Shiur #18: Bittul Torah As An Existential Problem

  • Rav Elyakim Krumbein



We saw in the previous shiur that understanding the idea of Torah lishmah can give us a framework for dealing with the problem of emotional distance from the Torah. Rav Shlomo Wolbe, author of "Alei Shur," identified alienation, or "strangeness," as the root of this phenomenon. It should be noted that such a perspective is typical of the "Alei Shur," an adherent of the mussar movement, especially as it developed in the Slobodka and Mirrer yeshivas. This school sees man and his greatness as the foundation of its outlook and practices, and this fact is very prominent in Rav Wolbe's book. For example, the book opens with a section titled, "Ma'arekhet ha-Adam," "The System of Man." Hence the humanistic motif in his treatment of the Torah crisis.


In this shiur we shall return to Rav Kook's "Orot ha-Torah," in order to examine the syndrome from another angle, and at the end of the shiur we shall begin to examine how the problem may be attacked. Rav Kook relates to the problem of distance from Torah in the framework of his discussion of the idea of "bittul Torah," "neglect of Torah study," while utilizing the assumption that has recently emerged from our study of the issue of Torah lishmah – the need to live the full scope of life immersed in Torah.




What is "bittul Torah"? Usually we think of it as a passive sin, a close relative to "bittul zeman," wasting time. We could have used our precious time to study Torah, but instead we allowed it to pass "doing nothing." Rabbi Elazar bar Tzadok's statement that one should not say "to your health" when someone sneezes in the Bet Midrash "because of bittul Torah" (Tosefta Shabbat, chap. 7) reflects this understanding. In the same spirit Rav Katina says:


Rain is withheld only because of bittul Torah, as it says: "By much slothfulness (be-atzaltayim) the beams collapse" (Kohelet 10:18) – because of the laziness (atzlut) in Israel who did not occupy themselves in Torah. (Ta'anit 7b)


Bittul Torah in the sense of not learning may also be imposed upon a person owing to poor health:


These are afflictions of love – whatever does not involve bittul Torah. As it is stated: "Blessed is the man who You chasten, O Lord, and teach him out of Your Torah" (Tehillim 94:12). (Berakhot 5b)


There are, however, rabbinic statements that give this concept a wider interpretation. Bittul Torah sometimes denotes a general failure to realize the Torah in practical life. Here are two examples:


The prophets weep over Israel for not observing the Torah. The Holy One, blessed be He, says to them: You weep over bittul Torah, "Thus says the Lord, Keep your voice from weeping" (Yirmiyahu 31:16). (Midrash Tehillim [ed. Buber], psalm 119)


"And my eyes shall weep sore, and run down with tears, because the Lord's flock is carried away captive" (Yirmiyahu 13:17). Rabbi Elazar said: What are these three tears? One – for the First Temple; and one – for the Second Temple; and one – for Israel who were exiled from their place. And some say: one – for bittul Torah. Granted according to the one who says for Israel who were exiled – this is what is written: "because the Lord's flock is carried away captive." But according to the one who says for bittul Torah, what is "because the Lord's flock is carried away captive"? When Israel is exiled from its place, there is no greater bittul Torah than that. (Chagiga 5b)


The concept of bittul Torah may be expanded in another sense as well. Coming to explain the meaning of the Torah as one of "the pillars of the world" (as we learn in Avot 1:2), the Sages say:


And similarly you find that the tribes of Yehuda and Binyamin were exiled only because of the sin of bittul Torah, as it is stated: "For three transgressions of Yehuda, I will turn away his punishment, but for the fourth I will not turn away his punishment" (Amos 2:4). For what? "Because they have despised the Torah of the Lord" (ibid.)… And similarly you find that Jerusalem was destroyed only because of the sin of bittul Torah, as it is stated: "Who gave Yaakov for a spoil, etc." (Yeshayahu 42:24). For what? "And in whose ways they would not walk, and unto whose Torah they were not obedient" (ibid.)… And similarly you find that the land was exiled only because of the sin of bittul Torah, as it is stated: "Because they have not hearkened to My words,[1] nor to My Torah, but have rejected it" (Yirmiyahu 6:19). And so too it says: "Who is the wise man, that may understand this?" (ibid. 9:11), [and it says afterwards] "And the Lord says, Because they have forsaken My Torah" (ibid. v. 12). (Avot de-Rabbi Natan, version B, chap. 5)


If we examine the verses that explain the reason for the exile and destruction, we clearly see that we are not dealing with simple neglect of the Torah, but with an emotional attitude of distance and estrangement: "Because they have despised the Torah of the Lord," "And in whose ways they would not walk," "And they rejected it." These verses bring us back to the topic under discussion – man's existential detachment from the Torah. Thus far we have related to this situation as a predicament, a problem with which we struggle and for which we search for a solution. Here, however, it is identified as one of Yehuda's transgressions, i.e., a sin. Of relevance here is one of the harshest and most well-known rabbinic statements in mussar literature:


Rabbi Nehorai says: Whoever is capable of occupying himself with Torah, but fails to do so – this is: "Because he has despised the word of the Lord"[2] (Bamidbar 15:31). (Sanhedrin 99a, according to the reading of the Rif)


This saying is hard to our ears, and we are surprised by the severity of the judgment. It is undoubtedly harsh to attribute evil intentions to a person who, due to negligence or laziness, fails to study Torah adequately, and it is similarly difficult to see him as one who despises the word of God. On the other hand, it must be admitted that there is a certain logic to this – were the person to appreciate the Torah as he should, he would not come to this passive negligence. But can a person be faulted to this extent for his lack of enthusiasm about Torah study? The confusion that arises here is the blurring of a given existential situation – a person's inability to feel the Torah's sweetness, its illumination and vitality – and the idea that a person is responsible for this situation to the point that he is punished for it.


I confess that faced with this difficulty I find myself toying with a different interpretation of this statement, and I am well aware that I may be accused of being excessively homiletic. Perhaps it is not Rabbi Nehorai's intention to present an indictment, but merely to open our eyes to a difficult existential reality. Perhaps he merely means to point to the root of the phenomenon of non-occupation with the Torah – coldness and lack of appreciation, which in consideration of the preeminence of the Torah, are tantamount to disdain and callousness, which is described as “despising God’s word.” We needn’t conclude that there is a moral judgment here about the negligent person. Whatever the merit of this musing of mine, I mention it here as an introduction to Rav Kook's thoughts on the matter.




It goes almost without saying that Rav Kook's treatment of bittul Torah is novel. An entire chapter (chap. 7) of "Orot ha-Torah" is devoted to the topic of bittul Torah, and even the title of the chapter is fascinating. The chapter is called "The Pain of Bittul Torah." What pain is he talking about? Is he referring to the afflictions that come as punishment for the sin of bittul Torah? Indeed, in rabbinic literature bittul Torah is associated with the issue of reward and punishment. For example, the Gemara suggests that if a person has difficulty understanding why he is suffering, he should "attribute it to bittul Torah" (Berakhot 5a). Nevertheless, the impression that we get from the chapter title is that bittul Torah itself involves pain. A study of the body of the chapter confirms that there are afflictions that don't follow from bittul Torah in the form of cause and effect, but rather they characterize the phenomenon itself.


Let us first examine a comment of Rav Kook regarding bittul Torah, whose incisiveness is, to the best of my knowledge, unparalleled:


The lack of Torah is itself Gehinom. And the flood of external desire, that is opposed to internal desire, constitute ‘the straits of Gehinom,’ that multiply in proportion to the withholding of the light of Torah. (Orot ha-Torah, 7, 6)


Rav Kook speaks of two concepts – "Gehinom" and "the straits of Gehinom." Let us examine each one.


It would seem that Gehinom is the place where the wicked are punished. But the Gehinom of which Rav Kook speaks is not a response to the sin of bittul Torah; rather, the lack of Torah itself is Gehinom. What is this lack of Torah to which Rav Kook refers? Clearly the reference, first and foremost, is to bittul Torah on the individual plane. It stands to reason that bittul Torah here is not merely passive refraining from study, but rather, as Rav Kook says at the end of the aforementioned passage, "the hindrance of the light of the Torah" (and as is intimated in the passage from Avot de-Rabbi Natan, cited above). That is to say, the deep foundation of bittul Torah is the lack of emotional identification with the spiritual and moral objective of the Torah in this world and in the universe in general. All this is true on the individual plane. But it is important to note that, according to Chazal, Gehinom is not a personal-psychological phenomenon, but rather a "place," i.e., a particular dimension of reality. The Torah is "the source of life," as we learned earlier, and detachment from it creates "Gehinom," i.e., a void that has been emptied of all true vitality, not only inside the person, but also in objective reality and human society. In short, the lack of the light of Torah can be felt in the world in general, and it can afflict the individual soul, where it will find expression in the absence of pleasure in Torah study and Divine service.


In order to understand what Rav Kook means when he speaks of "the straits of Gehinom," we must start with another introduction. We have said that the Torah is "the soul of the world," but I wish to bring the novelty of this statement into clearer focus. The idea that the world exists by virtue of the abundance of vitality constantly flowing into from God is rather familiar. We give expression to it every day in our prayer – "who renews the work of creation every day, constantly." But the question is what is the nature of this abundance? It is possible to understand that the world was created in its complete stature, and that the abundance that invigorates it is like oxygen that allows it to continue to exist. But when Rav Kook claims that the abundance that maintains the world is the "Torah," he is introducing a major change. For according to Rav Kook's definition, the Torah is a process of perfection and constant ascent, and by no means mere maintenance of what already exists that is designed to keep it in place. Connection to the vitality that flows into the world is only possible out of a desire and aspiration to improve and elevate - that is to say, out of commitment to repentance. Someone who wishes to mark time while standing in place - that is to say, to engage in bittul Torah - lacks this desire, and thus he lives in "Gehinom."


This is the meaning of the second sentence in the words of Rav Kook cited above: Living is only possible by virtue of desire, i.e., aspiration. Standing in place is not living. The reference is to "internal desire," true desire for real advancement, which involves spiritual and moral ascent. The lack of such desire is the lack of Torah, i.e., Gehinom. "The straits of Gehinom" enter the picture at a second stage. External desires, aspirations directed toward false and evil objectives that try to imitate the desire for true vitality, inundate the soul – both the universal and the individual – and prevent any connection to internal desire. The person becomes filled with a false feeling of vitality through addiction to external idols. This development constitutes "the straits" of Gehinom, because it turns Gehinom into a place that is impossible to leave. After being blinded, there is no way to arouse the internal desire. "The straits of Gehinom" intoxicate a person and deceive him perfectly, causing him to forget where he is.


As is evident, Rav Kook's outlook takes bittul Torah beyond the world of crime and punishment. The term now denotes the profound problem of distance from the Torah. The contact and involvement with the "soul" and essence of the Torah, which according to Rav Kook defines study as Torah lishmah, emerges once again as the very heart of the connection, and not only an added virtue. The lack of this connection is itself bittul Torah, and it illuminates the sharp castigations of Chazal regarding bittul Torah, as well as the protests of the prophets against those who "despise" the Torah and do not want to obey it.




Let us now move on to the passage that closes chapter 7 of "Orot ha-Torah" and deals with the question that begs to be asked – how does one get out of Gehinom?


Sometimes a person feels the great pain of the diminution of his Torah resulting from bittul Torah and the constriction of knowledge, which obscure the spiritual light of the Torah, to the point that he can imagine the straits of Gehinom that take hold of anyone who slackens his hand from the Torah. And owing to the great dread induced by this picture, his soul is cleansed from its dross, and when he begins to diligently apply himself to Torah – the practical and the spiritual - he feels the purity of his reason, the depth of his feeling, the serenity of his soul, and the flash of his imagination, joined together with all the coveted personality traits, which are part of the divine blessing that comes with the light of the Torah.


Once again Rav Kook speaks of the pain of bittul Torah, and he notes that a person sometimes "merits" to feel it in its full intensity. This painful feeling is the beginning of a process of awakening. What is the source of this pain, and why is it usually repressed?


It is clear that the neglect of Torah study in practice is merely the overt dimension of this phenomenon. The inner dimension of this confusion is the diminution of the Torah that results from a constriction of knowledge. More than a quantitative deficiency, we are dealing here with the obscuring of the spiritual light of the Torah. It appears that the "diminution of the Torah" of which Rav Kook speaks is a qualitative diminution, a darkening of its light.[3] Knowledge becomes constricted, the person is not aware of or connected to the meaning of the Torah in his life; he does not appreciate it ("he has despised the word of the Lord"), it does not illuminate for him, and he occupies himself with it in an incidental and feeble manner.


Why don't we feel this pain at all times? Rav Kook paints us a picture in which the student imagines for himself all those who have encountered "the straits of Gehinom." These people themselves are totally unaware of their wretched situation. They are inundated by external desires, and their minds are totally distracted from their inability to identify with the Torah. Their true situation does not begin to bother them, and they appear to be happy and cheerful.


The passage closes with encouragement and hope. The student's eyes open and he begins a process of repair. How does this happen, and what causes it? I think we can understand it in the following way.


When a person sees people seized by external desires, he begins to understand the process. These people slackened their hands from the Torah. That is to say, they studied Torah, they observed the mitzvot, they served God, but in a feeble manner, because they thought that the Torah is merely intellect, cognition and dry observance, without all those additional connections and "actions" with which we have already become acquainted. They failed to muster up their emotional faculties, their longing and joy, their aspiration and desire for sanctity in their encounter with the Torah, and thus they directed their vital faculties to other horizons, for there is no vacuum in spirituality. From that moment, their external desires seized control of their souls.


This process gives rise to a sense of dread, as Rav Kook writes. What is sin of these people? All that we are dealing with is a certain human weakness, neglect and negligence. Is their fate justified? Once again it should be emphasized that we are not dealing here with reward and punishment. Rather, this is the way the world of the spirit works; this is the nature of the spiritual mechanism.


I wish to illustrate this idea with the help of an idea found in the writings of one of Rav Kook's most important disciples, Rav Yaakov Moshe Charlop, z"l (in his book "Ori ve-Yish'i, pp. 3-4). He argues that since the foundation of existence is good, and this is especially true regarding the people of Israel, it is impossible for a Jew to commit a sin, unless there was some previous sin, in which case the rule that "one sin leads to another" is operative. The natural state is that there is no possibility whatsoever of sin, and if we see a Jew sinning, he must have fallen into a dynamic of transgression that keeps dragging him from one sin to the next. Of course the question arises – where did the first sin come from? Rav Charlop answers that indeed the natural state is not to sin, but this is true only of actual transgressions, i.e., forbidden actions. "The first sin" is not really an actual transgression, but rather a positive mitzva that was indeed fulfilled, but in a careless manner, with no love or loftiness, thus testifying to a lack of appreciation of the mitzva's worth. This negligence is not a transgression, but it creates a negative dynamic that leads to actual sin.


Similarly, bittul Torah is fundamentally a lack of emotional connection, and it sets in motion a process of creating a bogus connection, one that binds a person to "external" desires in which he thinks he will find his vitality. The inner energy leads in the direction of emotional distance from the Torah. When a person understands this dynamic, his soul becomes cleansed from the dross that up until now had obscured its importance, and his mind becomes settled. A longing for Torah is born within him the moment that he understands that those people's mistake was the idea that "longing" and Torah do not go together. He occupies himself with Torah, as Rav Kook writes, "both the practical and the spiritual," that is to say, the halakhic and the moral-conceptual. When he does this, he experiences all the elements of his inner existence in their fullest and at their best:


The purity of his reason, the depth of his feeling, the serenity of his soul, and the flash of his imagination, joined together with all the coveted personality traits, which are part of the divine blessing that comes with the light of the Torah.


This conclusion is surprising. We rejoice in this person's happiness – but here too there is no "justice." What did he do to merit such a wonderful change? All he did was "begin to diligently apply himself to Torah"! Once again we see that we are dealing with certain spiritual “laws of nature,” rather than a mechanism of reward and punishment that is dispensed according to what a person "deserves" from a moral perspective. Yet, just as we tried to decipher the process of decline, so we will have to try to unravel the inner logic of the tikkun-process.




I should point out that our series of twenty shiurim is drawing close to its end. Exhausting the topic is an impossible goal even for a longer attempt. In any event, whatever we learn must be digested, and therefore not continuing at excessive length is a good idea. I would like to ask the participants in this course to begin to formulate their thoughts, and to consider what among the things that we have learned was important, new, relevant, enriching, difficult or impossible – and most of all, "what will I be taking from all this for myself." Beli neder, in the final shiur I shall summarize what we have learned.


(Translated by David Strauss)



[1] Radak: "Like: 'they have not hearkened to my Torah.' For 'my words' refer to the words of the prophets who admonish them. And 'my Torah' means the Torah of Moshe. Not only do they not hearken to it when they read it to them, but they despise it and do not want to read or hear it."

[2] The verse in its entirety reads: "Because he has despised the word of the Lord, and has broken His commandment, that soul shall utterly be cut off; his iniquity shall be upon him."

[3] Rav Kook uses the word “mi’ut”, which the midrash uses in the context of the diminution, e.g. the darkening of the moon.