Funding Torah Study in Israel

Funding the Grand Vision of Talmud Torah

In my previous article, I attempted to portray Israel’s grand vision of Torah study in its three levels, and the enormous tikkun (improvement) its fulfillment can bring to the Jewish nation and the entire world. In this article, I will deal with the financial aspects of this vision, according to the principles outlined in the Torah.

The Funding of the Levites and the Priests

Along with their work in the Temple, the Torah designated the tribe of Levi, including the Kohanim (priests), to engage in Torah study, education, practical halakhic teaching, and individual guidance. So they could dedicate their lives to this, the Torah commanded them not to participate in the distribution of the Land of Israel into inheritances, and not to engage in agriculture – the means of living for over ninety percent of the people at the time. Instead, they were allocated forty-eight cities throughout the country by the Jewish nation, and from there, they disseminated Torah in Israel.

In return for their sacred work, the Levites received a tithe of all the crops, from which they set aside a tithe for the Kohanim. In addition to this, the Kohanim received terumah gedolah (“the great offering”), which is approximately two percent of the crops (Numbers 18). In other words, about twelve percent of the total agricultural yield was given to the Kohanim and Levites. In addition, roughly the same amount was set aside from all non-sanctified, ritually slaughtered domestic animals for the Kohanim (the first-born, the foreleg, cheeks and maw).

It should be noted that for as long as Israel resided in its Land, approximately ninety percent of the GDP (Gross Domestic Product) came from agriculture. It follows therefore, that in accordance to the Torah, approximately one-tenth of the GDP should be set aside for Torah study and education.

Israel’s Torah Scholars

With the exception of the Levites and Kohanim, Torah scholars from the other tribes did not receive financial support from public funds, but rather, labored in various trades, such as farming or breeding livestock; as they worked, they would review and deepen their Torah studies. This was possible because the study of Oral Torah was accomplished without books, and farming or tending to livestock usually did not require a great deal of attention. Thus, they were able to engage diligently in the study of Oral Torah while working. After finishing work, they were able to teach students, imparting the new insights they had arrived at while working. They also served as members of the batei din (courts of law) which convened twice a week in the mornings. If the time needed to teach students or sit in judgment permitted, they could continue working. Now and then, friends agreed to support them, similar to the arrangement between Zevulun and Issachar, allowing them to engage in Torah and teach students without worries.

Therefore, in accordance to the directive of the Torah, we find that the Kohanim and Levites bore the brunt of educating and instructing the people in Torah and halakha. The eminent Torah scholars of Israel were exempt from this, because they were busy working in their various trades.

Torah Funding after the Temple’s Destruction

Gradually, the status of the Kohanim and Levites grew weaker. After the Ten Tribes were exiled towards the end of the First Temple period, the Biblical obligation to set aside terumot and ma’aserot ceased (teruma is the portion of the crop dedicated to the priests, and ma’aser is the Levitical tithes); only as a result of a rabbinic enactment were we commanded to continue setting aside terumot and ma’aserot, and under certain circumstances, the rabbis were lenient in this issue. From the time tahara (purification) ceased, Kohanim were no longer able to eat their teruma. Many people also stopped setting aside the Levitical ma’aser for various reasons – some permissibly, others out of negligence. Furthermore, over time, the number of Jews not working in agriculture increased. And in chutz l’aretz (outside of Israel), those working in agriculture are not obligated to set aside terumot and ma’aserot. Thus, the funding of the Kohanim and the Levites – the students and teachers of Torah – ceased.

True, our Sages ruled it a mitzvah to set aside ma’aser kesafim (money tithe) from all of one’s income, which was mainly intended for Torah students so they could teach Torah to Israel. In practice, however, people did not set aside ma’aser for the continuation of Torah in Israel. There are two main reasons for this: first, according to halakha, anyone whose earnings are scarce is exempt from setting aside ma’aser (unlike terumot and ma’aserot, in which the poor are obligated just as the rich). Secondly, in times of need, individuals gave their ma’aser kesafim money to support the poor. Moreover, because the obligation of ma’aser kesafim is a rabbinic enactment, some people were not meticulous in giving it.

Consequently, the Jewish people actually gave a lot less than a tenth of its GDP to Torah study and education. All this, obviously, caused a decline in the status of Torah study compared to what it should be.

Nevertheless, in spite of the difficult conditions, righteous Jews placed Torah study on the top scale of values, combined with a willingness to invest time and resources in it, always making sure that in every community there were individuals to teach the children Torah, and if necessary, the community supplemented the teacher’s salaries from the public coffers.

The Status of the Rabbis

Initially, in the times of the Amoraim (the Oral Torah scholars from about 200 to 500 CE in Babylonia and the Land of Israel) and the Geonim (589-1038), the majority of Torah scholars who taught adults still earned their living by the work of their hands. Over the years it became clear that if the rabbis had to continue making a living by working, there would be no rabbis in Israel, because after the writing of the Oral Torah was permitted, the subject material needed to be studied increased, and to encompass it entirely, a great deal of time was required to study the various writings. In such a situation, the majority of Torah scholars were unable to engage in a livelihood, and at the same time, achieve a reasonable level of Torah knowledge. Thus, in the period of the Rishonim, approximately 800 years ago, the majority of poskim (Jewish law arbiters) concurred that, inevitably, the public would have to support the rabbis, for if not, Torah would cease from Israel. In the period of the Achronim (1600 to the present), when the study material continued to infinitely multiply, it was ruled that students intending to be rabbis and teachers should also be supported from the public coffers.

Thanks to this ruling, the Jewish people survived, continued to study Torah and observe the commandments, and retained faith in Israel’s redemption.

The Vision and the State of Israel

At present, it is impossible to arbitrarily restore the tribe of Levi to the role of educators. Also, the commandment to set aside terumot and ma’asrot is still a rabbinic enactment, and terumot cannot be used because of tumah (impurity). In regards to the Levitical ma’aser, there are differing opinions, due to the issue of clarifying the lineage of the Levites. And in any event, in our modern economy, agriculture accounts for only about three percent of the GDP.

However, it appears it would be appropriate for the State of Israel to regulate that a tenth of the gross domestic product (GPD) be assigned to Torah and education in its broad sense. It could be called ‘a tithe for Torah’, a worthy substitute for terumot and ma’asrot which were given to the Kohanim and Levites. Women’s Torah study should also be included in this tithe, as I wrote briefly in my previous article, and their teachers’ training and work in Torah and education should be funded from this ‘sacred tithe’.

Today’s Reality

Nowadays, when our economic situation is immeasurably better than it was during the First Temple period, the national expenditure for the entire educational system in the State of Israel is about 8.4% of the GDP (of which about 80% comes from the state budget, and 20% from tuition fees and donations), while a significant portion of this expenditure is not related to Torah education, derech eretz (manners), and good deeds.

Thus, even if all the children of Israel studied in the state-religious educational system, in religious high schools, in yeshivas, seminaries, and institutions of higher Torah education, the State of Israel would still not have fulfilled the vision of Torah, devoting much less than ten percent to Torah and education.

Let’s consider the disciplines fit to be included in the ten percent dedicated to Torah and education according to this vision, and discover the enormous tidings which can develop from endorsement of this principle.

Funding for Primary and Secondary Education

The current educational budget includes the various secular subjects. Presumably, a number of the secular studies are fit to be included within the framework of the ‘sacred tithe’. For example, Hebrew and history, and even arithmetic and the foundations of the sciences, for we find that even in the Talmud scientific facts are included, because a basic education is necessary to understand Torah. However, advanced studies intended for career achievement and economic development should not be included in the ‘sacred tithe’.

Academic Funding

Apparently, all branches of learning connected to the humanities should be included in the field of Torah study funded by the tithe. True, in academic institutions today, these studies are not taught according to the path of the Torah, and often, in open confrontation with its values and sacred ideals. But in an ideal situation, all the fields of humanities, such as literature, philosophy, education, history, language, sociology, etc., are intended for tikkun olam (perfecting the world) in the light of the Torah, and thus, should be funded from the same ‘sacred tithe’.

As far as other subjects taught in academia are concerned, although their importance is greatly appreciated and their contribution to the economy is immense, they are not included in the funding intended to preserve the idea of terumot and ma’asrot. Indeed, there is room for discussion in regards to the status of theoretical research – perhaps it could be included in the ‘sacred tithe’ – for the Torah and secular wisdom are interconnected, as the Gaon of Vilna has said. Nevertheless, a distinction must be made between the sacred and the profane, or between the Holy of Holies, where the ark with the Torah was located in the Temple, and the holy, which housed the seven-branched menorah, alluding to the seven branches of secular wisdom, and the golden table of the Showbread, alluding to parnasa (livelihood).

Funding for Counselors and Psychologists

Just as the teachers’ salaries should be paid from the ‘sacred tithe’ set aside for Torah, so too, the salaries of the various psychologists and counselors should also come from the same tithe, including: social workers, and advisers and counselors in the fields of education, marital relations, mental health, and home economics. Indeed, it is fitting for Torah education to also include these fields of guidance. In the past as well, religious education included instruction in proper behavior in all walks of life, and individuals consulted with the Kohain or Levite in these matters.

As I wrote previously, in order to reach this goal, all these areas must be studied in a most serious way, in the framework of yeshivas and michlalot (women’s seminaries). In this manner, all fields of consulting and the Torah will be bound together, with both men and women consultants and advisers possessing a spiritual/Torani status of basic-level Torah scholars, because in addition to counseling, they will also teach Torah in the community.

In accordance with this vision of a ‘sacred tithe’ – by a conservative estimate – it will be possible to increase the number of individuals working in these professions by at least three-fold, and thus provide a much broader solution to the various problems.

Most certainly, the combination of Torah and counseling will contribute greatly to the success of their mission, and our society’s situation will improve and progress. In all probability, it will significantly reduce public spending on unemployment and crime management, and allow more individuals to derive full benefit from work and family.

Substantial amounts of money would remain in the ma’aser fund to support rabbis, judges, and Torah lecturers – provided they contribute directly to their community – and, with God’s help, I will expand on this issue in the future.

The ‘Tzohar Law’

Q: Rabbi, do you support the law opening the areas of marriage registration approved in the Knesset this week?

A: In an ideal situation, there would be no room for such a law; but in the present reality, in which certain official rabbis fail to act properly – sometimes in their attitude towards new immigrants, converts, and secular Jews, and other times, towards Zionist rabbis – this law is necessary.

This article was translated from Hebrew.

About the Author
Rabbi Eliezer Melamed; The writer is Head of Yeshivat Har Bracha and a prolific author on Jewish Law, whose works include the series on Jewish law "Pininei Halacha" and a popular weekly column "Revivim" in the Besheva newspaper; His books "The Laws of Prayer" "The Laws of Passover" and "Nation, Land, Army" are presently being translated into English; Other articles by Rabbi Melamed can be viewed at: