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Involvement in Torah as an Exemption from Mitzvot (3)

Harav Aharon Lichtenstein
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Translated by David Silverberg


            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, 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.  When study is not accompanied by a sense of obligation and preparedness to bring the material into practical expression, it is inherently deficient and blemished.  While undoubtedly Torah learning involves more than preparation for mitzva performance, and the learning in and of itself is of inestimable value - and in fact this is the level of "Torah study for its own sake" that Chazal praised so profusely, as Rav Chayim Volozhin[23] emphasized at great length - nevertheless, this value exists only when the individual learns out of an ambition and desire to carry out that which is demanded by the material he studies. 


Thus, when a mitzva comes one's way in the midst of his study, he must interrupt his learning, sine he thereby passes the test of whether or not he studies for the sake of performing.  This does not mean that someone 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" (someone 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 "osek be-mitzva patur min ha-mitzva" with respect to Torah study, but rather a re-definition of the type of Torah study that is capable of yielding an exemption from mitzvot.  This emerges clearly from the Yerushalmi, as it did not simply ask, "Does not Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai agree that one interrupts to build a sukka and prepare a lulav?"  If the Gemara's question had ended there, we could have explained as the Meiri did, that Torah study is excluded from the general exemption granted to one involved in a mitzva.  But the Yerushalmi adds the following basis to its argument:


"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'?" 


Clearly, the Gemara here discusses not the obligation or exemption vis-à-vis mitzvot of one studying Torah, but rather the nature and value of Torah studied without the 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 if he would not interrupt to perform a mitzva, his study would indeed yield an exemption.  Generally, however, failure to interrupt one's learning to perform mitzvot divests the Torah study of its connection to mitzva fulfillment.  As a result, Torah study not only loses its ability to yield an exemption from mitzvot, but it is said about the individual that it would have been preferable for him to never have been born.  But, as stated, if the Torah could maintain its character even without its interruption for mitzvot, then indeed its study would exempt one from mitzvot.


This is indeed a logical argument: 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 established that "There is no mitzva equal to Torah study, but rather Torah study equals all other mitzvot" - should it have less ability to yield 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 even for a mitzva, if it can be performed by others.  And logic dictates such, for every word independently constitutes a great mitzva which equals all others.  Therefore, when one learns, for example, one page, he fulfills several hundred mitzvot, and it is thus certainly preferable to fulfill one hundred mitzvot than a single mitzva.  Only when it cannot be fulfilled by another may one disrupt his learning."[24]


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 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 emphasized, "with a single word one fulfills the mitzva of Torah learning."  And so, 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, this additional learning would not exempt one from mitzvot.[25]


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," as mentioned explicitly by the Ran (ibid.), and may not be viewed as merely a fulfillment of the prophetic dictum, "You shall engage in them day and night."  Secondly, at least according to Rabbi Chananya Ben Akavya, it seems that we may apply the rule of "osek be-mitzva…" even when not dealing with the fulfillment of a specific mitzva.  Rather, "everyone involved in God's work" earns this exemption.[26] Thus, even without the special mitzva of Torah study derived from the verse, "You shall teach them to your children," we could exempt one involved in study from mitzvot, in light of the comment of the Sifrei (Parashat Eikev, 5):


"'And to serve Him' - this refers to study.  You claim this refers to study; perhaps it refers literally to [the Temple] service… We thus see that 'to serve Him' refers to study and 'to observe' refers to mitzvot.  Just as the service upon the altar is referred to as 'service,' so is study referred to as 'service.'"[27]


Fundamentally, then, the "osek be-mitzva" exemption applies to Torah study as well, either due to the specific mitzva involved or its fulfilling the broader mitzva of "service" (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 Meiri (who held that the exemption of 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, while the mitzva, on the other hand, could be performed by others, the need for preserving the Torah as a precious commodity - in and of itself, unrelated to the obligation of the individual studying it - overrides the mitzva.  This provision is not anchored in the obligation or exemption of the person himself, but rather in the considerations taken when affording preference to conflicting goals.  The basis for such a provision, however, remains unclear.  Once the individual does not earn an exemption, given that the principle of "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 on the condition that his Torah study maintains its quality of "in order to perform."  It thus stands to reason - though certainly one may wish to 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 one learning 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.  According to the second approach, by contrast, that when others can perform the mitzva we may apply the halakha of "osek be-mitzva…," since the Torah study retains its quality of "in order to perform," then according to the view of the Or Zaru'a and the Ran, that this provision takes effect even when both mitzvot can be performed - the individual is exempt in this case, as well.[28]


            It thus emerges that involvement in Torah indeed yields 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. 






[23] See especially his comments in "Nefesh ha-Chayim" 4, and the analysis of his outlook in Rabbi Norman Lamm's "Torah Lishmah."  See also Bet ha-Levi, 1:6.


[24] Shenot Eliyahu, 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 and involve himself… "  Clearly, however, this is a very novel position.


[25] See Kovetz He'arot, who understood that Torah study indeed exempts one from other mitzvot based on the general principle of "osek be-mitzva," only whenever one comes upon a mitzva, the obligation of Torah study is automatically canceled, since the fulfillment of the mitzva is of no less importance than bodily and financial needs, for which may take time out from learning.  According to this approach, one may easily distinguish between the minimum requirement and the broader mitzva of learning.


[26] The Mishkenot Yaakov (O.C. 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, exempted everyone involved in "God's work," even if the given activity does not fulfill an actual mitzva, and the 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 yields the exemption.  In truth, however, even according to the view that the mitzva and its preoccupation yield independent exemptions, this is true only when the preoccupation leads towards the fulfillment of a mitzva, such as a groom marrying a never-married woman.  By contrast, the preoccupation surrounding a mitzva that does not serve as preparation for the mitzva, exempts only according to Rabbi Chananya Ben Akavya.


[27] 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 (mitzvat asei 5).  Intuitively, we may 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 poskim imply that women are exempt entirely from the mitzva of Torah study, with the exception - according to some - of 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 regard to men.  Nevertheless, this issue still requires further clarification.

     There is also room to discuss whether the exemption of "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 yield 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 his tefilla 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 against interrupting for mitzvot, during prayer involve not the provision of "osek be-mitzva," but rather the laws of prayer themselves and its nature as "amida lifnei ha-Melekh" - direct communion with the King.  A complete analysis of this topic lies beyond the scope of this discussion.


[28] We should note that towards the beginning of the sugya in Mo'ed Katan, this factor of the possibility of the mitzva's performance by others appears in a different context: "It is written, 'Chart the course you take, and all your ways will prosper,' and it is written, 'Lest you chart a path of life'!  This is no difficulty: this refers to a mitzva that can be… "  According to the majority of the Rishonim, with the exception of the Ra'avad - see Shitta le-Talmido Shel Rabbeinu Yechiel mi-Paris and Chiddushei ha-Ran there - this refers to determining preference between two conflicting mitzvot, rather than between Torah study and a mitzva.  There is room to question whether this distinction resembles in nature the same distinction drawn later in the sugya with regard to Torah study.  According to our speculation within the view of the Meiri, it would seem that we may draw such a comparison, whereas according to our approach, we might distinguish between the two.


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