“A Spade With Which To Dig”
The Mishnah (Avot 4:6) begins by teaching us the desired intention when studying Torah:
“If one learns [Torah] in order to teach, he is given the means to learn and to teach; if one learns in order to do, he is given the means to learn, to teach, to observe, and to do.”
The Mishnah continues:
“Rabbi Tzaddok says, ‘Do not make the teachings of the Torah into a crown with which to adorn (i.e., be proud of) yourself, nor like a spade with which to dig (i.e., earn a living).’ Hillel would say, ‘One who makes use of the crown (of Torah) passes away.’ From here we see that whoever derives benefits from his Torah knowledge removes himself from the world.”
The Practice of the Talmudic Sages
This was indeed the practice of the great Torah scholars from the Talmudic era. No less an authority than Hillel the Elder, before being appointed to the position of president of the Great Sanhedrin, would earn a meager salary as a woodcutter. When he took his position as president, however, the community bestowed great wealth upon him. This was the rule. Whoever was appointed to a position of authority, such as president of the Sanhedrin or deputy to the president, would be made wealthy by the community. The practice of enriching community leaders was carried out because having rich and distinguished leaders brought honor to the community, for wealth caused their leaders’ words to carry more weight. It is told of Rabbi Abba of Acco that he was poor, and Rabbi Abahu went out of his way to have him appointed to an important position so that he should be granted wealth (Sotah 40a).
However, other Torah scholars who did not hold positions of authority did not live at the expense of the community – even very great Torah scholars. Rabbi Shimon HaPakuli used to make cotton; Rabbi Yochanan the Cobbler used to earn his living though shoe repair; Rabbi Meir supported himself by performing scribal work; Rabbi Pappa used to plant trees; etc.
In those days, people used to assist the rabbis in their work and business. Rabbis were thus able to earn what they needed in a short period of time, while dedicating most of their time to Torah study.
In his commentary to the Mishna, Rambam comes out strongly against those who study Torah and demand that the community support them. He brings numerous examples of leading Torah authorities from the period of the Mishnah who would earn their own living and never even considered having the community support them.
Accordingly, Rambam rules, “One who decides that instead of working he will occupy himself with Torah study and live from charity, profanes God’s name, disgraces the Torah, extinguishes the light of the law, brings harm upon himself, and removes himself from the World to Come, for it is forbidden to derive benefit from the Torah in this world. Hence, the Sages teach: ‘Whoever derives benefit from his Torah knowledge removes himself from the world’; they have also commanded us, saying: ‘Do not make them (the teachings of the Torah) into a crown with which to adorn yourself, nor like an spade with which to dig’; they have also commanded us, saying: ‘Love labor and despise status’; and, “Any Torah that is not accompanied by labor is destined to be nullified and lead to transgression, and such a person will end up robbing other people.’”
The Tribes of Zevulun and Yissachar
On the other hand, it is well known that the tribe of Zevulun occupied itself with commerce and supported the Torah scholars from the tribe of Yissachar, and in this regard the Sages taught,
“When Moses came to bless the tribes of Israel, he blessed Zevulun before Yissachar, in accordance with the verse: ‘It is a Tree of Life for those who cling to it, and those who support it are content’” (Bereshit Rabba 72:5, 99:9).
Rambam Approves of Such an Approach
Rambam, of course, approves of the practice of Zevulun and Yissachar. And while he holds that earning a living through the sweat of one’s brow is praiseworthy and pious behavior (according to Rambam [Hilkhot Tamud Torah 3:11],
“One who earns a living through his own labors possesses a great virtue, and such was the custom of the early pietists, and one who behaves in this manner merits all honor and goodness in this world and attains the World to Come, as the verse states, ‘When you eat the labor of your hands, you shall be happy and it shall be well with you.’”),
a person is not obligated to adopt such a pious practice. In fact, sometimes, in order to disseminate Torah amongst the Jewish people, it is preferable to forgo such piety. Indeed, for years Rambam himself studied Torah diligently while being supported by his brother David who dealt in commerce. Only after his brother drowned at sea was Rambam forced to go into medicine in order to support his family and the family of his brother.
Do not make yourself dependent upon the community
We find, then, that the difference between the prohibition of supporting oneself through the Torah on the one hand, and the practice of Yissachar on the other, is in two areas: (a) the pure intention of the student, and (b) that it be done respectfully, not disgracefully. Members of the tribe of Yissachar did not study Torah in order to earn a living. They no doubt had fields and were accustomed to working them. Rather, members of the tribe of Zevulun, possessing as they did great wealth, approached the tribe of Yissachar and encouraged them to spend more time studying Torah. To this end the tribe of Zevulun would be willing to support them financially. It never occurred, though, to the tribe of Yissachar to approach the tribe of Zevulun in order to ask for such support.
The Dissenters from Rambam’s Opinion
Many early Torah authorities disagree with Rambam on this issue. They argue that if Torah scholars were to refrain from receiving money from the community, the light of Torah would be extinguished from the midst of Israel, and there would be no one to teach the people Torah.
Even those who disagree with Rambam admit that to eschew the financial support of the community is a pious attribute and that, in the days of the Talmud, Torah scholars indeed worked to support themselves while at the same time establishing many students. However, say these authorities, over the course of time there was a decline in Torah greatness, and it is no longer possible to occupy oneself with earning a living while studying and teaching Torah.
In the times of the Mishnah and the Talmud most emphasis was placed on depth of understanding, for the quantity of Mishnayot and Baraithot was not so great, and study was, for the most part, aimed at deepening the Torah foundations. It would appear that their labor did not prevent them from continuing to deepen their Torah contemplations as they worked. However, with the passing of time, the number of opinions and interpretations multiplied and the learning material grew immensely, and students of Torah were forced to spend many more hours studying in depth and memorizing the Talmud, the Geonim, and the works of the early authorities.
Rabbi Shimon ben Tzemach, in his work Hatashbetz (vol. 1, pp. 142-148), agrees with the above opinion and cites many supporting sources. The great later authorities, the more important of which being Rabbi Yosef Karo (Kesef Mishneh, Beit Yosef 246) and Rabbi Moshe Isserles (Yoreh Heah 246:21), ruled likewise.
Dispensation for Yeshiva Students Who Plan To Teach
In addition to everything we have said so far, because of the gradual decline in Torah scholarship and the great increase in books, it goes without saying that it is impossible to produce even moderate Torah scholars unless they study Torah on a full time basis. And if the community does not finance the study of these Yeshiva students, there will not arise any Torah scholars who will be able to teach and guide the next generation.
Hence, though according to the letter of the law it would be best if those who learn Torah would earn their income through the labor of their own hands, over the course of time it has become necessary to change the original custom and to support Torah students in order that the Torah continue to thrive in Israel’s midst.
This, moreover, is the desire of the community. The community wants to foster Torah scholarship in order to assure that Torah scholars will arise who will be able to teach Torah and render rulings on questions of Jewish law. And since the only way to realize such a goal is by allowing students to dedicate themselves to Torah study on a full time basis, the community donates funds in order to support Talmudic academies in which Torah students and educators learn. This position is taken by Maharashal and Shakh (Yoreh Deah 246:20), as well as Rabbi Chaim ben Attar (Rishon LeTziyon 246:21).
An Additional Dispensation for Our Generation
An additional problem has arisen in our own generation, namely, that many youths are slow to reach a level of knowledge that allows them to live in accordance with the Torah. Therefore, because there is a commandment to educate children so that they know the Torah and are able to live according to its laws, parents must continue to finance their children’s studies for another few years in the Yeshiva in order that they succeed in acquiring a firm Torah substructure. And because there are parents who are not able to pay for their children’s education (and there are even some parents who do not want to pay), the community as a whole must take this responsibility. Therefore, it is necessary to gather donations in order to support Yeshivas.
Students Who Are Not Suited To Teach
However, after a student has studied for a number of years in a Yeshiva and has received a firm Torah foundation, it is best to direct him according to his talent and ambition – whether in the field of Torah, viz., education or Rabbinate, or towards some practical occupation which suits his character, for example, business management.
As far as our present inquiry is concerned, if a person finds that he is not suited to be a teacher or to serve in the Rabbinate, he is no longer permitted to study Torah on a full time basis and to be supported by the community or from charity.
This is the path which we follow at the Yeshiva Har Bracha. Upon completion of the standard course of study, which lasts five years (and includes military service), each student chooses the path in life that he feels truly suits him – whether in religious or secular vocations. The Yeshiva, for its part, encourages each student to be true to his unique character. In this manner, many of our students go on to learn a profession, and they do this on the most prestigious level that they possibly can according to their ability. At the same time, they continue to set fixed times for Torah study each day, internalizing values of self-sacrifice and love for the Torah and its study and for the scrupulous performance of the commandments. They also strive to practice much charity and kindness, to aid in the development of the Land of Israel, and to sanctify God’s sacred name.