World of the Sages: Sweet Torah study

In hassidic communities, the formal education of children begins at the age of three. For boys, this is signified by the first haircut, leaving the youngster's peiyot while cutting the rest of his hair.

haredi child 88 (photo credit: )
haredi child 88
(photo credit: )
In hassidic communities, the formal education of children begins at the age of three. For boys, this is signified by the first haircut, leaving the youngster's peiyot (side locks) while cutting the rest of his hair. Some have the custom that girls begin to light a solitary candle on Friday eve from the age of three as a mark of their entry into the world of Jewish education. As children embark on the lifelong pursuit of Torah, their first official encounter with our texts and traditions is also customary at this auspicious age. Yet the Torah that children study on this day does not involve books; there is no grappling with difficult texts, no exploring lofty ideas. Instead, children are offered an aleph-shaped cookie. As they successfully identify the Hebrew letter, it is then dipped in honey and the children joyfully partake of this sugary treat. Thus we bless our children that their Torah study should always be as sweet as honey. Indeed, at this young age we aspire to provide appealing experiences for our children. We hope that their encounters with Torah are engaging and alluring. This is an approach we can all adapt and adopt - even if we are not of hassidic ilk. Is this, however, the ideal for Jewish adult life? Do we seek sweetness whenever we delve into our texts? One hassidic master felt that enjoying Torah study was not the ideal. Rabbi Yerahmiel Yisrael Yitzhak Danziger (1853-1910), from the town of Aleksandrow Lodzki, just outside the Polish city of Lodz, quotes his father, Rabbi Yehiel (d. 1894), as deploring those who seek pleasurable Torah study. True Torah research can only be accomplished through difficulty, toiling over texts while probing the depths of our traditions. Anything less is an act done for the pleasure of the individual, not out of devotion to the Almighty or commitment to our heritage. Thus according to Rabbi Danziger, the honey-dipped letters are a childish experience that preferably should not be echoed in adulthood. A contemporaneous Polish hassidic master, responding to this notion, decried the ideal of not enjoying Torah study. Rabbi Avraham Borenstein of Sochaczew (1839-1910) held that the epitome of Torah study is a pleasurable encounter with the tradition. He felt that it is only through such an idyllic experience that Torah can enter our bloodstream, becoming part of our essential nature and infusing us with life. This notion - that the apex of Torah study is an enjoyable experience - seems to be based on the words of our sages that have been canonized in our daily prayers. In the talmudic discussion of the blessings over Torah study, one sage opines that the benediction should include the words: "Now sweeten, Lord, our God, the words of Your Torah in our mouths and in the mouths of Your nation, the House of Israel…" (B. Berachot 11b). Beseeching God that what we are about to embark upon should be sweet is indeed unique. The fulfillment of no other mitzva is preceded with such a request. We pray, take the lulav, partake of matza and do so many mitzvot each day, but we never beseech God that the experience of prayer should be pleasant, that shaking the lulav should be pleasurable, that the matza should taste sweet! Why are we so concerned that the study of Torah should be enjoyable? This request may give voice to the supreme place of Torah in Judaism. Torah is the soul of our people, and as such we hope that we can integrate it into our lives and absorb it in our bones without undue hardship. Distaste for a particular mitzva is a challenge that does not jeopardize the identity of our people; aversions to the life force of our nation - Torah - may be seen as spiritually life-threatening for the community. This leads us to the other inimitable aspect of this blessing - the mention of future generations: "…And may we be - we, and our descendants, and the descendants of Your nation, the House of Israel, all of us - of those who know Your name and who engross themselves with your Torah." We may wish that our children follow in our very footsteps, yet we know that as individuals they need to walk their own path. The desire for continuity focuses only on matters that reflect our essence. Just because our favorite color may be blue, we don't hope that our children will continue in our path by preferring this color; we have no hallowed tradition of revering the color blue and our preference for blue is not key to our being. Torah, however, is sine qua non for meaningful Jewish existence, and as such we pray that our children will also find the words of Torah sweet. Thus the blessing before Torah study appears to support the notion that the encounter with our heritage should be a gratifying experience, as voiced by Rabbi Borenstein. How are we then to understand the position of Rabbi Danziger who maintained an ideal of non-enjoyable Torah study? Perhaps we can read these two hassidic masters as presenting complementary concepts of the Torah encounter. Certainly the pinnacle is to enjoy the sweetness of Torah study; this ideal is embodied in the words of the sages and enshrined in our daily prayers. Temporal life and our human frailty, however, necessitate an awareness of an opposing reality. As our experience makes evident, not every passage in the Torah arouses our emotions and arrests our intellect. There are times when - despite our daily request for a divine sweetening of our Torah encounter - the text does not come alive and learning is a laborious chore that carries no joy. It is at such gloomy junctures that the words of Rabbi Danziger offer encouragement: Today we may not be excited about Torah study, yet that exact feeling makes the experience all the more valuable! Indeed, these contradictory philosophies are handy tools to carry in our satchel as we enter the beit midrash (study hall) with the prayer and the hope of enjoying our Torah study, but with the knowledge that at times this encounter may not be as sweet as a honey-coated cookie. 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.