Study and Practice

  • Harav Aharon Lichtenstein
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Student Summaries of Sichot of the Roshei Yeshiva
Yeshivat Har Etzion

Parashat mishpatim



Study and Practice

Translated by Kaeren Fish


At the beginning of this week’s parasha, God says to Moshe:


Ascend to Me, to the mountain, and be there, and I shall give you the tablets of stone and the teaching (‘ha-torah’) and the commandment which I have written to instruct them. (24:12)


The Gemara (Berakhot 5a) interprets the verse as follows: “’To instruct them’ – this refers to the Gemara.” Rashi (ad loc.) elaborates: “[‘The Gemara’ refers to] the logic of the reasons behind the mishnayot, from which instruction emerges.”


According to this explanation, the term “Gemara” parallels what we call “limmud be-iyyun” (in-depth study): analysis of mishnayot, resolution of contradictions, raising logical assumptions, etc. It is for this reason, it seems, that the Gemara links the word of the verse that refers to halakhic decision-making – “lehorotam, to instruct them” – specifically to in-depth analysis and study. Rashi addresses this point by commenting: “However, those who make halakhic decisions based solely on the Mishna are called destroyers of the world.“


Seemingly, what Rashi is telling us is that the importance of in-depth Gemara study is that it leads us to the correct ruling; it is study for the sake of clarifying Halakha. Indeed, Ramban (in his commentary on the Torah) connects our verse with a verse in parashat Vaetchanan: “And I spoke to you all of the commandments and the statutes and the judgments that you should teach them, in order that they will perform them in the land which I give them to possess” (Devarim 5:28). In his view, this verse too implies that the purpose of study is to know the laws.


These interpretations would seem to suggest that in-depth study is merely a means by which a person ultimately arrives at proper and worthy action. However, this impression is certainly incorrect. Study has great importance in its own right, even without any connection to action. Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin elaborated at great length on this principle, and a great many teachings of Chazal may be invoked to support it. The fact that there are sections of the Torah that are devoted to situations that never came about, nor will they ever come about (such as the “rebellious son” and the “city that is led astray”), certainly indicates that the significance of the learning goes beyond merely acquiring the knowledge necessary to perform the commandments. Studying Torah brings one to knowledge and love of God; the practical side is only part of its function and importance.


At the same time, it must be kept in mind that action is important, and the midrashim here emphasize this. Shemot Rabba (30:13) on our parasha records the following:


“One who accepts gifts overthrows it [i.e., justice]“ (Mishlei 29:4) – this refers to a learned scholar who knows laws and midrashot and aggadot, but when an orphan and a widow go to him and ask that he judge their case, he tells them, “I am busy with my study,” or “I am not available.” God tells him: I consider you as though you had destroyed the world.


According to the midrash, if a person engages in study and does not take time to help those in need, he is considered as having destroyed the world!


Another aspect is emphasized further on in the midrash (30:14):


David said: “Fear of God is pure, remaining forever” (Tehillim 19:10) – a person may study midrash, laws and aggadot, but if he has no fear of sin, he has nothing. This may be compared to a person who tells his friend, “I have a thousand measures of grain,” “I have a thousand measures of oil and a thousand of wine.” His friend asks: “Do you have a receptacle in which to keep them? If so – it is all yours; if not – you have nothing.” Similarly, a person who studies everything may be told: “If you have fear of sin, then it is all yours, as it is written: ‘It shall be the surety for your times… the fear of God is his otzar (lit., storehouse)’ (Yeshayahu 33:6).


A similar message arises from the Gemara (Shabbat 31a) concerning the same verse in Yeshayahu:


Rabbi Levi said: What is the meaning of the verse, “It shall be the surety for your times, a store of salvation, wisdom and knowledge…” (Yeshayahu 33:6)? “Surety” – this refers to the Seder (Mishnaic Order) of Zera’im; “Your times” – this refers to Mo’ed; “a store” – Nashim; “salvation” – Nezikin; “wisdom” – Kodashim; “and knowledge” – Seder Taharot. Even so, “the fear of God is his storehouse” … If fear of God is his storehouse, he will possess these; if not, not.  This may be compared to a person who tells his emissary, “Bring up a bushel of wheat to the attic.” The latter brings it up. The owner asks, “Did you mix in a handful of ‘chomton’ (a preservative)?” The emissary answers, “No.” The man says, “Then it would have been better had you not brought it.”


One’s study is devoid of significance if it does not bring about improvement of one’s character and a closer relationship with God.


The three midrashim cited above show the negative side of focusing on study without practice. The problem would seem to exist on three different levels:

a.        A person who studies Torah as if it were any other discipline, with no intention of implementing what it says, belongs to the second category mentioned in Shabbat 88b: “For those who employ it rightly, it is an elixir of life; for those who employ it wrongly, it is a potion of death.” The Yerushalmi (Shabbat 1:2 at the end) uses even harsher language: “If a person studies without intention of performing what he has learned, it would have been better had the placenta turned itself over his face, such that he would never have been born.”

b.        If a person fulfills the dictates of the Torah but has no fear of sin, he has a split personality. The concepts of “lilmod u-lelamed, to learn and to teach” are severed from “lishmor, la’asot u-lekayem, to keep and to perform and to fulfill.” He does not regard study and action as a unified system.

c.        A person who has no fear of sin renders his learning worthless, as reflected in the parable in the Gemara in Shabbat. The mishna in Avot teaches a similar lesson: “If a person’s fear of sin is greater than his wisdom, then his wisdom will last. If his wisdom is greater than his fear of sin, his wisdom will not last.”


Thus, we have seen that while there is great importance to investing oneself in study, it is also important to apply oneself to action – especially when it comes to taking care of the needy, such as orphans and widows. According to what we have said, a ben Torah has the weighty responsibility of combining these endeavors, and at times this is, unquestionably, a complex task. This is the founding principle of yeshivot hesder: intensive study, on the one hand, along with contributing to public welfare, on the other.


In our times, there is no greater way of helping the Jewish people (at least in Israel) than helping to defend the very existence of the State. In this regard we are at odds with the two opposite ends of the religious spectrum. There are those who neglect Torah study as an independent value, focusing only on communal needs along with some instruction in practical disciplines, while there are others who are focused solely on Torah study, and who do not participate in the defense of the State as a key part of contributing to the public. The path we have chosen is admittedly a complex one, but this is the challenge facing our generation, and it is one that benei Torah must successfully meet.



(This sicha was delivered on Shabbat parashat Mishpatim 5755 [1995].)