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Torah Attitude: Parashas Mattos Masei: How to combine Torah study and earning a living
The next five things, enumerated in the Mishnah, that one needs to acquire Torah, consist of things that are necessary to sustain a healthy and wholesome life. Many great scholars who were engaged in business were able to acquire Torah while earning a living, so why does the Torah teach that the two do not go hand in hand? The tribe of Zebulun engaged in commerce and supported the Torah studies of the tribe of Issachar. If a person becomes so involved in his business affairs that they become the major part of his life, this will render him unable to acquire Torah. The Talmud relates a dispute between the sages Rabbi Ishmael and Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai. The approach to the study of Torah should be that Torah study is my primary occupation in life, whereas my worldly occupation is only a means to make a living.
Next five things
The next five things, enumerated in the Mishnah, that one needs to acquire Torah, consist of things that are necessary to sustain a healthy and wholesome life. However, the Mishnah teaches us that although these are necessities, nevertheless in order to acquire Torah one must be careful not to over-indulge in them. The four things are involvement in business affairs (or other forms of earning a living), sleeping, pleasure, and laughter. Rashi explains the fifth thing to refer to socializing, but other commentaries explain it as marital relationships.
Business not acquire Torah?
In reference to a person's business affairs the Talmud (Eruvin 55a) quotes what it says in the Torah (Devarim 30:11-13): "This commandment [i.e. all of the Torah] … is not hidden from you, and it is not distant … and it is not across the sea." Says the Talmud, this teaches us that someone who is involved in commerce and other business will not be able to acquire Torah, as they will need to travel extensively and will not be able to concentrate on their Torah studies. This seems very strange. Throughout the generations, the Jewish people have been blessed with many great scholars who were engaged in business. Obviously, they were able to acquire Torah while earning a living, so why does the Torah teach that the two do not go hand in hand?
Zebulun and Issachar's special partnership
Already in the Torah itself we find proof of people involved in commerce who also excelled in Torah study. Later, in Parashas Vezos HaBracha (Devarim 33:18), Moses blesses each tribe according to their own special qualities. To the tribes of Zebulun and Issachar, he said: "Rejoice Zebulun when you go out and Issachar in your tents." Rashi quotes from the Midrash that these two tribes had a special partnership. The tribe of Zebulun engaged in commerce and supported the tribe of Issachar in their Torah studies. Moses therefore blessed the tribe of Zebulun that they should be happy to go out and do business. For in this way they had an equal share in the Torah study of the tribe of Issachar who were able to dwell in their tents of study.
No excessive business
At the same time we find that Rashi (Bamidbar 3:38) describes that the members of the three tribes, who were camped next to Moses and Aaron in the wilderness, were inspired to develop into great Torah scholars for many generations. These three tribes were Yehuda, Issachar and Zebulun. So we see that Zebulun's involvement in business did not stop them from acquiring Torah knowledge. We can answer this obvious contradiction with the words of Pirkei Avos (2:2-6) where it says: "Torah study together with an occupation is good … and anyone who is excessively involved in business will not become a scholar." This teaches us that a person should have an occupation to ensure that he has the ability to sustain himself and his family. In this way he will be able to have peace of mind and study Torah. But if a person becomes so involved in his business affairs that they become the major part of his life, this will render him unable to acquire Torah. On the other hand, the Mishnah says: "Any Torah study that is not combined with work will eventually cease and lead to sin." The way a person ensures to provide for himself and his family can basically be in one of two ways. He can either spend part of his day with work or business involvement, or he can find himself a partner, like Issachar had with Zebulun where Zebulun sustained Issachar and allowed him to fully concentrate on his studies.
Rabbi Ishmael and Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai
The Talmud (Berachos 35b) relates a dispute between the sages Rabbi Ishmael and Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai. Rabbi Ishmael notes that on one hand it says (Joshua 1:8): "This book of the Torah shall not be removed from your mouth and you shall occupy yourself with it day and night." On the other hand, it says in the second portion of Shema (Devarim 11:14): "And you shall gather your grain, your wine, and your oil … and you shall eat and you shall be satisfied". The question arises, if one is expected to study Torah day and night, when will one have time to be involved in agriculture or other business affairs? Rabbi Ishmael answers that Torah study is not expected to be our sole occupation all the time. We should find time to study both during the day and at night but it should be combined with a worldly occupation. Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai disagrees and says that if a person is on a high enough level he will be able to totally dedicate himself to Torah study and he will not need to be involved in any worldly occupation. Rabbi Shimon explains that when the Torah says "and you shall gather grain …", this refers to someone who is not on that high level. The Talmud concludes that many tried to live up to the high standard of Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai and did not succeed; whereas, many followed the approach of Rabbi Ishmael and succeeded in both Torah study and their business affairs. Rabbi Chaim Valozhiner (Nefesh HaChaim 1:8) elaborates on this and explains that the Talmud here teaches us that people in general should conduct themselves like Rabbi Ishmael. However, the select few, who are able to elevate themselves to the level of Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai, are obligated to do so.
Fixed Torah study
Obviously, this is not a black or white situation. For every individual, it is different how much time he will need to spend on his worldly occupation and how much time he will be able to dedicate toward his Torah studies. There are many factors that play a role in a person's division of time between Torah study and work, and it is impossible to provide a general rule. However, there is one rule that applies to everyone. As it says (Pirkei Avos 1:15): "Make your Torah study fixed." Whether a person can dedicate a lot of time or only a little, the approach to the study of Torah should be that Torah study is my primary occupation in life, whereas my worldly occupation is only a means to make a living. With such an approach, a person will always seek to maximize his Torah study and minimize his involvement in business affairs. And in this way, he will be able to acquire as much Torah as he can study.
These words were based on a talk given by Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.
Shalom. Michael Deverett
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