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Involvement in Torah as an Exemption from Mitzvot (4)

Harav Aharon Lichtenstein
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Translated by David Silverberg 

Introduction to Part 4 

[Summary of last week's installment: In addition to the basic difficulty we saw in the fact that the Rambam applied "osek be-mitzva" to Torah study and yet limited this exemption to mitzvot that could be fulfilled by others, we examined further questions:


1.  Assuming the study of Torah does not carry the normal exemption of "osek be-mitzvot," the Rambam's kal va-chomer of "we forgo Torah study in order to hear the Megilla and all the more so, the other mitzvot are overridden by Megilla reading" - is difficult to understand.


2.  How does the Rambam equate a person temporarily involved in communal affairs with one who is solely occupied with Torah?


3.  How does the Ran explain the exemption from tefillin for a person who wears tefillin to be based on "osek be-mitzva"?


4.  How did Rebbi exempt himself from the entire Shema (except the first verse) during the time of his lectures?


Rav Lichtenstein offered the following explanation as a basis for understanding the exemption:


            There are two modes of Torah study (beyond basic Torah Lishmah): 1) to study with full intent of implementing what is being learnt;  2) when someone lacks this intent (the latter obviously being a lower level).  The Rambam felt that the rule of "osek be-mitzva" DOES apply to Torah study, and thus the person studying earns an exemption from other mitzvot.  However, if he does not interrupt his Torah study to do the mitzva, then his action of Torah study is revealed to be lacking intent to implement what is being learnt, and thus on the lower level.  This lower mode of Torah study does not carry an exemption.]


With this principle, we can perhaps resolve the difficulties raised earlier. 




The Rambam's formulation with regard to the mitzva of procreation, "It is permissible to delay, for one who is involved in a mitzva is exempt from another mitzva, all the more so Torah study," is now comprehensible.  Correspondingly, we can understand his comments in Hilkhot Megilla:


"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." 


Recall that we had questioned the validity of this "kal va-chomer," since someone involved in mitzvot other than Torah study is exempt from other mitzvot, while this seems not to be the case regarding one involved in Torah study.  In light of our analysis, the answer is simple.  Fundamentally, the exemption of "osek be-mitzva" applies to Torah learning no less than it does to other mitzvot - on condition that the Torah is studied with the aim to perform.  Although on a practical level, presumably, the scope of the exemption will be more limited with regard to Torah study, this does not undermine the fundamental parallel.  The "kal va-chomer" - both in Hilkhot Ishut and Hilkhot Megilla - may be explained in two ways:


1) The importance of the mitzva of Torah learning surpasses that of other mitzvot, as evidenced by the fact that one may sell a Torah scroll or leave the Land of Israel[29] (both of which are generally forbidden) for the sake of Torah study.  Most Rishonim attribute this to the singular importance of Torah study.


2) Someone involved in other mitzvot earns an exemption from another mitzva only due to the command and personal obligation latent within the mitzva he currently performs.  This is derived either from the verse in Shema - "when you sit in your home," excluding situations of involvement in a mitzva, "and when you go along the way," excluding a groom on his wedding night - or from the exemption from the korban Pesach granted to those who had become ritually impure through contact with a dead body (see Sukka 25a).  The exemption granted to one studying Torah, by contrast, rests upon two foundations: the mitzva involved, parallel to other mitzvot, and the value of the very existence of Torah learning, independent of the imperative associated with it.  The principle established in the sugya in Mo'ed Katan, that one does not interrupt Torah study for a mitzva that can be performed by others, as derived from the verse, "It is more precious than rubies; all of your goods cannot equal it," relates not to the mitzva of Torah learning, but rather to the value of Torah and its study as an entity and phenomenon.  This is clearly evidenced by the Gemara's citation of verses discussing the priceless value and supreme importance of Torah.  Thus, when he stated, "all the more so, then, the other mitzvot of the Torah are overridden by Megilla reading," the Rambam referred to the additional component of Torah study.  If Torah, involvement in which yields an exemption due to two halakhot, is suspended in deference to Megilla reading, then certainly other mitzvot, which exempt only by force of a single halakha, are overridden by Megilla.  This same explanation applies to the Rambam's "kal va-chomer" in Hilkhot Ishut.


            But all this resolves only the Rambam's language, which relates to the fundamental exemption from mitzvot granted to one involved in Torah.  The question, however, remains, how did the Rambam practically exempt the individual immersed in Torah learning from the mitzva of procreation?  After all, one must interrupt his study for mitzvot such as lulav and sukka, as mentioned explicitly in the Yerushalmi, for otherwise the Torah loses its quality of "in order to perform."  It would appear, however, that this halakha, too, fits perfectly into the analysis we have developed.  The Rambam carefully wrote, "it is permissible for him to delay," clearly indicating that only the delay of procreation is allowed, but not its total neglect.[30] The explanation, then, becomes simple.  Were the Rambam to have concurred fundamentally with the position of the Meiri, that the "osek be-mitzva" exemption does not apply to Torah study, then clearly even delaying the mitzva of procreation would be forbidden - especially given that according to the Rambam, beyond a certain age one who has not married has violated a mitzvat asei.  Since, however, he believes that this exemption does, in fact, apply to Torah learning, only on condition that he learns with the intention to perform, we may easily suggest that so long as the student plans on performing the mitzva, albeit after a postponement, his learning is classified as "in order to perform."  He thus does not transgress the commandment by continuing to learn, as the "osek be-mitzva" exemption can now be activated.  Granted, if we would speak of ignoring the mitzva of "peru u-revu" altogether, the student would not earn an exemption, for then his learning would lose its quality of "in order to perform," and we would say about him that "it would have been preferable for his placenta to have been turned onto his face."  If, however, we deal with the mere postponement of a mitzva that has no final deadline, the performance-oriented nature of the learning is preserved, and it can therefore exempt the student from the obligation of "peru u-revu."




            In light of our approach, we can resolve as well Rashi's comments regarding the exemption from sukka afforded to those en route to learn Torah.  We asked how these travelers could earn an exemption from mitzvot if Torah study itself does not exempt.  Indeed, if we consider the fundamental exemption of one studying Torah from sukka or from any other mitzva, this distinction is clearly untenable; how could we afford greater strength to the mitzva's preparatory stages than to the mitzva itself?  But now that we understand that the essential exemption exists with regard to both the one preoccupied with the preparatory stages of learning (corresponding to the cases of the groom before his wedding or those who sell dye for tzitzit) as well as the one actually studying, so long as the learning is geared toward performance, this distinction becomes clear.  The one studying must interrupt his learning for the mitzva of sukka, while the student en route to learn is exempt.  The essential nature of the Torah studied is determined specifically by the learning itself: if it is not interrupted for the performance of mitzvot, it is conducted without the aim to perform.  The preparation for learning, however, and the travel towards that end, cannot determine the nature of the study.  So long as the learning itself withstands the test, its link to mitzva performance is not negated; the travel can still be viewed as a step towards study that is itself geared towards performance, as nothing has occurred that could undermine this goal.  Therefore, practically speaking, it can indeed turn out that one must interrupt actual study for the performance of mitzvot, whereas the one traveling to learn will earn an exemption.




            In this light we may also explain the Rambam's equation between involvement in communal affairs and involvement in Torah with regard to the exemption from Shema and prayer.  Perhaps this comparison relates to the fundamental, rather than practical, plane.  On this level, one involved in learning is indeed exempt from mitzvot, and we may grant a similar exemption to the one involved in communal affairs.  Although he must, practically, interrupt for the recitation of Shema - and for tefilla, unless Torah is his sole occupation, nevertheless this evolves not from the lack of an exemption, but rather from the need to preserve the nature of his Torah and study that is now put to the test.  Such a test does not exist regarding involvement in communal needs, as it does in the context of Torah study.  Consequently, the essential exemption indeed takes effect at the practical level, and the individual does not interrupt his work for either Shema or tefilla.[31]




            Similarly, we may now understand the view of the Ran and the Vilna Gaon, based on the Mekhilta, that Torah study exempts one from tefillin, as founded upon the principle of "osek be-mitzva patur min ha-mitzva."  Recall that the Ran raised two possible explanations: "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." 


According to his second approach, the nature of Torah as a "sign" itself suffices to exempt the one studying from tefillin, parallel to a similar halakha concerning Shabbat and Yom Tov: "Rabbi Akiva said, perhaps one must lay tefillin on Shabbat and Yom Tov?  The verse therefore states, 'It shall be a sign upon your arm and a symbol on your forehead' - only for those who require a sign.  This excludes Shabbat and Yom Tov, which themselves constitute a 'sign'" (Menachot 36b). 


According to the Ran's first explanation, it seems that the "sign" element latent within Torah cannot independently yield an exemption, for only Shabbat and Yom Tov, in which the entire time period, as a comprehensive framework, is defined as a "sign," can be excluded from the obligation of tefillin.  Nevertheless, it would seem that even this approach of the Ran does not ignore the "sign" of the Torah, and hence when one studies without tefillin, his learning, too, takes on the quality of serving as a "sign."  If no exemption applied at all to one studying Torah, as the Meiri maintains, then the halakha presented in the Mekhilta would be void; the "sign" of the Torah cannot independently exempt, and no other basis for exemption would exist.  But since involvement in Torah in fact does yield an exemption so long as the Torah retains a connection to the content being studied and its actualization, then the connection to the "sign" of Torah takes the place of tefillin, as it corresponds to that which is written in them and becomes the common denominator of the mitzvot of Torah study and tefillin.  As such, although they undoubtedly constitute two independent mitzvot, and Torah can therefore not function independently as a substitute for tefillin, nevertheless the "sign" element of Torah study allows us to activate the "osek be-mitzva" principle, as the learning is not detached from the performance and significance of tefillin, but, quite to the contrary, is integrally connected to them.[32]




            According to what we have seen, we may perhaps understand the seemingly incomprehensible comments of the Talmidei Rabbenu Yona.  In the second chapter of Berakhot (9b in the Rif's glosses), they cite the Yerushalmi's explanation of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai's view and add:


"It [the Yerushalmi] answers, 'This [Torah study] is learning and this [Shema] is learning; let learning come and override learning.'  Meaning, we cannot compare the two, for that which involves action is not overridden by learning, but a mitzva which involves only a recitation is overridden by learning."[33]


This position seems very difficult.  On what basis do we consider a mitzva involving action more stringent than a required recitation?  Furthermore, it would appear that someone involved in a less stringent mitzva earns an exemption even from a more stringent mitzva, as the Ra'a writes explicitly:


"This teaches us that whoever is involved in a mitzva is exempt from another mitzva, even if the one he currently deals with is less stringent."[34]


The Rambam, too, emphasizes this point in his commentary to the adage in the mishna, "Be as careful with a minor mitzva as with a major one."  He explains:


"On this premise they said, 'One who is involved in a mitzva is exempt from another mitzva,' without any assessment of the mitzva in which he is currently involved and the mitzva that passes by."[35]


To the best of my knowledge, no Rishonim dispute this ruling.  Thus, even should we consider Torah study a "minor" mitzva in comparison with mitzvot requiring action - a very difficult presumption in its own right - it should still exempt from these, more stringent, mitzvot. 


It seems that we must take one of two directions to explain the comments of Talmidei Rabbenu Yona. 1) We could attribute the exemption from mitzvot requiring only a recitation not to the general principle of "osek be-mitzva," but rather to the value and weight of the mitzva of Torah study, along the lines of the Gemara in Mo'ed Katan 9b, as discussed earlier. 2) We could perhaps suggest - novel as this may seem - that the exemption is indeed founded upon the rule of "osek be-mitzva," but this exemption applies to Torah study only on condition that the Torah is learned with the intention to perform, and according to the Talmidei Rabbenu Yona, we must define "al menat la'asot" - "in order to perform" - literally.  That is, as opposed to the conventional and even logical understanding, that it refers to the intention of fulfilling and carrying out the mitzvot, regardless of how this is done, they understood the term in the narrowest sense: "la'asot" - to do an action, literally.




            As for the ruling of the Maharach Or Zaru'a, though it is undoubtedly a novel approach and we have never heard of any yeshiva student relying on it in practice, it, too, may be explained in light of our thesis.  As involvement in Torah essentially exempts one from mitzvot so long as he learns with the intent of performing, the Maharach may have felt that how this condition is met depends on the person involved; we will apply different standards to yeshiva students than we would to others. 


For others, the goals of study and performance both exist in the present, and both generate an obligation equally.  Consequently, whoever studies and does not interrupt to perform a mitzva is considered to learn without the intention of performing.  With regard, however, to a student in his formative and developmental stages, we may view him as studying in order to perform later.  If he does not interrupt his study today in order to fulfill mitzvot, this does not reflect his divesting himself of his commitment to them.  Rather, he delays the fulfillment of mitzvot despite the obligation, and even refrains from performing mitzvot whose time will soon pass - for we speak of the general system of mitzvot, and not just one or two specific mitzvot - to a later date, as he is currently in the midst of his process of training and preparation.[36] His Torah thus retains its quality of "in order to perform" and can exempt him from mitzvot.  Since the Maharach holds - a somewhat surprising view in its own right, that runs counter to the majority position among the Rishonim - that one watching over a lost item is exempt from mitzvot throughout the period in which the item is in his home, even when he does not actively engage in its maintenance, he thus concluded that yeshiva students are exempt from mitzvot throughout their stay in their houses of study.[37]




            Finally, in light of our approach we can easily resolve the sugya regarding Rabbi Yehuda ha-Nasi's abridged recitation of Shema - even if the Biblical obligation of Shema includes more than just the first verse.  Recall that the Meiri assumed that no exemption from mitzvot applies to one involved in Torah study, and we therefore asked: how could Rebbi not have completed the entire Shema, given that Torah study does not exempt from Shema?  If Torah learning does not yield an exemption for a mitzva, then presumably one must interrupt his study to do whatever the mitzva requires.  But once we explain that indeed Torah study does yield an exemption from mitzvot so long as the learning is geared towards performance, then it certainly stands to reason that meeting this condition does not require fulfilling the given mitzva in its entirety.  Once Rebbi recited the first verse, which constitutes the primary obligation, as evidenced by the accepted view of Rabbi Meir requiring concentration for this verse alone, he had established a connection between his learning and performance and was thus considered to be studying with the intention of learning.  The general principle of "osek be-mitzva patur min ha-mitzva" could thus take effect and absolve him of the obligation concerning the rest of Shema.  Hence, Bar Kappara claimed that Rebbi would not complete the Shema after his lecture.


            Along these same lines, we may perhaps understand the solution suggested by the Rosh, whereby he distinguishes between personal and public Torah study.  This distinction is built perhaps not on the quantitative value stemming from the scope of public learning, but rather on the very fact that the public learning has practical ramifications well beyond those of private study.  Directly or indirectly, and unrelated to the qualities of the teacher, his teaching will practically impact upon and be reflected in the practical realm, if not with regard to this listener than with regard to another.  Consequently, a teacher is allowed to continue his lesson uninterrupted, for his continuing is not looked upon as a neglect of the practical realm, but rather its furtherance and realization in a different manner. 


Hence, the definition of "public" here need not correspond to the meaning of the same term in Megilla 3a, where the uniqueness of public learning over private study involves its quantitative component (which itself bears a certain qualitative dimension) that determines its value.  As a result, Rashi and several other Rishonim restrict that discussion to an assembly of the entire nation - parallel to the afternoon "tamid" offering, which is likewise mentioned there in the sugya, and which, as a public offering, clearly relates to Kelal Yisrael as a whole.  In our sugya, by contrast, the singular significance of public Torah study lies in its lending a quality of "in order to perform" to Torah taught to an audience.  To achieve this goal, a much smaller number - be it a minyan or a gathering of the local community[38], parallel to the differing views concerning Hallel on Rosh Chodesh - suffices.  Such was clearly the case in Rabbi Yehuda ha-Nasi's study gatherings; thus, the Rosh explained that for this reason Bar Kappara held that Rebbi did not interrupt his public lecture for the recitation of Shema.





[29] See Megilla 27a and Avoda Zara 13a.  Tosefot (Avoda Zara 13a s.v. "lilmod"), however, write that whereas in their view one may leave Eretz Yisrael only to study Torah and marry, they understood the She'iltot as allowing the departure EVEN for learning "and all the more so for other mitzvot which are important."  See She'ilta 103 and Ha'amek She'eila there, 14.


[30] This is the view of the Rosh (Kiddushin 1:42), who makes the following comment regarding the one whom the Gemara allows to first study and then marry: "We do  not know the time frame for this study, for it is implausible that he could neglect procreation throughout his life.  We find this only with regard to Ben Azai whose 'soul longed for Torah."  The Beit Shemuel (1:5) understood that the Rambam disputed this ruling and maintained that, indeed, one can delay procreation unlimitedly.  The Rambam's formulation, however, clearly indicates otherwise.  See also Shulchan Arukh ha-Rav there, p.842b.


[31] Obviously, this will not resolve the difficulty latent in the context of the passage in the Yerushalmi as to the nature of one's preparation for prayer.  Additionally, this involves a somewhat far-fetched reading of the Rambam's formulation, which strongly implies that one involved in Torah is practically, and not just conceptually, exempt from Shema and tefilla.  See the Ra'avya, 92, who explains the Yerushalmi differently.


[32] According to our approach within this position of the Ran, it turns out that involvement in a mitzva requiring effort exempts one even from a mitzva whose performance involves no effort.  Although no exemption exists in the opposite scenario, even according to the view of the Or Zaru'a and the Ran that one involved in a mitzva is exempt from another mitzva even if he can perform both, this is because without exerting effort one cannot be considered "osek be-mitzva" (occupied in a mitzva).  When it comes to the exempted mitzva, however, it does not matter if one would fulfill it through a specific action or effortlessly.  The Rema (O.C. 38:8) writes, "Anyone involved in a mitzva is exempt from another mitzva if he must exert himself to perform the second [mitzva]."  However, this may hold true only according to the position - adopted by the Rema himself, in the same halakha - that one does not earn an exemption when he can perform both mitzvot.  According to the Ran and Or Zaru'a, however, we may in fact draw the distinction discussed.  See also Arukh ha-Shulchan 38:13.


[33] Their explanation of the Yerushalmi obviously differs from the accepted approach, that Torah learning exempts one from Shema because Shema itself features a dimension and fulfillment of Torah study, as I heard many times from Rav Soloveitchik; a complete analysis lies beyond the scope of our discussion.


[34] Chiddushei ha-Ra'a, Sukka 25a, in "Ginzei ha-Rishonim al Masekhet Sukka" edited by Rabbi Moshe Herschler.


[35] Taken from Rav Kapach's translation of the Rambam's commentary to the Mishna.  It appears from the Rambam's formulation that, fundamentally, a minor mitzva does not exempt from a more stringent one.  Practically, however, it does yield such an exemption, since we cannot assess the relative worth of mitzvot.  Intuitively, one could certainly argue that we cannot require one involved in a given mitzva to abandon it and apply himself to a different mitzva even were we endowed with the ability to properly assess the worth and weight of specific mitzvot; there is room for further discussion in this regard.  In any event, we clearly need not explain the Ra'a's view along the lines of the Rambam's comments.


[36] This distinction resembles that drawn by the Shulchan Arukh ha-Rav between learning itself and that which provides the required knowledge, though clearly they are not identical.


[37] See the continuation of the Maharach's responsum.  Compare with the dispute among the Rishonim regarding a loan on collateral and the lender's exemption from giving charity, whether this applies only due to and during his active involvement in the collateral, or due to the loan itself, in which case the exemption may perhaps extend throughout the period when he has possession of the collateral.  One may clearly distinguish between a collateral and a lost item, and the Maharach's position is striking indeed.


[38] Most of the Rishonim who disputed the Behag's position understood that the "tzibbur" required for the recitation of Hallel on Rosh Chodesh means the presence of a minyan.  The Machzor Vitri (241), however, writes: "Even ten who separated from the congregation are considered individuals praying by themselves behind the synagogue; since they were not present in the public gathering, they are like two or three [individuals] in this respect, for we find no mention of this practice other than in an assembly of that city, when they are in their communal assembly."


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