Learning to Work or Working to Learn

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By Rabbi Berach Steinfeld

We see in this week’s Parsha, Perek Lamed, posuk yud tes the importance of choosing life so that we can survive for many generations.

The Rash MiShantz on the Mishna in Peah, Perek Alef, Mishna Alef quotes a Yerushalmi in which Reb Shimon explains the above posuk of choosing life as choosing a good craft. We also see from the Gemara in Nedarim, daf mem tes, amud bais that Reb Shimon would put a basket on his shoulder and work. He would say, “Work is great that it brings respect to the person doing it.”

Reb Shimon discusses the importance of work in a Mechilta in Parshas Yisro, Perek Chof, siman tes. The Kohen Gadol is so incredibly holy that he may enter the Kodshei Kodoshim when he needs to do Avodah on Yom Kippur; however, if he enters the Kodshei Kodoshim when he is not doing the avodah he is punishable by death. In contrast, if repairs are needed, even a tamei or a baal mum may enter to do the required repairs.  This would indicate that Reb Shimon was a proponent of going to work.

We find in the Gemara Brachos, daf lamed heh, amud bais that Reb Shimon holds that the main purpose on this world is not to work, but to learn Torah day and night. How can we reconcile what Reb Shimon says about working and what he says about learning?

The Gemara quotes Reb Shimon bar Yochai saying what will become of a man’s Torah learning if he plows during plowing season, plants during planting season, harvests during harvest season, threshes during threshing season, and winnows during winnowing season? When the Jews do the will of Hashem, others do their work, but when the Jews do not do the will of Hashem, then they must do the work by themselves.

We can attempt to explain this seeming contradiction by differentiating between work that is related to land, which requires extensive work through a majority of the year, and work that may involve a craft. Work related to land causes a great amount of bittul Torah; whereas other crafts or jobs are not as extensive and time consuming, thereby giving the person a chance to make a living and also having ample time to devote to learning Torah.

With this explanation we can understand the Gemara in Shabbos, daf lamed gimmel, amud bais that recounts the story of Reb Shimon and his son Reb Elazar.  Upon exiting the cave they had hid in for twelve years, Reb Shimon and Reb Elazar saw a person plowing and planting the fields. Reb Shimon and Reb Elazar could not believe that people were leaving the work of Olam Haba and spending time working for this temporary world!  Whomever they saw working in the fields got burned from the eyes of Reb Shimon and his son. We see from this Gemara that their anger was only focused on people working in the fields, not on people doing any other jobs, since working as a farmer takes a lot of time and effort leaving little or no time for learning.

The Rosh in Bava Basra, Perek Alef, siman chof vov writes that a talmid chacham whose parnassa is made via a business or a craft and his every free moment is dedicated to learning Torah, the term “Torah Umnaso” (Torah is his craft) may still apply to him. The Shailos Uteshuvos Mahari ben Lev, Chelek Gimmel, siman mem zayin writes that included in one’s parnassa responsibility is the ability to marry off one’s daughter with a nadan. The Shailos Utshuvos, Maharash Halevi, siman chof daled adds that part of this responsibility of parnassa is to earn enough money to buy clothing and jewelry for one’s wife and children and to be able to have shalom bayis.

This would just reinforce Reb Shimon’s quote that he praises one who works, so long as he is not mevatel Torah, and is still called a person whose Umnos (craft) is Torah. Let us all strive to be a person like the above!

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  1. “working as a farmer takes a lot of time and effort leaving little or no time for learning.”

    Questionable assertion.

    During the winter farmers can have more time.

    Farmers went to yarchei kallah in the time of Chazal – when yarchei kallah was yarchei (months) – not just a few hours, as is often the case today when a few shiurim are given on a legal holiday (less than one entire day of learning) and it is called ‘yarchei’ kallah. The name of those should be changed to yom kallah.


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