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Living a Torah Life

Based on a sicha by Harav Aharon Lichtenstein. Adapted by Yitzchak Barth with Reuven Ziegler.
Translated by Kaeren Fish


Many people assume there is a contrast – if not conflict – between Torah and “life.”  In this view, “life” includes all the practical, “serious” spheres whose participants contribute to the world and help develop it.  As opposed to them is the “Torah,” with which young people who have not yet moved on to “real life” amuse themselves.  Unfortunately, echoes of this view are even to be heard within the beit midrash.  Many yeshiva students do not relate to Torah study as “life” itself, but rather as preparation and training for life. 

In the chapter on the word “life” in his Studies in Words (Cambridge, 1967), C.S. Lewis points out that when a person speaks about “real life,” he refers to those elements of life which he values most highly.  Thus, for example, many people relate to a business deal as an expression of “real life,” while writing poetry or engaging in philosophy are pursuits not deemed worthy of such a dignified title.  Lewis claims that the source of this mistaken distinction is to be found in “the deeply ingrained conviction of narrow minds that whatever things they themselves are chiefly exercised on are the only important things, the only things worth adult, informed, and thoroughgoing interest” (p. 292).  He finds this distinction unacceptable, since it means that “everything except acquisition and social success is excluded from the category of ‘real life’ and relegated to the realm of play or day-dream” (ibid.).

Lewis’ analysis of the prevailing attitude towards spheres of secular thought is all the more applicable when it comes to engaging in Torah.  Many Jews believe that the Torah is relevant only within a constricted area, and they attempt to discover at which points this area coincides with “life” – the world in which they themselves are engaged.  In many cases people think this way even if they are not aware of it.  The frequently posed question, “What are you going to do when you leave yeshiva and go out into the big wide world?” actually reflects an attitude that regards Torah as a sphere external to life.  Obviously, such a view – in which utilitarian activities take precedence over the realm of thought – is deficient from any self-respecting religious and spiritual point of view.  Of course, we value yishuvo shel olam, developing the world, and the people involved in it are certainly worthy of praise.  But we must be firm in our opposition to the view that engaging in divrei chokhma, Torah and matters of the spirit, is not “real life.”

A well-known mishna teaches that both the practical and the intellectual spheres are essential; neither can exist without the other.  “If there is no worldly sustenance (literally: flour), there is no Torah; if there is no Torah, there is no worldly sustenance” (Avot 3:17).  The mishna does not mean to equate the significance of these two spheres.  Man was not created in order to grind flour, nor to fill his belly with bread.  Rather, he was created in order to serve God – including the pursuit of Torah, “for it is for this purpose that you were created” (Avot 2:8).  Like the famous assertion of the French playwright Moliere, that “One should eat to live, and not live to eat” (Valère, Act 3, Scene 1), we believe that we must work and eat in order to engage in Torah, rather than engage in Torah in order to eat.  Torah is not detached from life; on the contrary, we declare daily that Torah “is our life and the length of our days.” This means that engaging the Torah is the crux, the essence, the most important part of life.

At the end of Avot de-Rabbi Natan (34:10), the beraita lists ten entities that are called “life”: God is called “life,” Israel are called “life,” the Torah is called “life,” as well as the righteous, the Garden of Eden, the Tree, Eretz Yisrael, deeds of kindness, Torah sages, and water.  Even the most cursory review of this list reveals that most of the things that are called “life” belong to the realm of the spirit.  Some of them are connected to the practical world, and some even belong to that world exclusively, but this list unquestionably suggests that “true life” is found, first and foremost, in the world of the spirit, the Torah, and sanctity.  The reasoning behind this assertion is clear: King David defined life as the connection with the Source of life: “For with You lies the source of life; by Your light we shall see light” (Tehillim 34:10), and the Torah is the most central and direct channel to the Creator.  The Torah connects man with God, and therefore occupation with Torah is the principal channel of life.

At the conclusion of two different discussions, the Gemara quotes Rabbi Tarfon’s exclamation after Rabbi Akiva won an argument between them: “Akiva, anyone who separates himself from you is, as it were, separating himself from life!” (Kiddushin 66b; Zevachim 13a).  Ironically, the subjects under discussion in each of these two debates are far from practical.  In Massekhet Kiddushin the debate concerns matters of ritual purity and impurity, while in Massekhet Zevachim the Tannaim discuss receiving the blood of sacrificial animals.  The impression conveyed by the Gemara is unequivocal: it is Torah itself that is life, and hence there is no need to seek artificial points of contact between these two spheres.

Since the Torah is called “life” and engagement in it is a central occupation of our lives, it is clear that yeshiva study should not be regarded merely as a preparation for the rest of life.  Every moment in which a person is not engaged in Torah is a moment wasted, and represents a loss in its own right – over and above the loss for the future, in that the person is not preparing for the rest of his life.  When King David asked God to allow him to die on erev Shabbat rather than on Shabbat day, his request was refused: “Better for Me one day that you sit and engage in Torah than a thousand burnt sacrifices that Shlomo, your son, is destined to offer upon the altar before Me” (Shabbat 30a).  Obviously, the Torah that David learned on the eve of his death was not preparing him for anything.  The sole significance of those hours on Shabbat eve was the learning itself, altogether unconnected to “preparation for the rest of life.” Nevertheless, the Gemara concludes decisively that those hours of learning, not preparing him for anything, were preferable in God’s eyes to the thousand sacrifices that Shlomo offered on the day of the dedication of the altar!

Torah study has inherent importance in God’s eyes, and we should view it in the same way.  The mishna teaches, “Better one hour of repentance and good deeds in this world than all of the life of the World-to-Come” (Avot 4:17) – even if it is one single hour, in which the person is not preparing himself for the rest of his life.  Beyond the fact that the period of yeshiva study prepares students for the rest of their lives, it is a period of intensive life in its own right – filled with Torah and closeness to God.  The purpose of life is to cleave to God, and the road to this cleaving passes through the beit midrash

We must be careful not to downplay the importance of engaging in Torah by assigning an exaggerated significance to worldly concerns.  The Torah’s definition of “life” is unequivocal: “And you who cleave to the Lord your God are alive, all of you, this day” (Devarim 4:4).  Cleaving to God is itself “life,” and the place where this “life” is realized is in the beit midrash.  For this reason, King David says of the Temple – the focal point of cleaving to God – “For there God commanded the blessing, eternal life” (Tehillim 133:3).  It is specifically within the beit midrash, the place where we cut ourselves off from the external world and devote all our energies to achieving an intensive closeness to God – it is specifically here that the blessing of eternal life is invoked.


The expression “a Torah of life” (Torat chayyim) is familiar to us from the prayer service: in the blessing “Ahava Rabba” we thank God for teaching us “chukkei chayyim, statutes of life,” and in the “Sim Shalom” blessing we mention that He has given us a “Torah of life.” There are several reasons why the Torah is referred to in this way. 

First, Torah comes from God, Who is the Source of life.  The Torah first became manifest to us as the voice of the living God speaking from Mount Sinai to all of Israel.  From that time onwards, as the Torah expanded into the Tanakh, Mishna, Gemara, and the writings of the great Torah sages of all generations, it remained essentially an interpretation and elaboration of the words of the living God.

Second, the Torah is called a “Torah of life” because it gives life and leads towards life, as we declare in the “Ahavat Olam” blessing in the evening service: “For they [the words of Torah] are our life and the length of our days.” It is interesting to note that the blessings over the Torah actually point to a contrast between Torah and life: we bless God for having given us “the Torah of truth,” and thereafter we say that He has “implanted within us eternal life.”  However, most of the commentators explain that the expression “eternal life” (chayyei olam) parallels “the Torah of truth” which precedes it.  In other words, the “Torah of truth” is itself “eternal life,” for by engaging in Torah a person inherits eternal life.  In Bava Metzia (33a) the same idea is formulated in halakhic terms: “One’s father brought him into this world, but one’s teacher – who imparts to him wisdom – brings one to the eternal world.”

A third reason for the title “a Torah of life” is the vitality and ongoing development that characterize Torah.  The Gemara (Chagiga 3b) draws a comparison in this regard between Torah and the plant kingdom: “Just as this plant is fertile and multiplies – so the words of Torah are fertile and multiply.” Similarly, the final mishna in Bava Batra (175b) draws a parallel between dinei mamonot and a flowing spring.  Although a mikve – like a flowing spring – purifies those who are ritually impure, a spring continually replenishes itself and never stands still, and therefore a spring is preferable to a standing mikve (Mikvaot 1:7).  This is also the nature of Jewish civil law.

A final reason for the term “Torah of life” is that, in contrast to many other cultures which glorify death, the Torah occupies itself with life and sanctifies it.  There is no death worship in Judaism.  By delving into the tiniest details of all aspects of life, Halakha expresses its respect and appreciation for life in all its forms.  The Torah addresses every part of a person’s life and strives to sanctify all of it – including everything from creative life, through economic life, to the most everyday and material of daily activities.  The message that arises from the Torah’s occupation with these spheres is that every moment of life has significance, and can serve as the springboard to spiritual elevation.  In the Jewish view, a live dog is preferable to a dead lion.  So long as a person is alive, he may progress and sanctify himself.  But when he is dead, he is removed from the world of sanctification and the fulfillment of Halakha.

Some people posit that a “Torah of life” is a Torah that shows consideration for the realities and necessities of life.  According to this view, Torah sages should enact rabbinic rulings and interpret Halakha with a view towards addressing life’s issues.  In practice, this approach is popular mainly in specific areas of Halakha, in which the halakhic authorities have been especially lenient throughout the ages, such as their consideration for the anguish of “chained women” (who are refused divorces by their husbands) and the suffering of the poor.  This is not the place to treat this extensive subject in detail, but it should be emphasized that in this regard both extremes are wrong.  On the one hand, there are those who insist that for every issue and in every instance there must be a halakhic solution, and the only problem preventing the release of all the “chained women” in the world is the timidity and laziness of the halakhic authorities.  On the other hand, there are those who declare that the world of Halakha is self-contained, and no values need be taken into consideration other than purely halakhic ones.  In my view, a true Torah sage must feel a dual obligation: towards Torah and towards the Jewish people, and he must find the “golden mean” that balances the needs of these two factors.


In addition to speaking of a “Torah of life” (Torat chayyim), we also speak of a “life of Torah” (chayyei Torah). By this we mean a life that is based upon Torah – and this is true on several different levels. 

First, a “life of Torah” is built on the foundation of the Torah’s commandments; it is the Torah that directs one’s path.  On the most basic level, we are speaking of a life guided by Halakha; one makes one’s decisions and acts in accordance with the Torah’s directives.  But beyond this, a Jew who lives a life of Torah senses continually the weight of his or her responsibility as a commanded being.  This constant awareness is unique to the Jewish religion and to the Jewish nation.  There are many religions in which a person experiences God as the Creator, the Redeemer, the All-Powerful, and the Source of kindness, but a Jew experiences God primarily as the Law-Giver and the One Who commands.  A person who lives a life of Torah operates in accordance with this constant consciousness: as he or she wakes up in the morning, goes to work, eats, and even as when preparing to sleep.  There is no activity – even the most seemingly mundane and insignificant – that does not consult the Shulchan Arukh for guidance.

But a life of Torah is more than just a life founded upon halakhic awareness.  Along with the commandments that comprise Halakha, Torah also includes a whole system of values that establish the proper relationship between a person and God, the community, and the world in general.  A true life of Torah is one in which the spirit of Halakha influences one beyond its straightforward demands and prohibitions.  A person who lives a life of Torah understands that the Torah does more than just delimit parameters of the permissible and the forbidden.  It influences our attitudes towards all areas of life, such as politics, economics, and spirituality. 

A certain kippa-wearing professor one defined himself as an “observant secular Jew.”  This is certainly an extreme and exaggerated definition, but it does reflect the lifestyle of some people who call themselves “religious.” In their view, Torah merely defines the playing field and establishes the “rules of the game” within which life is to be lived.  They believe that one can think, feel and do as one pleases, as long as one does not break any of the technical rules.  A true life of Torah is not a secular life that features the observance of the commandments; rather, it is a life in which Torah is the “game” itself, not just the framework of its rules.  A person may be a shoemaker, a physicist or an economist, but if Torah lives within him and the focus of his life is the aspiration to “sit in God’s house all the days of my life” – then this person lives a life of Torah.  Such a person does not feel that Torah limits or constricts his life; rather, he feels that it guides and inspires him.

In this sense, a life of Torah is not just a life that is permissible according to Torah, but a life with Torah at its center.  In various contexts, the Gemara mentions the definition of a person “whose profession is Torah” (e.g.  Shabbat 11a).  Two of the greatest Rishonim – Ramah (Responsa, 248) and Rosh (Responsa, 15:8) – maintain that this definition refers to anyone whose aspiration is to “sit in God’s house,” and who organizes his life on the basis of this aspiration.  According to this definition, even a person who spends most of his day in a laboratory, for example, and only sits down to learn Torah at the end of the day – even this person may be considered one “whose profession is Torah.” This status stems from his feeling that he engages in the other spheres because he needs to – for his own benefit or for that of society – but his main desire is to “dwell in God’s house all the days of his life.” Even if a person does not devote his entire day to Torah study, the main question is how he relates to his occupation and what he does with his free time. 

What is common to all of these definitions is the negation of contrast or distinction between Torah and life.  Torah and life – by their very definition – do not compete with one another.  In its most perfect and ideal sense, “life” is defined as such specifically when it is a life of Torah, hinging on Torah values and on the aspiration towards involvement in Torah.  Similarly, the ideal sense of “Torah” is a Torah of life in that it addresses life, promotes life, and rewards those who engage in it with eternal life.  Any approach that attempts to negate these definitions and to draw a distinction between Torah and “true life” is alien to servants of God.  Only a view that identifies true life as a life of Torah can guide us on our spiritual path, on the road leading forever upward towards the House of God.

(This sicha was delivered in Summer 5761 [2001].)

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