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Simanim 155-156 The Appropriate Relationship between Torah Learning and Work

  • Rav Asher Meir
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Mishna Berura
Yeshivat Har Etzion

SHIUR #91: Simanim 155-156


by Rav Asher Meir



In these two simanim, the Shulchan Arukh relates to the appropriate relationship between Torah learning and work.  The conclusion is that even though Torah learning takes precedence - both temporally (Torah time is earlier in the morning than work time - siman 155) and in importance (Torah is fixed and work is flexible - siman 156) - even so, a person may not neglect his livelihood, as doing so will lead to the neglect of God's service.


There is certainly a tension between the need for a Torah student to feel that learning is everything and the need for a Torah-true person to maintain basic dignity - which means acting to avoid becoming a beggar.  This tension is dealt with in the Mishna, Talmud, Rishonim, and Acharonim, and is a notable source of ideological sparring today, when the "Kollel culture" is so prominent. 


In some communities, especially in Israel, going to work will affect what kind of match a young man will be offered.  Even a young lady may find her shidduch prospects "compromised" by going to work or studying a trade rather than going to teacher's seminary.  (Though I know of many cases where such "compromised" girls found fine matches with "compromised" boys and lived happily ever after - all the time remaining perfectly proper haredim). Occasionally being a working person may even affect the Torah school to which the children will be accepted.


An entire book would be too short to adequately deal with this question, but I will nevertheless try in a regular-length shiur to fairly present both sides of the controversy.  Please read the Shulchan Arukh, Mishna Berura, and Beur Halakha with care; then examine the shiur.  The bulk of the shiur is source material, most of which finds its way into the SA, MB, and BH.  At the end I bring some stories which I think help to round out the picture, and put the words of the Mishna Berura into context.




1.  Rabban Gamliel the son of Rebbe Yehuda HaNasi says, It is fitting to match Torah study with "derekh eretz" (the way of the world), for the exertion of both together puts sin out of one's mind.  And all Torah not matched with work is destined to be undone, and brings sin in its wake.

(Avot 2:2)


2.  Rebbe Meir says, a man should ever teach his son a clean and easy trade, and pray to He to whom all wealth and property belong.  Rebbe Nehorai says, I  leave aside all of the trades in the world and I don't teach my son anything but Torah.

(Kiddushin 4:14)




1.  The Rabbis taught (in a beraita): "And you shall gather in your grain" (Devarim 11:14).  What does this come to tell us?! Since it is written (Yehoshua 1:8), "The scroll of the Torah shall not leave your mouth," could I think that this is meant literally? Therefore the Torah teaches, "And you shall gather in your grain" - it is necessary to conduct one's self in the way of the world.  So says Rebbe Yishmael.


Rebbe Shimon bar Yochai says: could it be that a man is meant to plow at the time of plowing, sow at the time of sowing, harvest at the time of harvesting, thresh at the time of threshing, and winnow at the time of winnowing - what will happen to the Torah?! Rather, when the people of Israel do the will of God, their work is done by others.


Abaye said, many acted like Rebbe Yishmael and were successful; like Rebbe Shimon bar Yochai - and were unsuccessful.  (Berakhot 35b)


2.  The Rabbis taught (in a beraita): A man is obligated to his son: to circumcise him, to ransom him, to teach him Torah, to find him a wife, and to teach him a trade; and some say, to teach him to swim.  Rebbe Yehuda says, anyone who doesn't teach his son a trade, has taught him thievery.  Taught him thievery?! Rather, it is AS IF he taught him thievery.  (Kiddushin 29a)


3.  As Rav said to Rav Kahana, skin hides in the market place in return for wages, but never say "I am a great man, and this is beneath me".  (Bava Metzia 110a)




Zevulun would engage in trade, while Yissachar occupied himself to Torah, and Zevulun would supply his needs; for this reason the Torah mentions Zevulun first [in Devarim 33:18].

(Bereishit Rabba on Bereishit 49:13, cited in Rashi on Devarim 33:18)




1.  Anyone who contemplates that he will occupy himself with Torah and not do any work, and will support himself from charity money - such a person profanes God's name, disgraces the Torah, extinguishes the light of worship, damages himself, and removes himself from the World to Come, for it is forbidden to profit from Torah in this world.

(Rambam Talmud Torah 3:10)


2.  Not only the tribe of Levi, but any man in the world whose spirit drives him, and whose knowledge enlightens him, to separate himself to stand before Hashem to serve Him and to do His word, to know Hashem; and who goes straight, as God formed him, and shirks the yoke of myriad petty calculations which men are always inventing - such a man has sanctified himself into the holy of holies Hashem will be his portion and inheritance for ever, and he will merit in this world enough [material possessions] for his needs.

(Rambam Shemitta and Yovel 13:13)




The Rema on Yoreh Deah 246:21 summarizes these layers of rulings.  First he cites the Rambam's ruling that it is improper to accept community support.  But then he limits the ruling to someone whose learning would not be compromised in any way by declining such support - mainly someone who is independently wealthy.  He then writes: "However, one who can support himself well from his own work and still occupy himself with Torah, this is a pious trait and a gift from God.  But this is not a way for every man, for it is impossible for most people to occupy themselves with Torah and grow in its wisdom and still support themselves."




1.  The Kesef Mishna (written by Rav Yosef Karo, author of the Shulchan Arukh) comments at length on the Rambam's ruling in the laws of Talmud Torah, cited above.  He points out that the Rambam himself seems to imply that providing a community stipend to Rabbis and Kollel students was in fact the prevailing custom through the time of the Rambam, and refutes at length the proofs of the Rambam that accepting such support is improper. 


He concludes: "And we see that all the Sages of Israel prior to the time of [the Rambam] and afterwards have been accustomed to accept a stipend from the community.  And even though generally we rule in accordance with the Rambam in his commentary on the Mishna (Avot 4:5), perhaps all the Sages of all the generations agreed to this because of (Tehillim 119:126) "et laasot la-Shem, heferu Toratekha" (when it is urgently necessary to act to strengthen Torah study for the sake of Hashem, relax restrictions on Torah study - Temura 14b).  For if there were no ready livelihood for the students and teachers, they would be unable to properly exert themselves in Torah study, and the Torah would be forgotten, God forbid."


2.  The Maharsha comments on Abaye's conclusion in the gemara in Berakhot that MANY acted in accordance with the view of Rebbe Shimon bar Yochai and were unsuccessful.  But if the FEW act in this way, if a small number of those who hear a special call devote themselves exclusively to Torah study like Rav Shimon bar Yochai and his students, then they CAN be successful.




1.  In the notes at the back of "Nefesh HaChayim" ("Etz HaChaim" 18), it is recorded that some students of Rav Chaim Volozhin were reluctant to make "Yissachar and Zevulun" agreements with well-to-do merchants, because the Midrash indicates that in this case the merchant would precede the scholar in receiving the heavenly reward for the study.  Rav Chaim rebuked them for this attitude, accusing them of not learning Torah "lishma," for its own sake, in order to carry out Hashem's will, but rather for the sake of a (heavenly) reward.


2.  I was once present when Rav Zalman Nechemia Goldberg (a prominent Jerusalem Dayan, and son-in-law of Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach zt"l) was consulted by a yeshiva boy regarding his interest in studying medicine.  The young man asked how the community to which he belonged could seemingly disregard our Sages' admonition to take steps to remain self-supporting.  Rav Goldberg responded with the following story:


A certain Jew once confronted Rav Elchanan Wasserman, asking how haredim could neglect the beraita (cited above)  which says that a father is obligated to teach his son a trade.  (Rav Wasserman, author of "Kovetz Shiurim," was very adamant that Yeshiva students should strive to devote all their time to study). Rav Wasserman pointed out that this beraita also compels the father to circumcise his son.  As we know, if two sons die from this procedure, then the father should not circumcise his other sons (Shulchan Arukh Yoreh Deah 263:2). Likewise, Rav Wasserman saw that many young people died, that is defected from Torah observance, when they pursued trades.


3.  I once asked Rav Shmuel Auerbach (the son of Rav Shlomo Zalman) how I could encourage certain young Kollel men (dicants) to find work, and he told me that a good approach is to remind them that the first obligation they undertook in their ketuba is "lemiflach" - to work to support their wives. 


But this too has a rejoinder.  In "Sippurei Chasidim" (Mishpatim number 198), Rav Zevin tells of one of the early Chasidic masters, Rav Uri the "Seraph" of  Sterlisk, who was asked how he could neglect his wife and children, insofar as his ketuba obligates him to work.  Rav Uri pointed out that the ketuba obliges the husband to support his wife "bekushta" - in truth, implying that the search for truth (Torah study) has precedence.





We can distinguish between four different sources of livelihood:


1.  Self-support: Everyone agrees that this is an ideal.  The Rambam considers it obligatory, but most authorities feel that if accepting community support will help the student grow in Torah, it is appropriate.  The Rema considers self-support to be pious conduct for the few, so long as Torah study is not neglected.


2.  Support from a particular patron who agrees of his own free will to support a particular Torah scholar.  This is as good as level 1, and the Rambam himself was supported for many years by his brother David, a successful gem merchant.  This level even has an advantage over the previous one, since the merit of study is spread around and hence increased, and the student demonstrates that he is learning for the sole purpose of learning the ways of God, not for a reward.  (See Beur Halakha d.h. "sofa beteila.")  The European tradition of "essen teg," where local families voluntarily provided meals to Yeshiva students, exemplified this approach.


3.  Community support: The accepted custom for at least a thousand years is that the community takes upon itself to support a respectable-sized community of Torah scholars - teachers and students - in a dignified way.  Taxes are imposed on householders to maintain this support.  While the Rambam denounced this system, the Kesef Mishna refutes his proofs and asserts that even if such conduct WERE improper, the restriction would need to be relaxed in order to encourage intensive Torah study.


4.  Charity: Neglect of livelihood to the extent of incurring a likelihood of having to rely on charity is seemingly NOT sanctioned by the traditional sources, and this is a level which the Shulchan Arukh warns can lead a person to stray from the will of the Creator. 


However, we find some evidence that for the chosen few who feel a special call, it is not inappropriate to ignore the calculations of livelihood (including a Kollel stipend) and hearken to the call of exclusive Torah study, come what may.  This is what the Rambam seems to imply in the laws of Shemitta and Yovel, what the Maharsha suggests in his commentary on Berakhot (that "the few" can act like Rav Shimon bar Yochai, who advises relying on Divine aid), and what we can infer from Rav Zevin's story about the "Seraph" of Sterlisk.


Perhaps the whole controversy in our day over when students should be encouraged to turn their attention towards a future livelihood (some start in first grade, others only when the family is on the verge of starvation) is really a disagreement over who can be considered the "chosen few."  Some people think that in a generation where Torah observance is so weak, any Jew who manages to hang on to strict observance should be considered one of the "chosen few" and thus be encouraged to devote himself exclusively to Torah study.  (We could interpret Rav Wasserman's statement this way.)  Others think that it is impossible to view an entire community, regardless of its miniscule size in relationship to the entire Jewish people, as being a "chosen few."  They maintain that such a status must come from an inner call, not a community affiliation.