Torah Study: A Constant Obligation?

Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim

Reader: Does the Rambam hold there is a constant obligation of Torah study? One of my teachers says he does, but can be exempted when works needs tom be done. But when I look at the Rambam, I don't see it. In hilchos Talmud Torah 1:8 he seems to pasken like Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai in menachos that learning must take place day and night, not constant. Chapter 3 extols constant learning but that doesn't seem obligatory; the keter (crown) Torah is for one who wants to fulfill the mitzvot in the ideal form, but not an obligation. "Ki Devar Hashem Bazah", Rambam says is when one can learn but doesn't, but possibly he holds like the MaHarsha on that gemara in Sanhedrin that it only applies if you are doing meaningless activities, but doesn't necessarily mean you have to be learning all the time. The only thing I can think of is the prohibition of forgetting Torah which occurs as long as one is not learning, so perhaps that implies a constant need to learn. Rabbeim also say there is an obligation to know kol hatorah kulah, but I don't see that in the Rambam - as he says, “The work is not upon you to complete at all.”

–Alex Kahgan

Rabbi: In hilchos Talmud Torah 3:4 Rambam says, “If a mitzvah comes along and others can address it, you should not suspend your Torah study. But if there's no one else around, then you should fill the mitzvah and then return to your study.”  This is because Torah study is the greatest of all commandments. In 3:6 he says, “One should not direct his thoughts to other matters,”  and  “A person is not free to abandon his studies.”  

It appears Torah study is constantly obligatory. But even this is not the highest level. The highest level is where a person loves his Torah study; he does not view it as an obligation. He finds all else in life a distraction, although at times necessary distractions. Rambam makes it clear that the person is prohibited from relying on charity to support himself, but he must work. He gives an outline of working three hours a day and engaging in Torah study nine hours a day. Once a person reaches a certain level, he finds Torah study the greatest joy, as King David said, it was his “plaything.” He no longer thinks about any “obligation” to study Torah, in the same manner as a person does not look at a long awaited vacation as an obligation. 

Every Jewish man is obligated to study Torah, whether he is poor or rich, whether his body is healthy and whole or afflicted by difficulties, whether he is young or an old man whose strength has diminished. Even if he is a poor man who derives his livelihood from charity and begs from door to door, even if he is a husband and [a father of] children, he must establish a fixed time for Torah study during the day and at night, as [Joshua 1:8] commands: "You shall think about it day and night." (Ibid. 1:8)

It is interesting that the Torah verse obligating one in Torah study mentions “day and night.” What is this lesson? This teaches that Torah study differs from all other commands. Other commands are discreet actions. But Torah study is an ongoing involvement.