Updated: Jul 1, 2020
Shavuot: "And the Study of Torah is Equal to Them All"
Rabbi Shlomo Shefer
Designating set times for the study of Torah is a central concept in the commandment of learning Torah. This is what the Rambam says about the mitzvah of Talmud Torah in his Mishneh Torah (Laws of Talmud Torah, Chap. 1, law B):
Every Jew is required to learn Torah whether he is poor or rich, whether healthy or suffering pain, whether a young man or one who has grown weak; even if he is a poor man who makes his living collecting charity by going from door to door, even if he is a husband and has young children, he must set for himself times for learning Torah during the day and night as it says: "And you shall study it day and night".
The source for this formulation of the Rambam "to set for himself times for learning Torah" is the Babylonian Talmud (Shabbat, 31a):
So said Rava, when they bring a man to judgment they say to him: did you negotiate in good faith, designate times for Torah study, have children, await the redemption, and reason wisely, inferring one thing from another?
Rambam's words are repeated in full in the Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh De'ah 246, paragraph 1). Many things have been said about the importance of this concept and how it is to be fulfilled properly.
A. Working and Learning
Commenting on the words of Rava in the tractate Shabbat, Rashi says:
Because a person has to have an occupation -- for without work there can be no Torah -- it is necessary to have designated times for Torah study, so that the whole day is not spent on employment.
he natural tendency of a person to spend a great deal of time on his business in order to make money and to raise his standard of living, and the fact that one could completely disregard his learning obligations trying to earn a living, help us understand the tone of the ruling in the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chayim 155, par.1): "And he should set a time to learn, and this time should be a designated period that should not be skipped even if he could earn much money". The Chafetz Chaim added in his Mishnah Berura commentary: "The intention behind designating times for Torah study is that man needs to set aside a certain period each day that he will never skip, and if something unavoidable happened to him so that he could not fulfill his duty during the day, then he should consider it a debt to be repaid at night...".
A nice illustration of all that has been said above can be found in the words of the Hafla'ah cited in (Sha'are Teshuva, Orach Chayim, 156), who explained that the word Kevi'at ("designating") means stealing, as we find (in the Babylonian Talmud, Rosh Hashana 26b): "Kav'an pelanya", which means "so-and-so is a thief". In other words, "even he who is extremely busy with his business, must 'steal' the time to learn Torah".
B. What Should Be Learned
The Rishonim differed on how a person should divide his study time. The Rambam determined that:
He must divide his learning time into three parts, one third dedicated to the Written Law (i.e. the Bible), one third to the Oral Law (i.e. Mishna and Talmud) and one third to the understanding and comprehension of the end of a thing from it's beginning, and the inference of one thing from another, and the comparison of one thing to another, and understanding the rules (middot) for expounding the Law, until he can distinguish what is forbidden from what is permitted, and the like; and this matter is what is called Gemara.
The Rambam's interpretation was codified by the author of the Shulchan Aruch, and the Rama cites the opinion of Rabbenu Tam:
"And some say that by studying the Babylonian Talmud which contains a mixture of Biblical verses, Mishna, and Gemara, a person has fulfilled all his obligations" (Yoreh De'ah 246, par. 4).
To put this learning in perspective, a number of interesting points made by the poskim should be added:
1. This declaration by Rabbenu Tam that one can study Gemara alone was said only if a person has a great deal of time to learn, "but lay-people who only learn three or four hours should not learn Gemara exclusively"; rather they should study the poskim (halachic decision-makers) to acquire knowledge of practical law (Shach, Yore De'ah 246, sub par. 6).
2. Even he who does not know how to learn should go to the Bet Midrash and he will receive a reward for the act of going" (Rama, Orach Chayim 155, par. 1). The Mishnah Berura adds that he is required to go to the Bet Midrash even if he doesn't understand what they are learning, for in any case his presence in the Bet Midrash during learning hours is a mitzvah.
3. He who knows how to learn only a little or who doesn't know how to learn at all should devote part of his time in the Bet Midrash to examine if there is any wrongdoing in his business dealings, such as: stealing, fraud, taking of interest, in order to stop such practices (Rama, ibid., in the name of Tosfot R"i).
C. The Appropriate Time for Torah Study
In the text of the Rambam and the Shulchan Aruch cited in the beginning of this article, we do not find any preferred time of day or night that should be set aside for studying Torah. However, in a different place, the Shulchan Aruch advises us to join the time of learning to the time of prayer:
After one leaves the synagogue one should go to the Bet Midrash and designate a time for learning (Orach Chayim 155, par. 1). The source for this ruling and it's reason comes from the Babylonian Talmud (Berakhot, 64a):
Said Rabbi Levi son of Hiya: he who goes out of the synagogue and enters the Bet Midrash and busies himself with Torah deserves to receive the Divine Presence (Shechina) as it says, "They go from [one] strength to [another] strength, every one of them appears before God in Zion".
The Mishna Berura explains that in the time of the Talmud, the synagogue was exclusively a place of prayer, and the Bet Midrash was used exclusively for learning Torah. Therefore the Passage speaks of leaving one place to go to the other. But "even in our times, when people pray in the Bet Midrash, in any case this precept applies, and after the prayer service one should join those who are learning Torah, mishnayot and the like". Pri Megadim cites another reason for this rule: If one goes first to business before going to learn, perhaps he will discontinue his designated learning periods.
The idea of connecting prayer and study is also found with regard to learning at night: "... A person must designate a time to learn Torah during the day and the night, and therefore it is right that aside from designating a time after the morning service, one should also set a time between the afternoon and evening services, for by doing so he will also fulfill his obligation to learn Torah at night" (Bi'ur Halachah, Orach Chayim 155).
To end this article we will quote from Avraham Kariv (My Homeland Lithuania), who vividly describes Torah study in the lives of Lithuanian Jewry during the period between mincha and ma'ariv services:
In every Jewish town, whether small or large, you felt the uniqueness of the hour that links day with night - the time between afternoon and evening services. In general, this is the time that a person undergoes a change of pace from his daytime occupation, and this indeed is how it was with Jewish men. The shoemaker and tailor, the watchmaker and wagon-driver, the shop-keeper and businessman, the affluent Jew and the poor one, all of them left their daily worries and troubles behind to enjoy life a little, to spend a pleasant hour.
But where did they go? It was self-understood -- to the synagogue or bet Midrash... a page of Gemara, a chapter of mishnayot, sections of Ein Ya'akov, paragraphs in Chayei Adam, or simply the communal or individual recitation of Psalms. Everyone studied according to his level: a Gemara group, a mishnayot group, etc... . Each and every one learned and enjoyed -- not only contentment of spirit, but actual enjoyment and pleasure... . Truly, the Jews of "between afternoon and evening services", most of whom were laborers and simple folk, were unique in the way in which they passed from the day to the night. The Jew did not leave his house at dusk to follow his evil inclination, but specifically to encourage his good inclination, whose hour it then was; he did not go out to be emptied but rather to be filled. This hour was a kind of spiritual immersion in which he shook off the dust of the day, removed some of his material shell, and returned home from the synagogue more of a spiritual person than when he left. The Jewish awareness which perhaps was dormant during the day returned and was replenished in him. For these people the day did not diminish and wore toward evening; quite the contrary, it waxed and rose to greet the religiously heightened eve. These people made a pilgrimage towards evening and were uplifted by it.
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