Gidon Rothstein

Rambam, Laws of Torah Study, Chapter 5: The Idea of a Rebbe

Who should have decisive influence on us? Who are or should be the people to whom we owe a respect and awe that approaches that which we owe Hashem?

These are odd questions in our times, when many of us assume we are qualified to make our own decisions, when the democratic world around us communicates the message that no one knows better than anyone else. The chapter of Rambam’s Hilchot Talmud Torah that we’re studying this week confronts us with a different perspective; there will be ways to avoid specific rules Rambam posits (and we’ll see those), but the overall perspective that we are meant to have influential figures, who we treat as wiser than us, undeniably needs to be part of how an observant Jew approaches the world.

Another challenge of this topic is that the rules around a רבי מובהק, a central or main Torah teacher, are ones that some segments of the Jewish community exaggerate today, giving lip service to a level of fealty halachah does not require, but that leaves a bad taste around the whole topic. Too, many people who serve as teachers of Torah are unfit for the position (as I’ve noted before), increasing the distaste that we might bring to the topic.

I think it is nonetheless important to review these halachot. First, they might spur us to find better teachers than we have until now and, not insignificantly, the rules for a central teacher trickle down to our awareness of how we are supposed to treat all Torah scholars.

Start with the Exceptions—Do We Have a Central Teacher?

To ease our way into this, let’s start with two reasons to exempt us from any of the specific examples we are about to list (so if you get uncomfortable with some idea, you can know ahead of time that you have a way out). First, in 5;9, Rambam records the view of R. Yehudah in Baba Metzia 33a, that רבו מובהק, one’s central teacher of Torah, refers to a person whom רוב חכמתו ממנו, the majority of one’s wisdom comes from that teacher. In our educational systems today, with a new class or shiur each year, it is possible that many of us never have that kind of teacher.

That is sad for other reasons—if we have no identifiably decisive influence on our Torah study, my experience is that that means we haven’t learned enough—but it might mean that that person has no רבי מובהק and therefore does not need to treat anyone in the ways we are about to see.  On the other hand, Rashi there notes that “majority of one’s wisdom” can be in any of several Torah disciplines, Torah itself, Mishnah, Talmud, etc. On the other hand, if we had no such teacher growing up and then live in a community for decades, it is possible that our shul rabbi becomes our רבי מובהק, depending how much Torah we learn from him.

In Yoreh Deah 242;30, Rema accepts the ruling of Maharik that the main teacher is the one who taught how to rule on practical halachic issues. Aruch haShulchan 242;19 assumes we can have multiple central teachers, each in his or her own area of study (Rema might have been defining priority if different teachers need our service at the same time, as we will see in a moment).

Foregoing One’s Honor: Why Not?

The other major work-around is that in 5;11, Rambam notes that the teacher has the right to forego the honor due him, to one or all of his students, on one or all of the metrics of honor they owe him. While he adds that the student is still obligated להדרו, to show he values the teacher, that takes much less than what we are about to see.

We might assume that all teachers should forego their honor and let their students off with just showing some admiration.  Would it not be wrong, even haughty, to insist on students’ honoring oneself, when this option exists?

The answer to that, I think, lies in what Rambam writes in paragraph 8. He notes first that students were expected to serve their teachers, not just learn from them. The standard is that any forms of service a slave does for his master, a student should do for his teacher. So much so that if the master and student are in a place where no one knows the student and people do not generally wear tefillin (a sign of being a non-slave), the student should refrain from one form of service (taking off his master’s shoes) so as not to give the misimpression that he is a slave.

But, we might think, why would the master demand or even accept such service? To that end, Rambam writes “and anyone who prevents his student from serving him is withholding kindness and throwing fear of Heaven off of him [the student].” The experience of serving a teacher is both an opportunity for us to do kindness (or, is a kindness of the teacher’s in allowing us that experience) and instills fear of Heaven in us.

Because internalizing necessary subservience is not easy for most of us, even subservience to the Master of the Universe. Since the teacher is a stand-in for Hashem in many ways (as we will see), our relationship with our teacher is a way to begin a relationship with Hashem. If the teacher foregoes all ways of honoring him (let alone fearing or being in awe of him), he is actually hindering the student’s progress in serving Hashem.  Specific practices may come and go, but one of the important roles of a central Torah teacher is serving as that figure in our lives (part of the reason I said that not having a central teacher is a deficiency as well).

But It Is a Relationship

In paragraphs 12 and 13, though, Rambam reminds us of the other side of all this, which might contribute to mitigating some of the ways we show reverence to teachers. He notes that even as the students owe the teacher honor, the teacher is told (by R. Elazar b. Shamu’a in Avot 4;12) to value his students’ honor as his own.

Rambam adds that the teacher should love the students like children, who bring him joy in this world and the next. Paragraph 13 reminds the teacher that students enhance the teacher’s wisdom (either by questioning him or forcing him to crystallize his thoughts such that they can be conveyed clearly), as both R. Yehudah haNasi (Makkot 10a) and R. Chanina (Ta’anit 7a) say that they have learned the most from their students.

I have taken so long with introductory exceptions and caveats because the laws themselves go further than what we might find comfortable today. As we review them, I urge you to keep in mind that there is leeway not to follow all of them, but to keep an open mind towards the larger point that is often lost, both about central teachers (that they are the ones who show us the path to a true relationship with Hashem) and, by extension, other Torah scholars as well.

The Father/Teacher Comparison

The chapter opens up with Rambam writing that just as a man is commanded to honor and fear his father, so too is he obligated to honor and fear his teacher. What’s odd about Rambam making that comparison here is that he expected readers to read the Mishneh Torah in order, and these laws appear in Sefer haMadda, at the beginning of Mishneh Torah, where the laws of honoring parents are in Mamrim, at the end of the book; starting these laws by referencing those is out of place, and therefore clearly aimed at making a point.

That point becomes clear over the course of the paragraph, since Rambam lists all the ways that a teacher can, halachically, take precedence over one’s parent.  To give the exceptions first: if the parent is a Torah scholar of the same level as the teacher, that is enough to restore his primacy for these services (in some of them, Rambam gives the father priority even if he is only just a Torah scholar, but not necessarily at the level of the teacher). In addition, Rema Yoreh De’ah 242;34 says that if the father paid for the son’s tuition (in Rambam’s time, teaching was mostly free), the teacher does not take precedence over the father in any of these ways.

Prioritizing the Teacher

Barring any of that, the teacher is given priority because the teacher brings the student into the World to Come (by showing the student the paths of Torah and service of Hashem), where the non-Torah scholar parent (who didn’t pay for any of this) only brought that student into this world. Even if we live with parents who have done enough to retain their intuitive precedence over our teachers, this attitude towards teachers still reminds us of an element of Jewish life that I am not sure we all stop to realize: one of the central goals of our lives is to make our way into the World to Come, code for building a life in proper service of Hashem.

The people who show us how to make our way effectively in this world—parents, teachers, mentors in our careers, therapists, whoever—obligate us greatly. But all that which they teach and show us is not as important as those who show us the way to create that connection to Hashem. If nothing else, re-learning that value, remembering that greater priority, should be a goal for many of us (how many of us really value our Torah teachers, whoever they may be, more than those who showed us how to make a living?).

Specific examples include: returning their lost objects, redeeming them from captivity, helping them put down a load they are carrying. In all of these, the central teacher takes precedence.

Examples of Proper Attitude

Aside from precedence, we are not supposed to greet our teachers like ordinary people; rather, we should bow a little bit, and greet them, using the word “רבי, master,” in the greeting. If the teacher beat us to it, we should respond using the words “רבי ומורי, my master and teacher.” Our attitude, bearing, and wording should always reflect our sense of who this teacher is in our lives.

This is true, also, of not praying directly in front of, behind, or on either side of the teacher, not going to the bathhouse with him, not sitting in his place, not proving what he said in front of him (he doesn’t need our help), not contradicting him, and leaving his presence walking backward.

The cases of not contradicting and not supporting him in front of him also appear in the list of ways we express our awe of our parents, bringing us back to that comparison.  The last one of those I will mention here—perhaps the best known—is that we are supposed to tear our clothing when our teacher passes away, like we would for a parent.

Extending the Teacher/ Hashem Parallel

In addition to citing another phrase of R. Elazar b. Shamu’a’s from Avot 4;12, that the fear of our teachers should be like the fear of Heaven, Rambam notes that disputing one’s teacher, fighting with one’s teacher, complaining about one’s teacher, or thinking ill of one’s teacher is like doing any of those to Hashem.

In the next paragraph, Rambam writes that opening up one’s own yeshiva without prior permission from one’s teacher qualifies as creating a dispute with that teacher (this is one source of semicha, a way of getting permission to teach so that one is not disputing one’s teacher).

Even with that original permission, however, the student cannot rule on halachic matters right in front of the teacher (because that shows an inappropriate sense of oneself, a forgetting of one’s place before the teacher).

Stopping Violations of the Torah is More Important

The exception to the student’s not being allowed to rule in front of the teacher is if both of them witness the Torah being violated, because Mishlei 21;30 says that wisdom and insight have no value as compared to Hashem. In Eruvin 63a, R. Ashi tells Ravina that means awe of the teacher has no place where Hashem’s honor is being desecrated (by violation of the Torah). One of the classic examples of that is Pinchas, who killed Zimri in front of Moshe. While many of us know the opinion of Rav from Sanhedrin 82a, that Pinchas asked Moshe’s permission first, Shmuel there invokes that verse in Mishlei to say that Pinchas acted without consultation.

The other situation where Torah violation comes into play is where the teacher commits the violation. While the student must still act to stop the violation, halachah requires the student to point it out, at first, in respectful language—“our master taught us such and such.” Rambam doesn’t discuss what happens if the teacher ignores the remonstration; I think that would open the teacher up to various forms of discipline, which would have to be handled with firmness and delicacy (as with Elisha b. Avuyah, who was eventually excommunicated).

Impact Outside of the Teacher/Student Relationship

Important as these halachot are on their own, they have at least two significant ramifications that extend beyond their specific context. First, they make clear the importance of having only qualified teachers: since such people will serve, in their students’ eyes, as stand-ins for the Creator, it is all the more important that they be qualified in terms of knowledge and character.

That is why, I think, Rambam interrupts the flow of the chapter to point out, in paragraph four, that those who teach when they are unqualified are evildoers, increase disputes within the Jewish people, and destroy the world (and more).  On the other hand, a wise person who is qualified to teach (and to rule on halachah)and does not, is to be blamed for withholding Torah from the public, placing stumbling blocks before them.

It’s also why anyone who has proper character (Rambam, paragraph 10, assumes it would only be a תלמיד חכם, a Torah scholar, who would know this), would not speak before anyone who was wiser—more knowledgeable and more advanced in his knowledge—even if he had never studied under him.

Because the point of honoring our teachers is that they usher us into the world of Torah and the world of proper relationship with Hashem. As do any Torah scholars. If we are wise, we will take those lessons to heart, regardless of the specific halachic expressions we give them.

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.