Hilchot Talmud Torah, Chapter 3: The Seriousness of Acquiring Torah

Most of the third chapter of the Laws of Talmud Torah reminds us of a higher level of attachment than we’ve spoken about before, coming  closer to seeing Torah study as an ever-pressing obligation. Some of that may be only for those who choose to take on Torah study in its fullest and best senses, but some applies to all of us.

While I have previously emphasized the minimum standards we often fail to meet, here I find it important to note the ideal, for at least the possibility that it will spur us to a renewed engagement with Torah study in our own lives.

The Available Crown

Rambam opens the chapter by reminding us of the tradition R. Shimon shared in Avot 4;13 (also mentioned in Avot 6;5) that there are three crowns for the Jewish people. Two of those, priesthood and kingship, are hereditary, as Rambam notes. The third, the crown of Torah, is out there for whoever wants it.

That Mishnah in Avot mentions a fourth crown, a good name, which Rambam does not include here. When we consult his commentary on Avot, I believe we see why. The Mishnah says the crown of a good name עולה על גביהן, which most simply means it rises above them.

Were it not for Rambam, I would assume that means having a good name is more important than the other crowns.  But Rambam says that the crown of a good name comes from Torah, its study and performance.  Rabbenu Yonah accepts this, and adds that yirat Hashem, fear of Heaven, also comes only from Torah study.

Knowing that these two pillars of Jewish thought saw Torah as a value of its own and the only way to earn a good name and find the proper fear of Heaven ideally stimulates us to want to acquire this crown.

The Challenge of the Ideal

Much of the rest of the chapter records Rambam’s view of how one goes about Torah study in its fullest, best way. Some of that might seem remote ; I include it mainly to lay the groundwork for upcoming chapters, which will speak of the respect and awe we owe our teachers and Torah scholars generally. Seeing what it takes to become such a Torah scholar will, I hope, remind us that those who have acquired this crown made difficult choices to become who they are, obligating us to react in the ways we will see in the coming weeks.

I share the rest in the hope that it will strike a chord within us, and remind us that we all want, need, and are required to include Torah in our lives, in these requisite ways.

For an example of the first kind of idea, paragraph 6 says that one who wants to fulfill this mitzvah in the most appropriate way will not allow himself to be distracted by other matters, nor will he fool himself into thinking he can acquire Torah knowledge with wealth and honor.

Rather, Rambam says, the path of Torah is to eat bread with salt, drink water in limited quantities, sleep on the ground, and live a life of trouble, toiling at Torah.

That  quote of the sixth chapter of Avot was understood by Rashi to be an outer limit, that even if we had to live that way, we’d have to study.  Rambam seems to see this as a value of its own.

My first instinct is that he would have said this kind of life minimizes distractions, since the person doesn’t need a lot of material goods. The less we need, the less likely we will feel a distracting lack.

Except that Rambam includes the phrase, “live a life of distress,” and the paragraph closes with the sentiment that the reward is according to the pain. Some translate that phrase as “the reward is according to the effort,” but Rambam uses the word צער, in close conjunction to having said וחיי צער תחיה, seeming to imply actual distress.

He doesn’t explain further, but I wonder whether he might have understood Jewish tradition to say full acquisition of Torah must include some difficulties. I don’t know of anywhere Rambam quotes it, but Mechilta de-Rabbi Yishmael Yitro, Parsheta de-BaChodesh, s.v. R. Eliezer has a tradition that Torah, the Land of Israel and the World to Come are only acquired with יסורים, sufferings.

If Rambam means something along those lines, it might be because the truest process of Torah study requires that relinquish our preconceptions, accept that we are trying to absorb a brand of wisdom different from what we tend to see, and that will feel alien at first.  The kind of ego-foregoing that’s involved in letting go of what we know to accept what Torah tells us might only come from living a difficult life.

Moderate Distress

Another possibility is that Rambam doesn’t mean this literally, but as a reminder that too much pleasure distracts. If so, it’s not that we have to eat bread with salt, it’s that we have to avoid becoming attached to fine foods, it’s not that we have to measure our water, it’s that we can’t become dependent on water (or coffee). And so on.

I think that’s a less likely reading, but it might be a partial ground we could find our way towards adopting.  The next paragraph has Rambam warning us against thinking we can amass a fortune and then get back to serious Torah study.  Rather, as Shammai told us in Avot, we have to make the Torah the fixed center of our lives, and our work the more fluid and relinquishable part.

That applies to all of us, I think, even though Rambam doesn’t make clear when he switched from speaking of achieving the crown in its fullest sense to writing for all of us. It seems to me that might be because he didn’t see it as a sharp line—we are all supposed to be acquiring as much of the crown as we can. To acquire it fully, you do x; even if you’ve given up on that, remember that that’s what it takes, and do as much of that as you can.

That highlights what seems to me two overlooked elements in our relationship to Torah study. First, if Rambam’s right (generally a good bet), great Torah scholars are those who have put in tremendous time and effort , being satisfied with less than they might have had, and staying away from distracting pleasures.  When we encounter such people, all that they have done to get to where they are should inspire a reaction in us that goes beyond mere admiration.

Second, Rambam implies that we should all be asking ourselveswhere on the spectrum of “crown of Torah” we reside, and how to foster our best success in that.  If we sleep too much, or eat or drink too much, or build a life with only pleasure in it, Rambam would see us as acting in ways that contradict the goal of acquiring Torah.  That means that each time we take a step on the continuum of pleasurable activities, we also take a step in either building or damaging an environment in which we can thrive in Torah.

Not a Little Effort

In paragraph 12, Rambam notes that Torah doesn’t stay with those who study it gingerly, without putting themselves into it, or who study after eating a great deal. Torah only becomes well-established within those who kill themselves over it (this comes from a statement of Resh Lakish in Berachot 63b), either in a Beit Midrash or in private, but with all the requisite effort.

Paragraph 13 adopts the view of Shmot Rabbah Ki Tissa 47;5, that the best time to learn Torah is at night, and that the majority of one’s Torah wisdom comes from nighttime learning.  For that reason, Rambam writes, we should be careful not to waste any of our nights on sleeping, eating, drinking, or conversation. (Rashba to Eruvin 65a notes that the Gemara says night is for sleeping and wonders how that fits with the Midrash.  He says short summer nights are for sleeping.  Longer fall, winter, and spring nights are for Torah).

Rashba’s comment again raises the question of how ascetic he meant us to be.  For example, in De’ot 4;4, he had said eight hours was enough to sleep.  Even if he means that one who cares about the crown of Torah should sleep less, does he mean an hour less? Two?

I think it’s impossible to know.  In the same vein, when he says people do their best study at night, is that an absolute statement, or a reflection of his experience?  In a book called Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, the author (Mason Currey) collected the schedules of famous writers, artists, and musicians, and the variety was interesting. Torah scholars aren’t the same as artists, but would Rambam have rejected the possibility that different rhythms work for different people when it comes to Torah study?

Parts That Certainly Apply to Us

The ambiguity I see in those paragraphs (which might be me resisting what’s clear in Rambam) disappears for at least two other statements. In paragraph 8, he includes the tradition that the verse לא בשמים היא, it is not in Heaven, also means that Torah cannot be found among גסי הרוח, gross, unrefined people (this most likely means arrogant, since they see themselves as higher than others)), and לא מעבר לים היא, it is not on the other side of the sea, also means Torah cannot be found among those who travel the seas. He connects that to the sayings in Avot that one who indulges excessively in business will never become wise, and that we should limit our business activities and be involved with Torah.

This has the two-pronged impact I referred to earlier. First, it tells us if we meet a גס רוח, an unrefined spirit, or someone who spends most or much of his time on business, we should wonder whether he has true Torah wisdom (even if he can quote a great deal).

Second, it reminds us to ask ourselves similar questions.  Are we refined enough—probably, humble enough—to acquire Torah, with whatever time and effort we give it? And, significantly, are we giving it the time it needs, or allowing business involvements to drag us away?

To make that last question more pressing—more worrisome, really—towards the end of the last paragraph, Rambam records an idea I found in Massechet Derech Eretz, that Bamidbar 15;31, כי דבר ה’ בזה, he has despised the word of Hashem, applies also to people who do not make efforts to study Torah. He extends that to those who did study once upon a time, but then allowed themselves to be so caught up in the rest of life that they left study completely.  That’s daunting stuff. Sanhedrin 99a applies that verse to those who deny the divinity of the Torah, to those who act disrespectfully to Torah scholars (the original Talmudic meaning of apikorus), to those who wilfully misinterpret the Torah, and to those who surgically hide their circumcision. Neglect of Torah is of a kind with those, apparently.

That’s a challenge, considering that I know many fine, caring Jews who simply don’t learn Torah. Whether we go for the full crown , Rambam is reminding us that the study of Torah isn’t something we can treat lightly or casually, and it’s not something we can abandon without repercussions.  We must, each of us, to the best of our abilities, structure lives in which we have and make the time for what counts for us as serious Torah study. Otherwise, we’re showing negative feelings towards the words of Hashem that I can’t imagine we want to be showing.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Gidon Rothstein has served in the community rabbinate and in educational roles at the high school and adult level. He is an author of Jewish fiction and non-fiction, most recently "We're Missing the Point: What's Wrong with the Orthodox Jewish Community and How to Fix It." He lives in Bronx, NY with his wife and three children.