Recreating Har Sinai: The First Chapter of Rambam’s Hilchot Talmud Torah

I think most Jews assume we fulfill the mitzvah of Talmud Torah by studying Torah. By studying parts of the first chapter of Rambam’s Hilchot Talmud Torah, I aim to show that the obligation is actually for fathers to pass to sons and grandsons the memory of the moment we stood at Sinai. We do that by ensuring they know the Written Torah, at a minimum.

Beyond that, we strive to know as much of the tradition as we can as deeply as we can.  We’ll get to that, but we need to remember that that’s a way of maximizing our fulfillment of the basic obligation. Let’s start with basics, because there’s little point in moving to higher ideals until and unless we’ve fulfilled the basics.

One quick caveat: Rambam starts the chapter noting that women, partially-converted slaves, and children are exempt from this obligation. There’s a lot to be said about that—about why he starts with that, and why it’s true. But this is not that place. I will simply take it as fact, that women are free to study if they wish, but are not included in the obligation we are discussing here.

Torah Study as a Recreation of Sinai

The second paragraph of the chapter notes that just as a man is obligated to teach his son, he is obligated to teach his grandson, a truth Rambam (and Kiddushin 30a) derive from Devarim 4;9’s saying והודעתם לבניך ולבני בניך, you shall make them known to your children and grandchildren.  The surprising part is that that verse refers to an obligation never to forget the day we stood at Sinai and heard Hashem speak directly to us.  How can the Gemara use it for Torah study?

Nor is this the only place the Talmud does that. Avot 3;8 cites this verse as proof that our souls depend upon our remembering (or, in the Mishnah’s conclusion, our not wilfully forgetting) all the Torah we’ve learned.  Without going into that, it is another example of the Talmud assuming that a verse about the Giving of the Torah can be used to make statements about our attitude towards Torah study (in one shiur I recently saw, Rabbi Soloveitchik, zt”l, mentioned a similar Gemara in Berachot 22a, which cites this verse to support its claim that we have to study Torah with fear and awe, like at Sinai).

As a first step, we see that Chazal take for granted that Torah study is lined with the obligation to keep alive our memories of Sinai. It’s not just the act of learning, it’s maintaining the link to that foundational event.


That might also explain the unusual role of grandfathers. The Gemara that includes grandfathers in the obligation then quotes R. Yehoshua b. Levi as saying that one who teaches his grandson Torah is considered as if he himself received it from Sinai. The generational link is central to the mitzvah—our fathers induct us into a chain that extends all the way back to Sinai (as my father taught me many years ago.

Nor is this common.  In fact, the only other place the Torah mentions grandfathers is in Shmot 10; 2, where Hashem tells Moshe that He is, as it were, toying with Paroh and the Egyptians so that we would tell our children and grandchildren about it. This is not a commandment, though. (Interestingly, the other place in Tanach where בן בנך is mentioned is Shoftim 8;22, where the people suggest to Gidon that he become king, he, his children, and grandchildren. He rejects it, saying only Hashem should be their king).

In that same paragraph, Rambam also notes the tradition that we have to teach any student who wants to learn, because students are also sons.  It’s not that we have to teach students, then, it’s that they qualify as children in some sense. Perhaps the sense that they, too, can be part of transferring the legacy of Sinai through the generations.

So, the second piece of the mitzvah is that we ensure the passage of Torah from fathers to sons, grandfathers to grandchildren, and to metaphorical sons (students) as well.

Not So Minimal

Kiddushin 30a asks how far a father has to go in the obligation to teach his son Torah, letting us know that this is an obligation with a definable minimum—the mitzvah isn’t “learn as much as you can,” there’s a minimum we are all expected to reach.

The Gemara says that’s מקרא, the Written Torah.  Rashi understands that to mean just the Torah, Rambam includes all of Tanach.

That means that the lenient view is that fathers must, at a minimum, make sure their sons know the Written Torah. Sources do not define “know,” but it seems to include at least the ability to read and understand on sight.  It might be more than that, because the Talmud assumes in a few places, such as Sanhedrin 33b and Horayot 4a, that errors about ideas explicit in the text do not count as errors, since everyone knows what’s in the Written Torah. This is captured in the phrase זיל קרי בי רב הוא, it’s a matter schoolchildren know.

Rambam also points out that a father’s failure to do that for a son doesn’t let the son off the hook; the Gemara and Rambam are clear that the son must then learn it on his own.

This obligation is not for scholars, or rabbis, or especially righteous people. It’s for all of us. An obligation experience tells me many of us are failing to uphold. In schools across the religious spectrum, we can see many, many young men who are being pushed to other disciplines within Torah long before they have mastered this basic one. Many of them never make sure they master it, meaning they have knowledge of this or that impressive literature, but have not yet finished the first basic step of our responsibility to keep Sinai alive all our days.

On Beyond Minimum—Threefold Torah Study

Part of the reason that’s gotten lost, I think, is that the Gemara blurs the picture. Later on 30a, the Gemara reads ושננתם לבניך, and you shall teach them to your children, as ושלשתם, you shall divide them in three (this is a homiletical/midrashic reading; it does not claim that’s the meaning of the verse, nor does it supplant the meaning. It adds another layer.).

The three parts the Gemara mentions are Written Torah, Oral Torah, and Talmud. Rashi defines Talmud as the process of understanding the underlying logic of the Mishnah, when and why it expressed itself categorically, and the explanation of seeming contradictions. It was, in short, taking the Mishnah, a diffuse literature, and distilling it into a coherent whole.

As we’ll see, Rambam has a similar definition (with important differences), but first let’s note that Rashi and Rambam also agree about something the Tosafists rejected. The Gemara first says that a person should divide his years into three, a third in Written Torah, etc.  It then objects that we don’t know how long we’ll live, so if we give the first thirty years of our lives to Written Torah, for example, and don’t make it to ninety, we’ll have short-changed Talmud. The Gemara agrees, and says it means we should divide our days.

Rashi reads that as two days a week on Written Torah, two on Oral Torah, and two on Talmud.  Tosafot objects that we still might pass away in the middle of the week (Ritva says, sensibly, that that might not be enough of an imbalance to bother us).  Tosafot therefore reads the Gemara as meaning we should divide each day’s learning into three (as Rambam will as well).

Tosafot then vitiates the statement by saying that’s why the Seder R. Amram Gaon has some verses, some Mishnah, and some Talmud in our morning blessings (as we do, in our siddurim, the verses of Birchat Kohanim, the Mishnah of אלו דברים שאין להם שיעור, and the Gemara of אלו דברים שאדם אוכל), to fulfill that Talmudic requirement.

They assume, in other words, that the Talmud didn’t mean we had to divide all our Torah study time in three, just that we had to be sure to include some of each discipline in our day (which doesn’t, to me, fit well with the Gemara’s rejection of dividing our years because we don’t know how long we’ll live). Further reducing the impact of this statement, Rabbenu Tam held (and Ashkenazic practice seems to have followed) that the Babylonian Talmud had enough of all three to allow focusing just on that.  (This, too, strikes me as problematic; for one example, years ago, I saw a book that recorded only those verses of Tanach cited in the Bavli, and it wasn’t all of them. Was Rabbenu Tam sure we had no need to study those other verses?).

Rambam: The Search for Systemic Understanding

More like Rashi, Rambam rules that we divide our daily Torah study time into three. Since the Mishnah in Avot tells us to start Written Torah at age five, Mishnah at ten, and Talmud at fifteen, this threefold plan cannot start until then. A third of the day would be spent on Written Torah (all of Tanach), a third on Oral (including commentaries on the Prophets; as Prof. Twersky a”h noted, Rambam seems to define Oral Torah as all that which was recorded before our time).  Between those two, we will have covered what Jewish history bequeathed to us on a topic.

The third part, for Rambam, is developing a sophisticated understanding of Torah and how to infer accurately from the Torah, such that we can derive law from Scripture itself. Rambam seems to assume that all that which came in the Oral Torah is in fact inferable from Tanach, if only we understand the rules of inference well enough.

(Prof. Twersky once noted Rambam’s tendency to offer Biblical verses as support for ideas even though they were not cited in Talmudic literature; he expressed puzzlement as to why Rambam would do that. I have long wondered whether he was hinting at this comment of Rambam’s, that Rambam was showing the extent to which he had understood the hermeneutics of Torah well enough to find verses that had not hitherto been linked to a certain idea).

Rambam complicates it further, by saying that the matters included in Pardes are part of Gemara.  Pardes, he had told us earlier (Yesodei haTorah 4;13), is all physics and metaphysics, meaning all that makes the universe work (his views about angels, for example, are in those chapters as well).

He had already included that knowledge as part of his understanding of how to know of Hashem’s existence, reject the existence of any other god, know of Hashem’s complete Unity, love and fear Hashem properly. What does he mean by including it in Gemara? My guess is that he might have held that just as Torah shows us the way to understand Hashem as much as we can, so does the universe. At the highest levels of study (note that he does not see those disciplines as related to Written or Oral Law), he might have thought it all came together.

Whether or not that’s true, Rambam and Rashi show us a vision of both the minimum levels and the highest levels of Talmud Torah that challenges our current understanding. It’s not about sitting and learning (or lernen); it’s about mastering certain material in certain ways.  First, the Written Torah, whether Chumash or Tanach. Then the Oral Torah, seeking both technical knowledge as well as a systemic understanding, removing any contradictions within the system, getting at its logical underpinnings, or even being able to re-derive the system ourselves. That’s a Talmud Torah.

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.