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Torah Attitude: Parashas Pinchas: How to prioritize Torah study
The next two things needed to acquire Torah are to be knowledgeable in scripture and Mishnah. "According to these words I have established a covenant with you and Israel". In every generation, we have an exact account of which leaders and rabbis were responsible for the transmission of the oral law. To be a true Talmud scholar of those who transmit the Torah from one generation to the next requires hard labour and total focus. The study of Talmud is the greatest measure of Torah study. We cannot study Talmud without being well-versed in scripture and Mishnah, for they are the foundations upon with the Talmud is built. A person should always divide his Torah study into three parts: one-third in scripture, one-third in Mishnah, and one-third in Talmud. A mature student should divide his time in three parts, and every day he should study some scripture, some Mishnah, and some Talmud. Two additional areas of Torah study are the study of Halacha and the study of character development, described in the works of Mussar. Whatever time we have available, it is imperative that we follow the guidelines of our sages so that we will succeed in our Torah study.
Be knowledgeable in scripture and Mishnah
The next two things needed to acquire Torah (as enumerated in the Mishnah, Pirkei Avos 6:6) are to be knowledgeable in scripture (Five Books of Moses, Prophets, and Holy Writings) and Mishnah. The obvious question that arises is, since scripture and Mishnah are themselves part of the Torah, how can they be things be needed to acquire Torah? The answer is that the Mishnah is referring to the Talmud. It, therefore, discusses how to approach and study Talmud which is the key to acquire Torah in its totality.
"According to these words"
The Midrash Tanchuma (Parashas Noah paragraph 3) elaborates on the difference between the written law that is contained in scripture and the oral law that is comprised of the Mishnah, the Talmud and all the commentaries. It also includes the codes of laws as compiled by the Rambam and the Shulchan Aruch, and their commentaries. The Midrash quotes what it says in Parashas Ki Sisa (Shemos 34:27): "And G'd said to Moses … according to these words I have established a covenant with you and Israel". When it says "according to these words" it refers to the verbal teachings of the oral law, says the Midrash, rather than to the written text of scripture. No other book in the world has been translated into as many languages as scripture, and as such has been made available to all of mankind. The oral law, on the other hand, has remained the possession of the Jewish people only. For G'd made this a special covenant between Him and us.
Transmission of oral law
The oral law was originally handed-down by word of mouth, from G'd to Moses, and from Moses to Joshua, and that is how it was passed down for generations from teacher to student. In every generation, we have an exact account of which leaders and rabbis were responsible for this transmission. These were always people of great integrity who were well aware of their responsibility to pass on the words of the Torah exactly as they received them. This continued till the time of the great sage, Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi. He realized that the Jewish people were going through such hard times of persecution that one could not rely any longer on verbal transmission. Based on the words of scripture, he ruled that it would be necessary to write down the oral law, and he organized the Mishnah into six parts. Later, the discussions of the words of the Mishnah were recorded by Rav Ashei in the 63 tractates of the Talmud.
Study of Talmud is hard labour
The Midrash Tanchuma explains that, whereas the study of scripture is relatively easy, it takes a lot of dedication to study the oral law. The Midrash continues and explains that the Talmud scholar must be ready to love G'd, not only with all his heart and all his soul, but also with all his resources. To be a true Talmud scholar of those who transmit the Torah from one generation to the next, one must be ready to forgo wealth and the pleasures of this world. It is hard labour and requires total focus, and one should not expect any reward in this world. However, says the Midrash, the Talmud scholar can be assured that he will be fully rewarded in the World to Come.
Study of Talmud is the greatest
The Talmud (Bava Metzia 33a) teaches that although scripture, Mishnah and the Talmud are all part of the Torah, they are not equal. The ones who occupy themselves with scripture, says the Talmud, have a small part in the Torah, and the ones who study the Mishnah have a larger part and are rewarded accordingly. But, concludes the Talmud, the study of Talmud is the greatest measure of Torah study.
First lay the foundation
Since the main part of the Torah is the study of Talmud, someone might think that he can concentrate on the Talmud alone. The Mishnah therefore warns that we cannot study Talmud and acquire its material without being well-versed in scripture and Mishnah, for they are the foundations upon with the Talmud is built. As the commentaries say, how can someone build a house without first laying the foundation? Earlier in Pirkei Avos (5:25) it says: "A five year old is obligated to study scripture. A ten year old is obligated to study Mishnah. A thirteen year old is obligated to observe the commandments. A fifteen year old is obligated to study Talmud …" When one follows this regimen, the foundation of Talmud study has been laid for ten years, as the young student has already studied scripture and Mishnah. Thus when he turns fifteen he is ready to delve into the depths of Talmud.
Three unequal parts
The Talmud (Kiddushin 30a) teaches that a person should always divide his Torah study into three parts: one-third in scripture, one-third in Mishnah, and one-third in Talmud. The Tosafos in their commentary explain that this is why we read every morning in our prayers some of the portions in the Torah that deal with the offerings. In this way, we have studied some scripture. After that we read Eizehu Mekoman. This is a chapter from the Mishnah that deals with the offerings (Zevachim 5). And we conclude with Rabban Gamliel Omer, a braysa that is part of the Talmud. Tosafos quotes Rabbeinu Tam who explains that when we study Talmud we actually study both scripture and Mishnah with the Talmud, as the Talmud constantly quotes from scripture and the Mishnah. From this we can understand that the Talmud did not mean that the division between scripture, Mishnah, and Talmud should be three equal parts. Other commentaries explain that although it is important for the Talmud scholar to review scripture and Mishnah, he obviously does not have to spend as much time reviewing scripture and Mishnah as he requires to study the vast knowledge of Talmud.
This all applies to someone who has been privileged to start studying Torah when he was five years old. However, many people do not receive a Torah education and only begin to embrace Torah study and observance at a mature age. Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, in his halachic work Rav Shulchan Aruch (Laws of Torah Study, chapter 2), rules that such a person should divide his time in three parts and every day he should study some scripture, some Mishnah, and some Talmud. He bases his ruling on the Rambam (Laws of Torah Study 1:12) and Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh Deah 246:4) who teach that a person should divide his daily study into three equal parts. The Rambam says: "For example, if a person is an artisan and is involved in his work three hours a day, and spends nine hours a day studying Torah, he should read scripture for three hours, and study Mishnah for three hours, and the last three hours he should study the Talmud. This refers to the beginning of his studies. But as a person grows in wisdom, he does not need to spend so much time on scripture and Mishnah, but from time to time he should review them, but otherwise he should concentrate on studying Talmud."
Halacha and Mussar
Till now we have dealt with the study of scripture, Mishnah and Talmud. There are two additional areas of Torah study that we need to clarify where they enter into a person's study schedule. These are the study of Halacha, that a person needs to know how to conduct himself in daily life, as well as the study of character development, described in the works of Mussar. For the serious Talmud scholar the practical halachic rulings will be part and parcel of his Talmud studies, as he will attempt to clarify the teachings of the Talmud right down to its practical application. For the person who has not yet reached that level, the Rav Shulchan Aruch (ibid) explains that the study of Shulchan Aruch, and other halachic works, fit in the category of studying Mishnah. Just like the Mishnah gives the final rulings without going into the details and the reason behind the ruling, the same applies to the study of Halacha. In regards to the study of Mussar works, the Talmud (Shabbos 31a) compares this study to a preservative. A little preservative will go a long way to keep a person's produce and ensure that it will last and not rot away. In the same way, every person who studies Torah must make sure that he studies a little mussar on a daily basis to strengthen his fear of G'd and refine his character traits (see Mishnah Berurah Orach Chaim 1:12).
Many people are eager to study Torah, but are not aware of how to divide their time and prioritize what to study. Obviously, not everyone is privileged only to work three hours, as mentioned by the Rambam, but whatever time we have available, it is imperative that we follow the guidelines of our sages so that we will succeed in our Torah 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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