Does Involvement in Torah Study Exempt One from Mitzvot? (Part 1 of 2)

  • Harav Aharon Lichtenstein


  1. The Problem
    1. Torah Study and Marriage
      1. Mitzvot that can be performed by others
      2. Mitzvot with no deadline
    2. Megilla Reading
    3. Prayer
    4. Sukka
    5. Tefillin
    6. All Mitzvot
    7. Shema
  2. An Alternate Understanding of the Rambam
    1. Procreation and Megilla
    2. Sukka
    3. Shema and Prayer
    4. Tefillin
    5. Mitzvot of Speech
    6. All Mitzvot
    7. Shema and Public Teaching




The Rambam writes (Hilkhot Ishut 15:2):

Men are obligated in procreation (periyya u-reviyya), but not women.  When is a man obligated in this mitzva?  From the age of seventeen.  Once he reaches [the age of] twenty years and has not married, he has transgressed and neglected a positive commandment.  However, if he is involved in Torah and engrossed in it, and he fears that if he marries, he will have to busy himself with supporting a wife and thereby come to neglect Torah study, then it is permissible for him to delay [marriage]; for one who is involved in a mitzva is exempt from another mitzva – all the more so regarding Torah study.

The source for delaying the mitzva of procreation for the sake of Torah study is the beraita cited in the first chapter of Kiddushin (29b): “Studying Torah and marrying – one should first study Torah and then marry.”  The halakha in and of itself is easily understood.  The Rambam’s explanation, however, raises considerable difficulty.  Within the framework of the sugya, we could explain that no obligation exists to fulfill the mitzva of procreation at a specific age; where do we find a mitzva that takes effect at the age of seventeen or twenty?[1]  Rather, this mitzva must be fulfilled at some point over the course of one’s life.  Performing it earlier simply constitutes zerizut (zeal in mitzva performance).  Therefore, we should have no need to enlist the principle of “ha-osek be-mitzva patur min ha-mitzva” (someone involved in one mitzva is exempt from performing another mitzva) to sanction its delay; there is no requirement to fulfill this mitzva immediately, and thus one may study Torah and delay marriage even without the formal exemption.  Moreover, it stands to reason that according to the Gemara’s conclusion, which distinguishes between the residents of Babylonia and those of the Land of Israel in this regard (the Babylonians would marry and then study Torah, while those in the Land of Israel would do the reverse), this entire discussion involves not an outright halakha, but rather advice as to the proper mode of conduct.[2]  However, the Rambam, apparently on the basis of a later passage in that same sugya – “Until twenty years, the Almighty sits in anticipation waiting for the individual to marry; once he reaches twenty years and has not married, He says: ‘Let his bones rot!’ ” – establishes as an ironclad rule that delaying marriage past the age of twenty constitutes a violation of the mitzva.[3]  The Rambam is thus compelled to employ the principle of “osek be-mitzva” in order to permit delaying marriage out of concern for the loss of Torah study.

The application of “osek be-mitzva” to this context requires an explanation.  It is commonly assumed that this exemption from mitzvot (on the basis of involvement in another mitzva) takes effect only with regard to someone involved in a mitzva act – but not to one involved in Torah study.  The Gemara (Shabbat 11a) explicitly posits:

Scholars involved in Torah interrupt [their learning] for the recitation of Shema, but do not interrupt for tefilla.  Rabbi Yochanan said: “This applies to those of the ilk of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and his colleagues, whose Torah [study] was their [sole] occupation.  Those like us, however, interrupt [Torah study] for [both] the recitation of Shema and tefilla.”

In other words, those “whose Torah is their occupation” interrupt their learning to observe biblical obligations, such as reciting Shema, but not obligations of rabbinic origin, such as the formal tefilla, the thrice-daily prayer known as Shemoneh Esreh.  Others, however, interrupt Torah study to fulfill rabbinic obligations as well.  The Rambam codifies this halakha accordingly (Hilkhot Keri’at Shema 2:5):

If one is involved in Torah study when the time for the recitation of Shema arrives, he must interrupt [his learning] and read, reciting the blessings before and after. 

He likewise writes in Hilkhot Tefilla (6:8):

One who is involved in Torah study when the time for tefilla arrives must interrupt [his learning] and pray.  If Torah is his sole occupation and he does no work at all, and he is involved in Torah at the time for prayer, he does not interrupt, for the mitzva of Torah study is greater than the mitzva of tefilla.

This calls into question the Rambam’s ruling exempting one involved in Torah study from the Torah obligation of procreation on the grounds of “ha-osek be-mitzva patur min ha-mitzva.”  Presumably, this ruling applies even to those for whom Torah is not their sole occupation.  At first glance, one may wish to claim that only Shema and prayer, which involve kabbalat ol malkhut shamayim (accepting the yoke of divine kingship), require one to interrupt his learning.  Such a distinction, however, does not seem plausible.  In any event, the Yerushalmi explicitly extends this requirement to interrupt one’s learning to other mitzvot, beyond Shema and prayer.  The Yerushalmi (Bikkurim 3:3) discusses a situation of one studying Torah when an elderly person walks by, normally requiring those around him to stand by virtue of the obligation, “You shall rise before the aged” (Vayikra 19:32):

Rabbi Ze’ira said: Rabbi Acha would interrupt [his learning] and stand, following the baraita that teaches, “Scribes who write Torah scrolls, tefillin and mezuzot interrupt for the recitation of Shema, but do not interrupt for tefilla.  Rabbi Chananya ben Akavya says: Just as they interrupt for the recitation of Shema, so do they interrupt for tefilla, tefillin and all other mitzvot of the Torah.”

This becomes even clearer – not only with regard to the scribe, but also with respect to one learning Torah – in a discussion elsewhere in the Yerushalmi, surrounding the comment of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai: “We, for example, who are involved in Torah study, do not interrupt even for the recitation of Shema.” The Yerushalmi (Berakhot 1:2) asks:

Does Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai not agree that one interrupts [Torah learning] to build a sukka and prepare a lulav?  Does Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai not accept [the principle], “Study in order to perform, and do not study without the intention to perform, for one who studies without the intention to perform – it would have been preferable for his placenta to have been turned backwards, such that he would never have entered the world”?[4]

Thus, one involved in Torah learning does not earn an exemption from mitzvot.  The Rambam, however, not only equates Torah learning with other mitzvot, but even writes, “One who is involved in a mitzva is exempt from another mitzva – all the more so regarding Torah study.”  Rav Yosef Karo in his Shulchan Arukh (EH 1:3) adopts the Rambam’s ruling but omits his reasoning, understandably so.  Indeed, the Rambam’s comments require an explanation.


1. Mitzvot That Can Be Performed By Others

The difficulty becomes even stronger in light of the Rambam’s own comments in Hilkhot Talmud Torah (3:3-4):

There is none among all the mitzvot equal to Torah study; rather, Torah study equals them all [combined], as study leads to performance.  Therefore, study always takes precedence over performance.  If one has before him [the choice between] the performance of a mitzva and Torah study, if the mitzva can be performed by others, he should not interrupt his study; otherwise, he performs the mitzva and returns to his study.

Despite his immense praise of Torah study, the Rambam establishes an ironclad rule that it does not exempt one from a mitzva that cannot be performed by others.  We never find such a distinction affecting the exemption of osek be-mitzva elsewhere, which apparently leads us to conclude that the standard provisions of osek be-mitzva do not apply to Torah study. (Moreover, the prevalent view among the Rishonim follows the Ramban’s position[5] that one involved in a mitzva that can be performed by others is exempt even from mitzvot that cannot be fulfilled without him.) 

Rav Yosef Karo in his Kesef Mishneh cites as the Rambam’s source the Yerushalmi’s ruling (Pesachim 3:7):

It was agreed upon… that learning takes precedence over performance.  The rabbis of Caesarea said, “This applies only if there is someone else to perform; but if there is no one else to perform, then performance takes precedence.” 

In truth, however, this distinction emerges from the discussion in the Talmud Bavli (Mo’ed Katan 9b):

They asked: Scripture (Mishlei 3:15) says [of the Torah]: “It is more precious than rubies; all of your desires cannot equal it,” implying that the Almighty’s desires [i.e. mitzvot] can equal it; but it also says (ibid. 8:11), “All desires cannot equal it,” implying that even the Almighty’s desires cannot equal it!  [Answer thus:] one speaks of a mitzva that can be performed by others, and the other speaks of a mitzva that cannot be performed by others.[6]

The Me’iri writes:

Although they said that one involved in a mitzva is exempt from other mitzvot, Torah study is not included in this rule.  Rather, if a mitzva comes the way of one who is involved in Torah, he may not neglect [his learning] for [the sake of the mitzva] if the mitzva can be performed by others… If it cannot be performed by others, such as if he is the only one qualified, or the mitzva is incumbent upon him personally (as in lulav, shofar, honoring one’s father and mother… and similar cases), the mitzva takes precedence and one must leave his Torah study in order to fulfill it.  He does not remove the obligation from upon him through his fulfillment of the mitzva of Torah study, even [to perform] a less stringent mitzva.  Although someone involved in a mitzva is exempt from other mitzvot, this is not applicable to Torah study, since its primary role is to give one the knowledge to perform the other mitzvot.

It thus emerges explicitly, based on the sugya, that someone involved in Torah study does not earn an exemption from other mitzvot, as he would when involved in other mitzvot.  Therefore, the Rambam’s ruling here, which, presumably, is also based on the discussion in Mo’ed Katan, seems to contradict his comments in Hilkhot Ishut.

Several of the major Acharonim have already addressed this difficulty in the Rambam’s rulings and suggested various solutions.  The Maharam Schick (EH 1) writes:

In truth, I find this reason difficult: is one involved in Torah exempt from all the mitzvot written in the Torah?  This question is raised in the Yerushalmi, in the first chapter of Shabbat… and the answer there does not apply here.  Such is the conclusion in Mo’ed Katan 9b, that regarding a mitzva that cannot be performed by others, one must abandon his Torah study and perform the mitzva.  We must therefore consider [the mitzva of] procreation one that can be performed by others, for its main reason is to fill and settle the world. Ben Azzai formulated this beautifully when he said (Yevamot 63b), “The world can go on through others.”  Therefore, Ben Azzai, who was overcome by love for the Torah and never stopped or neglected his study, was not required to neglect it [in order to wed] and was never obligated to stop his learning.  Others, however, at times neglect and interrupt Torah study; therefore, at those points, they have the obligation to marry.  The Rambam therefore rules that all this applies if the individual is not concerned… [that he will lose opportunities for Torah study]; but one who fears that he will thereby neglect his Torah study, certainly his Torah study takes precedence.

This explanation seems startling.  The Maharam Schick is absolutely certain that the mitzva of peru u-revu, “Be fruitful and multiply” (Bereshit 1:28), is not an individual obligation that applies personally to every Jewish male.  Were it an individual obligation, would it matter that its general goal – even if we assume that we are entitled to and capable of defining it – can be realized by others?  In the end, Shimon cannot fulfill Reuven’s personal obligation.  If we would speak only of the obligation of shevet, which is rooted in the verse, “He did not create [the world] a waste, but He formed it for habitation (la-shevet yetzarah)” (Yeshayahu 45:18), then indeed, we could reasonably claim that its obligation and essential fulfillment (whether of Scriptural or rabbinic origin) do not involve a private obligation, but are rather charged upon society at large; the individual bears responsibility in this regard only insofar as he is part of society.[7]  In fact, it stands to reason that if the goal of populating the Earth can be reached by some other means, without any action on the part of the Jewish people (for example, a situation arises that we may define as overpopulation), no obligation of shevet would exist whatsoever.  But how can we posit such a theory concerning the mitzva of periyya u-reviyya?  It seems perfectly clear that the description, “it can be performed by others,” applies only to mitzvot such as charity and kindness, which involve the achievement of certain goals, but the specific acts of which are not charged upon this individual or another.  However, the more a given obligation requires a specific action and relates to the individual, then by its very definition it cannot be fulfilled by others.  It seems clear that this is indeed the case concerning the mitzva of procreation.[8]

The question, then, returns: how can one be exempt because this mitzva may be performed by others?  Do we use the reasoning behind a mitzva to transfer one’s obligation to others?


2. Mitzvot with No Deadline

The Arukh Ha-shulchan also addresses this problem.  After summarizing the Rambam’s position and underlying reason, he adds (EH 1:13):

Although someone involved in Torah [study] cannot exempt himself from mitzvot, nevertheless, he will still have time [in the future] to fulfill the mitzva of procreation, which requires fathering a male and female. [Procreation] is thus like a mitzva she-eina overet, the fulfillment of which may be delayed by the mitzva of Torah study.

Thus, the Arukh Ha-shulchan distinguishes between two types of command: overet, which has a pressing deadline or time limit; and she-eina overet, which does not. The distinction itself is a reasonable one and has a source in the Rishonim[9] – and perhaps even in the Talmud (Kiddushin 29b) – as we will explain later.  One would encounter great difficulty, however, in reading it into the Rambam’s comments.  According to the Arukh Ha-shulchan, Torah study cannot provide an exemption from procreation; it can merely delay the mitzva.  However, the Rambam explicitly bases his ruling on the principle of “osek be-mitzva,” which exempts one entirely from another mitzva – even from one which is overet, and even if the individual is currently involved in a mitzva she-eina overet (i.e., there is still plenty of time left to fulfill it).  Is it conceivable that a person tending to a lost item is exempt from charity only if he cannot delay his dealing with the item, or if the pauper will remain there for a while?  In his Meshiv Davar (2:53), the Netziv rejects a similar answer:

I noted the Rambam’s language in Hilkhot Ishut (15:2) that one may learn Torah and thereafter marry because “one who is involved in a mitzva is exempt from another mitzva — all the more so regarding Torah study.”  I asked: is one who is involved in Torah study exempt from all mitzvot?  The honorable writer answered that the Rambam intended … that one can fulfill the mitzva at a later time, or through someone else.  This does not, my friend, accommodate the expression, “one who is involved in a mitzva is exempt from another mitzva.”  Rather, he is exempt even if he will never perform the other mitzva…  However, someone involved in Torah study is not exempt from mitzvot; rather, Torah study takes precedence if that mitzva can be performed later or by another.  If so, how did our master [the Rambam] derive this provision from the fact that one involved in a mitzva is exempt from another mitzva, all the more so one involved in Torah study?  This “all the more so” does not work at all, for Torah, despite its being the most precious of all mitzvot, nevertheless does not have the power through its study to exempt one from other mitzvot, for the Torah was given for this purpose – to perform the mitzvot.  I am therefore still perplexed in trying to understand the comments of our master, whose words are always so enlightening.[10]

The most comprehensive treatment of this issue (to the best of my knowledge) is found in Hilkhot Talmud Torah of the Shulchan Arukh Ha-Rav.  In a word, he identifies two focal points within the mitzva of Torah study: the act of learning and the knowledge acquired as a result.  In the conflict between the fulfillment of a mitzva and Torah study, the mitzva will override the study; but if the knowledge is imperiled, its development and reinforcement take precedence over the performance of a mitzva.  Thus, one interrupts his learning for a mitzva that he alone can perform only in one of three scenarios.  First, if one has already attained knowledge with sufficient breadth and depth, but must still fulfill the mitzva of studying Torah day and night, then this obligation, as a mitzva, is overridden.  The second situation involves one who has no chance of reaching the proper level of knowledge even if he continues learning uninterrupted.  The third instance is when only a brief interruption is necessary for the mitzva’s performance, one which would not harm the process of the acquisition of knowledge.  In all other situations, however, where the acquisition of broad dimensions of knowledge is at stake, one does not interrupt his study.  Therefore, when it comes to procreation, one should first study Torah and then marry.

If he first marries, the millstone will be cast upon his shoulders – the burden of supporting his wife and children – and he will be unable to adequately involve himself in Torah, to learn and remember all the halakhot with their reasoning, the explanations of the 613 mitzvot and the basics of the Oral Torah.  Therefore, the major command of periyya u-reviyya, although it is among the greatest of the mitzvot, may be delayed for study.  One is exempt from it because it is overridden by the mitzva of Torah study, which equals all other mitzvot (Pe’a 1:1).  It is said that one interrupts his Torah study in order to fulfill a mitzva that cannot be performed by others, as will be explained, only with regard to an interruption of an hour or some time, which results in the neglect of only the mitzva of constant involvement in, and study of, Torah, but not the mitzva of comprehending the Torah properly with its commentary, a basic knowledge of the halakhot and their reasoning.[11]

Though this analysis is worthy of its author, such an explanation seems very difficult to read into the comments of the Rambam, who explicitly exempts one involved in Torah from procreation on the basis of the general exemption afforded to one involved in a mitzva.  He does not invoke the unique element of attaining a given level of Torah knowledge.  The Rambam’s view thus remains to be resolved.



A similar difficulty arises with regard to the Rambam’s comments at the beginning of Hilkhot Megilla (1:1):

Similarly, we forego Torah study in order to hear the reading of the Megilla; all the more so, then, the other mitzvot of the Torah are overridden by Megilla reading.[12]

The source of this law appears in Megilla 3a:

We interrupt Torah study to come to hear the reading of the Megilla, as derived through a kal va-chomer from avoda (the Temple service).

However, the Gemara does not mention the possibility of extrapolating from Torah study to other mitzvot through a kal va-chomer (a fortiori argument); furthermore, this kal va-chomer employed by the Rambam – that if Megilla reading preempts the service in the Temple, certainly it should preempt the study of Torah – is indeed difficult to understand.  As we do not apply the principle of osek be-mitzva to one involved in Torah study, the required disruption of Torah study for Megilla reading cannot serve as a source to disrupt the performance of other mitzvot for Megilla reading.  Actually, we may question the very need for this passage in the Gemara: why would one have considered the possibility that Torah study would override Megilla reading, such that the Gemara had to derive the disruption of Torah study from that of the avoda?  After all, Torah study does not afford an exemption from other mitzvot – not even from those obligations mandated by the Sages.  Should not the requirement to disrupt Torah learning for Megilla reading be obvious?



The Yerushalmi (Berakhot 5:1) states:

One should rise to pray only after studying Halakha.  Rabbi Yirmeya says: One involved in community service is like one involved in Torah study.

It emerges from the Gemara’s discussion that this comparison refers to the fact that one should preferably preface his prayer with community service, as well as with learning.  Indeed, this is how Tosafot understand it (Berakhot 31a, s.v. Rav Ashi).  The Rambam, however, writes as follows (Hilkhot Tefilla 6:8):

One who is involved in Torah study when the time for prayer arrives must interrupt and pray.  If his Torah study is his occupation and he does not work, and the time for prayer arrives while he is involved, he should not interrupt, for the mitzva of Torah study is greater than the mitzva of prayer. Someone involved in community service is like one involved in Torah study. 

This ruling is particularly perplexing.  Aside from the fact that it runs counter to the passage in the Yerushalmi, which, as Rav Yosef Karo in the Beit Yosef[13] speculates, is presumably the source of this ruling, the halakha is difficult in and of itself as well.  How can we exempt someone involved in community service from prayer by virtue of an equation between community service and Torah study, if Torah study itself cannot exempt one from prayer?  Rav Yosef Karo, in his Kesef Mishneh, raises this question and explains that involvement in community service renders one similar to those who occupy themselves solely in Torah and are thus exempt from prayer.  At first glance, however, this explanation is hard to accept.  Why should a person temporarily involved in community affairs earn the status of those occupied solely in Torah?  If, on the other hand, this refers to one who occupies himself solely in community service, the Rambam certainly should have made this clearer. 

A parallel question arises from the Rambam’s formulation regarding the recitation of Shema:

If one is involved in community service, he should not stop.  He rather completes the task and then reads [Shema] if time remains for reading. (Hilkhot Keriat Shema 2:5)  

Here, there is certainly no possibility for an exemption on the grounds of exclusive involvement, for even one whose sole occupation is learning Torah must recite Shema.  We must therefore conclude that a general equation exists between involvement in Torah and in communal affairs (again, assuming that the law is based on the aforementioned passage in the Yerushalmi), and one involved in community needs is exempt on the grounds of “ha-osek be-mitzva patur min ha-mitzva,” as Rabbeinu Mano’ach, cited by Rav Yosef Karo in his Kesef Mishneh there, explains.  As mentioned, however, involvement in Torah itself does not create the general exemption of osek be-mitzva; how, then, does this equation between community involvement and Torah study create an exemption for someone preoccupied with community affairs?



The Mishna (Sukka 2:4) exempts sheluchei mitzva (travelers on their way to perform a mitzva) from the obligation of dwelling in a sukka, and the Gemara bases this exemption on the principle of “ha-osek be-mitzva patur min ha-mitzva.”  Rashi there says that this exemption applies to “those traveling for purposes of a mitzva, such as to study Torah, greet one’s rabbi or ransom captives.”  The source of the mitzva to greet one’s rabbi appears later in Sukka (26a):

Rav Chisda and Rabba bar Rav Huna, while on their way to the festival lecture at the house of the exilarch, would sleep along the riverbank of Sura [without a sukka], saying, “We are sheluchei mitzva and thus exempt.” 

We can readily understand – as Rashi explicitly states (Sukka 10b) – that some obligation exists to greet one’s rabbi on the festival, unrelated to the mitzva of Torah study.  However, the first example cited by Rashi, “such as to study Torah,” requires an explanation.  If someone actually involved in learning does not earn an exemption from mitzvot, as we have seen, then a traveler on his way to study, who in the meantime performs only a hekhsher mitzva (the preparatory stages for the performance of a commandment), should certainly be denied such an exemption.  How, then, does Rashi classify such a travelers as sheluchei mitzva whom the Gemara exempts from mitzvot on the basis of “ha-osek be-mitzva”? 



Commenting on the verse, “in order that God’s Torah shall be in your mouth” (Shemot 13:9), the Mekhilta, according to the text adopted by most Rishonim, states:

From here it is derived that whoever lays tefillin is considered as if he has read from the Torah, and whoever reads from the Torah is exempt from tefillin.[14]

The Ran (Rosh Ha-shana 4a in the Rif’s glosses) offers the following explanation for the final clause of this passage:

Perhaps the reason is that one involved in a mitzva is exempt from other mitzvot.  Alternatively, one involved in Torah does not require a “sign” [such as tefillin], as the words of the Torah serve as a sign for him.[15]

The Vilna Gaon (OC 38:12), too, bases this exemption on the principle of “ha-osek be-mitzva” and thereby explains the position of the Mordekhai (end of Hilkhot Tefillin) limiting this exemption to when the individual actually studies.[16]  Again, however, the question arises: how may we exempt one who studies Torah from mitzvot?  We are seemingly compelled to accept the Ran’s second explanation, which operates on the basis of the “sign” provided by Torah study, but the difficulty in the first explanation must be resolved.



Rav Chayyim Or Zarua goes even further.  After siding with his father’s view, in opposition to most of the Tosafists,[17] that involvement in a mitzva exempts one from another mitzva even when one can perform both, he reaches the following conclusion:

That which our master, my father and teacher zl, wrote seems correct.  Accordingly, young men who go to study Torah are exempt from all mitzvot throughout their stay in their rabbi’s house [of study], like Rav Chisda and Rabba bar Rav Huna, who were exempt [from the mitzva of sukka] so long as they had yet to hear the lecture.[18]

Without even addressing the revolutionary practical ramifications of this extreme conclusion, our previous question emerges with even greater force: how does this correlate with the requirement to interrupt learning for Shema and prayer, the relevant passage in the Yerushalmi, and the conclusion of the sugya in Mo’ed Katan?



The Gemara in Berakhot (13b) states:

Shema Yisrael ... echad” – this was the [entire] Shema recited by Rabbi Yehuda Ha-nasi… Would he go back to complete it [after his lecture] or would he not go back to complete it?  Bar Kappara says, “He would not go back to complete it”; Rabbi Shimon, son of Rabbi, said, “He would go back to complete it.” 

Rashi and other Rishonim there in Berakhot explain that Rabbi Yehuda would lecture to his students before the time for Shema had arrived.  With the onset of the obligation of the Shema, he would continue teaching rather than interrupt his class to recite the entire Shema.  Once again, we must ask why Rabbi Yehuda did not complete the entire Shema, given that Torah study does not create an exemption from mitzvot.  According to the Ramban’s view,[19] that the biblical obligation of Shema requires only the recitation of the first verse, we may explain that Torah study exempts him from the rest; but most Rishonim maintain that at least the entire first parasha is mandatory, and is not a mere enhancement of the recitation.  Assuming that the recitation of Shema constitutes a Torah obligation, which thus includes the entire first parasha, on what basis would Rabbi Yehuda be exempt from completing it? 

Though one may argue that he accepts Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai’s position (cited in the Yerushalmi) that one need not interrupt learning for Shema, as Shema itself is a form of learning, this seems highly unlikely.  Rabbi Shimon’s view appears nowhere throughout the Talmud Bavli, and it is always assumed as a foregone conclusion that the unique status of Rabbi Shimon and his colleagues, who occupied themselves solely in Torah learning, applies only to prayer (i.e., Shemoneh Esreh), not Shema.  With regard to Shema, even one whose sole occupation is Torah learning must interrupt his study for this recitation.  The Tosefot Ha-Rosh (s.v. Be-sha’a) writes:

Although one must interrupt [his learning] for the recitation of Shema, and it stands to reason that one must interrupt for the entire recitation, as the mitzva is to recite it in its entirety, this applies only to one studying individually.  But one who teaches the public – for him it suffices to interrupt for only the first verse.[20]

We may assume that this distinction is based on the discussion in Megilla (3b), from which it emerges that public Torah study takes on a more stringent status than even the avoda and thus takes precedence over Megilla reading.  However, besides the fact that this distinction is mentioned only with regard to mitzvot of rabbinic origin,[21] this answer of the Rosh (even if we accept its premise) would not necessarily resolve our difficulty according to many Rishonim.  Rashi (Megilla 3b) identifies “public (rabbim) Torah study” as a gathering of the entire nation of Israel for study.  The Ra’avan, in the beginning of Megilla, explains similarly, “‘Rabbim’ refers to all of Israel.”  The Ran (2b in the Rif’s glosses) likewise writes, “The avoda is more stringent than private Torah study – meaning, that which is not the Torah study of all of Israel.”  The Me’iri elaborates on this point further:

Although Torah study is not superseded by Megilla reading or avoda – rather, both private [study] that is designated for one rabbi and public [study] for a large gathering of Jews are superseded by neither Megilla reading nor the offering of the daily sacrifices – it is nevertheless superseded by a met mitzva [a body requiring burial].  Others say that even public Torah study is superseded by the Megilla, and they refer to Rabbi’s yeshiva as “public learning” because he was the nasi [“prince,” or chief rabbinical authority].  But the discussion in the sugya does not lend itself to this [interpretation], unless we deal with a general session of the entire nation, such as that which is recorded in Yehoshua (8:9).[22]

According to most Rishonim, then, we cannot classify Rabbi Yehuda Ha-nasi’s lecture to his students as “public Torah study” and thereby exempt him from mitzvot.  We thus cannot resolve the gemara in Berakhot on the basis of the sugya in Megilla.  Our question therefore remains: how is it possible that Rabbi would not have recited the entire Shema, given that Torah study does not exempt one from mitzvot – especially in light of the majority view that Shema constitutes a Torah obligation?



To be continued


Translated by David Silverberg. This article appeared in Hebrew in Sefer Kevod Ha-Rav, ed. M. Sherman (NY, 1984), pp. 187-201. Subheadings have been added to clarify the flow of the article.


[1]      Regarding this issue, see Chelkat Mechokek, EH 1:2; and Beit Shemu’el, 1:3.  We can more readily understand the cutoff mark of twenty years than that of seventeen, as the age of twenty is in fact mentioned with regard to various halakhot.  However, even this age has no significance vis-à-vis the general application of mitzva obligations, but only as regards a small handful of mitzvot, such as the half-shekel donation (Shemot 30:14) and halakhot associated with it; even there, the age of twenty assumes significance because of unique factors unrelated to our topic.

[2]      Although the Gemara concludes, “The law is that one marries and then studies Torah,” the Me’iri there formulates this conclusion differently: “One should always study Torah and then marry,” suggesting that we do not view this as a strict halakha, but rather as a suggestion.  Compare this with Rav Yosef Karo’s ruling in the Shulchan Arukh (YD 246:2): “A person should study Torah and thereafter marry.”  It stands to reason that those who hold that one should first marry believe that this constitutes an outright halakha, as implied by the Gemara’s formulation; whereas those who state that one should first study believe that the Gemara’s statement is intended merely to provide a general guideline, without introducing a binding obligation.

[3]      The simple reading of the sugya suggests that the impetus for the cutoff point of twenty years is not the obligation to father children, but the concern of sinful thoughts.  The Rambam, however, seems to apply it to the positive fulfillment of the mitzva.

[4]      This passage appears with slight variations in the Yerushalmi, Shabbat 1:2.  The source of this baraita is Torat Kohanim at the beginning of Parashat Bechukkotai.  Compare with Berakhot 17a regarding mitzvot performed she-lo li-shmah (with ulterior motives) and Tosafot there, s.v. Ha-oseh, as well as parallel Tosafot, particularly Tosefot Rash, Pesachim 50b, s.v. Kan.

[5]      See his Chiddushim to Kiddushin 32a; however, compare with the citation of the Me’iri, Mo’ed Katan 9b, from the “gedolei ha-dorot” and the editor’s note there.

[6]      The question arises as to why, in fact, Rav Yosef Karo does not cite this passage as the Rambam’s source.  He perhaps feels that here the Gemara speaks of a situation where one has not begun studying and must decide whether to go study or perform the given mitzva.  The Yerushalmi, by contrast, speaks more generally of the precedence afforded to mitzva performance, even if one had already begun studying – the case addressed by the Rambam.

[7]      See Gittin 41b; Tosafot ad loc., s.v. Lo.  There is room to debate the inclusion of women and slaves in shevet, but this issue lies beyond the scope of our discussion.

[8]      See Shulchan Arukh Ha-Rav, Hilkhot Talmud Torah, 3, in Kunteres Acharon, p. 842.  He raises the possibility of exempting one involved in Torah from procreation because it can be performed by others, but then he rejects it out of hand.

[9]      See Tosefot Ri Ha-zaken, Kiddushin 40b; Me’iri, Kiddushin 29b; Roke’ach, 369; Bach, YD 246, s.v. “U-ma.

[10]    The writer presumably addressed the comments of the Netziv in his Ha’amek She’ela, 103:14.  See also his comments in 5:4, where he asks, “Why does Torah study delay the obligations of shevet and periyya u-reviyya?”  He answers: “Every mitzva she-eina overet is like a mitzva that can be performed by others; for this reason, Torah study delays any mitzva she-eina overet.”  There is room to debate his novel equation between these laws; this claim is far from simple.  In any event, this bears no relevance to our discussion, as the Netziv’s answer relates only to the actual law itself and not to the Rambam and his explanation, with which he encounters difficulty later.  See Rav Elchanan Wasserman’s Kovetz He’arot on Yevamot (Appendices, 1), where he also suggests equating a mitzva with an unlimited time frame with one that can be performed by others, and he also suggests resolving the Rambam’s comments on this basis.  As I said, however, this would still require further clarification.

[11]    Hilkhot Talmud Torah 3:1, p. 845.  See his elaborate discussion there and at the beginning of chapter 4, pp. 841-851, and especially in his “Kunteres Acharon” ad loc. See also Rav Shlomo Yosef Zevin’s discussion of the obligations of Torah study and knowledge of Torah in his Le-or Ha-Halakha (Tel Aviv, 5717), pp. 204-212.

[12]    With regard to the Rambam’s comments concerning the precedence afforded to Megilla reading over other mitzvot, the Acharonim debate whether he refers to delaying the mitzvot or neglecting them entirely.  See Shulchan Arukh, OC 687:2 and commentaries.  Regarding Torah study, however, it seems clear that it is entirely overridden, and not merely delayed, as noted by the Taz (687:2).  See Ritva, Megilla 3a, who writes that the avoda is overridden by Megilla reading only if there remains sufficient time to return to it afterwards.  Torah, by contrast, is overridden entirely, even for one whose sole occupation is learning, “because out of the interest of publicizing the miracle, they equated [Megilla reading] with the biblical obligation of reciting Shema.”

[13]    See his comments in OC 70.  In his Kesef Mishneh, however, he suggests a different source for the Rambam: Shabbat 11a.

[14]    This is the prevalent text, by which the difference between the first and second clauses becomes particularly apparent: one involved in Torah is exempt, practically, from tefillin, whereas one who lays tefillin is not exempt from Torah study; he is merely considered as if he has read from the Torah, even while he does not actually do so as, for entirely justifiable reasons, he involves himself in other activities.  However, the Roke’ach (369) and the Or Zarua (1:594) have a different text: “One who lays tefillin is exempt from Torah study.”  They are thus compelled to explain that this refers not to an actual exemption, but rather means that “he is considered as if God’s Torah is in his mouth even when he does not engage in it” (Or Zarua).

[15]    The Sefer Ha-ittur (Hilkhot Tefillin 1:7) cites this passage from the Mekhilta and adds: “In a responsum by Rabbi Shemu’el Bar Chofni, the sage of Fez, [he writes:] ‘The halakha does not follow this baraita, for our elder rabbis, whose Torah study was their sole occupation, wore tefillin… It appears to us that it speaks specifically of one who reads from the Torah, but not from the Talmud or Gemara; they occupied themselves in Gemara and were thus obligated.’ ”  His answer explicitly runs counter to the Ran’s first explanation; with regard to the exemption granted to one involved in a mitzva, there is clearly no room to distinguish between studying the Written Torah and the Oral Torah.  We may, however, consider such a distinction within the Ran’s second explanation, as the concept of a “sign” may apply only to the Written Torah.

[16]    The Gra’s formulation seems to suggest that if we base this exemption on some other factor instead of the principle of “ha-osek be-mitzva,” the exemption would apply even when the individual is not currently involved in learning; in such a situation, it appears, a comprehensive exemption takes effect upon the individual (petur gavra).  However, such a notion is far from self-evident.  Even if we would explain the exemption as based upon, for example, the Torah’s serving as a “sign,” we could argue that this applies and the exemption takes effect only when the individual actually engages in Torah learning.  We clearly cannot compare this concept to the exemption from tefillin on Shabbat and festivals, which applies throughout the day even when one does actively engage in the day’s mitzvot, as the very title of the festival or Shabbat functions as a “sign.”

[17]    See Or Zarua 2:299, as opposed to Tosafot, Sukka 25a, s.v. Sheluchei, et al.

[18]    Responsa Maharach Or Zarua, 183.  Compare with 161 and 163.

[19]    See his comments in Milchamot Hashem, Rosh Ha-shana 7b in the Rif’s glosses, which imply that he indeed bases his position on this sugya: “The main obligation of Shema consists of the first verse, through which one fulfills his obligation, as we say… ‘Shema Yisrael… – this was the Shema recited by Rabbi Yehuda Ha-nasi.’ ”  We should note that the Peri Chadash (OC 67:1) seems to understand that the Ramban concurs with the Rashba (Teshuvot, 1:320), who rules that the first verse of Shema is required by biblical law and the rest by force of rabbinic enactment.  If so, we cannot bring proof to his position from Rabbi Yehuda Ha-nasi’s practice unless we assume that involvement in Torah – at least on the public level, such as delivering a public lecture – exempts one from rabbinically mandated mitzvot.  Such an assumption is far from self-evident.  In any event, we could understand the Ramban’s comments as implying that through the recitation of the first verse, one fulfills even the rabbinic level of obligation, and the rest constitutes but an added enhancement of the mitzva.

[20]    This appears in briefer form in the Rosh’s Pesakim, Berakhot 2:3.  Rabbeinu Mano’ach (cited by Rav Yosef Karo in his Kesef Mishneh, Hilkhot Keri’at Shema 2:5) offers this explanation, as well, as his second answer.  His first answer claims that Rabbi Yehuda Ha-nasi was exempt because Torah was his sole occupation.  As stated, however, this would not accommodate the view that the recitation of the entire first paragraph of Shema constitutes a Torah obligation.

[21]    The Rambam (Hilkhot Megilla 1:1) does not accept this distinction even with regard to Megilla; see Lechem Mishneh, ad loc.

[22]    The definition of the word “rabbim” is obviously quite varied: from three people, with respect to a vow taken “al da’at rabbim” (subject to the public’s consent – Gittin 46a) and a “public” domain relevant to the laws of tuma (Nazir 57a), to the six hundred thousand that several Geonim and Rishonim require to determine a “public” domain with regard to the laws of Shabbat.  Still, the definition of “rabbim” as a gathering of the entire nation is both rare and novel.  Compare the view of the Behag (end of Hilkhot Lulav, p. 35b, Traub edition) regarding the recitation of Hallel on Rosh Chodesh: “The ‘individual’ who, as we said, recites the entire Hallel, refers not to an individual literally; rather, any setting without all of Israel gathered is called one of ‘individuals.’ ”