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Involvement in Torah as an Exemption from Mitzvot (2)

Text file

Translated by David Silverberg 


Introduction to Part 2


            In last week's installment of the article, Rav Lichtenstein began to examine the Rambam's presentation of the nature of the exemption from mitzvot while one is involved in Torah study. 


            Its difficulty lies in the fact that the Rambam (Hilkhot Ishut) relies on the exemption of "osek be-mitzva," yet, at the same time (in Hilkhot Talmud Torah) he limits the exemption to situations where the new mitzva could be fulfilled by others.  The source of this latter point seems to be Moed Katan (9b) which, according to the Meiri, is based on the assumption that the principle of "osek be-mitzva" does NOT apply to talmud Torah.  Since the purpose of talmud Torah is to be able to fulfill the other mitzvot, the exemption of "osek" is irrelevant.  In this section, R. Lichtenstein will raise another six problematic issues.]




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


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


The source of this halakha appears in Masekhet Megilla (3a):


"… we interrupt Torah study and come to hear the reading of the Megilla, as derived through a 'kal va-chomer' from avoda [which is overridden by the obligation of Megilla reading, so all the more so Torah study is overridden as well]." 


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




The Yerushalmi (Berakhot 5:1) reads:


"One should rise to pray only from within the study of Halakha [meaning, one should study halakha before prayer].  Rabbi Yirmiya says, Someone involved in community service is considered like someone involved in Torah study." 


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


"One who was involved in Torah study when the time for prayer arrived interrupts [his learning] and prays.  If his Torah was his 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 prayer.  And someone involved in community service is considered the same as someone involved in Torah study." 


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


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


"If one was involved in community service, he should not stop.  He rather completes the task and then reads [the Shema] if time remains for reading." 


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




The Mishna (Sukka 25a) exempts travelers on their way to perform a mitzva from the mitzva of sukka, and the Gemara bases this exemption on the principle of "osek be-mitzva patur min ha-mitzva."  Rashi there says that this expemtion applies to: "those traveling for purposes of a mitzva, such as to study Torah, greet one's rabbi, or ransom captives."  The source of the mitzva to greet one's rabbi appears later in Sukka (26a):


"Rav Chisda and Rabba Bar Rav Huna, while on there way to the festival lecture at the house of the Exilarch, they would sleep along the riverbank of Sura [without a sukka], saying, 'We are travelers for a mitzva and thus exempt [from the obligation to sleep in a sukka]'." 


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




Commenting on the verse, "in order that the Lord's Torah shall be in your mouth" (Shemot 13:9), the Mekhilta, according to the text adopted by most Rishonim, reads:


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


The Ran (Rosh Hashana 4a in the Rif's glosses) offers the following explanation for the final clause of this passage:


"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' [such as tefillin], as the words of the Torah serve as a sign for him."[15]


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




Rav Chayim Or Zaru'a went even further.  After siding with his father's view, in opposition with most Ba'alei ha-Tosefot[17], that involvement in a mitzva exempts from another mitzva even when one can perform both, he reaches the following conclusion:


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


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




The Gemara in Masekhet Berakhot (13b) reads:


"'Shema Yisrael ... echad' - this was the [entire] Shema recited by Rabbi Yehuda ha-Nasi… Would he go back to complete it [after his lecture] or would he not go back to complete it?  Bar Kapara says, He would not go back to complete it; Rabbi Shimon the son of Rebbi said, He would go back to complete it." 


Rashi and other Rishonim there in Berakhot explain that Rabbi Yehuda lectured to his students before the time for Shema arrived.  With the onset of the obligation of the Shema, he continued teaching rather than interrupting to recite the entire Shema.  Once again, we must ask why Rabbi Yehuda did not complete the entire Shema, given that Torah study does not yield an exemption from mitzvot.  According to the Ramban's view[19], that the Torah obligation of Shema requires only the recitation of the first verse, we may explain that Torah study exempted him from the rest.  But most Rishonim maintain that at least the entire first parasha is formally mandatory (rather than an enhancement of the recitation).  Assuming that the recitation of Shema constitutes a Torah obligation, which thus includes the entire first parasha, on what basis was Rebbi exempt from completing it? 


Though one may argue that he accepted Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai's position, cited in the Yerushalmi, that one need not interrupt learning for Shema, as Shema itself is a form of learning, this seems highly unlikely.  Rabbi Shimon's view appears nowhere throughout the Talmud Bavli, and it is always assumed as a foregone conclusion that the unique status of Rabbi Shimon and his colleagues, who occupied themselves solely in Torah learning, applied only to prayer (i.e. the Amida), no Shema.  With regard to Shema, even one whose sole occupation is Torah learning must interrupt his study for this recitation.  The Tosefot ha-Rosh (s.v. "be-sha'a") writes:


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


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


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


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




            In order to explain the Rambam's position and address the issues raised until now, we may perhaps suggest that, unlike the Meiri's position [see introduction to part 2], the provision of "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.  [This answer will be explained next week.  Think about it in the meantime.]






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


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


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


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


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


[17] See Or Zaru'a 2:299, as opposed to Tosefot, Sukka 25a s.v. "sheluchei" and elsewhere.


[18] Shut Maharach Or Zaru'a, 183.  Compare with 161 and 163.


[19] See his comments in Milchamot Hashem, Rosh Hashanah 7b in the Rif's glosses, which imply that he indeed based his position on this sugya: "The main obligation of Shema consists of the first verse, through which one fulfills his obligation, as we say… 'Shema Yisrael…  - this was the Shema recited by Rabbi Yehuda ha-Nasi.'"  We should note that the Peri Chadash (O.C. 67:1) seems to have understood that the Ramban follows the view of the Rashba (Teshuvot, 1:320), that the first verse of Shema is required by Torah law and the rest by force of rabbinic enactment.  If so, then we cannot bring proof to his position from Rabbi Yehuda ha-Nasi's practice unless we assume that involvement in Torah - at least on the public level, such as delivering a public lecture - exempts one from rabbinically mandated mitzvot.  Such an assumption is far from simple.  In any event, we could understand the Ramban's comments as implying that through the recitation of the first verse one fulfills even the rabbinic level of obligation, and the rest constitutes but an additional component and enhancement of the mitzva.


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


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


[22] The definition of the word "rabbim" is obviously quite varied - from three, with respect to a vow taken "al da'at rabbim" (subject to the public's consent - Gittin 46a) and a "public" domain relevant to the laws of tum'a (Nazir 57a), to the six hundred thousand that several Geonim and Rishonim require to determine a "public" domain with regard to the laws of Shabbat.  But the definition of "rabbim" as a gathering of the entire nation is both rare and novel.  Compare with the view of the Behag (end of Hilkhot Lulav, p. 35b in the Traub edition) regarding the recitation of Hallel on Rosh Chodesh: "The 'individual' who, as we said, recites the entire Hallel, refers not to an individual literally, but rather any setting where all of Israel is not gathered is called one of 'individuals.'"



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