Is Torah Study Always a “Good Thing?” Reflections on the Tisha B’av Experience

by Rabbi David Silverstein

Normative rabbinic Judaism places such a heavy emphasis on Torah study that according to the Gemara[1] one of the three questions that God asks an individual when he comes before the heavenly tribunal is: did you set aside a fixed time for Torah study?  Similarly, the Talmud Yerushalmi[2]  cites the position of Rabbi Yehoshua that the requirement to engage in constant Torah study is so pervasive that it would prevent an individual from engaging in any other intellectual discourse.

According to the Jewish calendar this intense requirement to toil in serious Torah learning is incumbent upon Jews for three hundred and sixty four day annually. The exception to the rule is the holiday of Tisha B’av where Torah study is not only frowned upon, it is actually prohibited. According to the Talmud[3] a Jew is proscribed from studying Torah on Tisha B’av since the enjoyment that he will gain from intensive study is inconsistent with the somber mood that we try and achieve on the day itself.[4] This prohibition is codified by the Shulchan Aruch[5] who rules that one may only study very limited material on Tisha B’av[6] and even this should be done without excessive passion or zeal and within a broader perspective regarding the very nature of the day.[7] In fact, the Shulchan Aruch[8] cites one view that not only is textual Torah study prohibited on Tisha B’av, but even engaging in rigorous “Torah thoughts” would be covered by the Talmudic prohibition. Given the significance of Torah study for the rabbis of the Talmud, one has to wonder whether there was some larger objective in taking one day out of the year and declaring it essentially “Torah free.” More specifically, could it be that the absence of Torah study from the Tisha B’av experience can teach us something about the very nature and purpose of Torah study?

Before addressing these questions directly, I want to focus on an often overlooked component of the Torah study experience. According to the aforementioned Talmudic passage[9] one of the questions that God asks an individual while he stands before the heavenly tribunal is if he fixed (קבעת) time for Torah study. According to some interpreters,[10] the verb קבע connotes a sense of permanence. God essentially asks the individual if he prioritized Torah study and made it a fixed part of his routine. However, a parallel text found in Avot D’rebbe Natan 1:13 uses the same verb קבע with a significantly different application. The Avot D’rebbe Natan text states that the word קבעteaches us that if one studies words of Torah, they should not be fleeting thoughts rather they should become a fixed part of one’s character. However, the text continues and explains that this permanence is not an end in it of itself. Rather the purpose of Torah study is to teach and influence others. The model for this paradigm is the famed Ezra HaSofer who complimented his own personal growth through Torah study with a larger directive of sharing the Torah with others. The same theme that Torah study is vehicle for not only shaping ourselves but also transforming others has been expressed by the Lubavitchter Rebbe who bases his theory on a linguistic difficulty found in the birchat hatorahthat we recite each morning. The Rebbe notes that verb לעסוק (to busy yourself) which is used in the formulation of the blessing seems out of place. Verbs such as ללמד (to study) or לעמל (to toil) would have been more appropriate. However, he argues that word לעסק provides a literary reference to the Hebrew word for business, עסק. According to the Rebbe, just as one who believes he has a great business product would want to go and shares his ideas with others, so too to be עוסק in Torah requires a Jew to think beyond himself and passionately share the wisdom of Torah with Klal Yisrael.

Seeing Torah study primarily as a means to transform society and impact others can help us understand the theological impact of our “Torah break” that accompanies the Tisha B’av experience. The Gemara[11] provides a variety of theories as to why it is uncommon forTalmidei Chachamim to have sons who are similarly outstanding in Torah study. According to the views cited in the names of Mar Zutera and Rav Ashi, the lack of Talmidei Chachamim amongst the offspring of Torah scholars is divine punishment for their condescending behavior toward the public and failure to treat the larger populace with the proper respect. A third view is cited by Ravina who states that this reality is a consequence of the fact that the Torah scholars regularly fail to recite the birchat hatorah prior to their study. This significance of recitingbirchat hatorah is similarly testified too in a subsequent Talmud passage (ibid) which attributes the destruction during the first temple period to the failure of Jews to recite the blessings before Torah study. In fact,  Rav Aharon Kotler[12] cites the Yerushlmi[13] which states that had the Jews during the first temple period only been guilty of idolatry, sexual improprieties and murder,[14] God would have spared the community of destruction. However, since this lack of observance was coupled with a distain (מאסה של תורה) for the Torah, He had no choice but to punish the people.

Various commentators have tried to explain why a group of Jews (and more specifically rabbis) would neglect the recitation of birchat hatorah.[15] However, I think that from this Gemara it becomes clear that their failure to recite these blessings resulted from a broader failure to see Torah study as a means to transform people and communities. These rabbis who acted condescendingly and arrogantly to their flock could not possibly say the words לעסוק בדברי תורה since (as the Lubavitcher Rebbe noted) to be עוסק בתורה requires a Jew to think beyond himself and realize the lasting impact that Torah can have on others. Similarly, God punished the people with the destruction since He could not tolerate a society where Jews failed to take responsibility for their brethren and Torah was perceived as the cause for divisiveness.[16]

A similar message emanates from a close reading of rabbinic texts that deal with the destruction of the second temple. The Talmud[17] states that the second temple was destroyed because of baseless hatred. However, a thematically parallel text[18] provides insight[19]  into exactly the nature of the baseless hatred that was taking place during that time. Thus, the Talmud[20] cites an introductory comment of Rebbi Yochanan to the famous narrative of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza which prefaces the story by citing the verse form Mishlei[21] “אשרי אדם מפחד תמיד ומקשה לבו יפול ברעה”. Rebbe Yochanan’s purpose in citing this verse is to state that the reader should be mindful of the character in the narrative who (in contrast to the directive of the pasuk)[22] remains stubborn and fails to understand the long term consequences of his actions.[23] What becomes evident from story, is that R. Zechariah Ben Avkalus best personifies the character type described by R. Yochachan. After all, it was his uncompromising approach in dealing with the sacrifice blemished by Bar Katmza which ultimately led to the destruction of Jerusalem. However, an even more significant indictment of R. Zechariah is found in a variant of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza account cited in Eichah Rabbah. According to the text in Gittin, Bar Kamtza became enraged at the rabbinic leadership as they sat by idly while he was publicly humiliated.[24] However, according to the Eichah Rabbah version, the genetic term רבנן is replaced with a specific reference to R. Zechariah ben Avkolus![25] Thus, according to the Eichah Rabbah text, R. Zechariah had the opportunity to personally stop the humiliation but chose to remain silent. What becomes evident from this source is that like the Rabbis mentioned in Nedarim 81a, R. Zechariah was not interested in having the Torah that he studied have a lasting impact on those around him. He sat at the party of Bar Kamtza and decided not to intervene in the affair since for him Torah represented something private. It was exactly this type of behavior that causes the baseless hatred that the Talmud[26] made reference too. When Jews who engage in Torah study fail to see the impact that Torah should have on others, people begin to baselessly hate Torah leaders and more tragically despise the Torah itself.

Ironically, on Tisha B’av we are prohibited from studying the majority of the Torah corpus yet nonetheless, we still recite the birchat hatorah. According to the standard text of birchat hatorah, we beseech God to “please sweeten the words of Torah in our mouth and in the mouths of Your people of Israel.”[27] What is most striking about this formulation is that the word  הערב that is used in this context has the same root as the word ערבות or fraternity.[28] Thus the clear implication is that the words of the Torah will only be “sweet” in the eyes of the community when a sense of communal responsibility (ערבות) permeates those who are engaged in Torah study. By emphasizing birchat hatorah while minimizing formal Torah study we establish a firm theological principle that Torah when not studied with the proper motivation and goals can have disastrous consequences. Moreover, by reciting the birchat hatorah on the day that formal study is prohibited we provide a context for future study by recognizing that a proper perspective is a prerequisite for true Torah study.

[1] Shabbat 31a

[2] Cited in the commentary of the Rivmat’’z to Mishnah Peah 1:1.

[3] Taanit 30a

[4] cf. Moed Katan 15a

[5] Orach Chayim 544

[6] The experience of studying the limited material permitted on Tisha B’av does not seem to represent a standard “kiyum of Talmud Torah.” Rather, these passages serve a functionary purpose to set the proper tone or mood for the day.

[7] See Magen Avraham ibid:5

[8] Ibid

[9] Shabbat 30a

[10] see Rashi s.v kavata

[11] Nedarim 81a

[12] Mishnas Rebbi Aharon 28

[13] Chagigah 1:7

[14] Cf. Bavli Yoma 9b

[15] See Igrot Moshe OH 1:20

[16] For a survery of other rabbinic sources that provide alternative reasons for the destruction of the two Temples see, Dr. Ari Z. Zivotofsky’s article in Jewish Action 64:4.

[17] Yoma 9a

[18] Gittin 55b-56a

[19] cf. Maharsha Gittin 55b s.v v’amar

[20] Ibid

[21] 28:14

[22] cf. Rashi and Tosafot ibid.

[23] For a further exploration of this idea in the context of the Kamtza/Bat Kamtza narrative see the article by Rabbi Dr. Joshua Berman at http://www.biu.ac.il/JH/Parasha/eng/devarim/ber.html

[24] אמר: הואיל והוו יתבי רבנן ולא מחו ביה, ש”מ קא ניחא להו

[25] , והיה שם ר’ זכריה בן אבקולס והיתה ספק בידו למחות ולא מיחה מיד נפיק ליה אמר בנפשיה אילין מסביין יתבין בשלוותהון אנא איכול קרצהון…

[26] Yoma 9a

[27] והערב נא ה’ אלקינו את דברי תורתך בפינו ובפי עמך בית ישראל

[28] I want to thank Rabbi Yona Reiss for sharing this insight with me.

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