Does Involvement in Torah Study Exempt One from Mitzvot? Part 2

  • Harav Aharon Lichtenstein


Click here for Part 1 of this article.



In order to explain the Rambam’s position and address the issues raised until now, we may suggest, against the Me’iri, that the provision of “ha-osek be-mitzva patur min ha-mitzva” theoretically applies to Torah study as well.  However, in order for the studied Torah to grant such an exemption, it must bear a certain quality – namely, that it is studied with the purpose of performing.  When study is not accompanied by a sense of obligation and preparedness to bring the material to practical expression, it is inherently deficient and blemished.  Undoubtedly, Torah learning involves more than a hekhsher mitzva; Torah study in and of itself is of inestimable value. In fact, this is the level of “Torah study for its own sake” that the Sages praise so profusely, as Rav Chayyim Volozhin[1] emphasizes at great length. Nevertheless, Torah study bears this value only when the individual learns out of an ambition and desire to carry out what is demanded by the material he studies. 

Thus, when a mitzva comes one’s way when one is in the midst of studying, one must interrupt one’s learning, since one thereby passes the test of whether or not one studies for the sake of performing.  This does not mean that one involved in Torah does not earn an exemption from mitzvot.  Rather, it flows from the fact that if he would not interrupt his learning, his very status as an “osek ba-Torah” (one involved in Torah learning) would be called into question, as his learning would lack the dimension of “al menat la’asot” (for the sake of performing).  This involves not a limitation on the provision of “ha-osek be-mitzva patur min ha-mitzva” with respect to Torah study, but rather a redefinition of the type of Torah study that is capable of creating an exemption from mitzvot

This emerges clearly from the Yerushalmi, which does not suffice with asking, “Does Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai not agree that one interrupts [Torah learning] to build a sukka and prepare a lulav?”  If the Gemara’s question were to end there, we could have explained it as the Me’iri does, that Torah study is excluded from the general exemption granted to one involved in a mitzva, but the Yerushalmi adds the following buttress to its argument:

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”? 

Clearly, the Gemara here discusses not the obligation or exemption vis-à-vis the mitzva of one studying Torah, but rather the nature and value of Torah studied without intention to perform, and the status and designation of such a student.

It would thus appear that should a situation arise whereby a person involves himself in Torah in a manner that it can remain pure and complete even were he not to interrupt to perform a mitzva, his Torah study would indeed create an exemption from mitzvot.  Generally, however, failure to interrupt one’s learning to perform mitzvot divests the Torah study of its connection to mitzva fulfillment.  As a result, his Torah study not only loses its ability to create an exemption from mitzvot, but we say that it would have been preferable for the person never to have been born!  However, as stated, if the Torah could maintain its character even without interrupting its study for mitzvot, then indeed its study would exempt one from mitzvot.

This approach certainly makes sense: how and why should the mitzva of Torah study differ from any other mitzva?  After all, it has earned its place among the list of mitzvot no less than any “action-oriented” mitzva such as returning lost items and taking the lulav.  Just because it constitutes the basis of the rest of mitzvot – in the sense that “Study is great, for it leads to performance,” for which reason the Rambam establishes that “There is no mitzva equal to Torah study, but rather Torah study equals all other mitzvot” – should it have less of an ability to create an exemption than other mitzvot?  The comments of the Vilna Gaon in this regard are particularly insightful:

The principle here is that one does not interrupt Torah study for a mitzva, if it can be performed by others.  Logic dictates such, for every word independently constitutes a great mitzva, equal to all others.  Therefore, when one learns, for example, one page, he fulfills several hundred mitzvot, and it is thus certainly preferable to fulfill a hundred mitzvot than a single mitzva.  Only when it cannot be fulfilled by another may one disrupt his learning.[2]

True, one could refute the Gaon’s argument by claiming that the exemption should apply only to the minimum required amount of learning, a brief period of study every day, but with regard to the broader obligation to learn as much as one can, given its unlimited nature and that it has no particular time frame, it cannot exempt one from mitzvot.  The Gemara (Nedarim 8a) states clearly regarding the mitzva of learning that “if one wants, he can fulfill his requirement through the recitation of Shema in the morning and evening,” and this is true even with a smaller amount of learning, as the Gaon emphasizes: “with a single word, one fulfills the mitzva of Torah study.”  Thus, although one must certainly learn more, in accordance with his conditions and ability (as the Ran there writes, “It seems to me that it is not entirely accurate that one thereby satisfies his obligation, for every person must learn as much as he can, always, day and night”), nevertheless, one might argue that this additional study would not exempt one from mitzvot.[3]

It would appear, however, that no such distinction may be drawn.  First, it seems clear that even this additional dimension is included in the imperative, “You shall teach them to your children” (Devarim 11:19), as mentioned explicitly by the Ran (ibid.), and it may not be viewed as merely a fulfillment of the prophetic dictum (Yehoshua 1:8), “You shall meditate in it day and night.”  Secondly, at least according to Rabbi Chananya ben Akavya, it seems that we may apply the rule of “ha-osek be-mitzva” even when not dealing with the fulfillment of a specific mitzva.  Rather, “everyone involved in God’s work” earns this exemption.[4]  Thus, even without the special mitzva of Torah study derived from “You shall teach them to your children,” we would exempt one involved in study from mitzvot in light of the comment of the Sifrei (Parashat Ekev, 5):

U-le-ovdo, And to serve Him” (Devarim 11:13) – this refers to study.  You claim this refers to study; perhaps it refers literally to [Temple] service… We see that “le-ovdah, to work it” (Bereishit 2:15) refers to study, and “le-shomrah, to tend it” (ibid.) refers to mitzvot; and just as the service upon the altar is referred to as “avoda, service,” so is study referred to as “service.”[5]

Fundamentally, then, the “osek be-mitzva” exemption applies to Torah study as well, either due to the fact that Torah study constitutes a specific mitzva of its own or due to the fact Torah study is a fulfillment of avoda (which also, of course, constitutes a mitzva, only relatively less defined).

Along these same lines, we can perhaps understand the distinction between mitzvot that can be performed by others and those which cannot.  According to the Me’iri (who holds that the exemption of “ha-osek be-mitzva” does not apply to Torah study), we must explain that although someone occupied in Torah does not earn a dispensation from mitzvot, nevertheless, due to the unrivaled value of Torah study, in a situation where it could potentially be lost, it can override the mitzva.  This will occur when the mitzva can be performed by others, so that the need for preserving the Torah as a precious commodity – in and of itself, unrelated to the obligation of the individual studying it – supersedes it.  This provision is not anchored in the obligation or exemption of the individual; rather, it is based on the consideration taken when choosing between conflicting goals. 

The mechanism for such a provision, however, remains unclear.  Once the individual does not earn an exemption, given that “ha-osek be-mitzva patur min ha-mitzva” does not apply to Torah study, on what basis may he overlook other mitzvot in order to preserve the Torah and its value?  After all, he is obligated in the given mitzva regardless of whether or not others can perform it.  What, then, allows the student to ignore it?

In light of our approach to understanding the Rambam, however, we may easily explain that indeed one involved in learning is exempt while he studies, but this is on the condition that his studying Torah remains “in order to perform.”  It thus stands to reason – though certainly one can argue – that so long as others can perform the mitzva, the individual who does not disrupt his learning is not classified as one who learns without intention to perform.  We may thus activate the “osek be-mitzva” exemption.

A practical distinction between the two explanations will arise in a situation where the mitzva conflicting with one’s Torah study can be performed by others, but the student can also perform it without disrupting his study.  According to the first explanation, whereby the individual does not earn a personal exemption from the mitzva, but rather permission to excuse himself from it in order to preserve that which is “more precious than jewels,” in such a case he must certainly fulfill the mitzva while continuing his study.  By contrast, according to the second approach – namely, that when others can perform the mitzva we may apply the status of “osek be-mitzva,” since the Torah study retains its quality of being “in order to perform,” according to the view of the Or Zarua and the Ran – the provision of “osek be-mitzva” takes effect even when both mitzvot can be performed, and the individual is exempt in this case as well.[6]

It thus emerges that involvement in Torah study indeed creates an exemption from mitzvot, only so long as one learns “in order to perform.”  In every instance in which we consider implementing this exemption, we must assess the student and the nature of his Torah learning. With this principle, we can perhaps resolve the difficulties raised earlier. 



The Rambam’s formulation with regard to the mitzva of procreation for Torah students, “It is permissible for him to delay, for one who is involved in a mitzva is exempt from another mitzva – all the more so regarding Torah study,” is now comprehensible.  Correspondingly, we can understand his comments in Hilkhot Megilla:

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. 

Recall that we had questioned the validity of this kal va-chomer, since someone involved in mitzvot other than Torah study is exempt from other mitzvot, while this seems not to be the case regarding one involved in Torah study.  In light of our analysis, the answer is simple.  Fundamentally, the exemption of “ha-osek be-mitzva” applies to Torah learning no less than it does to other mitzvot – on the condition that the Torah is studied with the aim to perform.  Although on a practical level, presumably, the scope of the exemption will be more limited with regard to Torah study, this does not undermine the fundamental parallel.  The kal va-chomer – both in Hilkhot Ishut and Hilkhot Megilla – may be explained in two ways.

1) The importance of the mitzva of Torah learning surpasses that of other mitzvot, as evidenced by the fact that one may sell a Torah scroll or leave Eretz Yisrael[7] (both of which are generally forbidden) for the sake of Torah study.  Most Rishonim attribute this to the singular importance of Torah study.

2) Someone involved in other mitzvot earns an exemption from another mitzva only due to the command and personal obligation latent within the mitzva he is currently performing.  This is derived either from the verse in Shema – “when you sit in your home” (Devarim 6:7), excluding situations of involvement in a mitzva, “and when you go along the way,” excluding a groom on his wedding night – or from the exemption (Bamidbar 9:6) from the paschal offering granted to those who had become ritually impure through contact with a dead body (see Sukka 25a).  The exemption granted to one studying Torah, by contrast, rests upon two foundations: the mitzva involved (parallel to other mitzvot), and the value of the very existence of Torah learning (independent of the imperative associated with it).  The principle established in the sugya in Mo’ed Katan, that one does not interrupt Torah study for a mitzva that can be performed by others, as derived from the verse, “It is more precious than rubies; all of your desires cannot equal it,” relates not to the mitzva of Torah learning, but rather to the value of Torah and its study as an entity and phenomenon.  This is clearly evidenced by the Gemara’s citation of verses discussing the priceless value and supreme importance of Torah.  Thus, when the Rambam states, “all the more so, then, the other mitzvot of the Torah are overridden by Megilla reading,” he refers to the additional component of Torah study.  If Torah study, which creates an exemption due to two factors, is suspended in deference to Megilla reading, then certainly other mitzvot, which are exempt only by force of a single factor, are overridden by Megilla.  This same explanation applies to the Rambam’s kal va-chomer in Hilkhot Ishut.

However, all this resolves only the Rambam’s language, which relates to the fundamental exemption from mitzvot granted to one involved in Torah.  The question, however, remains, how did the Rambam practically exempt the individual immersed in Torah learning from the mitzva of procreation?  After all, one must interrupt his study for mitzvot such as lulav and sukka, as mentioned explicitly in the Yerushalmi; otherwise one’s Torah study loses its quality of “in order to perform.”  It would appear, however, that this halakha, too, fits perfectly into the analysis we have developed.  The Rambam carefully writes, “it is permissible for him to delay,” clearly indicating that only the delay of procreation is allowed, but not its total abandonment.[8]  The explanation, then, becomes simple.  Were the Rambam to concur fundamentally with the position of the Me’iri, that the “osek be-mitzva” exemption does not apply to Torah study, then clearly even delaying the mitzva of procreation would be forbidden – especially given that according to the Rambam, beyond a certain age one who has not married has violated a positive command.  However, since he believes that this exemption does apply to Torah learning, only on the condition that he studies with the intention to perform, we may easily suggest that so long as the student plans on performing the mitzva of procreation, albeit after a postponement, his learning is classified as “in order to perform.”  He thus does not transgress the commandment by continuing to learn, as the “osek be-mitzva” exemption can now be activated.  Granted, if we would speak of ignoring the mitzva of “peru u-revu” altogether, the student would not earn an exemption, as then his learning would no longer be “in order to perform,” and we would say about him that “it would have been preferable for his placenta to have been turned backwards.”  If, however, we deal with the mere postponement of a mitzva that has no final deadline, the performance-oriented nature of the learning is preserved, and it can therefore exempt the student from the obligation of procreation.



In light of our approach, we can also resolve Rashi’s comments regarding the exemption from sukka afforded to those en route to learn Torah.  We asked how these travelers could earn an exemption from mitzvot if Torah study itself does not exempt one.  Indeed, if we consider the fundamental exemption of one studying Torah from sukka or from any other mitzva, this distinction is clearly untenable; how could we ascribe greater strength to the mitzva’s preparatory stages than to the mitzva itself?  However, now we understand that the essential exemption exists with regard to both one preoccupied with the preparatory stages of learning (corresponding to the cases of the groom before his wedding or those who sell dye for tzitzit) as well as one actually studying, so long as the learning is geared toward performance.  The person studying must interrupt his learning for the mitzva of sukka, while the student en route to learn is exempt. The essential nature of the Torah studied is determined specifically by the learning itself: if it is not interrupted for the performance of mitzvot, it is conducted without the aim to perform.  The preparation for learning, however, and the travel towards that end, cannot determine the nature of the study. So long as the learning itself withstands the test, its link to mitzva performance is not negated; the travel can still be viewed as a step towards study that is itself geared towards performance, as nothing has occurred that would undermine this goal.  Therefore, practically speaking, the result may indeed be that one must interrupt actual study for the performance of mitzvot, whereas one traveling to learn will earn an exemption.



In this light we may also explain the Rambam’s equation between involvement in communal affairs and involvement in Torah study with regard to the exemption from Shema and prayer.  Perhaps this comparison relates to the fundamental, rather than the practical, plane.  On this level, one involved in learning is indeed exempt from mitzvot, and we may grant a similar exemption to the one involved in communal affairs.  Although one must, practically, interrupt for the recitation of Shema – and for tefilla, unless Torah study is one’s sole occupation – nevertheless this evolves not from the lack of an exemption, but rather from the need to preserve the nature of his Torah study that is now put to the test.  Such a test does not exist regarding involvement in communal needs as it does in the context of Torah study.  Consequently, the essential exemption indeed takes effect at the practical level, and the individual does not interrupt his work for either Shema or tefilla.[9]



Similarly, we may now understand the view of the Ran and the Vilna Gaon, based on the Mekhilta, that Torah study exempts one from tefillin, based upon the principle of “ha-osek be-mitzva patur min ha-mitzva.”  Recall that the Ran raises two possible explanations: “Perhaps the reason is that someone involved in a mitzva is exempt from other mitzvot.  Alternatively, someone involved in Torah does not require a ‘sign,’ as the words of the Torah serve as a sign for him.”

According to his second approach, the nature of Torah as a sign or symbol in itself suffices to exempt the one studying from tefillin, parallel to a similar halakha concerning Shabbat and Festivals:

Rabbi Akiva said, “Perhaps one must lay tefillin on Shabbat and Festivals?  The verse (Shemot 13:16) therefore states, ‘It shall be a sign upon your arm and a symbol on your forehead’ – only for those [days] which require a sign.  This excludes Shabbat and Festivals, which themselves constitute a sign.” (Menachot 36b)

According to the Ran’s first explanation, it seems that the “sign” of Torah study cannot independently create an exemption, for only Shabbat and Festivals, in which the entire time period, as a comprehensive framework, is defined as a “sign,” can be excluded from the obligation of tefillin.  Nevertheless, it would seem that even this approach of the Ran does not ignore the sign of the Torah, and hence when one studies without tefillin, his learning, too, takes on the quality of serving as a “sign.”  If no exemption were to apply at all to one studying Torah, as the Me’iri maintains, then the halakha presented in the Mekhilta would be void; the sign of the Torah cannot independently exempt anyone, and no other basis for exemption would exist.  However, since studying Torah in fact does create an exemption, so long as the Torah retains a connection to the content being studied and its actualization, the connection to the sign of Torah takes the place of tefillin, as it corresponds to that which is written in them and becomes the common denominator of the mitzvot of Torah study and tefillin. They undoubtedly constitute two independent mitzvot, and Torah can therefore not function independently as a substitute for tefillin. Nevertheless, the “sign” of Torah study allows us to activate the “osek be-mitzva” principle, as the learning is not detached from the performance and significance of laying tefillin, but, quite to the contrary, they are integrally connected.[10]



According to what we have seen, we may perhaps understand the seemingly incomprehensible comments of Talmidei Rabbeinu Yona.  In the second chapter of Berakhot (9b in the Rif’s glosses), they cite the Yerushalmi’s explanation of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai’s view and add:

It answers, “This [Torah study] is learning and this [Shema] is learning; let learning come and override learning.”  Meaning, we cannot compare the two, for that which involves action is not overridden by learning, but a mitzva which involves only a recitation is overridden by learning.[11]

This position seems very difficult.  On what basis do we consider a mitzva involving action more stringent than a required recitation?  Furthermore, it would appear that someone involved in a less stringent mitzva earns an exemption even from a more stringent mitzva, as the Ra’a writes explicitly, “This teaches us that whoever is involved in a mitzva is exempt from another mitzva, even if the one he currently deals with is less stringent.”[12]

The Rambam, too, emphasizes this point in his commentary to the adage in the Mishna, “Be as careful with a minor mitzva as with a major one” (Avot 2:1).  He explains:

On this premise they said, “One who is involved in a mitzva is exempt from another mitzva,” without any assessment of the mitzva in which he is currently involved and the mitzva that arises.[13]

To the best of my knowledge, no Rishonim dispute this ruling.  Thus, even should we consider Torah study a “minor” mitzva in comparison with mitzvot requiring action – a very difficult presumption in its own right – it should still exempt one from these more stringent mitzvot.

It seems that we must take one of two directions to explain the comments of Talmidei Rabbeinu Yona.

1) We could attribute the exemption from mitzvot of speech not to the general principle of “ha-osek be-mitzva,” but rather to the value and weight of the mitzva of Torah study, along the lines of the gemara in Mo’ed Katan 9b, as discussed earlier.

2) We could perhaps suggest – novel as this may seem – that the exemption is indeed founded upon the rule of “ha-osek be-mitzva,” but this exemption applies to Torah study only on the condition that the study is with the intention to perform, and according to Talmidei Rabbeinu Yona, we must define “al menat la’asot” – “in order to perform” – literally.  That is, as opposed to the conventional and even logical understanding, that it refers to the intention of fulfilling and carrying out mitzvot, regardless of how this is done, they understand the term in the narrowest sense: “la’asot” – to do an action, literally.



As for the ruling of the Maharach Or Zarua, though it is undoubtedly a novel approach and we have never heard of a yeshiva student relying on it in practice, it too may be explained in light of our thesis.  As involvement in Torah study essentially exempts one from mitzvot so long as one learns with the intent of performing, the Maharach may feel that how this condition is met depends on the person involved; we apply different standards to yeshiva students than we would to others. 

For others, the tasks of study and performance both exist in the present and obligate one equally. Consequently, whoever studies and does not interrupt to perform a mitzva is considered to be learning without the intention of performing.  With regard, however, to a student in his formative and developmental stages, we may view him as studying now in order to perform later.  If he does not interrupt his study today in order to fulfill mitzvot, this does not reflect his divesting himself of his commitment to mitzvot.  Rather, he delays the fulfillment of mitzvot to a later date despite the obligation – and he even refrains from performing any mitzva overet, for we speak of the general system of mitzvot, and not just one or two specific mitzvot – as he is currently in the midst of his process of training and preparation.[14]  His Torah thus retains its quality of “in order to perform” and can exempt him from mitzvot.  Since the Maharach holds the somewhat surprising view that one watching over a lost item is exempt from mitzvot throughout the period in which the item is in his home, even when he does not actively engage in its maintenance, he thus concludes that yeshiva students have a parallel exemption from mitzvot throughout their formative period of study.[15]



Finally, in light of our approach, we can easily resolve the sugya regarding Rabbi Yehuda Ha-nasi’s abridged recitation of Shema – even if the biblical obligation of Shema includes more than just the first verse.  Recall that the Me’iri assumes that no exemption from mitzvot applies to one involved in Torah study, and we therefore ask: how could Rabbi not have completed the entire Shema, given that Torah study does not exempt one from Shema?  If Torah learning does not create an exemption for a mitzva, then presumably one must interrupt his study to do whatever the mitzva requires.  However, once we explain that indeed Torah study does create an exemption from mitzvot, so long as the learning is geared towards performance, then it certainly stands to reason that meeting this condition does not require fulfilling the given mitzva in its entirety.  Once Rabbi recited the first verse, which constitutes the primary obligation, as evidenced by the accepted view of Rabbi Me’ir requiring concentration for this verse alone, he had established a connection between his learning and performance and was thus considered to be studying with the intention of learning.  The general principle of “ha-osek be-mitzva patur min ha-mitzva” could thus take effect and absolve him of the obligation concerning the rest of Shema.  Hence, Bar Kappara claims that Rabbi would not complete the Shema after his lecture.

Along these same lines, we may perhaps understand the solution suggested by the Rosh, whereby he distinguishes between personal and public Torah study.  This distinction is built perhaps not on the quantitative value stemming from the scope of public learning, but rather on the very fact that the public learning has practical ramifications well beyond those of private study.  Directly or indirectly, and unrelated to the qualities of the teacher, his teaching will practically impact upon and be reflected in the practical realm; if not with regard to this listener, then perhaps with regard to another.  Consequently, a teacher is allowed to continue his public lesson uninterrupted, for his continuing is not looked upon as a neglect of the practical realm, but rather its furtherance and realization in a different manner.

Hence, the definition of “public” here need not correspond to the meaning of the same term in Megilla 3a, where the uniqueness of public learning over private study involves a quantitative component (which itself bears a certain qualitative dimension) that determines its value.  As a result, Rashi and several other Rishonim restrict that discussion to an assembly of the entire nation – parallel to the afternoon tamid offering in the Temple, which is likewise mentioned there in the sugya, and which, as a public offering, clearly relates to Kelal Yisrael as a whole.  In our sugya, by contrast, the singular significance of public Torah study lies in its lending a quality of “in order to perform” to Torah taught to an audience.  To achieve this goal, a much smaller number – be it a minyan of ten or a gathering of the local community,[16] parallel to the differing views concerning Hallel on Rosh Chodesh – suffices.  Such was clearly the case in Rabbi Yehuda Ha-nasi’s study gatherings; thus, the Rosh explains that for this reason Bar Kappara holds that Rabbi need not have interrupted his public lecture for the recitation of Shema.




[1]      See especially his comments in Nefesh Ha-chayyim, sec. 4, and the analysis of his outlook in Rabbi Norman Lamm’s Torah Lishmah.  See also Beit Ha-levi, 1:6.

[2]      Shenot Eliyyahu, Pe’a 1:1.  The Gaon’s use of the term “rashai” (he “may” disrupt) suggests that disrupting Torah study for a mitzva that cannot be performed by others is permissible, but not obligatory.  This also emerges from the formulation of the Ritva (Mo’ed Katan 9b): “One may leave his Torah [study] and involve himself…”  Clearly, however, this is a very novel position.

[3]       See also Rav Elchanan Wasserman (Kovetz He’arot), who understands that Torah study indeed exempts one from other mitzvot based on the general principle of “ha-osek be-mitzva,” but whenever one comes upon a mitzva, the obligation of Torah study is automatically canceled, since the fulfillment of the mitzva is of no less important than bodily and financial needs, for which one may take time out from learning.  According to this approach, one may easily distinguish between the minimum requirement and the broader mitzva of learning.

[4]      The Mishkenot Ya’akov (OC 49) claims that the parameters and nature of the exemption granted to one involved in a mitzva are subject to debate.  Only Rabbi Chananya ben Akavya, he asserts, exempts everyone involved in “God’s work,” even if the given activity does not fulfill an actual mitzva, and Halakha may very well not follow his view.  At first glance, this issue may relate to the dispute among the Rishonim as to the definition of this exemption, whether the mitzva itself or the preoccupation with it creates the exemption.  In truth, however, even according to the view that the mitzva and its preoccupation create independent exemptions, this is true only when the preoccupation leads towards the fulfillment of a mitzva, such as a groom marrying a first-time bride.  By contrast, if the preoccupation surrounding a mitzva does not serve as preparation for the mitzva, it exempts only according to Rabbi Chananya ben Akavya.

[5]      The Yere’im Ha-shalem (406) cites this passage as the source for the obligations of Torah and tefilla, despite his having listed Torah study as an independent mitzva (298) introduced by the verse, “You shall teach them to your children.”  This is alluded to – though more subtly – in the Rambam’s listing of the mitzvot (Aseh 5).  Intuitively, we might have suggested that the practical difference between the two mitzvot concerns the obligation of women.  Though they are exempt from the obligation derived from “you shall teach them,” they would perhaps be included in the mitzva of “serving” God through learning.  However, nowhere do find such a distinction drawn, and the writings of the Rishonim and the posekim imply that women are exempt entirely from the mitzva of Torah study, with the exception – according to some – of studying mitzvot that apply to them.  It appears that once other verses exclude women from the obligation of learning, then their form of “service” differs and does not include study, as it does with men.  Nevertheless, this issue still requires further clarification.

       There is also room to discuss whether the exemption of “ha-osek be-mitzva” applies to general overarching mitzvot such as “service” of God, or if it is limited to specific mitzvot with clear-cut requirements under particular circumstances.  If we claim that a woman is included in the general obligation of study as “service,” but this obligation, as a general mitzva, does not create an exemption from mitzvot, we will then conclude that a male occupied in Torah is, theoretically, exempt from mitzvot, while woman are not.  That someone involved in prayer does not interrupt it for other mitzvot bears no relevance to this issue, even were we to assume, as the Yere’im posits, that the mitzva of tefilla constitutes a general obligation of “service” rather than a specific mitzva of “service of the heart.”  The exemption from other mitzvot and the prohibition of interrupting for them during prayer involve not the provision of “ha-osek be-mitzva,” but rather the laws of prayer themselves and its nature as amida lifnei ha-Melekh – standing before the King.  A complete analysis of this topic lies beyond the scope of this discussion.

[6]      We should note that towards the beginning of the sugya in Mo’ed Katan (9a-b), this factor of the possibility of the mitzva’s performance by others appears in a different context: “It is written (Mishlei 4:26), ‘Chart the course you take, and all your ways will prosper,’ and it is written (ibid. 5:6), ‘Lest you chart a path of life’!  There is no difficulty: This refers to a mitzva that can be performed by others, and this to a mitzva that cannot be performed by others.”  According to the majority of the Rishonim, with the exception of the Ra’avad – see Shitta Le-talmido shel Rabbeinu Yechi’el Mi-Paris and Chiddushei Ha-Ran there – this refers to determining the preference between two conflicting mitzvot, rather than between Torah study and a mitzva.  There is room to question whether this distinction resembles in its nature the same distinction drawn later in the sugya with regard to Torah study.  According to my understanding of the Me’iri, it would seem that we may draw such a comparison, whereas according to my own approach, we might distinguish between the two.

[7]      See Megilla 27a and Avoda Zara 13a.  Tosafot (Avoda Zara 13a s.v. Lilmod), however, write that whereas in their view one may leave Eretz Yisrael only to study Torah and marry, they understood the She’iltot as allowing the departure even for learning “and all the more so for other mitzvot which are important.”  See She’ilta 103 and Ha’amek She’ela there, 14.

[8]       This is the view of the Rosh (Kiddushin 1:42), who makes the following comment regarding the one whom the Gemara allows to first study and then marry: “We do  not know the time frame for this study, for it is implausible that he could neglect procreation throughout his life.  We find this only with regard to Ben Azzai, whose ‘soul longed for Torah.’ ”  The Beit Shemu’el (1:5) understands that the Rambam disputes this ruling and maintains that, indeed, one can delay it indefinitely.  The Rambam’s formulation, however, clearly indicates otherwise.  See also Shulchan Arukh Ha-Rav there, p. 842b.

[9]      Obviously, this will not resolve the difficulty latent in the context of the passage in the Yerushalmi as to the nature of one’s preparation for prayer.  Additionally, this involves a somewhat farfetched reading of the Rambam’s formulation, which strongly implies that one involved in Torah is practically, and not just conceptually, exempt from Shema and tefilla.  See the Ra’avya, 92, who explains the Yerushalmi differently.

[10]    According to our approach within this position of the Ran, it turns out that involvement in a mitzva requiring effort exempts one even from an “effortless” mitzva.  Although no exemption exists in the opposite scenario, even according to the view of the Or Zarua and the Ran that one involved in a mitzva is exempt from another mitzva even if he can perform both, this is because without exerting effort one cannot be considered “osek” (occupied) in a mitzva.  When it comes to the overridden mitzva, however, it does not matter if one would fulfill it through a specific action or effortlessly.  The Rema (OC 38:8) writes, “Anyone involved in a mitzva is exempt from another mitzva, if he must exert himself to perform the second.”  However, this may hold true only according to the position – adopted by the Rema himself, in the same halakha – that one does not earn an exemption when he can perform both mitzvot.  According to the Ran and Or Zarua, however, we may in fact draw the distinction discussed.  See also Arukh Ha-shulchan, OC 38:13.

[11]    Their explanation of the Yerushalmi obviously differs from the accepted approach, that Torah learning exempts one from Shema because Shema itself features a dimension and fulfillment of Torah study, as I heard many times from Rav Soloveitchik; a complete analysis lies beyond the scope of our discussion.

[12]    Chiddushei Ha-Ra’a, Sukka 25a, in Ginzei Ha-Rishonim al Massekhet Sukka, ed. R. Moshe Herschler.

[13]    It appears from the Rambam’s formulation that, fundamentally, a minor mitzva does not exempt from a more stringent one; but practically, it does create such an exemption, since we cannot assess the relative worth of mitzvot.  Intuitively, one could certainly argue that we cannot require one involved in a given mitzva to abandon it and apply himself to a different mitzva even were we endowed with the ability to properly assess the worth and weight of specific mitzvot; there is room for further discussion in this regard.  In any event, we clearly need not explain the Ra’a’s view along the lines of the Rambam’s comments.

[14]    This distinction resembles that drawn by the Shulchan Arukh Ha-Rav between learning itself and study which provides the required knowledge, though clearly they are not identical.

[15]    See the continuation of the Maharach’s responsum.  Compare this with the dispute among the Rishonim regarding a loan on collateral and the lender’s exemption from giving charity; they disagree about whether this applies only during his active involvement in the collateral, or whether it is due to the loan itself, in which case the exemption may perhaps extend throughout the period when he has possession of the collateral.  One may clearly distinguish between acollateral and a lost item, and the Maharach’s position is striking indeed.

[16]    Most of the Rishonim who dispute the Behag’s position understand that the tzibbur required for the recitation of Hallel on Rosh Chodesh means the presence of a minyan.  The Machzor Vitry (241), however, writes: “Even ten who separate from the congregation are considered individuals praying by themselves behind the synagogue; since they are not present in the public gathering, they are like two or three [individuals] in this respect, for we find no mention of this practice other than in an assembly of that city, when they are in their communal gathering.”