What is the Nature of a Person’s Obligation to Study Torah?

Provided courtesy of Real Clear Daf

This topic came up on last Shabbos’s daf (99b). The Mishna there discusses whether or not it is necessary to ensure that the Shulchan is not for a moment without any Lechem HaPonim loaves during the process of replacing last week’s loaves with new ones. The first opinion in the Mishna asserts that this is indeed a requirement based on the verse’s directive that the Lechem HaPonim be “before Me continuously.” However R’ Yose says that there is no objection as long as the loaves are replaced by the end of the day. In R’ Yose’s view, “continuously” only requires that a full day or night not pass without loaves on the Shulchan.

In a move that clearly demonstrates how the Amoraim always considered any teaching against all other topics in the Torah, R’ Ami points out that R’ Yose’s opinion has ramifications for the obligation to study Torah conveyed in Sefer Yehoshua of, “The Torah shall not leave your mouth; you shall study it day and night.” According to R’ Yose, R’ Ami observes, the demand of “it shall not leave your mouth,” is only to not let an entire day or night pass without some amount of Torah study. So technically, a person fulfills the obligation by merely reciting the Shema (which consists of passages from the Torah) in the morning and at night!

In light of the well-established fact that a person is obligated to study Torah to the fullest extent possible, the Gemara must be understood as referring to very specific circumstances. Indeed this is clearly the understanding of the Vilna Gaon (Shnos Eliyahu, beginning of Peah), who says that it’s referring to a person who literally has no time to learn.

The context of the Gaon’s comment is the Mishna’s teaching that the mitzva to study Torah is one of the mitzvos that “has no finite amount.” The Gaon explains that this means that the mitzva has neither a maximum nor a minimum. Now the notion that the mitzva to learn Torah has no maximum is readily understandable: There is no point when a person is finished learning; rather, it is a mitzva that continues 24/7. Based on our Gemara which states that one who literally has no time can fulfill the mitzva with just the recital of Shema (and the Gaon says that in actuality it means that even just one word would fulfill the obligation), we see that the mitzva to learn has no minimum either (this is important to realize in order to appreciate the power of just one word of Torah, the Gaon explains).

R’ Boruch Ber (Birchas Shmuel, Kiddushin, Siman 27) questions the Gaon’s assertion that the mitzva to learn has no minimum by drawing an analogy to the mitzva to wear tzitzis on one’s four-cornered garment. Just as one would not describe the mitzva of tzitzis  as “without a minimum,” rather, au contraire, an entirely new and complete mitzva is generated with the arrival of each new moment, the same should be true of the mitzva to study Torah!

R’ Boruch Ber answers by explaining that it’s not the case that a new a separate obligation to learn is generated each moment, rather there is just one mitzva to constantly study Torah. The practical manifestation of the mitzva, though, differs from person to person, depending on the person’s capabilities and life circumstances. If an individual studies during whatever spare moments he has, then he has completely fulfilled “the object” of the mitzva.  Thus it is quite true that the mitzva to learn Torah has no minimum either.

Let us close with the words of the Rambam (Hilchos Shemitta V’Yovel, 13:13) because they are beautiful and inspiring:

“A life of Divine service isn’t reserved only for the tribe of Levi. Rather he who is inspired and makes the conscious decision to stand before God to serve Him and know Him, and to walk on His upright path and throws away the yoke of the dealings sought by other men--behold this individual is deemed Holy of Holies. God will be his portion forever and ever, and God will provide him with whatever he needs in this world. As it says, ‘The Lord is my allotted portion and my cup; thou holdest my lot’ (Psalms 16:5)”