Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Vaethanan 5763/ August 9, 2003

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity.
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Parashat Vaethanan 5763/ August 9, 2003
The Commandment of Talmud Torah according to Maimonides

Dr. Alexander Klein
Department of Mathematics

It is well known that the commandment to study the Torah, talmud Torah, is one of the principal commandments, if not the principal commandment, enjoined on the observant Jew.[1] Considering that this is attested by many sources,[2] it is surprising that the Torah does not contain an explicit reference to this commandment; rather, the precept is only deduced obliquely. Apparently the main thrust of the commandment is none other than to teach others. Indeed, Maimonides wrote:[3]

[The commandment of talmud Torah] is the precept by which we are commanded to learn the wisdom of the Law and to teach it - and this is what is called talmud Torah, for it is said, "Impress them upon your children" (Deut. 6:7). As it is said in Sifre: "Impress them upon your children - this refers to disciples; thus one finds that everywhere disciples are called sons... It is also said there, Impress them (ve-shinantam) - that they be sharp in your mouth [a play on the word shen, meaning "tooth"].[4] If someone asks you something, do not answer with a stammer, but tell him forthwith.

Thus we see that according to Maimonides we are commanded to teach others, principally our children, and by extension, disciples in general. From this follows the commandment to know the Torah, for one could not possibly teach properly without having full command of the material being taught. Moreover, from the father's obligation to teach his child, we can deduce that the child is obliged to learn and know; for when he grows to adulthood, he in turn will have to continue improving his knowledge of the Torah himself. But, as follows from the sources, the gist of the commandment is to teach one's children in order to transmit the tradition from one generation to the next. It is not a matter of research in-depth or academic study, but simply of faithfully transmitting a body of material well-defined from the outset.
In Mishneh Torah, Maimonides presents another reason for studying Torah. In the first two halakhot concerning talmud Torah Maimonides sets forth the obligation to teach others, and in the third halakhah he adds:

Someone whose father has not taught him is obliged to teach himself, realizing that it is written: "Study them and observe them faithfully" (Deut. 5:1). Thus, everywhere one finds that study precedes action, since learning leads to doing, but doing does not lead to learning."

Here Maimonides placed the commandment of talmud Torah on an instrumental foundation: there is an obligation to observe the commandments, and they cannot possibly be observed properly without knowing them; therefore, someone whose father has not taken the trouble to teach him Torah sufficiently is obliged himself to make up for what he lacks. Indeed, in the fifth halakhah Maimonides sums up: "Just as a person is commanded to teach his children, so too he is commanded to teach himself." Further on in the fifth halakhah he states:

Every Jew is obliged to study Torah, be he rich or poor, be he in good physical condition or handicapped, be he young or worn out and old, even be he so poor that he subsists on charity and begging, even if he have a wife and children - he must set aside a time to study Torah day and night, for it is said: "recite it day and night" (Josh. 1:8).

Maimonides was not basing the commandment of talmud Torah on the verse in Joshua, since a commandment of the Torah cannot be substantiated by a verse appearing in the Prophets or Writings. The normative basis for this commandment is the collection of arguments presented above, and the verse, "recite it day and night," was only cited by Maimonides as an illustration of this obligation.
The Sages developed a homily on the same verse from our parasha to deduce what the program of study should include (Kiddushin 30a):

Rabbi Safra said in the name of Rabbi Joshua ben Hananiah: What is the meaning of Scripture, "Impress them upon your children" (Deut. 6:7)? Do not read this as ve-shinantam, but as ve-shelashtem [playing on the words shnayim = two and shalosh = three]. A person should always divide his years in three, spending a third studying Scripture, a third studying Mishnah, and a third studying Talmud. But how does one know how long one will live? That is not necessary, for one should divide one's time daily.

The Tosafists there in Kiddushin wrote:[5]

Rabbenu Tam explained that the support for this comes from Sanhedrin 24a where the Talmud plays on the word Babel, meaning mix - the Talmud of Babylonia (Babel) contains a mix of Scriptures, Mishnah and Gemara.

Following the above gemara, Maimonides ruled in Hilkhot Talmud Torah as follows:[6]

He must divide his studying time in three, one third to the Written Torah, one third to the Oral Law, and one third to acquiring wisdom to understand the outcome from the start, to deduce one thing from another, to compare one thing to another, and to understand the techniques by which the Torah is interpreted, until he know how to identify the principle virtues, how to deduce what is forbidden and what permitted, etc., from things which he received through oral transmission - and this is what is called gemara.

Note that Maimonides used the term Oral Law instead of the words Mishnah and Gemara found in Kiddushin and Sanhedrin as cited above. He considered the Oral Law to be:[7]
All the things heard, all the deliberations, explanations and interpretations heard from Moses, and those that were learned by the religious courts throughout the generations, pertaining to the entire body of Law... Ravina and Rav Ashi and their colleagues among the last of the Sages were the ones who committed the Oral Law to writing.

According to this statement of Maimonides, the Oral Law does not refer only to the Mishnah in the narrow sense of the word, i.e., the compendium which was edited by Judah ha-Nasi, but includes also what today we call Talmud or gemara. Apparently Maimonides was of the opinion that in every generation innovations are necessary in rules of halakah and new decrees need to be issued, "understanding the outcome from the start," in a never-ending process - and it is this which he called gemara. When the new conclusions eventually are committed to writing, the new work becomes part of the Oral Law, leaving room for other new deliberations and interpretations, until these, too, be written down and become part of the composition of Oral Law, and so on, repeating the process ad infinitum.

The authors of the halakhic codes Tur and the Shulhan Arukh copied what Maimonides said here. Later rabbinic commentaries on these works no longer made the distinction between subjects of study according to Maimonides' system, as we explained it above, and took his use of the word gemara, or Talmud in other editions, as referring to none other than the six orders of the Mishnah. This interpretation is invalid since it contradicts what Maimonides himself said in the introduction to his work.[8] Rema[9] cites the opinion of Rabbenu Tam - which was contrary to Maimonides' view - that the obligation of talmud Torah is considered to be fulfilled, after the fact, even if the person only studied the Babylonian Talmud, since that Talmud is an admixture of the Torah, Mishnah and gemara.

Thus Maimonides' view on the obligation to study Torah, which differs from that of other posekim, can be summed up as follows:

*The main point of the commandment is none other than to teach one's children in particular and others in general, and the obligation of a person to study himself is only deduced from the main thrust of the commandment, or a result of the need to know how to observe the commandments pertaining to the practice of Judaism.

*A person should divide his energies, giving one third to studying Scripture, one third to the Oral Law, consisting of Mishnah and gemara, and one third to independent study and analysis.[10]

[1] This article is based on the forthcoming book by Yitzhak Isaac and Alexander Klein, Be-Nivhei Talmud Torah, He'arot u-ve'urim al hilkhot talmud Torah shel ha-Rambam.
[2] See Bialik and Ravnitzky, Sefer Ha-Aggadah, Tel Aviv 1970, pp. 315-320.
[3] Sefer ha-Mitzvot, pos. commandment 11.
[4] Rabbi Mordechai Yehudah Leib Zaks in his notes to Sefer Ha-mitzvot points out that this is the formulation found in Kiddushin 30. However, Sifre Deuteronomy interprets veshinantam as: "that they be ordered or arranged in your mouth."
[5] Loc. sit., s.v. "la tzerikha le-yomi."
[6] 1.11.
[7] From Maimonides' introduction to Mishneh Torah.
[8] Cf., for example, Shach, Yoreh De'ah 246.6.
[9] Yoreh De'ah 246.4.
[10] This part apparently includes more advanced subjects which only the most gifted are required to study in order to achieve perfection, i.e., study of theological and metaphysical subjects pertaining to the first five commandments appearing at the beginning of Hilkhot Yesodei Ha-Torah: "To know that there is a G-d; not to conceive that there could be any G-d other than the Lord; to proclaim His oneness; to love Him; and to fear Him." Cf. Hilkhot Yesodei Ha-Torah 4.13.