The Command of Torah Study

Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim  

In his heading of “Laws of Torah Study”, Maimonides formulates the law as 2 positive commands: 

1) to study Torah

2) to honor Torah’s teachers and those who know Torah

It is then strange that in his commencing law 1:1 he begins with those who are exempt from Torah study, as opposed to starting with those who are obligated, as he does regarding Prayer: “It is a positive Torah commandment to pray every day” (Prayer 1:1). But Laws of Torah Study 1:1 reads as follows:

Women, slaves, and minors are free from the obligation of Torah study. Nevertheless, a father is obligated to teach his son Torah while he is a minor, as it states, “And you shall teach them to your sons to speak about them” (Deut. 11:19).

Rabbi Reuven Mann answered: “Learning and teaching Torah are not 2 separate mitzvot, but the obligation to teach is part of the very mitzvah of Talmud Torah.” Maimonides says this: 

 It is a mitzvah for each and every wise man to teach all students, even though they are not his children (Talmud Torah 1:2).

In 1:1 Maimonides prioritizes the teaching element over Torah Study itself, as perpetuating Torah is the true goal of Torah Study. Torah is not just for “me,” but for “mankind.” Torah study finds its objective in the greatest good, and that is only when the most people benefit. Teaching is then the focal point of Torah study. 

But it is not only to reach the greater quantity of people, but the quality of Torah must be cared for:

If a person wants to study Torah and he has a son whom he should teach Torah, his [study] takes priority over [that of] his son. If his son is wiser and a more creative thinker and thus capable of understanding what he studies more than he [himself], his son is given priority. (Ibid. 1:4)

Torah teachers must take this lesson to heart: we must be deeply careful to present Torah in a beautiful manner, where we share beautiful concepts and make them clear to our students. We should not give simplistic or mediocre explanations for any part of Torah, as God is not simplistic or mediocre. But we must diligently study and search for brilliance, and only then teach. Otherwise, keep it “under your tongue.” We are not to teach Torah to hear our voices. We are to teach Torah in a manner where the ideas amaze our students, and nothing less. 

Later in 1:8 Maimonides then addresses one’s personal Torah study:

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 which terminate. But Torah study is an ongoing involvement. It’s not a discreet act, but a lifestyle. Torah is to occupy our minds “day and night,” a duration. The Torah verse in Joshua is perfect, and makes this clear. This is an essential lesson. Another benefit of focusing on Torah throughout the day and night is that Torah’s very design requires sustained thought and consideration, to uncover its mysteries and deep, beautiful concepts.

Finally, what is Maimonides’ second element of this mitzvah, “To honor Torah’s teachers and those who know Torah”? How does this form part of the mitzvah of Torah study?

Just as a person is commanded to honor his father and hold him in awe, so, too, is he obligated to honor his [Torah] teacher and hold him in awe. The measure of honor and awe due one's teacher exceeds that due one's father. [For] his father brings him into the life of this world, while his teacher, who teaches him wisdom, brings him into the life of the world to come.

There is no greater honor than that due a teacher, and no greater awe than that due a teacher. Our Sages declared, “Your fear of your teacher should be equivalent to your fear of Heaven.” Therefore, they said, “Whoever disputes the authority of his teacher is considered as if he revolts against the Divine Presence.”

Torah study cannot be separated from its teachers: the entity of Torah is its transmission by teachers. To perpetuate Torah, we maintain great honor for teachers, and this exalted status we maintain helps teachers be respected and received by the nation. It helps spread Torah.