World of the Sages: Torah and labor

Our Sages seek to define the relationship between the grand enterprise of Torah study and the necessity of earning a livelihood.

bnei akiva logo 88 (photo credit: )
bnei akiva logo 88
(photo credit: )
Our Sages seek to define the relationship between the grand enterprise of Torah study and the necessity of earning a livelihood (B. Berachot 35b) and open by questioning the message of the verse: And you will gather your grain, your wine and your oil (Deuteronomy 11:14). One of the commentators explains the Talmud's question (Rabbi Ezekiel Landau, 18th century, Poland-Prague): Is it not obvious that once the rains have fallen in a timely fashion and the produce has grown, that we then proceed to gather the produce? What additional lesson is contained in this passage? The Talmud tackles this verse by contrasting it with the Almighty's instruction to Joshua: This book of the Torah shall not depart from your mouth (Joshua 1:8). From the directive to Joshua, we might conclude that we may never cease studying Torah. If this were the case, a person would be precluded from earning a livelihood. The promise of gathering produce teaches us that the all-encompassing obligation to study Torah retreats before the responsibility of gainfully employment. One commentator explains that those who study Torah while relying on others to provide sustenance will eventually abandon their Torah study (Rashi, 11th century, France). Indeed, elsewhere our Sages teach that Torah which is not combined with work ultimately comes to naught and leads to sin (M. Avot 2:2). Torah study and earning a livelihood form a relationship which can be described as commensalism, where Torah derives benefit from work without adversely affecting it. To ensure that this book of the Torah shall not depart from our mouth, the Almighty tells us that we will gather our grain, our wine and our oil. The approach of Torah and labor rendered by Rabbi Yishmael is juxtaposed with an opposing view, that of Rabbi Shimon ben Yohai: "If a person plows at the time of plowing, and sows at the time of sowing, and harvests at the time of harvesting, and threshes at the time of threshing, and winnows at the time when the wind blows - what will become of Torah?" Rabbi Shimon ben Yohai was concerned that if people were so busy earning a livelihood, this preoccupation with worldly matters would prevent Torah study. The relationship between Torah and labor can only be described as parasitical, for work preys on every moment of the day and relegates the pursuit of Torah to an unrealized ideal. Rabbi Shimon ben Yohai therefore suggested a different modus operandi: "When Israel do the will of God, their work is done for them by others and indeed Torah need not depart from their mouths." This is indicated in the prophetic verse: "And strangers will arise and shepherd your flocks" (Isaiah 61:5). Conversely, "when Israel do not do the will of the Almighty, their work must be done by themselves" and thus you will gather your grain, your wine and your oil. Moreover, Israel will do the work of others, as per the biblically described punishment "and you will serve your enemies" (Deuteronomy 28:48). This model was practically applied by Rabbi Shimon ben Yohai during his years of hiding in a cave from the Roman authorities (B. Shabbat 33b). As he and his son sat buried to their necks in sand and solely occupied themselves with Torah study, water and carob sustenance was miraculously provided for them. Thus our Sages suggest two conflicting models of the relationship between Torah and labor. According to one approach, earning a livelihood facilitates Torah study and both should be pursued. According to the other, working comes at the expense of Torah study and therefore should not be considered. Fast forwarding a number of generations and moving to Babylon, the Talmud records two responses to this argument. The first response of Abbaye is an observation: "Many did as Rabbi Yishmael advocated - combining Torah study with work - and were successful; others did as Rabbi Shimon ben Yohai suggested and they were not successful." The second response is Rava's entreaty to his disciples: "I beg of you, during the days of Nisan - when the grain is harvested - and the days of Tishrei - when the grapes and olives are pressed - do not appear before me so that you will not be preoccupied with your sustenance the entire year." It would appear that the Talmud concludes in favor of the commensal approach promoted by Rabbi Yishmael. A thought must be spared, however, for uninterrupted study and total devotion to plumbing the scholarly depths of a discipline without financial burden. In many institutes of higher learning, scholarships are awarded with the goal of providing the student with an environment free of fiscal stress and strain. The hope is that students freed from economic concerns will be able to reach greater heights of scholarship, thus contributing to our society. In this vein, later commentators focus on the exact formulation of Abbaye's observation: Rabbi Shimon ben Yohai's course was not fruitful for the many who tried to walk that path. Yet for a chosen few this route is certainly advocated, and from the standpoint of society we desire individuals who can totally devote themselves to scholarship. Of course this approach is not appropriate for all; it is a path that should be open only to suitable candidates. Such people should be able to follow in the footsteps of Rabbi Shimon ben Yohai, removing themselves from this-worldly pursuits and devoting their entire beings to fathoming the depths of our tradition and unraveling its mysteries. The majority of people, however, are encouraged to see their labor as a necessary and desirable tool for Torah study. Rabbi Yishmael may not have been describing a relationship of commensalism. While the commentators explain that work can benefit Torah study, Torah should also positively impact work. In a poetic formulation, our Sages declared: "If there is no flour, there is no Torah; if there is no Torah, there is no flour" (M. Avot 3:17), thus describing a symbiosis between Torah and earning a livelihood, where mutual benefit is derived from the association between Torah and labor. The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.