Torah Study vs. Earning a Living
YD 246:21 in Rema
from Edmond H. Weiss, a writer, lecturer and consultant from Cherry Hill, New
Jersey: I am
perplexed. Lately, my growing interest in Jewish studies has taken so much of my time that I find myself
neglecting my business and my clients. Sometimes I resent the time I am forced to spend on "meaningless" work when I could be engaged in study
and other mitzvot.
According to Pirkei Avot (2:2):
Rabbai Gamliel says: The study of Torah combined with a worldly
occupation is an excellent thing, for the energy needed by both keeps
sinful thoughts out of one's mind. And any study of Torah when not
accompanied by a trade must fail in the end and become the cause of
sin (Avot 2:2).
Elsewhere, though, this tractate urges "moderation" in business and
cautions against using the excuse of business to avoid Torah study.
This is an easier problem, I suspect, for those with salaried jobs because,
to a large extent, demands of a job are determined by one's employer. But the self-employed professional or business person is
perpetually involved in moral choices: how to organize the day, how much to do, how hard to work
and how high to aspire. Moreover, intellectual work demands study, imagination and reflection; creative work can be so depleting that one has
no energy for religious study and perhaps not even time to observe the Sabbath. What should one do when the lure of Torah seems like a
temptation, a seduction away from one's family responsibilities to earn money and provide for the future?
Limud Torah [Torah study] is without a doubt one of
the central mitzvot of Jewish life. We read in the Shema, the Torah
portion recited three times daily:
These words which I command you this day shall be in your
heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children,
speaking of them when you stay at home, when you walk on
the road, when you lie down and when you get up
This is repeated in the Prophets: "Let not this book of the Torah
cease from your lips, but study it day and night so that you may
observe faithfully all that is written in it" (Joshua 1:8). And we learn
once again in the Writings: "Happy is the man...the teaching of the
Lord is his delight and he studies that teaching day and night"
The centrality of Torah study was reiterated by the rabbis on
"Simon the Just used to say, 'By three things is
the world sustained: by the Torah, by the Temple service and by
deeds of lovingkindness' " (Avot 1:2). "[Hillel] used to say: `The more
Torah, the more life' " (Avot 2:7). "Greater is learning the Torah than
priesthood or kingship" (Avot 6:6). And a popular list of
praiseworthy mitzvot concludes: "the study of the Torah is equal
to them all".
Many Jews are familiar with these quotations. It is, however, less
well-known that the Bible and the rabbis had a highly positive view
of melakhah [labor] and some even viewed it as a mitzvah. The
prophet Isaiah declares that God teaches the farmers how to farm
(Isaiah 28:23-29). The psalmist says: "Happy are all who fear the
Lord. . . you shall enjoy the fruit of your labors" (Psalms 128:1-2).
Finally, the Bible condemns idleness on many occasions: "through
slothfulness the ceiling sags, through lazy hands the house caves in"
The rabbis, too, were staunch advocates of melakhah.
Judah and Rabbi Shimon said: Great is labor for it honors those who
engage in it" (Nedarim 49b).
A person should not say: "I will eat and drink and enjoy the
good life and not exert myself and Heaven shall take pity on
me". Therefore it is written: "You have blessed the work of his
hands" (Job 1:10). A person must toil and work with his hands
and then God sends His blessing.
As a result, a trade was considered obligatory by many rabbis:
"Rabbi Yishmael said: 'And you shall choose life' (Deuteronomy
30:19) - that is a trade".
"We learned in a beraita [an early rabbinic
source not included in the Mishnah]: A father is required to do the
following for his son: to circumcise him... to teach him Torah... and
to teach him a trade."
The rabbis also felt that it is better to engage
in a lowly profession than to accept handouts: "Rav said: 'It is better
to skin animals in the marketplace and earn wages than to say: "I am
a priest, I am a great man, that is beneath my dignity!' " (Pesahim
Furthermore, in some midrashim, labor was given various
1. In Avot d'rabiNatan we find:
A person must love labor and engage in labor....If God created
the world by doing labor as it is written, "the work that He
had done" (Genesis 2:2), human beings, how much the more
2. Labor is one of the items included in the covenant with God:
A person should love melakhah...because just as the Torah was
given in a covenant, so melakhah was given in a covenant, as it
is written: "Six days shall you labor and do all your work, but
the seventh day is a Shabbat for the Lord your God" (Exodus
3. Since rest on Shabbat assumes labor during the week, melakhah
was even viewed by some rabbis as a positive commandment:
"Six days shall you labor" (Exodus 20:9) is a separate decree.
Just as the Jewish people were commanded to fulfill the
positive mitzvah of Shabbat, so were they commanded
4. The divine presence cannot rest until after labor is complete:
Great is labor for the Shekhinah (God's presence) did not rest
upon the Jewish people until they performed melakhah, as it is
written: "And they shall build me a Temple and [only then]
shall I dwell in their midst" (Exodus 25:8).
So we see that even though limud Torah was considered one of
the most basic mitzvot, melakhah was also promoted by the rabbis as
a basic Jewish value to be respected and practiced.
What then does one do when there is a conflict between Torah
study and labor? Which takes precedence? This very issue is
discussed in many places in rabbinic literature and, as is frequently
the case, there are a variety of contradictory views on the subject.
Rabbi Meir says that a person should teach his son an easy and clean
trade while Rabbi Nehorai says that he would neglect every trade
and teach his son only Torah because one enjoys its reward both in
this world and in the World to Come (Mishnah Kiddushin 4:14). One
man was so anxious for his son to study Torah that he took a vow
prohibiting his son from engaging in any form of labor,
Rabban Gamliel said: "Excellent is the study of Torah together with
a worldly occupation...but all Torah study without worldly labor
comes to naught and leads to sin" (Avot 2:2)
But the locus classicus is undoubtedly the following:
Since it says: "And let not this book of the Torah cease from
your lips" (Joshua 1:8), I might think that this injunction is to
be taken literally. Therefore it says "And you shall gather your
grain" (Deuteronomy 11:14) which implies that you are to
combine the study of Torah with a worldly occupation - these
are the words of Rabbi Yishmael. But Rabbi Shimon bar
Yochai says: "if a man plows at plowing time and sows at
sowing time and reaps at reaping time...what will become of
Torah study? Rather, when Israel does the will of God, their
melakhah is done by others" (Berakhot 35b).
Thus Rabbi Yishmael rules that you should engage in a trade and
study Torah, while Rabbi Shimon, on the other hand, rules that you
should devote all your time to limud Torah and God will provide.
What is the halakhah? The gemara concludes: "Abaye said: 'Many
followed Rabbi Yishmael and succeeded, many followed Rabbi
Shimon bar Yochai and did not succeed' ". Abaye's opinion was followed by the major codes of Jewish law.
Furthermore, we know
that dozens of Talmudic rabbis such as Shimon ben Shetach, Abba
Shaul, Rabbi Joshua, Rabbi Judah, Rabbi Yose, Resh Lakish, Rabbi
Zeira, Rav Huna, Rav Hisda and Abaye supported themselves
through manual labor.
So we see that despite all of the opinions on
the subject, the halakhic ideal is that of Rabbi Yishmael: Engage in a
trade and study Torah.
What remains is the practical question: How do I organize my
time so that I can earn a living and study Torah? The following four
suggestions are culled from 2,000 years of Jewish experience:
1. Rabbi Yose ben Meshullam and Rabbi Shimon ben Menasya were
part of a group called "the Holy Congregation" "who divided their
day in three ± they devoted one-third to Torah, one-third to prayer
and one-third to melakhah".
According to this source, one should
devote an equal portion of every day to earning a living and to Torah
study. This, of course, depends on a person's profession. In many
professions, one cannot devote such a large chunk of time to Torah
study without harming one's livelihood. Indeed, that is probably
why the practice is attributed to "the Holy Congregation"!
2. This objective difficulty no doubt led to Rabbi Joshua's more
If a person learns two halakhot by heart every morning and
two every evening and engages in melakhah all day, he is
considered to have fulfilled the entire Torah.
In other words, quantity is not everything. If you don't have time
to study many hours a day, just make sure to study on a regular
basis. This approach was widely followed throughout Jewish
history and led to the creation of countless fellowships (havarot)
that met daily to study Torah. In Eastern Europe Jews preferred
Mishnah, Talmud, Hayye Adam or Mishnah Berurah; in Yemen they
studied Mishnah, Talmud, Maimonides and Ein Ya'akov.
own day, thousands of Jews study a daily chapter of Bible or
Mishnah or a daily folio of Talmud (daf yomi).
You can adopt this
system of Torah study by joining an already existing study group, starting a new one or finding a study partner (havruta) for daily
3. A third approach is to earn a living by day and study by night.
This was the approach favored by Maimonides as described in a
famous responsum detailing his exhausting schedule as court
physician, from which it is clear that he did all of his studying at
This was in keeping with the opinion of many Talmudic
rabbis who preferred nighttime study to daytime study.
4. Lastly, there was the system of Yarhei Kallah practiced in Babylon
for close to a millennium, in which thousands of laypeople and
students gathered in the Babylonian academies during the Hebrew
months of Elul and Adar to study Torah (Bava Metzia 86a; Berakhot
l7b). This system continued to flourish until the days of Rabbi
Nattan Habavli (tenth century). A modern equivalent would be to
spend the summer studying Torah at a camp or a retreat, at a
yeshivah in Israel or at a Jewish studies program such as the one run
by the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York.
In conclusion, learning Torah is a mitzvah and earning a
livelihood is a mitzvah, but you should not go overboard in
observing one at the expense of the other. Choose, rather, the middle
road. As we learn in the Palestinian Talmud:
This Torah is like two paths, one of fire and one of snow. If
you follow one path, you will die of heat; if you follow the
other path you will die of cold. What should you do? Take the
1. For 881 Talmudic statements (sic!) in praise of Torah and Torah study, see
Rabbi Moshe David Gross, Otzar Ha-aggadah, vol. 3, Jerusalem, 1977, pp.
2. Pe'ah 1:1 and Philip Birnbaum, ed., Daily Prayer Book, New York, 1949, p. 15.
3. For fifteen similar passages in the book of Proverbs, see The Universal Jewish
Encyclopedia, vol. 6, p. 499.
4. For a recent and thorough treatment of this topic, see Meir Ayali, Workers
and Artisans: Their Occupations and Status in Rabbinic Literature (Hebrew),
Givatayim, 1987, chapter 4 and see p. 193, ibid., for twelve previous books on the subject.
5. Tanhuma Vayeitzei, par. 13.
6. Yerushalmi Sotah 9:16, fol. 24c.
7. Kiddushin 29a and parallels.
8. Avot d'rabi Natan, Version B, chapter 21, ed. Schechter, p. 44.
9. Ibid., Version A, Chapter 11, p. 44.
10. Mekhilta of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, ed. Epstein-Melamed, p. 149.
12. Tosefta Bekhorot 6:11, ed. Zuckermandel, p. 541.
13. Maimonides, Talmud Torah 3:10-11; Tur and Shulhan Arukh Yoreh De'ah
246:21 and Orah Hayyim 156:1.
14. For a survey of occupations practiced by Talmudic rabbis, see Ayali, Workers and
Artisans, pp. 100-101 and 143-151, and Moses Aberbach, Labor, Crafts and Commerce in Ancient
Israel, Jerusalem, 1994, Chapter III.
15. Kohelet Rabbah 9:9, ed. Vilna, fol. 24a. Regarding "the Holy Congregation",
see Shmuel Safrai, Eretz Yisrael V'hakhameha Bitkufat Hamishnah Vehatalmud,
Jerusalem, 1983, pp. 43-56.
16. Mekhilta of Rabbi Yishmael, Vayassa, ed. Lauterbach, vol. 2, pp. 103-104.
17. For Eastern Europe, see Mark Zborowski and Elizabeth Herzog, Life is with
People: The Jewish Little Towns of Eastern Europe, New York, 1952, pp. 100-102; A.J. Heschel,
The Earth is the Lord's, Philadelphia, 1963, pp. 46-47; and Israel Goldman,
Lifelong Learning Among the Jews, New York, 1975, Chapter 10. For Yemen, see Shimon Garidi,
Torah Study in Yemen (Hebrew), Jerusalem, 1987.
18. Daf yomi, instituted by Rabbi Meir Shapira in 1923, has resulted in
completing the entire Talmud (ca. 2,700 folios!) ten times.
19. For an English translation, see Franz Kobler, Letters of Jews through the
Ages, vol. 1, Philadelphia, 1978, pp. 211-212.
20. Song of Songs Rabbah 5:1, ed Vilna, fol. 31a; Hagigah 12b; Avodah Zarah
3b; Sanhedrin 92a; Maimonides, Talmud Torah 3:13 and Shulhan Arukh Yoreh
21. Yerushalmi Hagigah 2:1, 77a and Tosefta Hagigah 2:5, ed. Lieberman, p. 381.
That passage refers specifically to the study of Jewish mysticism, but the same holds true of many things in life. For recent discussions of the topic of
this responsum, see Aberbach (above, note 14), Chapter IV, and Leo Levi, Tradition 28/1 (Fall 1993), pp. 46-81.