Parshat V’zot Ha-Berakhah – פרשת וזאת הברכה

Parshat V’zot Ha-Berakhah – פרשת וזאת הברכה
October 22, 2019 – שמחת תורה תש"פ
This essay is dedicated in honor of Hoffer Kaback.
Daily Torah Study for non-Students
In the Haftarah for Parshat V’zot Ha-Berakhah, God offers Joshua words of encouragement as the new Israelite leader assumes power following Moses’ death. “Let not this Book of the Teaching cease from your lips, but recite it day and night, so that you may observe faithfully all that is written in it. Only then will you prosper in your undertakings and only then will you be successful (Joshua 1:8).”
The Midrash interprets God’s words as a warning to all Israelites: If even Joshua, who was “filled with the spirit of wisdom (Deuteronomy 34:9),” needed regularly to recite passages from the Mosaic Code lest he stumble in matters of observance, all the more so must the average Israelite diligently review his religious studies by daily verbalizing passages therefrom (Sifre Numbers 141). Alternatively, God’s words can be interpreted as a personal blessing for Joshua. As a reward for being Moses’ loyal disciple, who “would not stir out of the Tent (Exodus 33:1),” Joshua was blessed with a Heavenly promise that he would be able to continue his Torah studies and find success in his endeavors (Menahot 99b).
The sages debated the extent to which Torah study must dominate a Jew’s life. Rabbi Ishmael rejected a literal reading of Joshua 1:8, which might have been mustered to support the extreme position that a Jew can engage in no occupation or activity other than Torah study. Instead, R. Ishmael cited a phrase from the second paragraph of Shema, “you shall gather in your grain (Deuteronomy 11:14),” to prove that a Jew should engage in the productive activities of mundane life. In contrast, Rabbi Simon bar Yohai worried that a Jew who plowed, sowed, harvested, and winnowed would have insufficient time for his Torah studies. Instead, he supported the notion of full-time study along with the attitude and belief that “God will provide.” The Talmud notes that many people followed Rabbi Ishmael’s guidelines and were successful, while those who took the riskier path urged by Rabbi Simon bar Yohai were unsuccessful (Berakhot 35b).
While never doubting that more is always preferred, the sages exegetically determined the required minimum amount of Torah study. Scripture states that the showbread must be on the table “before Me always (Exodus 25:30).” Rabbi Jose explained that תמיד need not mean continuously; it is sufficient for the old bread to be removed in the morning and the new bread set in place in the evening. Analogously, one can satisfy the demands of Joshua 1:8 by studying one chapter (i.e., a loosely-defined, and modest, quantum) in the morning and another in the evening. Even the liturgical reading of Shema itself, in the morning and in the evening, is enough to satisfy one’s minimal requirement of Torah study (Menahot 99b).
This modest amount of required daily study is relevant to the halakhah of vows. If, for example, one vows to study a certain tractate, that utterance is binding and regarded favorably (assuming subsequent fulfillment). Ordinarily, there is no legal significance to a volitional oath super-imposed on an existing one. All of Jewry swore at Sinai to abide by the mitzvoth, inclusive of the command to study Torah. Nevertheless, the vow in this example is valid because, in theory, the vower could have satisfied his obligation with the liturgical Shema (Nedarim 8a). By obligating himself to study a tractate and not just to recite the Shema, he has created a halakhically-binding vow.
In antiquity, there was a view that unworthy students should be kept away from the study hall. Rabban Gamliel stationed bouncers at the door of the academy to bar undesirables (Berakhot 28a). Rav said that one who teaches an unworthy disciple has committed an offense akin to worshipping Mercury and will descend to Gehenna (Hullin 133a). Maimonides codified this strict approach to yeshiva admissions, though adding the moderating caveat that it is incumbent upon teachers to steer students back to the proper path and to admit them into the academy if those students improve their behavior and re-apply (Hilkhot Talmud Torah 4:1).
Torah study was once the province of an elite intellectual set within Jewry. The unlettered masses were looked upon with disdain. Yet as the place of the rabbis in Jewish society changed from that of a marginally influential group to that of communal leaders with a mass following, the rabbinical attitude toward commoners’ Torah study was bound to change. Rabbi Yohanan believed that it was forbidden to tell the Amei Ha-Aretz that they could satisfy their Torah study obligations by reading Shema. He feared that the masses would take advantage of that low bar and not bother to educate their children or themselves. Rava believed it to be a mitzvah to tell the masses about Shema as Torah study. He must have figured that such a rabbinical pronouncement would increase the likelihood that nominally observant Jews would recite Shema twice daily. Aside from strengthening popular observance of liturgical requirements, this position of Rava’s reflected his sensitivity to the fact that even non-intellectuals have “intellectual” obligations.
The post-Talmudic doctors of the liturgy repeatedly added snippets of Biblical and rabbinic texts with the aim of affording non-students the opportunity to satisfy their Torah study obligations. In light of a Talmudic teaching that one must divide one’s study time into thirds for Bible, Mishnah, and Talmud, respectively (Kiddushin 30a), the liturgical additions include representative samples from all three categories. Another factor that influenced the selection of Judaic texts was the fact that post 70 CE, necessarily the sacrificial cult had ceased because the Temple no longer existed. It became the view of the rabbis that the absence of Temple sacrifices could be made up for either by reading the Scriptural portions pertaining to them (Ta’anit 27b) or by studying the related halakhot (Menahot 110a).
Seder Rav Amram Gaon (9th century) instructs the worshipper to recite the following textual material after the morning Torah Blessings: the priestly benediction (Numbers 6:24-26), the Tamid offering (28:1-8), Aizehu Mekoman shel Zevahim (Mishnah Zevahim Chapter 5), and Rabbi Ishmael’s thirteen hermeneutical principles (Sifra Braita d’Rabbi Ishmael 1). The inclusion of a section of Halakhic Midrash and the absence of a section of Gemara is justified by their both being regarded as “Talmud” (Berakhot 11b). Later liturgists added the Tannaitic section about the ingredients of the incense (Keritut 6a) and the sequence of the Temple service as arranged by Abaye in the name of Abba Saul (Yoma 33a). The conventional Ashkenazic practice is to recite most of these items after the Morning Blessings. After the Torah Blessings, and before the Morning Blessings, it is customary to recite the Priestly benediction, the Mishnah about Torah study having no measure (Mishnah Pe’ah 1:1), and a Talmudic passage listing those virtuous deeds for which one benefits in this world and in the World to Come (Shabbat 127a).
Shulhan Arukh codifies the requirement that a Jew designate set times for morning and evening study (see Shabbat 31a for the significance of doing so), and parenthetically notes that in exigent circumstances the reading of Shema can suffice (Yoreh Deah 246:1). Shulhan Arukh expressly acknowledges that the passages of Written Torah and Oral Torah embedded in the Morning Service were incorporated into the liturgy to give merit to the worshipper who, by reciting such passages, more appropriately fulfills his daily Torah study obligation (Orach Chaim 50:1).
Can it really be maintained that the mere rote recitation of paragraphs printed in the prayer book constitutes “Torah study”? The commentators on the Shulhan Arukh entertained doubts. Abraham Gombiner theorized that the various Scriptural and Talmudic inclusions might have served their intended purpose in prior centuries when the average Jew understood Hebrew/Aramaic, but that in his own generation (17th century Poland) it was necessary for the worshipper not only to read the various paragraphs but also to undertake the additional effort needed to understand their meaning (Magen Avraham OC 50:2). The Chofetz Chaim reiterated this point -- that learning without comprehension is not considered learning -- concerning the Amei Ha-Aretz of his era (Mishneh Berurah 50:2). The most dramatic proof that the halakhists did not equate the pre-Shacharit readings with Torah study is the fact that they permitted the recitation of those passages on Tisha b’Av – a day when it is forbidden to study Torah (Orach Chaim 554:4).
Popularizing the notion of “Torah study” by expanding the prayer book was a necessary first step. Contemporary rabbis should take steps to demonstrate to today’s laymen that Torah study is indeed sweet. By so doing, they will induce laymen to satisfy their obligation to study Torah in palpably more than a minimalist way. חזק חזק ונתחזק