Do “Yissocher-Zevulun” Partnerships Actually Work?

Page of Talmud

By Rabbi Eliezer Cohen, Rosh Kollel Ner Mizrach, Atlanta GA


Most people do not have sufficient time and financial resources to learn Torah as a full-time occupation. Of course, they certainly have a personal obligation to study Torah for at least a portion of each day. However, they may wish to go beyond the basic fulfillment of this Mitzvah and arrange a partnership with scholar studying in Kollel, whereby the one working commits to support the one learning full-time, and in return he receives half of the reward of the learning.

This is essentially the same arrangement that the Shevatim of Yisachar and Zevulun had as well, where Yisachar studied Torah, and Zevulun worked to support him.1 We must inquire however, how does this arrangement actually work? Is it really possible for one to accrue merit from the Torah learning performed by another individual?

Brotherly Support

The Gemara2 seems to deal with such an arrangement. The Gemara first cites the final portion of the following Pasuk in Shir HaShirim3: “If a person will offer all of his wealth for love, they will scorn him…” The Gemara assumes that the love mentioned here refers to Torah,4 and then cites the sage Ulla, who explains that the words “Boz Yavuzu Lo” – “they will scorn him”, do not refer to the case of Shimon, who was supported by his brother Azarya’s, or the case of Rabbi Yochanan who was supported by the house of the Nasi. Rather, the verse is scorning the arrangement that brothers Hillel and Shavna had with each other. Shavna, the businessman, would take half the reward of Hillel’s Torah study, in exchange of half of his business earnings. TheGemara writes that a Bas Kol – a Heavenly voice – emerged and cited the above Pasuk in Shir HaShirim.

The indication of this Gemara appears to be that even if Shavna would offer all of his wealth to Hillel, he could not purchase the Zechus of his brother’s Torah-learning. Based on this, one could conclude that a Yissochar-Zevulun partnership would not be effective in transferring the merit of Limud HaTorah from one individual to another. We must understand then, in which way is this different than Shimon and Azaria or Rabbi Yochanan’s arrangement.

Selling Heavenly Merits

The idea of buying and selling merits is already discussed by the Maharam Al-Ashkar5, one of the early Achronim. He inquires whether we can consider merits as tangible objects or property that may be bought and sold on the market. He cites a Teshuva from Rav Hai Gaon who writes that one cannot receive reward for Mitzvos and then sell it to another, and therefore such a sale would be null and void. Rav Hai Gaon concludes that buying another’s rewards or merits with money is considered a scoffery, supporting his contention with the aforementioned Pasuk as it is understood by the Gemara inSotah. Based on this Teshuva of Rav Hai, the Maharam Al-Ashkar also concludes that a person cannot sell or buy the Zechuyos of Mitzvos that he did not perform himself.

The Netziv6 discusses a similar question: A person who was considered to be a great man sold half of his Zechuyos for twenty-two thousand rubles, a very large sum. The buyer told a Talmid Chacham of this deal, which prompted the Talmid Chacham to inquire whether this seller was really such an eminent individual. He was answered by Heaven that was not really considered more than a regular, simple Jew in Shamayim! When the buyer heard this, he was very upset and wanted to nullify the sale and approached the Netziv with this issue.

The Netziv discusses the entire issue of selling Zechuyos and explains the Zechus of Limud HaTorah is impossible to sell. The basis for this, explains the Netziv, is that the Sachar of Limud HaTorah is that the person will merit to participate in the Yeshiva Shel Maalah – the Heavenly Bais Medrash – which will be a source of tremendous spiritual enjoyment and satisfaction to the individual. If an unworthy individual was to receive such a reward, it would only lead to shame and embarrassment, as he will be unable to participate in this Heavenly Torah-study.

In addition to the inability to transmit Sachar for Torah-study, the Netziv asserts that the Sachar for doing Mitzvos is also impossible to sell, as it is considered a “Davar Shelo Ba La’Olam”, an entity which has not yet come into existence, for which the Halacha is that a person cannot transfer ownership.

Before and After

We must understand then why the first cases mentioned in the Gemara: Shimon the brother of Azaria, and Rabbi Yochanan and the house of the Nasi, were indeed proper arrangements. Rashi explains that the arrangement between Shimon and Azaria was similar to that of Shavna and Hillel: Shimon went to learn Torah, while Azaria engaged in business. They agreed that Azaria would support Shimon, and thereby receive half of the Zechuyos of the Torah learning of his brother.

However, the major difference between these cases is spelled out in a passage of the Tur and the comments of the Bais Yosef. The Tur7 writes that every person is obligated to learn Torah to some degree every day and night, regardless of his financial status, health, or other factors. If he is unable to do so – either due to time constraints, or because he simply does not know how to do so – he should support other people that are learning, and it will be considered as if he is learning himself.

The Beis Yosef cites Rabbeinu Yerucham who elaborates that before the learning, one may make an arrangement with another individual that if one goes into business and supports the other’s Torah learning, he will also receive a portion of the reward for the learning, just like Yissochar and Zevulun. However, adds Rabbeinu Yerucham, if one had already learned Torah before making such an arrangement, one would not be able to buy into those merits, and that is the impossible sale that the Pasuk in Shir HaShirim, cited in the Gemara, is scorning. Rabbeinu Yerucham concludes that this is precisely what occurred with Hillel and Shavna: Shavna wished to acquire a portion of Hillel’s Torah after it was learned, which is ineffective. However, Azaria made this agreement with his brother before he began learning Torah, and therefore was capable of acquiring part of the reward, like Yissochar and Zevulun.

What is the logic behind this distinction? Why is a prior agreement more effective than one arranged subsequent to the learning? It would seem that the answer is as follows: An arrangement made following the Torah learning is simply an example of one individual attempting to buy Zechuyos and reward from another. As we have seen from the Maharam Al-Ashkar, Rav Hai Gaon, and the Netziv, this is ineffective, as such merits are not something that can be bought and sold. However, with regard to a true partnership like that of Yissochar and Zevulun, the individual supporting the learning is not simply buying the reward; he is actually enabling the one learning to do so! If the learner would be compelled to support himself, then he would not have the time or state-of-mind to devote himself completely to Torah. Therefore, the learning is a direct result of the responsibility assumed by the supporter which entitles him to a share of the reward as well.

Preferring Torah Itself

If both partners in such an arrangement benefit equally, why would one who is learning wish to give up half of his eternal merits for studying Torah? TheNetziv, in the aforementioned Teshuva, explains that Shimon and Rabbi Yochanan – the “learning” partners –had such love for Torah that their primary goal in life was to learn Torah with complete Menuchas HaNefesh – peace of mind. They knew that if they would have to worry about supporting themselves, they would not achieve this complete Menuchas HaNefesh, which would affect their learning. Therefore, they were both prepared to give away half of their reward for learning simply in order to attain this exalted state, as for them, the enjoyment and spiritual satisfaction they would receive was more important than the issue of the reward.

Peace of Mind

How much of a crucial factor is this “Menuchas HaNefesh” mentioned by the Netziv in the effectiveness of a Yissochar-Zevulun partnership? If Yissochar does not possess this feeling, is the arrangement still valid? Rav Moshe Feinstein8 is of the opinion that it is an integral element of the arrangement. Therefore, he says, if the one in business only earns sufficient money to support the learning partner for half a year, the status of the arrangement depends on the learning partner’s attitude. If he is capable of learning with a complete peace of mind during this period of time, then the partnership is valid. However, if the period is short enough that the learning partner cannot learn with complete Menuchas HaNefesh because he is constantly worrying about how he will support himself afterward, then, Rav Moshe says, it is not a valid Yisachar-Zevulun partnership.

Does the Learner Really Lose Out?

We must now inquire whether the learning partner actually loses half of his reward in the process of this arrangement, or perhaps the business partner gains half of the reward, yet the learning partner still retains his entire reward? It seems clear from the ruling of the Netziv mentioned above that the learning partner would indeed actually forfeit half of his reward, as he clearly states that Shimon and Rabbi Yochanan were willing to give up half their merit in order to learn Torah with Menuchas HaNefesh. This opinion is shared as well by Rav Chaim of Volozhin9.

However, other authorities disagree. The Ohr HaChaim10 argues that in such a relationship, Yissochar and Zevulun do not divide the reward in half, but each one actually receives a full reward! This is also the position of the Hafla’ah in Kesubos, who compares this situation to a candle used to light many other candles, where the light of the original candle is not thereby decreased in the process.

No Shame in Olam HaBa

There is one remaining question with regard to the validity of the Yissochar-Zevulun partnership. We mentioned above that the Netziv explained that the reason why a person cannot simply buy the reward of Torah learning was that the reward itself was to merit to sit in the Heavenly Bais Medrash, which, for a person who is not knowledgeable in Torah, will not be rewarding, as he will be shamed at his lack of Torah knowledge. If this is true, though, then in this logic should even hold the case of a true Yissochar-Zevulun partnership, as the business partner would still be lacking in Torah knowledge. How, then, can he receive a portion of the reward of sitting in the Heavenly Bais Medrash when he is lacking the tools to enjoy such a reward?

The Chofetz Chaim11 suggests an answer to this question, based on the Sefarim HaKedoshim, that one who supports those who learn Torah – even if he was a complete Am Ha’Aretz (ignoramus) in this world – will also merit to know the Torah in Olam HaBa. This should be obvious from the mere fact that he has a portion of the actual reward of the Torah learned, and the greatest pleasure in Olam HaBa is in the form of spiritual understanding.

According to the Chofetz Chaim a supporter of Torah will receive the reward of the Torah learning performed because of him, and he will actually know the Torah that was learned by the individual whom he supports. Thus, sitting in the Heavenly Bais Medrash will not embarrass him at all, as he too will be transformed into a capable Talmid Chacham in Olam HaBa.

There is an incident quoted in the name of Rav Chaim of Volozhin that is consistent with this contention of the Chofetz Chaim. A donor who used to support the Volozhin yeshiva arranged with Rav Chaim that after his death, Rav Chaim should learn Mishnayos in his memory. Following the death of the donor, Rav Chaim of Volozhin kept his word and began learning Mishnayos in Seder Taharos. At one point, he encountered a difficult issue that he could not understand. Rav Chaim subsequently fell asleep and had a dream, in which the donor appeared to him and answered all of his questions on the matter. Rav Chaim of Volozhin awoke from his dream and exclaimed that he already knew that those who support Torah will eventually be great Torah scholars themselves, but he didn’t realize just how fast they would reach this level!

In Conclusion

We have seen that a person cannot simply buy the merit of another person’s Mitzvos or Torah learning once it has been done. However, a proper arrangement, where one directly supports Torah learners who would not have been capable of learning with Menuchas HaNefesh otherwise, can indeed be beneficial to all – provided it is executed in the proper manner and that the donor has the appropriate Middos for the task. May we all merit to achieve greater Torah learning in this world in the manner appropriate to our personal situation.

1 See Rashi, Devarim 33:18 (s.v. “semach”), based on the Midrash, Bereshis Rabba 99:9, who discusses this arrangement.

2 Sotah 21a

3 8:7

4 This is not explicit in the Gemara, but is evident from a passage earlier in the Gemara that cited the beginning of this Pasuk, and from Rashicommentary [s.v. “l’chabos es ha’ahava”] that the love refers to the Torah.

5 101

6 Shut Meishiv Davar 14

7 Yoreh Deah 246:1

8 Shut Igros Moshe, Yoreh Deah 4:37:15

9 Kesser Rosh 64

10 Shemos 30:13

11 Shemiras HaLashon, Shaar HaTorah, chapter 6




  1. Well, as a support for a Yissachr-Zevulun arrangement; One sits & learns, the other works, and supports the learner, & shares both the learning and the financial gains 50%/50%, l’Olam Haba, they both learn TOGETHER the same blatt gemara. How come? “ASHREI MI SHEBO L’KA’AN, VETALMUDO B’YODO” he attained it with the labor of his hands!


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