Sunday 31 January 2016

070) Remember The Last Time Someone Called Someone a Rodef:

(This article was written on 27/01/2016, but the writer was asked to withhold publication till now.)

Last Friday night there was reported to be a police raid on the compound in South Africa where Rabbi Eliezer Berland and hundreds of his followers were staying. Some say the police special unit, or Hawks, were involved, but they were unable to arrest the rabbi who is wanted on alleged sexual abuse charges.

According to the religious group’s official website, a local rabbinic leader had this to say about the raid:

“Ironically, the very same people who stand behind the Shabbos Project are the ones responsible for the most profound desecration of the holy Shabbos...

“The police later confessed that while they did not have an arrest warrant nor a search warrant, they were following the orders of the Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi of Johannesburg Warren Goldstein son of the Supreme Court Judge Ezra Goldstein. Rabbi Goldstein who stands behind the influential Shabbos Project supposedly assumes that “Keeping It Together” is something that should be done in one’s own community and with people who think like him, but when feeling threatened by influential figures from a different community especially when they are leading on “their turf” then “Break It Apart” more accurately defines the expected behavior...

“The Shulachan Aruch Choshen Mishpat chapter 388 speaks extensively on the halachic status of a rodef, a person who goes and tries to imprison his fellow in the hands of non-jews, there is a Mitzvah to kill him before he can carry out his plot.

“...They have a halachik status of a rodef.[1]

People reading this may not be entirely aware of the implicit danger in labelling someone a rodef.

In classical Jewish law the concepts of a rodef (a ‘pursuer’ – who either threatens the life or property of a fellow Jew) and moser (one who ‘turns over’ a Jew to non-Jewish authorities) go hand in hand.
Both rodef and moser need to be physically eliminated before they can carry out their evil intentions.

Historically, the legal statuses of both rodef and moser were formulated at a time when the Jewish people were living under hostile domination and needed to be vigilant against surveillance from informers within their own ranks.

For centuries these concepts were essentially dormant and existed primarily in theoretical jurisprudence. Amazingly only around 1994 did some rabbinical figures begin to revive these legal categorizations with particular reference to President Yitzchak Rabin. They believed his politics were putting Jewish lives at risk and that he therefore fitted the profiles of rodef and moser, and had to be killed. This interpretation required some extrapolation because the original law of rodef was not intended to be used in the political arena.

Yet, many influential leaders in the rabbinical world (although they denied it later), believed so strongly that Rabin qualified as a technical rodef that they ruled that there was no need to go through a court or Beit Din, and that a death sentence could be carried out by any Jew who felt bound by Jewish law. This in effect declared open season on Rabin.

Within a short period of time the issues of rodef and moser were common knowledge and openly discussed and debated all around the world. We all know what happened next when a young devotee named Yigal Amir simply carried all this quasi halachik rhetoric to its inevitable conclusion.

The actual moment of granting rabbinic endorsement to Amir, is described by a source to Shabak, Israel Security Agency as follows: “...not a word passed between Amir and the rabbi he had chosen to soon as Amir entered his office, the rabbi exited through a second door. Left on a lectern in the middle of the room, however, was a copy of the Talmud open to the Sanhedrin Tractate, Chapter 49, in which the ancient sages discussed the biblical passage...from which din rodef derived. Amir understood the cue, read the page of the Talmud and went on his way.”[2]

Two days into the week of mourning for assassinated President Rabin, prominent settler Rabbi Yoel Bin-Nun stood up and publically declared; “If rabbis had not (sanctioned  the murder), no youngster would have dared to do such a thing...If these people whose rulings or words led to Rabin’s death do not reveal themselves...I myself will reveal their identity!”[3]

What’s frightening is that twenty or so years later, on another continent, people in positions of rabbinical authority have not learned the dangers of reinstating that selfsame obsolete and theoretical law that didn’t take long to find a willing cohort to carry it out to its unspeakable conclusion.

It must be pointed out that details of the raid are still unclear and there certainly is no evidence as to who ordered it. According to the website, the rabbi said; “...I am not certain who sent the police” – but then goes on to implicate and name those for whom he clearly has no evidence of any involvement in the raid! This is grossly irresponsible to say the least. And then to declare them a rodef is incitive in the extreme.

I implore all those who use terms like rodef or moser as designations for those whose views they are well entitled to disagree with, to retract their dangerous terminology before some other devotee thinks he too can act in the name of G-d.

[1] See full article here
[2] Murder In The Name Of G-d. The Plot To Kill Yitzchak Rabin, by Michael Karpin and Ina Friedman, p. 129
[3] Ibid. P. 121

Monday 25 January 2016

069) Cigarettes and Halacha Don't Mix:

I finally found a clear, definitive and intelligent piece of writing about smoking and halacha. It’s from the Peninei Halacha, and it’s halacha like you’ve never seen it before.[1]
What follows is my loose translation and summary of the Hebrew text:


In the past, doctors actually thought that smoking was healthy for a person. They often even recommended smoking a pipe, believing it aided in the digestion of food. It seems as if it they may have been correct, but they never knew that additionally smoking brings with it a host of other evils.

Already in the days of the Chafetz Chaim[2] (1839-1933), doctors were beginning to better understand that smoking could have negative and even fatal consequences. More than one hundred years ago, based on the available medical information of that era, the Chafetz Chaim prohibited habitual smoking. However, until more recently, most rabbis did not regard his prohibition as absolute, and considered it instead as an advisory.


Only within the last few decades has the consensus of medical opinion clearly and beyond any doubt, concluded that smoking is very dangerous.

Today we have to say that as a result of contemporary medical evidence, halacha dictates that smoking is absolutely prohibited, not just by rabbinic but by Torah law (as anything threatening health or life automatically assumes the weight of a Torah prohibition).[3] By extension, even a smoker has a Torah obligation to stop smoking.

Some even consider smoking prohibited under the proscription of suicide.

Smoking ‘hubbly bubbly’ would also be included in this prohibition as it has been shown to cause cancer and heart disease.

SCIENTIFIC STUDIES (Remember these are brought in a halachik sefer, not a medical journal!):

Smoking can cause three distinct illnesses:

1)      It can affect the lungs through bronchitis and emphysema, preventing them from absorbing oxygen. Most time this leads to a decline in physical fitness and sometimes even causes death.

2)      It can cause heart disease. Approximately one out of every four people who die as a result of a heart attack is a smoker.

3)      It can cause cancer. Comprehensive studies have concluded that smoking is one of the main causes of cancer. A smoker is twice more susceptible to contracting cancer than a non-smoker. Furthermore a smoker is seven times more likely to contract lung cancer than a non-smoker.

A scientific study has shown that a non-smoking spouse has three times more chance of contracting cancer from their smoking spouse, than a non-smoking spouse.

A study by an insurance company in America found that the mortality rate amongst forty-five year old smokers is 80 percent higher than amongst non-smokers of the same age. When it came to sixty year olds, the rate increased by 125 percent.

Another insurance company study showed that a smoker was more likely to have a motorcar accident than a non-smoking counterpart, because smoking affects the haemoglobin which limits the quantity of oxygen to the lungs thereby reducing the judgement capability of the driver. As a result of this study the company upped their premiums for smokers.

As a result of these relatively recent health findings, there is no question that halacha has to mirror them.


With regard to the issue of whether or not one can ask a smoker to refrain from smoking in the vicinity, there are some halachik guidelines:

A person may do as he or she pleases in their own home and a guest has no right to request that the homeowner stop smoking. Similarly, a visitor may not smoke if the homeowner requests of the visitors not to smoke.

The Talmud[4] has long since established the principle that smoke in general (from whatever source) is considered a halachik form of damage. This means that a person who causes smoke to penetrate into the neighbour’s property can be liable for damage and disturbance. (It’s interesting to note that halachikly smoke was always considered something damaging.)

An individual therefore has the right to ask a neighbour to extinguish a fire that is producing smoke that causes annoyance to others in the vicinity. Based on this halachik precedent it would be quite reasonable to ask another to kindly refrain from smoking in a public place. The same thing would apply to office workers who may similarly request their fellow workers not smoke in their shared space.

Even if a person has been habitually smoking in a particular public space for a long time, fellow citizens still maintain their rights to request the offender move to a place further away.


Smoking does still occur in many yeshivas throughout the world. It’s interesting to see that Rav Tzvi Yehudah HaCohen Kook banned smoking in his yeshiva, Merkaz HaRav. Most students of that institution never smoked! (Apparently his letter requesting no smoking is still hanging at the entrance to the study hall.)

With the passage of time, The Ponnevitzer Yeshiva also banned cigarette smoking in their institution, and Rabbi Moshe Feinstein issued a ruling that it is prohibited to smoke in a study hall or synagogue because it disturbs others.


The good news is that when a person gives up smoking, after ten years the chances of contracting heart disease is about the same as a regular non-smoker - and after fifteen years the high risk of contracting cancer is also reduced to that of a regular person.

In the 1960’s, when studies exposing the dangers of smoking began to be publicised, sixty-four percent of all doctors were active smokers. And ten years later, the number of doctors who were still smoking, was reduced to sixteen percent.

We have a responsibility to actively educate young people not to smoke before they reach a ‘point of no return’ and become addicted to nicotine.  We should also protest against religious news papers that advertise cigarettes, as smoking is clearly a Torah prohibition.


Outside of Peninei Halacha, there are other references that may be of interest:


In 1964, after the Surgeon General published his findings on the health risks of cigarette smoking, Rabbi Feinstein came out with the following ruling (loose translation and paraphrase):

“The truth is that one should not smoke. However since there are very many who do smoke, including Gedolim, it is difficult to say that smoking is an absolute prohibition. We have to conclude, therefore, that smokers fit in to the category of shomer pesaim Hashem, where ‘G-d watches over fools[5]’”.[6] 

Later on in the 1980’s, though, he did take a sharper view on the issue, and while not forbidding it, strongly advised against starting to smoke in the first instance. Apparently his son, Rabbi David Feinstein said that had his father been more aware of the medical dangers of smoking, he certainly would have prohibited the habit.


As time moved on and the world got used to the idea that smoking was dangerous, many poskim changed their rulings and became less accommodating towards smokers.[7]


During the 1970’s one of the first rabbis to clearly prohibit smoking, was Rabbi Chaim David HaLevi, Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv. He went so far as to tell children to disobey their parents if they were asked to purchase cigarettes for them.[8]


In the 1980’s, Rabbi Aaron Soloveichick ruled that there is no way we could ever permit smoking in our day and age given the vast scientific data currently available.


Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Aurbach, believed a smoker fell into the category of a chovel (someone who intentionally injures himself) and said: “I make known that I have never joined with those who believe that smoking is permitted in our days.”[9]


An intriguing ruling, by Rabbi Yaakov Etlinger, involves the concept of permitting a possible dangerous activity if there is more than a fifty percent chance that one will emerge unscathed. In the early days some used this as a justification to permit smoking as it was still considered a relatively ‘safe’ practice. However, nowadays, with overwhelming evidence that fifty percent of smokers will die prematurely (never mind the other non-lethal side effects), his ruling takes on a distinctly different meaning.[10]


There is no doubt that there is today an overwhelming body of scientific and halachik evidence militating against smoking. 

Even Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, writing as far back as the late 1700’s, said; “Don’t get into the habit of is of no benefit whatever and can be hazardous.”[11]

-But he also said; “Never get drunk. Be careful never to drink more than your capacity...excessive drinking and drunkenness lead to harshness, anger impurity and evil.”[12]

I eagerly wait for more publication of scientific and halachik research into the dangers of drinking which, it could be argued, has become systemic in sectors of our community, and may be just as damaging as smoking.[13]

[1] Peninei Halacha by Rabbi Eliezer Melamed, Likkutim 2, p. 199, Section 7 Ch. 8
[2] Rabbi Israel Meir Kagan.
[3] See Tzitz Eliezer 15,39 and see Aseh Lecha Rav 2,1
[4] Bava Batra 23a
[5] In a fascinating interpretation of the Terumat Deshen, G-d’s protection is only over ‘fools’ and not scholars who should know better.
[6] See Igrot Moshe, Yoreh Deah vol. 2, 49
[7] These included Rav Elyashiv, Rav Ovadia Yosef, Tzitz Eliezer.
[8] Shu’t Aseh Lecha Rav vol. 2,1
[9] See Minchat Shlomo, vol. 2, 58
[10] See Binyan Tzion, vol. 1, 137
[11] Tzadik #427
[12] Siach Sarfei Kodesh 1, 151
[13] I thank Dr Stanley Tenzer for his input and help with some of the medical and other issues this article touched on.

Tuesday 12 January 2016

068) Outspoken Rabbinical Views Claiming That The Torah Recorded Superstitions Of Its Day:

I don’t know anyone who has the monopoly on truth, but I will listen to everyone who has an aversion to untruths. For me one such person I will always take note of is Rabbi Professor Marc Shapiro. His research into, knowledge of, and love for, Torah texts is infectious. 

In this article I shall share and elaborate on one of his essays, where he shows that many of our rabbis held the view that the Torah often referred to superstitious belief systems that it was prepared to record but not endorse.[1]  According to this view, the Torah granted certain ‘concessions’ to a generation that was just emerging from a golden age of idolatry and superstition while grappling with the notion of untainted monotheism.


Most notably, Rabbi Joseph Ibn Caspi stands out as a great flag bearer for this hypothesis. Rabbi Professor Isadore Twersky[3] summarises the philosophy of Ibn Caspi as follows:

“...not every Scriptural statement is true in the absolute sense...
Many Scriptural statements...are seen as errors, superstitions, popular conceptions, local mores, folk beliefs, and customs (minhag bene adam)...rather than an abstract truth.
The Torah expressed things as they were believed or perceived or practiced by the multitudes and not as they were in actuality.
(The principle of) Leshon bene adam (where the rabbis said that the ‘Torah speaks in the language of men’) is...a wholesale adoption of mass views and local customs...The Torah did not endorse or validate these views; it merely recorded them...”[4]

In other words, according to Caspian thought, the Torah recorded many mistaken beliefs of the masses but never intended to authenticate them.

Marc Shapiro gives two examples of mistaken beliefs that are recorded in the Torah. The first is the story of Rachel and Leah’s conviction that mandrakes (or dudaim) could help with conception.[5] And the second is the famous instruction, during the Exodus narrative, to place blood on the doorposts. According to Ibn Caspi this was a result of an ancient superstition that blood had supernatural qualities.[6]

Accordingly, although the Torah recorded these and many similar false notions, it never necessarily sought to endorse them.

I found a number of other references to Ibn Caspi who steadfastly held the view that most people, particularly in ancient times, were naturally superstitious:

“...a religious community is essentially divided into two classes; the ‘common people’ (hamon am) and the ‘selected individuals’ (yechidei segulah). Whereas the first group is constituted of the masses who are incapable of philosophical reflection, the second is comprised of the few who think freely and are independent of superstition.”[7]

“The command of sacrifice (of Isaac) involves a strong echo of ancient Near Eastern traditions of child sacrifice. That’s why the name Elokim is used (predominantly) in the narrative. The usage of the name Ad-ny is also inserted to hint to the true meaning of the story (that Judaism prohibits human sacrifice).”[8]

In one of his most astounding writings on Vayikra (Leviticus), Ibn Caspi says that he will not comment on the Torah portions dealing with sacrifices, because “ is well known that Moshe Rabbenu was coerced into writing them since G-d doesn’t really want sacrifices. They were only meant to accommodate that generation...and there is no harm in not mastering those the commentary of Rashi is sufficient.”


Ibn Caspi may have been influenced by the earlier writings of Rambam[9], who, as a general rule held that the anthropomorphic descriptions of G-d (i.e. G-d possessing human characteristics such as anger etc) were originally meant to be taken literally by the masses. This was what is known as emunot hechrechiyot velo amitiyot or ‘necessary but untrue beliefs’ which, although the leaders of Israel themselves did not adopt, the people did, until such time as they were ready for a more figurative, purer and deeper comprehension of G-d.[10] [11]

According to Shem Tov[12], this meant that the Torah originally intended for the populace to adopt an untruth until such time as they could be weaned off their previous and less sophisticated belief systems.

This is what Shem Tov says;

“The Torah required the people to believe in some of these ‘necessary beliefs’ although they were not true. These were directed towards the simple people. The wise, however, would understand that ‘the Torah spoke in the language of men.’”

I shall now paraphrase a fascinating Rambam:

“It is impossible to suddenly go from the extreme of idolatry to the extreme of pure monotheism - since it is impossible to abruptly change the theology with which one has been raised. Therefore some elements of idolatrous worship were incorporated into the service of the early Israelites, including sacrifice and incense.

Were this concession not allowed for, it would have been tantamount, hypothetically, to a modern day prophet suddenly commanding us to desist from prayer as we know it, to abandon our fasts, reject all our ritual – and only worship G-d with our minds.

This is why G-d allowed us to mimic our preconception of what religion was, by building a Temple, erect an altar, elect priests, offer sacrifices and burn incense.”

The Rambam, as if reading our minds, adds; “I know that initially you will reject these views, and find them strange, but in reality it is contrary to man’s nature to suddenly abandon the perceptions on which one was raised.”[13]


For the sake of completion and intellectual honesty, I would have to point out that many did not agree with this view of Rambam and his followers. One such example is the Raavad[14] who famously supports a more literal and rigid interpretation of the Torah.  He vehemently challenges Rambam by writing; “Why does Rambam call someone (who adopts a literal perception of G-d by believing that He can get angry, or has some form of corporeality) a heretic? - Many men, even greater and better than Rambam believed it due to what they saw in the verses[15].”

The Raavad is saying that since every word of the Torah emanates from G-d, no one should have the audacity to claim they can reinterpret its words. He challenges the very notion that the Torah, as it stands, is not ‘good enough’ for an intelligent and developed people.


In the book Kadmoniyot HaHalacha by Rabbi Samuel Moshe Rubenstein, however, a similar idea to that of the Rambam is also put forward. He speaks about what we would call ‘monolatry’ (from the words monotheism and idolatry), where the populace acknowledged the existence of many gods but only served One G-d.

This view, explains Rabbi Shapiro, was predominant among Bnei Yisrael during the biblical period. This means that when they worshipped other gods they were not necessarily rejecting the G-d of Israel, but including Him in their conglomeration of other deities.

He cites from Kadmoniyot HaHalacha (translation of original text is the writers):

“In numerous places in the Torah we find reference to statements like; ‘a great and mighty G-d’ (as opposed to the others gods who were not so mighty) – ‘the G-d of gods’ – ‘the merciful G-d’ (as opposed, again to the other gods, who were not so merciful).
But we need to understand clearly that this was only according to the view of the masses. And the leaders (of Israel) had to speak according to the understanding of the populace. They themselves, however, did not espouse of such views.”[16]

So, again, here we have a similar notion that the Torah recorded concepts that may not have been what it considered to be absolute truths, and instead ‘spoke in the language of men’.


The following is an extract from Rabbi Shimshon Rephael Hirsch, who takes a similar approach:

“Jewish scholarship has never regarded the Bible as a textbook for physical or even abstract doctrines...the Bible does not describe things in terms of objective truths known only to God, but in terms of human understanding...The Bible (for example) uses human language when it speaks of the ‘rising and setting of the sun’ and not the rotation of the earth...”[17]


I was always taught that for pragmatic reasons, the Torah had to address itself to the ‘lowest common denominator’, otherwise it would have spoken above the heads of the very people who were charged with the task of transmitting it to the next generation.

However, I am very aware that some of these interpretations will not sit well with other people, who may counter that the views presented here (including Ibn Caspi, Rambam, Rabbi Hirsch and Rabbi Twersky) are from what they would call the ‘periphery’ of Jewish thought. (For them, I included the view of the Raavad.)

But one needs to remember, though, that depending on one’s current standpoint, peripheries are often interchangeable. So much of our Judaism today has developed out of concepts that were very peripheral to classical Judaism.[18]

In the final analysis, I strongly believe that everything and anything that is Torah source based, merits not necessarily our blind acceptance but at least our attention.

Perhaps this is the reason for Moshe’s ‘stutter’ as he contemplated what he could, as opposed to what he knew he should, say.

[2] RABBI JOSEPH  IBN CASPI  (1279-1340):
The philosophy of Rabbi Joseph Ibn Caspi is as intriguing as the man himself. He was born in Largentiére, Southern France, a place famous for its silver mines. Hence his name ‘Caspi’ (of kesef or silver). It’s interesting to note that if you look up the village of Largentiére, the only famous personality Wikipedia records as a product of that village, happens to be Ibn Caspi, whose real name was En Bonafoux de L’Argentiére.

Starting at the age of seventeen he authored twenty nine books, most of them ending with the word Kesef (such as Adnei Kesef). He was a great traveller and one of his journeys took him to Egypt, where he hoped to study under the tutorage of the descendants of Rambam who had passed way some seventy five years earlier.
To his great disappointment, though, he found the family members to be ‘more pious than learned’.

Rabbi Twersky (1930-1997) was a Harvard professor for thirty years and also succeeded his father as the Talner Rebbe (a branch of the Chernobyl Chassidim) for the last twenty years of his life. He was a son-in-law of Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchick.
He never underwent a formal yeshiva training, but attended a prestigious public school and was taught privately by a melamed hired by his father.
He is credited with creating an environment, within Harvard University, that was conducive and accommodating to orthodox students. And is said to have achieved this by using ‘honey’ instead of ‘vinegar’.
The irony of his rational Harvard career (and his interest in the rationalism of the Rishonim) juxtaposed against his mystical Chassidic background has fascinatingly been described as a means of seeing the spiritual within the rational.  He was affectionately known as Rebbe Professor Twersky.

[4] ‘Joseph Ibn Kaspi: Portrait of a Medieval Jewish Intellectual’, in Twersky, ed. Studies in Medieval Jewish History and Literature (Cambridge. 1979) pp.239-241.
[5] See Ber. 30, 14-17
[6] See Matzref Kesef, p. 137
[7] See The Binding of Isaac – A Religious Model of Disobedience, by Omri Boehm, p. 59
[8] ibid. P. 64

[9] I originally inferred this as an assumption, until a Rosh Yeshiva friend, Rabbi C Finkelstein pointed out that Rambam’s works must have been well known in France at the time of Ibn Caspi. He cited the fact that in 1242, twenty four cartloads of Talmud were publically burned in the streets of Paris. This was seen by some (notably Rabbi Hillel of Verona) as a ‘retribution’ for the burning of Rambam’s books, a mere eight years before, in 1234 by Jews opposed his philosophy, who handed the books over Dominican monks. Rambam passed away in 1204, and Ibn Caspi was born seventy five years later in Southern France, in 1279. This proves that the books of Rambam were already in France before Ibn Caspi was born.

[10] See Limits of Orthodox Theology pp. 68-69, by Rabbi Marc Shapiro.
[11] Guide 3,28

[12] Shem Tov ben Yosef ibn Falkira (1225-1290) was one of the first commentators on Rambam’s Guide to the Perplexed (despite the fact that in the Guide, Rambam urged people to read it without the inevitable commentaries.) Shem Tov wanted to encourage observant Jews to study philosophy and not see it as a contradiction to religious thinking. He was one of the first Rishonim to try disseminate the rationalist view common at that time to a more general audience instead of just the intellectually elite.

[13] Loose translation and paraphrase of the Guide, Part 3, ch.32.  I thank Rabbi Finkelstein for pointing this source out to me.
[14] Rabbi Avraham ben David, known as Raavad (1125-1198).
[15] i.e. verses like “The hand of G-d” etc.

Rambam and Raavad also argued about the nature of the Resurrection of the Dead concept: Rambam rejected a physical resurrection but believed in a spiritual and intellectual one. Raavad wrote; “The words of this man seem close to one who says that there is no bodily resurrection of the dead, but only of the soul. -By my life, this is not the view of the sages.” (On Yad, Teshuvah 8,2)

There is amazing piece from Rav Kook who sides with the Raavad on this issue and says; “As long as the one (who views G-d physically) does not actually create a statue or picture...he remains within the spiritual camp (and is not a heretic). Shmoneh Ketzavim 1,31

Surprisingly, (according to Hakirah, the Flatbush Journal of Jewish Law and Thought, Was Rashi a Corporealist? By Rabbi Natan Slifkin, p.82) there were many Talmudists and Rishonim who believed that G-d incorporated some form of corporeality, including the majority of Torah scholars in Northern France.

[16] Kadmoniyot HaHalacha, Kovno, 1926 pp. 44-45 (Translation is the writer’s).
[17] See Collected Writings, vol. 7, p. 57

[18] See KOTZKBLOG 54) where the Yarmulka, which has today become sacrosanct, had almost no relevance in Talmudic times.
See KOTZK BLOG 67) where paying for Torah, which is today quite common, was regarded as an anathema in classical times.
See KOTZK BLOG 61) where the modern full-time Kollel system has no real template in our earlier history.

Sunday 3 January 2016

067) Paying People To Study Torah?

In this article we will trace the development of the halachik attitude towards paying people to study Torah. (What follows is a loose translation and paraphrase of Peninei Halacha.[1])

Turning to First Principles, it is absolutely clear that Torah study has to be for the purist of motives without any semblance of financial gain or any other type of reward. One should certainly not use Torah study as a means of sustaining oneself financially, as that would be considered to be a misappropriation of its sanctity.[2]

So, in theory, there is to be no connection whatsoever between Torah study and any form of compensation for it.

This would require the Torah scholar to have to take care of his sustenance himself. The Talmud in fact praises the scholar who works with his own hands so as to sustain himself.[3]


The vast majority of Talmudic sages adhered strictly to these principles. Among them, for example, were Hillel HaZaken who chopped wood, Shimon HaPakoli who made cotton wool, Rabbi Yochanan HaSandlar who sewed sandals, and Rav Pappa who planted trees.

The community did aid these scholars to a degree, by facilitating the purchasing their wares, but not through direct payment to them without some form of legitimate transaction.


After the Talmudic period, the body of Torah literature began to expand dramatically in terms of sheer volume of learning material. In Talmudic times the scholarly emphasis was on analytical depth and broad principles whereas in the period of the Rishonim it shifted more to details[4]. And as we moved into the period of the Acharonim this expansion grew even more.

As a result of this great growth of literature, it was no longer possible to become a scholar unless one dedicated the entire day to amassing all this knowledge. This precluded the practicality of a culture of work, and gave rise to an environment where communities had to start supporting their Torah scholars.
During the period of the Rishonim, the vast majority of rabbis continued to sustain themselves by their own means.[5] However, we find that at the end of that period, the ideal of the scholar sustaining himself was rapidly fading, and regarded as a rare ‘gift’ and exceptional ‘midat chasidut’.[6] It was no longer possible for it to be considered the norm.

For this reason, the halachik authorities or Poskim started ruling (against First Principles) that a scholar should now be sustained by the communities, otherwise we would run the risk of losing sufficiently qualified Torah teachers. This type of halachik ruling became even more accentuated in the era of the Acharonim, where they said that even if a scholar (who was actively involved in the dissemination of Torah) had the ability to sustain himself, it would be considered sinful (‘avon hu beyadam’) if they did NOT accept payment from the community.[7]


Even during the era of the Rishonim, there were many who weren’t happy with the way these new trends were developing.

One such outspoken individual was the Rambam who wrote; “Anyone who even thinks of studying Torah without working, and being sustained instead by charity, causes a desecration of G-d’s name...because it is absolutely forbidden to receive compensation for Torah study...And any Torah that is not accompanied by work, will ultimately not be worth anything and will eventually cause a person to steal from others.”[8] 


Most others, however, were of the opinion that from a strictly halachik position, it was quite within the parameters of the law to pay rabbis as long as it was not a direct remuneration for services rendered, but rather along the lines of an ‘opportunity cost’ (sechar batalah).
This meant that you were compensating for an opportunity the rabbis would be missing, as a result of them studying instead of working.

This reasoning is particularly appropriate today, considering the great demands made by communities that expect the best scholarship from their rabbis who, now more than ever before, have so much more material to study and master.[9]


It is very important to point out that this expediency of paying scholars an ‘opportunity cost’, is ONLY to those who are ‘marbitzei Torah’ - i.e. those who are actively involved not just in the study of Torah but in the DISSEMINATION of Torah teachings.

This would not apply to those who only want to be involved in full time study, without contributing of their knowledge to others.[10] (There is a significant and growing segment of the Torah population today who fall into this category.) These people have no halachik basis to claim communal funding for their endeavours and the onus is on them to work in order to sustain themselves. (!)

As to the category of young yeshivah students, the responsibility is upon the community to provide scholarships to enable them to study. However, once they have obtained a reasonable amount of Torah skills and knowledge, it is forbidden for them to continue relying on such funding. The exceptional students ideally need to go into the rabbinate or learn some profession that will allow them to support themselves, and the others should acquire job skills that will make them employable.


According to the Midrash[11] the tribe of Yisachar provided the Jewish people with 200 great courts of law. They were only able to achieve this because of the ‘partnership’ they formed with the tribe of Zevulun, who agreed to engage in trade in order to support their compatriots.

According to many, this formed the basis of a ‘Yissachar and Zevulun’ relationship that persists to this day, where people go out to work in order to support Torah scholars. This entitles the ‘worker partner’ to receive an equal share in the Torah that the ‘scholar partner’ has studied.

An interesting caveat, however, exists in that the ‘investor’ has to have been involved throughout the entire process of the scholar’s learning career.  He cannot simply come along at the end and pay to become a partner.[12]
It also needs to be pointed out that in order to become a ‘partner’, the ‘investor’ cannot just donate charity here and there to Torah institutions, but has to take care of the entire financial needs of the scholar he chooses to partner with.

He also has to enter into a formal agreement with the scholar. Some even go so far as to enter into a signed agreement with each other.[13]


In stark contrast to all this is the view of Rav Hai Gaon, who rejects any form of commercialisation of Torah study, even if both partners are sincere, because he maintains that Torah is not a commodity that can be traded with and it cannot be bought or sold.

He is so against this type of thinking and believes it is damaging to the person who mistakenly thinks that the complex system of Torah can be short-circuited by applying businesslike strategies.


Living in an age where Torah institutions and scholars are many and plentiful and in era where the expansion of Torah literature has grown exponentially, it is important not to lose sight of the original ethos that created the very concept of Torah study in the first place.

Today, when there are more people studying Torah than ever before, and while we enjoy the success of flourishing learning institutions, we need to constantly check to ensure that we are still aligned with the spirit of First Principles and not let monetary expediencies cloud that endeavor.


The following are extracts from contemporary Yisachar and Zevulun documents that may be of interest:

"As is written in the holy sefer Ohr Hachaim, as well as in the Ksav Sofer and other prominent Jewish compositions – the learner does not loose his merit of Torah studying, while the donor receives full reward for the learning."

The truth, however, is that this document omits the many views that suggest that the portion of the scholar is halved and that the 'investor' similarly only receives a halved portion.

Here is an extract from a well marketed campaign to attract more 'investors':

"At Kollel (name removed by this writer), we provide you with the opportunity to enter into a personal Yissaschar - Zevulun partnership with one of our dedicated Torah scholars. His Torah study becomes your personal heavenly advocate. Together, you sign a contract in which the Torah scholar agrees to share the eternal reward of his Torah study in exchange for your financial support. In other words by giving him the opportunity to learn, he will be learning for the two of you. 

It's a win-win situation. You gain in two ways: the spiritual reward of your partner's Torah study in addition to the Almighty's blessing of material success for those who support Torah study."

UPDATE 2016/01/08

Here is another interesting Rambam:

Rambam sharply criticized the notion that Jews must financially help people study Torah: 

"All this is wrong. There is not a single word, either in the Torah or in the sayings of the [Talmudic] sages, to lend credence to it... for as we look into the sayings of the Talmudic sages, we do not find that they ask people for money, nor did they collect money for the honorable and cherished academies." 
[Commentary to Avot 4:5] 

[1] Likkutim 1, p.35  ch. 17; Parnasat Talmidei Chachamim.
[2] Avot 4,5. See commentary of Rambam and Bartenura.
[3] Berachot 8a.
[4] In the earlier generations when scholars were more concerned with depth as opposed to breadth, they welcomed the type of work they did as it had a repetitive and meditative effect on them enabling them to develop their concepts while they were working. This became difficult in later generations when the focus was more on breadth and required a different type of mind skill. Also, one needs to remember that market forces changed drastically as we moved into the modern era, and it became more and more difficult to sustain oneself by the types of jobs (e.g. chopping wood) that were popular and lucrative in earlier times. 
[5] This excludes those rabbis who took positions of communal leadership, who did receive remuneration (if they were not already men of means through their own doing). This was in order to allow such leaders a degree of dignity.
[6] See Beit Yosef and Ramo on Yoreh Deah 246, 21
[7] See Shach on Yoreh Deah 246, 20
[8] Rambam, Hilchot Talmud Torah 3, 10
[9] There are even references going back to Talmudic times where rabbis in positions of leadership and judges were remunerated. See  Ketuvot 105 a
[10] There is one exception to this, namely a philanthropist who of his own volition decides to fund fulltime learning. Such funding would not be considered ‘charity’, as the community has not been pressurised into contributing financially.  This would, however, only be in accordance with the letter of the law but not its spirit.
[11] Bereshit Rabbah 72.
It must be remembered that the source for the Yisachar-Zevulun partnership is from the Midrash and not the Talmud. None of the early halachik authorities including Rif, Rambam and Rosh consider this partnership to be permissible. Rabbenu Yerucham was the first to endorse such an agreement.
It is also of interest to note that according to Shulchan Aruch HaRav, the only time such a partnership would be valid is in a case where the mental capacity of the ‘investor’ is diminished so that he is unable to study for himself.
[12] This is what Shavna, Hillel’s brother tried in vain to do in order to acquire a half share in Hillel’s learning. He did not help his brother during the years Hillel battled poverty while trying to learn Torah.
[13] There is also much debate as to whether or not the reward of the scholar is halved as a result of the partnership. According to the Netziv, his ‘Torah share’ is actually halved - and according to Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin this mesiras nefesh (dedication) is the price he pays for the honour of full time study. However, according to Chida both partners receive an equal share, as Torah is like the flame of a candle which does not get reduced as it passes from one to another.
[14] These parting thoughts are my own and no longer a paraphrase of Peninei Halacha.