Chapter 4, Mishna 7(b)
By Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld
"Rabbi Tzaddok said: Do not separate yourself from the community. Do not act
as a lawyer (in judgment). Do not make the Torah into a crown with which to
aggrandize yourself or a spade with which to dig. So too did Hillel state:
'He who uses the crown [of Torah] will pass on' (above, 1:13). >From this
you may learn that anyone who derives benefit from words of Torah takes his
life from the world."
In the previous class we discussed the danger of treating the Torah as a
crown -- as a means of achieving fame or recognition. As we explained,
although the Torah scholar does deserve honor, he must not seek it himself.
It is we who must show him honor. One who pursues honor for honor's sake
does little more than demonstrate his unworthiness of it. For honor must not
be accorded to the Torah scholar per se, but to the one who humbly and
sincerely makes himself a reflection of the wisdom of G-d.
The second manner in which the Torah must not be used is as a "spade to
dig." The commentators understand this to mean using one's Torah knowledge
towards utilitarian ends, specifically, for financial profit. To some
degree, the reason for this is the same as with the crown. This too is a
means of cheapening our Torah knowledge, of seeing it as a money-making tool
rather than a vehicle for closeness to G-d.
However, Maimonides painfully observes that the evil here may be much more
pernicious. Not only is one who considers the Torah a "spade" personally
misusing his Torah knowledge, he is lowering the Torah and the Torah scholar
in the eyes of the masses. It seems that in Maimonides' time there was a
large class of able-bodied people who studied Torah while freeloading off of
local charities, often imposing charity "quotas" upon the greater community
to assist them in their sacred pursuits. Maimonides writes in no uncertain
terms that this is a desecration of the Torah and all it stands for. He
points out numerous examples of scholars in the Mishna and Talmud who
engaged in humble, menial means of employment, often struggling at or below
the poverty line. Not likely, writes Maimonides, that the common folk of
those generations were so ungenerous or disrespectful of Torah scholars that
they would let such great men and their families nearly starve. Rather, the
Sages were extremely wary not to derive any form of benefit from their
studies. If they were capable, they would chop wood, carry loads, and trust
in G-d. But never do we hear of them asking for handouts, nor do we find in
the entire Talmud so much as a single complaint uttered by a scholar about
the miserly, uncaring Jews of his time who let him suffer so.
Before we continue our discussion, we must make an important distinction.
The simple reading of our mishna would imply that under no circumstances may
a person benefit materially from his Torah knowledge. This would seem to
extend to salaried public servants, such as pulpit rabbis, judges and
educators. This appears to be the opinion of Maimonides here and elsewhere
-- and in fact there have always been Sephardic communities which have
adhered to this position. But, as we see today, the universal custom is for
such people to collect a salary (as minimal as it usually is). R. Ovadiah of
Bartinura, in his commentary to this mishna, briefly outlines the
underpinnings of the present day practice. Below I offer an extremely
sketchy summary of both his considerations and a few other well-known ones.
(1) A rabbi, judge or educator may be paid for loss of revenue. I.e., he may
be compensated for his time spent in public service in which he was not able
to engage in gainful employment.
(2) An educator may be paid for time spent teaching since during that time
he was also overseeing and minding his pupils. (Daycare? Maybe that's why
their salaries are so low...)
(3) A rabbi of high public position should be made wealthy in order that he
command the respect of his subordinates (based on Talmud Yoma 18a).
(4) The Talmud (Sotah 21a) also praises what is known as the
Yissachar-Zevulun arrangement, in which two parties agree that one will
support the other in his studies, allowing them to both share in the merit
of his Torah study.
(5) Truly pious individuals, prepared to fully put their trust in G-d, may
transcend the curse of Adam "through the sweat of your brow you will eat
bread" (Genesis 3:19) and rely entirely on G-d for their support (based on
Talmud Brachos 35b). I discuss this one more fully in Chapter 2, Mishna 2
(6) Many authorities extend some of the above considerations (especially #'s
1 & 4) to scholars-in-training as well to ensure that Israel is supplied
with the requisite number of rabbis and educators, as well as learned
laymen. I discuss this one somewhat more in Maimonides Chapter 5, Law 12
Based on the above considerations, R. Ovadiah concludes that the sages of
the Mishna and Talmud, in their refusal to benefit in any way from their
knowledge, were actually going beyond the letter of the law.
Even all the above being said, certainly careful consideration is required
in such matters. Support of Torah is wonderful, but it just isn't the same
when the rabbi must come to the layman for support. Unfortunately, virtually
all throughout our history great rabbis were required to go from town to
town and from house to house seeking support for their institutions. And as
justified and necessary as it may be, it's hard for the Torah not to be
lowered in the eyes of the masses. The Talmud writes that when a Torah
scholar derives benefit from an ignoramus, he goes from being a "golden
pitcher" in the eyes of the ignoramus to an earthenware one (Sanhedrin 52b).
And at worst, we know what sort of situation results. The layman will view
scholars as a bunch of groveling parasites, running away from the "real
world" and gainful employment while asking them to shoulder of the burden.
And his attitudes towards Torah scholars -- and the Torah in general -- will
be a mixture of annoyance, resentment, and condescension. Not a healthy
arrangement for the Children of Israel.
Finally, even the rabbi or educator who draws a well-deserved paycheck must
be heedful of our mishna's advice. He must never see his knowledge as merely
a "spade" -- a means of earning a living. He is not a "professional", who
uses his Torah knowledge for financial profit just as the doctor or lawyer
uses his degree. (In truth, in all types of professions, the truly good
doctor or lawyer is the one who sees his profession as his calling rather
than a mercenary undertaking. His practice is not primarily a money-making
scheme, but a calling and a labor of love. Regarding Torah study, however,
this is absolutely paramount.)
I was told by R. Shalom Shtrajcher, a successful rabbi and educator of many
years, that as rabbi, one of the most important things to keep in mind --
and convey to others -- is that rabbinics is not an occupation. A rabbi may
earn a paycheck, but he is not a 9-5 salaried employee. He is a spiritual
leader, one who directs and oversees the spiritual growth of others. He does
not have a "job"; he has a mission and a life-commitment. A congregant
calling for instruction or guidance should not have to go through a
secretary and schedule an appointment. He must not be given attention only
during the rabbi's "hours". The true spiritual leader is available to his
flock all hours of the day and night and in every way imaginable (bearing in
mind of course that rabbis too are human beings). No person is too
unimportant for his time, and no question too insignificant. The human soul
requires a 24-hour-a-day service contract.
Likewise when the budding student and future religious leader studies Torah,
he must not approach it as a course of study or a means of earning a degree.
He may attend courses in practical rabbinics, counseling and public
speaking, but he is not preparing for a career -- nor has the curriculum of
the yeshivos (rabbinical colleges) ever been fashioned that way. (Even the
translation "rabbinical college" is a rather misplaced and borrowed term.)
He studies to build his own relationship with G-d and to develop himself as
a human being. Naturally, when he reaches a certain point he will have what
to give over to others -- and that will become his obligation. But he does
not study in order to pursue a career or even to teach. He studies to
understand. We learned in the previous mishna, "One who studies in order to
do is granted the ability to study, to teach, to observe, and to do"
(www.torah.org/learning/pirkei-avos/chapter4-6.html). When we understand,
our knowledge will spill over, and others will drink from it. We will become
leaders and great men, devoid of both the crowns of honor and of riches, but
lights and beacons of truth for all who will follow.
(Final paragraph based in part on lecture heard from R. Zev Leff.)
Text Copyright © 2009 by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld and Torah.org.