For the bystander and even for the initiated, Jewish Law appears to be saturated with disagreements. For almost every opinion, a counter-position can be found in the texts of our tradition. If someone asks you what is the ruling on an issue, your safest bet is to respond: "mahloket!" (dispute).
Seeking to identify the source of the ever-present phenomenon of dispute, the Talmud comments: "When the students of Shammai and Hillel increased in number, and did not adequately do shimush, mahloket increased in Israel and the Torah became like two Torahs" (B. Sota 47b; B. Sanhedrin 88a).
Today, shimush refers to a rabbinic apprenticeship; to what extent does this mirror the original usage of the term? Perhaps more significantly: What is the nature of this shimush, whose neglect may be a catalyst in the formation of disputes?
To answer this question, let us explore another talmudic passage where we hear that shimush is greater than the actual study of Torah (B. Berachot 7b). This hierarchy is drawn from the Bible, where Elisha, the disciple of Elijah, is described as having poured water on the hands of his master (II Kings 3:11). Rather than describing the connection between teacher and student in terms of study, Scripture focuses on the physical service Elisha provided for his instructor.
From this passage, as well as from the plain meaning of the Hebrew term and its use in other talmudic contexts, we understand that shimush refers to the disciple attending to the physical needs of the master.
What is the significance of such service? Maimonides (Egypt, 12th century) discusses the shimush requirement as part of the students' obligation to honor the teacher. Shimush, therefore, does not appear to enhance the learning process; it is an ancillary requirement born of the teacher-student relationship. Maimonides goes further, referencing the talmudic passage which admonishes instructors who do not allow students to afford them this shimush (B. Ketubot 96a).
Though not cited by Maimonides, one talmudic account seems to support the notion that shimush is an offshoot of the requirement to honor (B. Kiddushin 32a). The Talmud relates that a nasi (leader who is not a king) may forgo the honor due to him. In support of this ruling, a story is recorded: Three prominent scholars were sitting at the wedding feast of the son of the nasi, Rabban Gamliel. Flagon in hand, the father of the groom was pouring wine for the guests. One scholar - Rabbi Eliezer - refused to allow his cup to be filled, while another - Rabbi Yehoshua - proffered his cup.
Rabbi Eliezer questioned his colleague: "Yehoshua, how can we sit and allow Rabban Gamliel, the nasi, to serve us?" Rabbi Yehoshua dismissed the subtle criticism: "Indeed we know of someone who was even greater who did shimush for his guests - Abraham, who served the visiting angels!" (Genesis 18:8). Thus we see that shimush is a branch of the obligation to honor, whether it be the obligation to honor a teacher or a nasi.
An earlier medieval scholar - Rabbi Bahya Ibn Paquda (Spain, 11th century) - also understands shimush to be physical labor, though he sees it as an integral part, perhaps even a prerequisite, of effective study. When students subjugate their own will, replacing it with the needs of the teacher, they prepare themselves to openly receive the words of the teacher. Rabbi Bahya buttresses his exposition by referencing not only Elisha, but also Joshua, whom the Bible describes as a servant of Moses rather than as a disciple (Exodus 33:11).
Until now, we have spoken about shimush that involves physical labor. Another talmudic passage gives room for an entirely different understanding (B. Sota 21b). Our sages decry one who studies Scripture and the oral law but neglects shimush. The great French commentator Rashi - whose 900th anniversary of his death we are commemorating this year - understands shimush to be a stage in learning that is subsequent to the study of the written and oral corpi of Jewish tradition. Accordingly, he says that shimush involves delving into the logic that underpins Jewish law.
Though this approach fits the talmudic passage, it deviates from the plain meaning of the term.
Finally, we come to a middle position that sees shimush as a stage of study that occurs while attending to the physical needs of the master, thus melding the various talmudic passages we have quoted. Only while remaining in the intimate company of the master can students complete their instruction. This popular approach, which is recorded by many commentators, appears to have first been proposed by the student of Rashi, Rabbi Simha of Vitry.
Neglecting shimush may not only result in the increase of disputes. Hillel, whose students, as we recall, did not fulfill their shimush obligation, unequivocally declares the severity of inadequate shimush, stating that the one who disregards shimush deserves the death penalty (Derech Eretz Zuta 8).
Shimush, however, is not just about manual labor to avoid the fabrication of disputes. As we have already seen, it may refer to a stage in the encounter with our heritage. Indeed, elsewhere in rabbinic literature, shimush is one of the 48 attributes through which we can achieve the lofty goal of acquiring Torah (M. Avot 6:5).
Our sages acknowledge that shimush may involve hard work, though they pledge that the fruits of such service will be realized both in this world and in the world-to-come (B. Hullin 44b). In the world-to-come, we may be rewarded for according honor to those deserving of such honor, but in what way do we benefit in this world from pouring water over the hands of a teacher?
Being in the presence of our masters offers tremendous opportunities. It is a chance to see theory effectively put into practice and to learn lessons that cannot be taught in a classroom. Often when we find ourselves next to a great person, we are encouraged to invest more energy and we are inspired to greater spiritual and ethical behavior. Even in this temporal world, the labors of shimush help us prosper in the quest for greater understanding of our heritage.
The writer is director of Advanced Programs at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, teaches at Midreshet Lindenbaum and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.