Skip to main content

The Importance of In-Depth Torah Study

Text file


Translated by Rav David Strauss

I. Serving God Out of Internal Desire

In order to grasp the importance of in-depth Torah study, we must first understand the significance of the idea of "serving God." The Gemara in Chagiga (9b) states:

Bar Hei Hei said to Hillel: What is meant by the verse (Malakhi 3:18), "You will return and see the difference between a righteous person and a wicked person, between one who serves God and one who does not serve Him"? Isn't a "righteous person" the same as "one who serves God" and "a wicked person" the same as "one who does not serve Him"?

[Hillel] answered [Bar Hei Hei]: One who serves [God] and one who does not serve Him are both completely righteous. Nevertheless, there is no comparison between one who repeats his chapter a hundred times and one who repeats his chapter one hundred and one times.

We see from here that a person can be perfectly righteous, but still he is not classified as "a servant of God."

I believe that our primary educational goal should be to bring a person to the level of "a servant of God." This is not because I think that from an educational perspective we must always set the highest possible standards, but rather because it is particularly necessary in our generation to emphasize the idea of "serving God."

         One of the fundamental principles in our education and in general culture is the idea of autonomy: a person should act not because of external pressure, but out of internal conviction and as an expression of his individual personality. We aspire for our students to act not because we coerce them to behave in a certain manner, but because they themselves wish to behave that way. From a religious-educational perspective as well, both the Sefat Emet and Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook emphasize the idea that it is in our service of God that we give expression to our individual natures.[1] The Gemara in Chagiga teaches us that "there is no comparison between one who repeats his chapter a hundred times and one who repeats his chapter one hundred and one times." A servant of God does not act by rote. "A hundred times" denotes rote action, whereas "a hundred and one times" refers to action that is not routine, action that expresses a person's inner desires.

         Regarding the verse, "And if you will make Me an altar of stone, you shall not build it of hewn stone" (Shemot 20:21), Rashi cites Mekhilta de-Rabbi Yishma'el which states:

Every time the word "im" is used in the Torah, it refers to actions the doing of which is optional ("if"), except in three instances: "And when ('im') you bring the meal-offering of first fruits" (Vayikra 2:14) … "When ('im') you lend my people money" (Shemot 22:24) … "And when ('im') you make Me an altar of stone…"

Rashi explains that in these three instances the word "im" means "when." Why, then, was the word "im" employed in these places? Maharal explains (in his commentary to Rashi, Gur Aryeh):

We suggest that Scripture uses the term "im," even though [these actions] are obligatory, because if a person does them out of a sense of obligation, as if he were fulfilling a royal edict, he does not please God. For a person must do them of his own free will, and when he does them of his own free will, God is pleased. For regarding an action that is necessary and obligatory, he does not have to look for any rationale; he is simply fulfilling a royal edict. If he does these three things as if he were fulfilling a royal edict, it is nothing.

Maharal explains that the wording of these three mitzvot emphasizes the point that they should be fulfilled not out of a sense of obligation, but because of an inner desire to fulfill them. We fully understand this explanation with respect to the mitzva of lending money without interest: a person should perform acts of charity not because he is obligated to do so, but because he has a generous heart and he wishes to be charitable. Similarly, regarding the mitzva of the omer meal-offering, we understand that it should be performed out of a sense of thanksgiving to God. As for the mitzva of building a stone altar, Maharal writes:

For if he builds an altar, which constitutes service of God, blessed be He, offering sacrifices upon it, and he fulfills [the mitzva] merely as a royal edict – this is not service, for service must be performed willingly, and then he is called "a servant." But if he is coerced, he is not "a servant." Similarly, if he lends money as if he were fulfilling a royal edict, this is not a mitzva.

We see from here that "a servant" is one who acts out of free will, and not only because of some external factor. From here stems the great importance of the idea of autonomy in our spiritual world, which corresponds to the idea of "a servant of God."

II. Serving God through the Intellect

In light of this definition of Divine service as service performed out of man's free will, the criteria are relative and liable to change from period to period and from person to person. Service of God, as distinguished from the observance of mitzvot, is determined according to the major emphases that are relevant to a particular period and a particular person. The service of God will always find expression in the hundred and first time, that is to say, not in a person's routine conduct, imposed from above, but in what is important to a person from the inside.

Today, the intellect is a very important component of a person's life. In order for a person to acquire a profession, to advance in his chosen field, and to reach top levels of management – for all these things a person must engage in strenuous intellectual effort. The centrality of intellect determines special emphases in our service of God today, and this in several spheres.

In many places, Rabbi Kook emphasizes the importance of developing a deep conceptual world, particularly in a generation which heavily emphasizes man's intellectual faculties. For example, he writes in Be-Ikvei Ha-Tzon (Avodat Elokim, pp. 142-143):

If in a particular generation or generations all the general ideas have become elevated and developed, but those ideas which pertain to the Divine show no development, that generation remains in a lowly and unfortunate state, the religious fissures multiply, breach after breach, and there is no remedy other than intensive intellectual work… until the concepts pertaining to God become elevated, corresponding to the intellectual and moral development of the general culture reached by that generation in general.

Rabbi Kook is talking here about the need for sophisticated concepts in the realm of faith and Jewish thought. There is, however, an educational need to apply this principle to the intellectual aspect of Divine service, which finds expression in Torah study. Particularly during a period when intellectual pursuits are so central in human life, and especially for a person who chooses to engage in an intellectual profession, it is critically important that the service of God find special expression in this realm, and not only in the observance of mitzvot. This is the reason that it is so important for a person to continue with in-depth Torah study his entire life, even after he has left full-time study in the beit midrash. This is not only because this is the highest level of Torah study, but because it is in this way that the service of God finds expression in its fullest intensity. In a world where so much importance is attached to the intellect, a person cannot possibly fulfill his obligation by learning Daf Yomi, or the like, which does not require great intellectual effort.

The brain, the seat of the intellect, is man's most important organ. Should we content ourselves with serving God with our hands and other organs – taking the shofar in our hands and blowing it with our mouths, donning tefillin and eating matza on Pesach – and let our brains lie idle, uninvolved in His service? A person who does not occupy himself in Torah study lacks something very basic in his service of God. Should we leave our brains and intellect for our careers, for acquiring academic degrees, and serve God only with our other organs?

A professional craftsman can express his service of God if he builds a synagogue in a way that makes full use of his talents. However, in a generation that attaches so much importance to the intellect, it is important that the intellect, too, be employed in the service of God. In a period when people invest such great efforts in various fields of study, should the service of God not demand strenuous application of the intellect? Precisely at such a time, it is especially important that Torah study should be serious and in no way inferior in intellectual profundity to other realms of study. The service of God will not survive in our day if its bearers are void of Torah scholarship. It is impossible to live a serious religious life without deep Torah learning.

III. "And to Serve Him" – This Refers to Study

The idea that Torah study is a necessary component of divine service is also found in Sifrei (Devarim 41) in a passage that is cited by Rambam in his Sefer Ha-Mitzvot (positive commandment 5):

"And to serve Him" (Devarim 11:13) – this refers to study… Another explanation: "And to serve Him" – this refers to prayer.

         We see here that, according to Rambam, Torah study is not only a fulfillment of the mitzva of "And you shall teach them to your children" (Devarim 11:19), but also a fulfillment of the mitzva of serving God. According to this, it would appear that even women, who are exempt from the mitzva of Torah study, are nevertheless obligated today to study Torah because of the mitzva of serving God, for, as was stated above, a major component of the mitzva of serving God, particularly in our day, is fulfilled through Torah study, which is the service of God through the intellect.

A person is obligated to fulfill the mitzva of tzitzit only if he is wearing a four-cornered garment. The Gemara in Menachot (41a) states, however, that someone who seeks ways to exempt himself from having to put tzitzit on the corners of his garment "will be punished at a time of [Divine] anger." Mordekhai (ad loc., no. 945, cited by Bet Yosef, Orach Chayyim 24) says: "We, who are not accustomed to wear four-cornered garments, will not be punished even at a time of [Divine] anger." In other words, the prohibition of seeking ways to exempt oneself from the obligation of tzitzit only applies when special importance is attached to wearing four-cornered garments. According to this, it is possible that the same idea applies to the service of God: a time when special importance is attached to the intellect is defined as a "time of anger" with respect to the importance of in-depth Torah study.

IV. The Value of Talmud Study

         Torah study in our Yeshiva focuses upon in-depth study of Gemara. Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi writes in his Tanya (chapter 5) about the value and importance of such study:

When any intellect perceives and understands some intellectual subject, the mind grasps that subject and encompasses it, and the subject is grasped and encompassed by, and is clothed within, the intellect that understood and perceived it. Also, the intellect is clothed within the subject at the time of intellectual comprehension and grasping. When, for example, one understands and comprehends a particular halakha in the Mishna or Gemara, clearly and thoroughly, his intellect grasps and encompasses that halakha, and his intellect is also clothed in it at that time.

Now, this halakha [that one grasps intellectually] is the wisdom and will of God. It so arose in His will that if, for example, Reuven would claim thus and Shimon thus, such and such should be the verdict between them. Even if it never did nor ever will come to pass that litigation occurs over these arguments and claims, yet, since it arose thus in God's will and wisdom that if one person would claim this way and the other that way, the verdict be such and such, therefore when one knows and comprehends this verdict as ahalakha set forth in the Mishna or Gemara orthe halakhic codifiers, he then actually comprehends and grasps the will and wisdom of God.

         This explains how Torah study leads to the comprehension of God's wisdom and to communion with Him. From an existential perspective, however, we can understand the value of such study with the help of a midrash (Shemot Rabba 33) regarding the verse, "That they take Me an offering" (Shemot 25:2):

Can you conceive a transaction in which the seller is sold with his goods? God, however, said to Israel: "I have sold you My Torah, but with it, as it were, I also have been sold," as it says: "That they take Me an offering" – they take Me.

It can be compared to the only daughter of a king whom another king married. When he wished to return to his country and take his wife with him, he [the father] said to him: "My daughter, whose hand I have given to you, is my only child. I cannot part with her, neither can I say to you: 'Do not take her,' for she is now your wife. This favor, however, I would request of you; wherever you go to live, have a chamber ready for me that I may dwell with you, for I cannot leave my daughter."

Thus God said to Israel: "I have given you a Torah from which I cannot part, and I also cannot tell you not to take it; but this I would request: wherever you go make for Me a house wherein I may sojourn," as it says: "And let them make Me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them" (Shemot 25:8).

         A person who studies Torah "takes" God with him and creates a bond with Him. Even if we are unable to explain exactly how this bond is created, history proves that without intensive Torah study, nothing will remain. Jewish communities in which there was no Torah study, no occupation with the intricate discussions of Abaye and Rava, did not survive. Go and look at all the experiments that have been made in this area to this day, go and visit all the various batei midrash, and you will see that the only institutions to survive are those where Gemara was and continues to be studied. Gemara shi'urim continue for twenty or thirty years, whereas other classes generally last for a year or two, and then are discontinued.

         From time to time we should stop and consider the greatness of Torah, its grand teachings, the mighty revolution that it brought to the world. Then we will understand that the small details regarding "an ox that gored a cow" or "the mouth that forbade is the mouth that allows" are part of a gigantic system. A scientist who works on tiny details, on a single atom, on a gene that he succeeded in isolating, understands from them the wisdom that lies hidden in the entire universe. He knows little about what is going on in other areas, but from his recognition of the wisdom lying in the detail before him, he learns to recognize and understand that this isolated detail is part of a much larger world. The same applies to Torah study. The understanding of the small detail does not exhaust itself in the detail itself and its content. This detail is part of a way of life, part of a Torah containing morality and wisdom, refinement and uprightness.   

[This essay is a chapter from Rav Amital's book, Jewish Values in a Changing World (Ktav, 2005).  


[1] See, for example, Sefat Emet (Chukkat 5633):

Every individual Jew has a portion in our Holy Torah; he must only draw himself close to the light of the Torah through fear of Heaven. When it becomes clear to the individual that all of his vitality stems from God, blessed be He, and he clings to this point, he will find his own kind, and his portion of the Torah, that which is impressed and engraved in every individual Jew, will be awakened.

For Rabbi Kook, see Orot Ha-Kodesh (III, musar ha-kodesh, 97):

The inner and essential self of the individual and the community only reveals itself in proportion to the holiness and purity, to the supreme might absorbed from the holy light of the heavenly splendor, that burns with it.          

         Some have found a source for this idea in the words of Rambam. A bill of divorce given under duress is null and void, but if a man is coerced by a Jewish court to grant a divorce, the bill of divorce is valid, because he is bound by the mitzva to obey the words of the Sages. Rambam explains this point at length in Hilkhot Gerushin 2:20:

If a person who may be legally compelled to divorce his wife refuses to do so, a Jewish court in any place and at any time may beat him until he says, "I consent," and writes a bill of divorce, and the bill of divorce is valid…

Why is this bill of divorce not null and void, seeing that it is the product of duress…?  Because duress applies only to one who is compelled and pressed to do something that the Torah does not obligate him to do, for example, one who is lashed until he consents to sell something or give it away as a gift. On the other hand, he whose evil inclination induces him to violate a commandment or commit a transgression, and who is lashed until he does what he is obligated to do, cannot be regarded as a victim of duress; rather, he has brought duress upon himself by submitting to his evil intention.

Therefore, this man who refuses to divorce his wife, inasmuch as he desires to be part of the people of Israel, to abide by all the commandments, and to keep away from transgressions – it is only his inclination that has overwhelmed him – once he is lashed until his inclination is weakened, and he says "I consent," it is the same as if he had given the divorce voluntarily.

The implication is that the true desire of every Jew is to fulfill the mitzvot, and that it is only on account of his weakness that he fails to do so.

This website is constantly being improved. We would appreciate hearing from you. Questions and comments on the classes are welcome, as is help in tagging, categorizing, and creating brief summaries of the classes. Thank you for being part of the Torat Har Etzion community!