of G-d’s presence.

G-d is not limited to the traditional study halls or spaces of organized prayer, and neither are our encounters with him. Chassidut implores us to “Know G-d in all of our ways”, בכל דרכיך דעהו, implying that there is no encounter that we can have that lacks the Divine presence. When we convince ourselves that learning Torah trumps all, we forget that G-d is found in other activities as well. G-d is found when we eat healthy and mindfully. G-d is found when we sleep enough hours at night to give our brains the proper rest that they need to function. G-d is found when we are joking and connecting to friends, because G-d himself is a jokester who likes to play. When we understand that G-d is found everywhere, we can begin to “Know G-d in all of our ways.” We can begin to connect to the present moment instead of being kidnapped by the thoughts that ruthlessly breathe down our necks saying “I’m wasting so much time, do you know how much I could be getting done right now?”

Rabbi David Aaron teaches that the statement, המחדש בטובו בכל יום תמיד, that Hashem recreates the world every single second, is teaching us that to cling to G-d is to cling to the now. G-d recreates the world every single second, and therefore, G-d is in the present. So too when we connect to the present moment, without the thoughts of how much Torah we could be learning or whatever else we should be doing, we encounter G-d’s presence through our presence. By shifting our attention from the endless stream of should’s to the moment, we meet G-d in the now.

So next time you find yourself exhausted but you feel like you should learn another daf because that’s what frum Jews do, or you find yourself saying that you should really go back to the beis medrish now instead of bonding with friends, remind yourselves that G-d is in this moment and that G-d, too likes to play. Set up a board game or go for a walk.  Make a conscious effort every day to serve G-d by Bituling your Torah, as you remind yourself that Bitul Torah is what allows us to see an endless G-d for who he truly is: a G-d who extends beyond the four walls of the study hall.

About the Author
Simon Kofman spent two years studying at Yeshivat Orayta, located in the Old City of Jerusalem. He is a graduate from SAR High School ('16) in Riverdale, New York. Simon is now perched on the eastern front as a freshman @ New York University, where he gives a weekly shiur on the Sefer Aish Kodesh. He's an unabashed lover of toast, multi-faith dialogue and bringing Geula. Shabbat Shalom!
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