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Involvement in Torah as an Exemption from Mitzvot (1)

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Translated by David Silverberg 



The Rambam writes (Hilkhot Ishut 15:2):


"Men are commanded with regard to [the mitzva of] procreation, but not women.  When is a man obligated in this mitzva?  From the age of seventeen.  Once he reaches twenty years and has not married a woman, he has transgressed and neglected a positive commandment.  But if he was involved in Torah and engrossed in it, and he feared marrying a woman, so that he wouldn't have to busy himself providing food for his wife and thus neglect Torah study, it is permissible for him to delay, for one who is involved in a mitzva is exempt from another mitzva, all the more so Torah study." 


The source for delaying procreation for Torah study is the baraita cited in the first chapter of Kiddushin (29b): "Studying Torah and marrying - one should first study Torah and then marry;" and 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" (general zeal in mitzva performance).  Therefore, we should have no need to enlist the principle of "osek be-mitzva patur min ha-mitzva" (someone involved in one mitzva is exempt from other mitzvot) 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 Eretz Yisrael in this regard (the Babylonians would marry and then study Torah), this entire discussion involves not an outright halakha, but rather advice as to the proper mode of conduct.[2] But the Rambam, it appears, on the basis of a later passage in that same sugya - "Until twenty years [of one's life], 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" - established as an ironclad rule that delaying marriage past the age of twenty constitutes a violation of the mitzva.[3] He was thus compelled to base the permission to delay it out of concern for the loss of Torah study on the principle of "osek be-mitzva." 


The application of this principle 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:


"Students 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 was their [sole] occupation.  Those like us, however, interrupt for [both] the recitation of Shema and tefilla." 


In other words, those "whose Torah is their occupation" interrupt their learning to observe Torah obligations, but not obligations of rabbinic origin.  Others interrupt Torah study to fulfill rabbinic obligations, as well.  The Rambam codifies this halakha accordingly (Hilkhot Keri'at Shema 2:5):


"If one was involved in Torah study when the time for the recitation of Shema arrived, he interrupts [his learning] and reads, reciting the berakhot before and after." 


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


"One who was involved in Torah study when the time for tefilla arrived interrupts [his learning] and prays.  If his Torah was his sole occupation, and he did no work at all, and was 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" (the formal acceptance of the yoke of divine kingship), require one to interrupt his learning.  Such a distinction, however, does not seem plausible.  And in any event, the Yerushalmi explicitly extends this requirement to interrupt one's learning to other mitzvot, beyond Shema and prayer.  The Gemara (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."  The Gemara cites the following report of Rabbi Ze'ira:


"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 the one learning - 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 Gemara asks: "Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai does not agree that one interrupts [Torah learning] to build a sukka and prepare a lulav?  Does not Rabbi Shimon Ben Yochai 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 onto his face, 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 Torah study."  The Shulchan Arukh (E.H. 1:3) adopts the Rambam's ruling but omits his reasoning, understandably so.  Indeed, the Rambam's comments require an explanation.




     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], for study leads to performance.  Therefore, study always takes precedence over performance.  If one had before him [the choice between] the performance of a mitzva and Torah study, if the mitzva could 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, he establishes an ironclad rule that it cannot exempt one from a mitzva that cannot be performed by others.  Although we never find such a distinction - with regard to the possibility of the mitzva's performance by others - affecting the exemption of "osek be-mitzva" - and, 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 - apparently the standard provision of "osek be-mitzva" does not apply to Torah study.  The Kesef Mishneh cites as the Rambam's source the comments in the Yerushalmi (Pesachim 3:7):


"It was agreed upon… that learning precedes performance.  The rabbis of Caesarea said, This applies only if there is someone 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 Bavli (Mo'ed Katan 9b):


"They asked: It says, 'It [the Torah] is more precious than rubies; all of your goods cannot equal it,' implying that the Almighty's 'goods' [i.e. mitzvot] can equal it; but it also says, 'All goods cannot equal it,' implying that even the Almighty's goods cannot equal it!  [The answer is,] 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 Meiri writes:


"Although they said that one involved in a mitzva is exempt from other mitzvot, Torah study is not included in this principle.  Rather, one who was involved in Torah and a mitzva came his way may not neglect [his learning] for it if it 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 cast upon him personally, such as lulav, shofar, honoring his father and mother, burying a dead body where there is no one else to perform the burial and similar cases, the mitzva takes precedence and one leaves 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 was not stated with regard to Torah study, since its primary role involves 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 among the greatest of the Acharonim have already addressed this difficulty in the Rambam's rulings and suggested various solutions.  The Maharam Schick (E.H. 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 was raised in the Yerushalmi, in the first chapter of Shabbat… and the answer there does not apply here.  And such is the conclusion in Mo'ed Katan 9b, that regarding a mitzva that cannot be performed by others one must and is required to neglect 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 Azai formulated this beautifully when he said, 'The world can go on through others.'  Therefore, Ben Azai, who was overcome by love for the Torah and never stopped or neglected his study, did not need to neglect it and was never obligated to stop his learning.  Others, however, who at times neglect it and interrupt - they therefore at that point have the obligation to marry.  The Rambam therefore ruled 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 Torah study, certainly Torah study takes precedence." 


This explanation seems startling.  The Maharam Schick is absolutely certain that the mitzva of "periya v-reviya" (procreation) is not an individual obligation cast personally upon every Jewish male.  Had it been 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 mitzva of "shevet," which is rooted in the verse, "He did not create it a waste, but formed it for habitation ['lashevet yetzarah']," 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, and 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, or if, 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 "periya v-rivya"?  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.  But 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 due to the ability of this mitzva to be performed by others?  Do we use the reasoning behind a mitzva to transfer obligation to others?


     The Arukh ha-Shulchan also addresses this problem.  After summarizing the Rambam's position and underlying reason he adds (E.H. 1:13):


"Although someone involved in Torah cannot exempt himself from mitzvot, nevertheless, he still has time to fulfill the mitzva of procreation, which requires fathering a male and female,.  It is thus considered a mitzva whose time is not passing, which the mitzva of Torah study may delay."


The distinction itself is a reasonable one and has a source in the Rishonim[9] - and perhaps even in the Talmud - 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 learning cannot provide an exemption from procreation, but merely delay the mitzva.  But the Rambam explicitly based his ruling on the principle of "osek be-mitzva," which exempts one entirely from other mitzvot - even from one whose time will soon pass, and even if the individual is currently involved in a mitzva whose time will not soon transpire.  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 "Meishiv Davar" (2:53), the Netziv rejected a similar answer:


"I asked concerning the Rambam's language in Hilkhot Ishut (15:2) that one may learn Torah and thereafter marry because someone involved in a mitzva is exempt from another mitzva, all the more so Torah study.  I asked, is one 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…  But 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 rabbi [the Rambam] derive this provision from the fact that one involved in a mitzva is exempt from another mitzva, all the more so 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 rabbi [the Rambam], whose words are always so enlightening."[10]


     The most comprehensive treatment of this issue (to the best of my knowledge) is found in the laws of Torah study in 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 learning, the mitzva will override the learning.  But if the knowledge faces danger, its development and reinforcement take precedence over the performance of the mitzva.  Thus, one interrupts his learning for a mitzva that he alone can perform only in one of three scenarios.  First, if he 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,


"For if he first marries, the millstones 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 six hundred and thirteen mitzvot and the basics of the Oral Law.  Therefore, the great mitzva of 'periya v-reviya,' although it is the greatest of the mitzvot, is delayed by this study.  One is exempt (Rambam, Hilkhot Ishut 15) from it because it is overridden by the mitzva of Torah study, which equals all other mitzvot.  It was 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 knowing 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, too, seems very difficult to read into the comments of the Rambam, who explicitly exempted 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.






[1] Regarding this issue, see Chelkat Mechokek, E.H. 1:2, and Beit Shemuel 1:3.  We can more readily understand the cutoff mark of twenty years than 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 application of mitzva obligations, with the exception of a small handful of mitzvot, such as the half-shekel donation and halakhot associated with it, and even there the age of twenty assumes significance because of unique factors, unrelated to our topic.


[2] Although the Gemara concludes, "The halakha is: one marries and then studies Torah," the Meiri there formulated 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 with the ruling of the Shulchan Arukh (Y.D. 246:2): "A person should study Torah and thereafter marry."  It stands to reason that according to the view that one should first marry, this constitutes an outright halakha, as implied by the Gemara's formulation; whereas the view that one should first study intended merely to provide a general guideline, without introducing a binding obligation.


[3] The simple reading of the sugya suggests that the cutoff point of twenty years regarding marriage involves not the obligation to father children, but out of the concern for sinful thoughts.  The Rambam, however, seems to have applied it to the fulfillment of the mitzva, as well.


[4] Yerushalmi, Berakhot 1:2; this passage appears in slight variation in the Yerushalmi, Shabbat 1:2.  The source of this baraita concerning study without the intention of performing is Torat Kohanim at the beginning of Parashat Bechukotai.  Compare with Berakhot 17a regarding mitzvot performed "she-lo li-shma" (with ulterior motives) and Tosefot there, s.v. "ha-oseh," as well as parallel Tosefot, particularly Tosefot Rash, Pesachim 50b, s.v. "kan."


[5] See his chiddushim to Kiddushin 32a; however, compare with the citation of the Meiri, Mo'ed Katan 9b, from the "gedolei ha-dorot" and the publisher's note there.


[6] The question arises as to why, in fact, the Kesef Mishneh did not cite this passage as the Rambam's source.  He perhaps felt 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 and Tosefot s.v. "lo."  There is room to debate the inclusion of women and "avadim kena'anim" in the mitzva of "shevet," but this issue lies beyond the scope of our discussion.


[8] See Shulchan Arukh ha-Rav, Hilkhot Talmud Torah, 3, in Kuntras Acharon, p.842.  He raises the possibility of exempting one involved in Torah from procreation due to its ability to be performed by others, and then rejects it out of hand.


[9] See Tosefot Ri ha-Zaken, Kiddushin 40b; Meiri, Kiddushin 29b; Roke'ach, 369; Bach, Y.D. 246, s.v. "u-ma she-katav lefikhakh."


[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 mitzva of 'shevet' and 'periya v-reviya'?"  He answers: "Every mitzva whose time will not soon expire is like a mitzva that can be performed by others; for this reason, Torah study delays any mitzva whose time will not soon expire."  There is room to debate his novel equation between these halakhot; 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 halakha itself, unrelated to the Rambam and his explanation, with which he encountered difficulty later.  See Rav Elchanan Wasserman's "Kovetz He'arot" on Masekhet Yevamot (appendices at the end of the book, 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 we 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 "Kuntras Acharon" ad loc. See also Rav Shlomo Yosef Zevin's discussion of these obligations of Torah study and knowledge of Torah in his "le-Or ha-Halakha" (Tel-Aviv, 5717), pp.204-212.

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