Shiur #03: To Learn with Involvement

  • Rav Elyakim Krumbein


A.        “Lilmod Al Menat La’asot” – A New Definition


Rava would often comment: The purpose of wisdom is repentance and good deeds – that a person should not read and study and then defy his father, his mother, his rabbi, and those greater than him in wisdom and numbers, as it says, “The beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord; all who practice it gain good understanding” (Tehillim 111:10).  It does not say, “those who practice,” but rather “those who practice it” – i.e., those who practice for its sake, and not those who practice not for its sake.  And whoever practices not for its sake – it would have been preferable for him not to have been created. (Berakhot 17a)


            In this shiur we will continue our attempt to understand the concept of Torah lishmah according to the model of lomed al menat la’asot – learning for the sake of practicing.  In the previous installment we pointed to the Talmudic passage cited above as a source for the “utilitarian” conception of lishmah.  Until now, we assumed that the term lomed al menat la’asot means that a person studies halakhot to know how to observe the Torah practically; this is indeed the explanation given by Rabbi Lamm in his treatment of this topic.  


However, rereading Rava’s comment in the Gemara may yield a different understanding.  Why did Rava suspect that somebody who learns “not for its sake” will likely come to “defy his father, his mother, his rabbi and those greater than him,” rather than commit other offenses?  Why, for example, did Rava not warn “that a person should not read and study and then sit in an invalid sukka or mistakenly eat non-kosher meat” as a result of halakhic errors caused by his failure to learn “for the sake of practicing”?


Clearly, Rava is not merely concerned that one who does not properly learn will not know what to do.  Rava is talking about an emotional identification with Torah, which then points one towards a practical way of life.  Learning expresses devotion to the practical ideals of the Torah and the desire to implement those ideals.  Studying Torah is a spiritual union with the Torah, and this bonding is meant to strengthen the fervor that brings the Torah to realization in practical life.  A person’s desire to defy those greater than him, the phenomenon described by Rava, is not the result of insufficient study of the laws concerning respect for Torah scholars.  Rather, it stems from one’s viewing learning as a road to greater personal status, rather than as a compass for a values-oriented life.


            If so, we may infer from Rava’s comments that learning al menat la’asot is an experience whose locus is the soul of the student. Lishmah is thus an educational endeavor, through which the student forges his essential desires out of inner identification with the Torah’s concrete vision, expressing this idealism in the act of learning. It is not a matter of simply acquiring the knowledge required for fulfilling mitzvot.  True, the desire to fulfill the Torah’s laws may very well impact upon the program of study, so that priority will be given to practical halakhic topics.  But this is not the essence of lomed al menat la’asot.  The category can apply equally to a student engaging in the in-depth study of kodashim (the laws of the Mikdash and sacrifices).  A person can aspire to the ultimate purpose of Torah – “repentance and good deeds” – even if he chooses to learn subject matter that has nothing at all to do with his daily routine.  And, in fact, regarding somebody who limits his studies to the halakhot he must know for daily observance, we would point to the Beit Halevi cited in the previous shiur: it is doubtful whether we could credit such a student with the distinction of Torah lishmah.  The ideal of lomed al menat la’asot of which Rava spoke refers to something else entirely.


            In the previous shiur, we suggested a comparison between the student who learns for the sake of practice, and one who shoots an arrow with the purpose of hitting a certain target, or one who writes a get (divorce contract) “lishmah” as Halakha requires.  However, according to the new understanding we are now proposing, this comparison no longer obtains.  In contrast to the scribe who writes a getlishmah,” with the formally required intent, the emotional attachment of a student to the goal of lilmod al menat la’asot is indeed very significant.  In fact, we may say that the criterion that determines the degree of success in achieving lishmah, is the strength of one’s existential connection to the goal of the practical realization of Torah.  The more intensely this connection is felt by the student, the greater the level of lishmah


            Let us briefly summarize the two different understandings we have seen of the goal of limud al menat la’asot.  On the one hand, this learning might require the individual to make his goal the practical observance required by Halakha, and then direct his learning toward that goal.  This view underscores defining the goal as the prime element in lishmah. But we proposed an alternative: an approach that deals mainly with the student’s emotional experience. Accordingly, limud al menat la’asot demands that a person engender within himself a deep personal identification with the goal of practical observance of the mitzvot.  A careful reading of Rava’s comment in the Gemara lends support to this second approach.


            Beyond the implications of this finding to the definition of “al menat la’asot,” it also exemplifies, more generally, the question we posed in the previous shiur, as to whether the value of lishmah focuses on the goal of learning, or on the inner drive and motivation behind one’s learning.


B.        Torah Lishmah: The Critical Question


            We can now return to the fundamental query we posed in the previous shiur: what is the critical question that the topic of Torah lishmah seeks to answer?


            For as we discussed, in searching for the definition of Torah lishmah, we must first clarify the question we are asking.  One way to pose the question is: what is the purpose of the mitzva of Torah learning, and to what end must the action be directed?  This question assumes that the act of learning has a certain goal to which one must intend as he learns.  I suggest, however, that the question be formulated differently, utilizing a different assumption. This assumption says that the deep, inner feelings of the student are not meant to slumber away or sit idly by as he exercises his intellectual faculties through learning.  A person should engage in Torah not only by exercising the mind, but also from within the existential levels of his character, with deep emotional involvement and an awareness of Torah’s significance in his life.  According to this assumption, the question becomes: to which direction should the student’s personal and emotional world be directed at the time of study, and which desires are meant to develop and be empowered, realized and expressed through the encounter with Torah?  Our analysis thus far supports this latter way of defining the question, to which Torah lishmah is the answer.


C.        “Al Menat La’asot” in the Thought of the Reishit Chokhma


            To be sure, this discussion does not entirely negate the goal of “al menat la’asot” in its practical formulation, of which we spoke in the previous shiur.  Recall that we cited passages from the Chayei Adam and Rav Ovadya Yosef that emphasized the priority of learning practically relevant Halakha.  We might also add to this list the Chafetz Chayim, who elaborated on this point at length in his introduction to Mishna Berura and elsewhere in his writings.  However, if we read these sources more carefully, we reveal an interesting point: not one of them mentions Torah lishmah while stressing the importance of practical learning.  This seems to us to support our claim that when Rava discusses “al menat la’asot” in the context of Torah lishmah, he did not refer to the same point that the aforementioned authors sought to stress.  Rava sees the practical direction of learning as part of the educational and experiential issue of Torah lishmah, and does not address the choice of subject material.


            This argument receives further support from the work of another great author who followed Rava’s lead and – unlike those cited above – did explicitly identify Torah lishmah with the ideal of “al menat la’asot.”  I refer to Rav Eliyahu de Vidas, a disciple of the famed Kabbalist of Safed, Rabbi Moshe Cordovero, and author of the Kabbalistic mussar work entitled Reishit Chokhma.


            The author opens the introduction to his work by setting forth his fundamental outlook:


It is well-known that that the true, main [purpose] of Torah study is to lead toward practical observance, as explained in Masekhet Berakhot, chapter 2 – “Rava would often comment: The purpose of wisdom is repentance and good deeds – that a person should not read and study and then defy his father, his mother, his rabbi, and those greater than him in wisdom and numbers, as it says, ‘The beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord; all who practice it gain good understanding’ (Tehillim 111:10).  It does not say, ‘those who practice,’ but rather ‘those who practice it’ – i.e., those who practice for its sake, and not those who practice not for its sake.  And whoever practices not for its sake – it would have been preferable for him not to have been created”… This teaches that the primary “Torah lishmah” is the Torah which a person studies in order to observe it, and this is the meaning of the verse: When a person affords precedence to “fear of the Lord” over “wisdom,” the wisdom will then grant “good understanding” to “all who practice it,” that the wisdom shall be retained within him, since he studied the wisdom only to use it as a medium to achieve fear, and fear is the “practice.”


The work under discussion is actually named after Rava’s homily (“Reishit Chokhma” – “The Beginning of Understanding”); the homily is clearly a pivotal part of the author’s vision and aim.  We may thus assume that the goal of achieving lishmah was at the forefront of the author’s mind as he composed this work.  However, note that the final sentence in Rabbi Eliyahu de Vidas’s introductory passage discusses “fear of the Lord,” which gives rise to the question: what is the precise purpose served by this “fear” in the context of lishmah?  The verse cited by Rava indeed speaks of “yir’at Hashem” (“fear of the Lord”), but his homily does not explicitly elaborate this theme. We might assume, therefore, that “fear of the Lord” is merely a code-word for mitzva observance.  The author of Reishit Chokhma, however, does makes a point of mentioning this concept in explaining the verse and Rava’s comments.  Did he use the term yir’at Hashem synonymously with mitzva observance, as we might understand from his concluding words – “and fear is the practice” (“ve-yir’a hu ha-ma’aseh”)?


            I believe that this reading misses the mark.  Rabbi Eliyahu de Vidas speaks of yir’at Hashem as the motivational point of departure for learning: “when a person affords precedence to ‘fear of the Lord’ over ‘wisdom’…”  In his view, this sequence transforms the scholarship that a person obtains into “a medium to achieve fear” – before it serves as a means of facilitating practical observance.  Clearly, then, he speaks of “fear” as an internal quality, rather than as mitzva observance.  When he concludes by remarking, “fear is the practice,” he likely means that the student’s yir’at Hashem is then manifest in his conduct.  Indeed, as the author declared at the outset of this introduction, the objective of learning is practical observance.  However, this goal is achieved by cultivating one’s yir’at Hashem as an inner motivation to study.  The wisdom that one studies is then the “medium” that leads to yir’at Hashem, and the practical observance – which is the end result of this process – is the expression of yir’a.

            We may thus contend that in defining Torah lishmah, the Reishit Chokhma sees utmost importance in the inner motivation behind one’s learning.  In fact, the structure of the book clearly reflects this premise.  This work, which explicitly raises the banner of lishmah in the sense of leading to practical observance, is divided into sections named after religious qualities – mainly fear of God, love of God, and holiness.  How do these qualities relate to the author’s clearly stated goal of explaining the concept of lishmah in terms of the desire to practically observe the Torah?  Presumably, Rabbi Eliyahu de Vidas did not believe that the practical observance could succeed if this effort is not built upon personal involvement in, and commitment to, the path of musar outlined in this book.  He apparently felt that either such success is not possible, or the value of this success is questionable.


            Not surprisingly, later in the introduction we find further support for this point, and we cite here only one example.  The author endeavors to explain a comment in the Zohar which lauds those “who exert themselves in Torah day and night.”  If a person does nothing but learn Torah day and night, how does he fulfill the ideal of learning “al menat la’asot”?  The Reishit Chokhma poses this question and presents the following answer:


One should not neglect his involvement in [good] deeds because of his involvement in Torah, for it is possible to accomplish both.  By involving oneself in Torah while adorned with tzitzit and tefillin, which the ancient [scholars] were very careful to do ... one thereby accomplishes both Torah and [good] deeds.


Upon reading his answer, we must wonder, does learning with tallit and tefillin qualify as learning lishmah – obtaining the knowledge necessary for performing mitzvot?  Does the Reishit Chokhma refer here to those who spend the entire day and night learning the laws of tzitzit and tefillin?  Clearly, the value of practical observance in Rabbi Eliyahu de Vidas’s approach relates to the student’s inner commitment to implement the Torah in the realm of action.  This goal is achieved through every mitzva act, including acts that have nothing to do with the material one studies.


            On the other hand, Reishit Chokhma’s approach to this topic is not monolithic.  To the contrary, a close reading of the introduction reveals also the notion of learning which equips the student with the guidance he needs for daily conduct and for avoiding halakhic mistakes.  Thus, for example, he cites the comment of the Sefer Chasidim that one who acts in violation of the halakhot he studied is liable to punishment even for his learning.  However, statements such as these should likely be viewed as details within the main conceptual framework of the Reishit Chokhma, which understands “repentance and good deeds” as referring to a student’s aspirations and the values with which he must profoundly identify as he learns Torah.


D.        Interim Summary


            In this shiur we established a new frame of thought for understanding the topic of Torah lishmah.  The concept demands emotional involvement with the essence of Torah, and the debate between the different views relates to the particular direction this emotional identification ought to take.


            Thus, according to all approaches – including the “utilitarian” approach, on which we focused here – we speak of the inner motivation, and it is this element upon which we must focus when formulating the question that Torah lishmah seeks to answer.  In this vein we explained the possibility that Torah lishmah means “learning for the sake of doing,” as follows: lishmah-study is driven by a vision of sanctifying one’s life of action by implementing the Torah in one’s day-to-day conduct.



            My plan at this point is to clarify this concept with reference to other definitions of Torah lishmah.  Looking ahead to the long term, we will have to address the larger question: What can help today’s student reach that existential involvement in Torah, and can we construct a bridge from the ancient sources that will impact on Torah learning in our current culture?  We will see, I hope, that we are not the first ones to face this issue.