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.

1 comment:

  1. There's an Igros Moshe 7:32 or 36 that explains this rambam and says he's discussing a midas chasidus.