The following essay is an excerpt from the just-released final volume of the 5-volume series of essays on parshat hashavua, The Three Pillars, written by Rav Milston and produced by the Midrasha. To read more about the series, or to order volumes or the set, please see our website at www.harova.org/three-pillars or be in touch with Leiba at email@example.com.
Torah VeAvodah – Ideology or Necessity?
“Our Rabbis taught: ‘And you shall gather in your corn’ (Devarim, 11:14). What is to be learned from these words? Since it says, ‘this book of the law shall not depart from your mouth’ (Yehoshua, 1:8), I might think this injunction is to be taken literally. Therefore, it says, ‘And you shall gather in your corn’, which implies you are to combine the study of Torah with a worldly occupation. This is the view of Rabbi Yishmael. Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai says: ‘Is that possible? If a man ploughs in the plowing season, sows in the sowing season, reaps in the reaping season, threshes in the threshing season, and winnows in the season of wind, what is to become of the Torah? No! But when Israel performs the will of the Omnipresent, their work is performed by others, as it says, ‘And strangers shall stand and feed your flocks’, etc., (Yeshayahu, 61:5) and when Israel do not perform the will of the Omnipresent their work is carried out by themselves, as it says, ‘And you shall gather in your corn.’ Nor is this all, but the work of others also is done by them, as it says, ‘And you shall serve your enemy’ etc. (Devarim, 28:48).
Abaye said: ‘Many have followed Rabbi Yishmael’s advice and it has worked well; others have followed Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and been unsuccessful.
Raba said to the Rabbis: ‘I would ask you not to appear before me during Nissan and Tishrei (the former being the time of the ripening of the corn, whereas the latter is the season of the vintage and olive pressing) so that you may not be anxious about your food supply during the rest of the year.’
Rabbah bar Bar Chana said in the name of Rabbi Yochanan, reporting Rabbi Yehuda bar Ila’i: ‘See what a difference there is between the earlier and later generations. The earlier generations made Torah study their main concern and their regular work subsidiary, and both prospered in their hands. The latter generations made their ordinary work their main concern and Torah study subsidiary, and neither prospered in their hands.”
Let us begin our analysis of this fascinating gemara by referring to Abaye’s statement:
“’Many have followed Rabbi Yishmael’s advice and it has worked well; others have followed Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and been unsuccessful.”
From these few words, we can see Abaye prefers the idealistic view of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, but sees it as simply unattainable for the masses. Very few can attain these idyllic standards so it seems both more sensible and realistic to follow the guidelines of Rabbi Yishmael.
Of course, it is important to qualify these instructions by adding (as the gemara does), that even when applying Rabbi Yishmael’s thesis, one needs to be so careful to keep one’s priorities in place. We see it clearly emphasized by the first generations, who despite choosing Rabbi Yishmael’s ‘easier’ format, still knew to give spiritual matters preference over their physical needs. In contrast to the latter generations, who tended to fix their agenda in line with their material requirements, whilst leaving Torah study for their spare time.
Abaye’s comments infer that Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai’s ideology is theoretically superior to that purported by Rabbi Yishmael. It is just more pragmatic to prefer the latter. However, it appears the debate taking place between these two Torah giants has nothing to do with pragmatism, but with something a lot more fundamental.
Rabbi Yishmael and Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai are engaged in a hashkafic dispute. Whereas the former sees a utopian reality combining Torah study with a worldly occupation, the latter sees this as problematic to say the least. Occupying ourselves with menial and tedious realities irreparably stunts our spiritual growth.
With this ideological argument in mind, we could humbly suggest that Rabbi Yishmael’s view is to be preferred not just because of its pragmatism but because it is the right way to live our lives in this world.
As the Mishna in Pirkei Avot states (Avot 4:5):
“Rabbi Tzadok says; do not use the knowledge of Torah as a crown to magnify yourself or as a spade to dig with. And this is what Hillel used to say; He who makes use of the crown of Torah shall pass away. From this you can learn that he who derives personal gain from the words of Torah takes his own life from this world.”
The Rambam, in his commentary to the Mishna, elaborates:
One who learns Torah should not demand, depend on, or expect financial support from the community. Those who believe it is permitted to do so are in error. There are numerous examples in the Talmud showing how scholars maintained themselves without requesting or receiving aid from others. Many of them were terribly poor like Hillel HaZaken, Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa, Rabbi Yosef, etc., but they never took advantage of the Torah to obtain financial support, which would have been freely given in abundance merely for the asking. They performed the most menial tasks in order to sustain themselves without using their Torah knowledge. The Talmud in Nedarim (62a) cites an incident in which Rabbi Tarfon saved his life by making it known he was Tarfon the Scholar. He regretted this action all the days of his life because he could have saved himself by other means.
The Ya’avetz goes a stage further. He concurs it is certainly praiseworthy for a scholar to support himself without the help of others. But if it is impossible for him to make a living from his own labors without neglecting the study of Torah, what should he do? If he spends all his time trying to earn a livelihood, Torah study will be neglected and forgotten. For this reason, scholars are permitted to accept support from the community in order to be free to devote themselves to Torah study. They should receive only the minimum amount for basic needs. A precedent can be found for this in the unique partnership of Yissachar and Zevulun, through which Zevulun supported Yissachar while he studied Torah.
The purpose of learning Torah is not simply to accumulate knowledge but to strengthen and further our relationship with the Almighty. Torah cannot become a vessel for anything else but that. If we are to study at someone else’s expense, we inevitably run the risk of turning our spiritual ends into financial means. Instead of our learning becoming the key to our elevating relationship with Hashem, we transform it into a means of making a livelihood. On the other hand, if a person chooses to go out and work to sustain and educate his family, whilst dedicating his spare time to the study of Torah, that very study is pure in every way. There is no ulterior motive involved.
Furthermore, we cannot ignore the issues of Kiddush Hashem and Chillul Hashem. How do we spread Torat Yisrael and enthuse Am Yisrael if the perception of religious Jewry is one of taking from the system without ever giving back? And how can we hope to unite and endear our fellow Jews if we do not function together in any scenario whatsoever?
The Rambam was troubled by Torah being degraded, from a holy endeavor to a menial means of sustenance. We are also suggesting that a religiously motivated elite removing themselves from the workforce in particular, and from society in general, will lead to devastating results. Indeed, we may very well end up with a minority of super scholars only to discover there are very few people left to educate.
Yet I think there is another reason to subscribe to the way of life that Rabbi Yishmael is advocating.
The Almighty created the world, and hence everything therein has inherent holiness. We could never suggest one can only connect with the Master of the Universe through Torah, because that would automatically exclude many people from their reason for being. Could we really suggest a good, observant Jew is not to be considered religious because he lacks the intellectual capacity or the ongoing incentive to sit for hours over a sefer?
Ultimately, Torah and Mitzvot are the means to an end. That end is searching for and internalizing the innate holiness of this world. There is Kedusha everywhere and not only in the Beit Midrash. Our lives are not defined only by what we do but by the way we do it. Our objective should be involvement in the world whilst simultaneously succeeding to draw out its holiness, wherever it may be.
There are two types of lessons in a regular Jewish day school – Kodesh and secular studies. Even though this difference is largely semantic, we are unintentionally removing the Almighty from parts of the world.
Are we truly saying Hashem has nothing to do with Physics, Chemistry and Biology? Surely a detailed study of the workings of nature is a shiur in Emunah? When we study history, do we once again ignore God’s involvement in the events of the last two millennia? And what of Geography? Math? Languages? We can use all of these to rise to a spiritual plane and serve God.
We state daily that the entire world is full of the Almighty’s creation. Is a study of that world considered an unholy exercise? Certainly not. If we approach all of our studies with the Almighty in mind, all of our studies become Kodesh. There can be no such thing as secular studies for a truly believing Jew.
Perhaps this is exactly the point Rabbi Yishmael is trying to make. God created the whole world, and therefore the whole world is there for us to serve Him. Heaven forbid we should believe the Almighty can only be found within the four walls of the Beit Midrash. We should be combining our Torah with our worldly occupation for they are not two separate worlds. They are all part of the same world; they are part of who we are. To deny that is almost to deny God himself.
Yes, of course it is sometimes necessary to withdraw from certain elements of this world. And when there is too much involvement, we must stop and realign our perspective; plug in to Truth. Tefilla, Berachot and Torah study are our tools. We regain the required strength and motivation to move onwards and forwards within the worldly reality.
Indeed, combining Torah with a worldly occupation is an ideal of the loftiest caliber, as the Ramchal explains:
“If one sanctifies himself with the holiness of his Creator, even his physical actions come to partake of holiness….
One who is truly holy, clinging constantly to God, his soul traveling in channels of truth, amidst the love and fear of his Creator – such a person is as one walking before God in the Land of the Living, here in this world. It follows that the food they eat is as a sacrifice offered upon the fire of the altar.
Holiness consists in one’s clinging so closely to his God that he does not depart or move from the Blessed One in any deed he might perform, until the physical objects of which he makes use become more elevated because of his having used them.” 
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 There is an apparent textual difficulty with Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai’s view in that he suggests the verse in Devarim, 11:14 is referring to a time when Israel is not performing the will of God. However, the very first words of the previous verse specifically talk of a time when Israel is fulfilling the word of God (see ibid. 11:13.) One of the answers offered by Tosafot is that the verse is indeed speaking of those who are fulfilling the will of Hashem in general terms, but not in an absolute fashion. They are thus not to be considered perfectly righteous, hence they are referred to as people who are lacking somewhat, and are subsequently required to gather in their own crops.
 Berachot 35b.
 Where exactly in the Rambam? The Bartenura disputes the Rambam’s conclusions about teachers of Torah, who according to his thesis should presumably teach for free. The Bartenura explains there is legal justification for those who take a salary for teaching Torah to children. The salary is monetary compensation for the physical supervision of the children, and not for the actual teaching. Another justification is that the salary compensates the teacher for the time he could have used to earn a living by other means, i.e. what is known in the world of economics as opportunity-cost.
 Rashi on Bereishit, 49:13.
 See Chapter 1 of Mesillat Yesharim.
 A couple of practical examples in order here I think.
 Mesillat Yesharim, Chapter 26.