Shavuot: Torah and Professionalism

Nov 17, 2014
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Rabbi Yitzchak Breitowitz

Part I – Full-time learning vs. combining learning with a profession
General introduction
We will attempt here to explore a diversity of views on the subject of Torah and professionalism. When Rav Yaakov Kaminetsky zt”l discussed this issue he emphasized that it is not an area subject to clear cut halakhic analysis or precise quantification. There are so many personal subjective factors involved – different people have different talents, strengths, weaknesses. Certainly it is illegitimate to say that everyone must go to college or pursue a professional career, but it also cannot be responsibly said that no one can. Which direction one takes is an individual decision that demands serious thought and guidance, both from people and from Jewish sources.

In my own life I have experienced both the positive and negative aspects of the professional world. There are a number of strong and compelling reasons not to enter college and the professions, but there are also a number of positive reasons to get involved in the world outside yeshiva. No position can in any way detract from the value of Torah study. Whatever path we take we must pray for much Divine assistance and guidance.

The Brisker Rov: Full time Torah study vs. learning a trade
There is a seeming contradiction in the gemara at the end of Kidushin in the context of a discussion of parents’ obligations towards their children.

Rabbi Meir says, “A person should always make sure to teach his son a ‘clean and easy’ occupation.” Rabbi Nehorai says, “I put aside all the occupations in the world and I only teach my son Torah.”

This would simply be a standard presentation of a talmudic dispute if not for the statement of the gemara in Eiruvin 13 saying that Rabbi Meir and Rabbi Nehorai are the same person!

The Brisker Rov’s analysis: The gemara in Berakhot 35b quotes the dispute between Rabbi Yishmael and Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai surrounding the verse (in Keriat Shema), “You will gather your grain, wine and oil.” Rabbi Yishmael sees this as a source for combining Torah study with derech eretz (literally, the way of the world; here, a worldly occupation). Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai counters: Is it possible that a person will plow in the plowing season, sow in the sowing season, reap in the harvest season, thresh in the threshing season, and winnow in the winnowing season [and still learn Torah seriously]? What will become of the Torah? Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai is forced to limit the verse to when the Jews are not serving G-d properly and must fend for themselves agriculturally.

Abbayei concludes the passage with the observation: “Many followed Rabbi Yishmael’s approach and it worked for them; . . . Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai’s and it did not work for them.” The Gra points out that even though the appropriate approach for the “many” is that of Rabbi Yishmael, there are a number of “yechidei segula”, unique special people in each generation, for whom the Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai approach can work.

The Brisker Rov thereby answers the contradiction between Rabbi Meir = Rabbi Nehorai’s two statements. When giving general direction, “A person should always,” Rabbi Meir takes the Torah and derech eretz approach, learning Torah accompanied with a profession. When speaking of his personal approach, he says, “I put aside all occupations in the world and I only teach my son Torah.” This is in line with the Rambam’s statement at the end of the laws of Shemitta and Yovel that speak about the legitimacy of individuals acting like the tribe of Levi and dedicating themselves to Torah while being supported by Klal Yisrael.

Why are there so many people learning in Kollel today?
Contrary to some popular myths, in pre-war Europe most Jews were either working (often starting at age fourteen) or trying to. The yeshivot of eastern Europe were, for the most part, elitist. It follows that many of those who learned in kollel became gedolei Torah. But the overwhelming majority of Jews were involved in earning a living.

Why has this changed in the post-war Orthodox world? This is an atypical period in Jewish history. Why, in many Orthodox circles, has full-time kollel learning become such an accepted norm? Two reasons are often given for this:

  1. Full-time learning is seen by some as a necessary strategy for keeping one’s head religiously above water in a predominantly non-religious environment. Even though the common Eastern-European Orthodox Jew was not studying in kollel, he was surrounded with religious life. He would pray three times a day and often say Tehillim or attend an Ein Yaakov or Chayei Adam shiur. Home life followed tradition, Torah and mitzvot. There was a not uncommon custom for a baalabus who worked all week to stay awake all Shabbat night and learn. There were cobblers who knew Shas. The modern Jewish environment is so much more secular. Many basic Jewish values and mores are just ignored by many. Kollel might be a necessity even for many Jews, even if they are not necessarily the most gifted in order to retain a strong religious life.
  2. The post-Holocaust era is a Jewish state of emergency. Many of the gedolim of Europe were killed in the Holocaust and there is a need for an emergency revival of Torah.

Even when one adds up all the people learning in yeshivot in Israel and the diaspora, one still only arrives at a small fraction of the Jewish people as a whole. The tribe of Levi was originally intended to be supported by the whole people to be able to devote themselves to Torah and service of Hashem on behalf of the whole people. The population of the yeshiva world roughly parallels that of the tribe of Levi and can build on the biblical model.

A word of caution
Even if the Orthodox community (or parts of it) is able to justify such a change from the norm (the Rabbi Yishmael approach of combining Torah with work), we must beware of possible negative side effects. One example: the difficulty a working person might find in finding shidduchim or a school for his children in a community where kollel is the norm. Choosing a mate should emphasize character and fear of Hashem, not only whether someone or his parents are involved in full time learning. Those men and women that find that the kollel lifestyle does not fit them should not feel disparaged and their children should not feel embarrassed.

Next part, G-d willing: Negative and Positive aspects of involvement in college and the professional world.

Adaptation prepared by Eliezer Kwass

On Rabbi Yitzchok Breitowitz
Rabbi Breitowitz is Associate Professor of Law at the University of Maryland and the Rabbi of the Woodside Synagogue in Silver Spring, Maryland. He received Rabbinical Ordination from the Ner Israel Rabbinical College in 1976; B.S. with honors from Johns Hopkins University; J.D (magna cum laude) from Harvard Law School in 1979; and a Doctorate in Talmudic Law from Ner Israel in 1992. He has lectured extensively throughout the US and Israel on medical, business and family ethics. He has published numerous articles on bankruptcy, commercial law, medical ethics, family law, and halakha.

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