How much time should we devote to prayers, given that every moment praying is time that is not devoted to other worthy pursuits?
Our sages tell us that the pietists of old would tarry for an hour before beginning their prayer service, to ensure that their hearts were directed to the Omnipresent (M. Berachot 5:1). A parallel source elaborates on the practice of these pious supplicants: They would tarry for an hour before prayer, dedicate an hour to the recital of the prayers and then tarry a further hour after the completion of the service (B. Berachot 32b).
Considering that there are three daily mandated prayers - evening arvit, morning shaharit and the afternoon minha - and for each service the pietists would set aside three hours, that would mean that nine hours of each day was dedicated to prayer. The question arises: If they spent nine hours a day in prayer, did they manage to preserve their Torah and how did they accomplish any work?
Our sages' answer indicates the potency of focused prayer: "Because they were pious, their Torah is preserved and their work is blessed." The merit of their virtuous conduct provides them with divine assistance in their quest for Torah and their efforts to earn a livelihood.
Examining this pronouncement by the sages, we may ponder: The Talmud only tells us that pious prayer serves as an insurance policy against losing Torah; when does such a pietist acquire that Torah which will be divinely protected?
One approach suggests that our sages are pointedly indicating that the path of piety is only an option for someone who has already studied the tradition and is imbued with Torah (Lev Simha of Gur, 20th century, Poland-France-Belgium-Israel). Indeed, elsewhere our sages tell us that an unlearned person cannot be a pietist (M. Avot 2:5).
Another approach draws our attention to the slightly different wording offered by a parallel passage in the Talmud written in the Land of Israel (Y. Berachot 37a). There the same question is asked: How do the pious find time to study and work, given that they spend nine hours a day in devout prayer? The answer offered is ever so slightly different: Pietists merit a distinctive blessing bestowed for their Torah study and a special blessing granted in their work (Rabbi Avraham David Warman of Buczacz, 18th-19th centuries, Galicia).
Thus the two Talmuds could be read together: Pietists benefit from a double blessing with regard to Torah study: With their limited available time, they are able to achieve - in the sphere of Torah and the attempt to earn a livelihood - what would normally require many hours of toil. Moreover, their Torah acquisitions are divinely protected against forgetfulness.
Based on this understanding, one hassidic master who was also a halachic authority explained the phenomenon of the pietist who is also a prolific writer, authoring works in many fields of Torah studies (Rabbi Haim Eluzar of Munkatch, 19th-20th centuries, Hungary/Czechoslovakia).
Not everyone, however, felt that the two Talmuds complemented each other. When Rabbi Yosef Yitzhak Schneersohn (1880-1950), leader of the Lubavitcher Hassidim, was permitted to leave communist Russia and reached Riga, Latvia, in 1928, he convened a conference of rabbis to discuss the plight of Russian Jewry. Among the attendees was the Rogatchover Gaon (genius), Rabbi Yosef Rosen (1858-1936), a prominent talmudist with a photographic memory and razor-sharp analytical mind.
At the meeting it was decided to establish a working committee that would meet regularly to further the decisions of the conference. The Rogatchover was invited to join this committee and many hoped he would acquiesce.
With his characteristic wit, the Rogatchover declined due to a disagreement between the Babylonian Talmud and the Eretz Yisrael Talmud. He explained that according to the Eretz Yisrael Talmud, one who is involved in worthy pursuits will be granted a blessing such that Torah studied will be magnified. A small investment of time will yield significant produce; that which normally takes hours will be accomplished in minutes.
Yet according to the Babylonian Talmud, the blessing is only that Torah acquired will not be lost. Though old understandings will not be forgotten, because of time constraints, new knowledge may never be attained and innovative perceptions may never be reached. Joining the committee for the benefit of Russian Jewry was a pious cause, yet it would be at the price of valuable time normally applied by this gaon to Torah study.
The Rogatchover concluded: "Since Jewish law posits that we rule in accordance with the Babylonian Talmud when there is a disagreement with the Talmud of Eretz Yisrael, we must assume that worthy pursuits provide no elixir for new insights into Torah. The cost of your request is too great. I must decline the offer!"
Returning to the original passage: Will prayer increase our Torah learning or does it steal valuable study time? Perhaps it neither enhances nor hinders study, but is it a more worthy pursuit? The answers to these conundrums may be beyond our ken. As we have seen, the scholars of previous generations offered varying approaches.
Though one worthy pursuit may augment another and while commitment to one holy cause may merit divine assistance in another field, the way of the world suggests a different paradigm: When we dedicate ourselves to one quest, it is sadly at the expense of other worthy causes. If we busy ourselves with helping others, we cannot devote as much time to Torah; spending hours in heartfelt prayer comes at the price of not being available to help our fellow human beings; the earnest pursuit of Torah understanding perforce deducts time that could be spent in prayer. Limited resources are a fact of our existence.
Finding a balance is a delicate challenge. Perhaps we could apply the adage cited early in our tractate (B. Berachot 5b; 17a): "Both the one who does much and the one who does little [are equal], as long as each person directs his heart towards heaven."
The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.