Simchat torah dancing 311 R.
(photo credit: Reuters/Ronen Zvulun)
Rabbi Avraham Borenstein of Sochaczew (1839-1910) was one of the most
influential Polish hassidic masters. His acclaim and impact were primarily due
to his legal acumen. His legacy includes a halachic work on the laws of Shabbat
entitled Eglei Tal (Piotrkow, 1905), a work still widely consulted, and volumes
of responsa printed posthumously in 1912-1934 under the title Avnei Nezer. It is
by the title of his responsa that he is commonly known.
introduction to his Eglei Tal, the Avnei Nezer incidentally mentions that he
heard about a certain mistaken attitude toward Torah study. The mistaken
approach held that if one studied Torah and enjoyed the pursuit, his Torah study
was tainted; true Torah study for the sake of the Divine was only possible when
there was no personal joy in the act.
The Avnei Nezer does not reveal who
suggested this notion, but it may well have been his contemporary, Rabbi
Yerahmiel Yisrael Yitzhak Danziger of Aleksandrow Lodzki (1853-1910), head of
the Alexander Hassidim. In a compilation of the Alexander Rebbe’s talks, he
quotes his father and predecessor, Rabbi Yehiel Danziger (d. 1894), who proposed
this very idea, and the son apparently agreed with the father.
to the Alexander rebbes, only someone who endures hardship to study Torah,
toiling and sweating, perhaps barely understanding – only such a person should
be lauded as having really studied Torah. Enjoyment when studying Torah could be
considered a foreign body that contaminates the purity of the
The Alexander Rebbe’s work Yismah Yisrael
posthumously in Lodz in 1911-1912, but the material was presented publicly over
the years, and it is entirely possible that the Avnei Nezer had heard about the
position expounded by successive Alexander rebbes.
The Avnei Nezer was
not impressed with the Alexander idea, declaring that this position was a
“famous mistake” and claiming that the contrary was actually true: Torah study
is most valuable when it is a joyful endeavor.
Only when a person takes
pleasure in studying do the words of Torah become part of his lifeblood,
coursing through his veins and providing him with spiritual
To buttress his contention, the Avnei Nezer cited the Zohar,
which says that both the Evil Inclination and the Good Inclination grow through
The Evil Inclination is nourished by unworthy actions; the
Good Inclination grows due to the enjoyment of Torah. Thus delighting in Torah
study is a positive emotion, for it serves as a growth hormone for the Good
The Avnei Nezer did, however, acknowledge a caveat: One who
studies only for personal enjoyment – such as monetary gain or intellectual
stimulation – and not because Torah is our Divine heritage is indeed learning
for the wrong reason. Nevertheless, we are encouraged to fulfill God’s
commandments even if we do not do so for the right reasons, in the hope that we
will one day fulfill those commandments for the sake of Heaven
In sum, the Avnei Nezer concluded: One who
studies both for the sake of Heaven and for any benefit that accrues from Torah
study – such learning is for the sake of Heaven, and the person is entirely
holy, for even the enjoyment can be considered the fulfillment of a
Who is correct? Should we ideally take pleasure in Torah
study, or is our Torah study purer when it lacks any measure of enjoyment?
Perhaps this is a question that need not be answered, and the two contradictory
approaches should both be preserved and recalled at appropriate times.
those days when we relish the encounter with Torah; when we can think of no
better pursuit; when we enjoy poring over hallowed tomes and find it difficult
to pull ourselves away; when every word seems to speak to our soul – on such
days, the Avnei Nezer reminds us that real Torah study is supposed to be
enjoyable, and at that time we are “entirely holy,” for the Torah is our
On those days when we regrettably find no joy in Torah; when
we grapple with passages from old texts that seemingly have no relevance and no
import for our daily lives; when we would prefer to be anywhere else but in
front of a book of Torah – on such days the Alexander rebbes remind us that if
we overcome the discomfort and study Torah, that Torah is truly pure and
lofty.The writer is on the faculty of the Pardes Institute of Jewish
Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.