"Shammai said: Make your Torah study fixed, say little and do much, and receive everyone with a cheerful countenance."
This mishna was authored by Shammai, the colleague of Hillel, author of the previous three mishnas (see earlier, Mishna 12). As we will see G-d willing in two weeks, Shammai is presented in the Talmud as a very different personality type from his colleague Hillel (Shabbos 31a), and many disputes arose between the students of these two great sages (see Talmud Sotah 47b). Even so, the Talmud attests that there was nothing but affection and camaraderie between the two camps (Yevamos 14b). In spite of their many differences, both in content and style, both camps realized the other was simply attempting to understand G-d's will to the best of its ability, and both teachers and students had nothing but respect and admiration for one another.
Shammai's first words of advice are that we make our Torah study "fixed". There are two closely-related explanations to this found in the commentators. Rashi (in one interpretation) explains that we must set aside fixed times daily for Torah study. Our study should not be when we "get around to it." We will learn later: "Do not say when I have free time I will learn, lest you not become free" (2:5).
In addition, our study should ideally not be at different times every day, whenever we can work it into our schedules. It should be "fixed", the given around which all other activities and obligations revolve. Regardless of how busy and sought-after you are the rest of your day, make at least some time every day fixed and interruption-free. Turn off your cell-phone, don't check your e-mail, and don't let the kids bother you. Chances are, you'll come to enjoy and look forward to your spiritual refuge from your otherwise hectic day. In reality, there are very few things in life which really cannot wait. (And, of course, for a *true* emergency everything else -- including Torah study -- does get pushed aside. Even so, the Talmud recommends that when this does occur, one make up the time later (see Eiruvin 65a).)
Lastly, the ideal time to set aside should be first thing in the morning, immediately after morning prayers (or breakfast) and before one gets caught up, mentally and emotionally, in his daily affairs (see Mishna Berura, 155:2).
Other commentators (Maimonides, Rabbeinu Yonah) understand "fixed" in a more conceptual sense. One should view his Torah study as the mainstay of his day, his most steady and permanent activity. All other obligations -- including earning a livelihood -- should be "happenstance" by comparison. They are performed only when necessary.
The Talmud tells us that the scholar Hillel used to work enough to earn a half-coin daily. Half of this he would use to support his family and the remaining half he would pay as entrance fee to the study hall (Yoma 35b). A single half-coin was all that was required for a man with Hillel's degree of faith. His family lived humbly, on rationed quantities, but they survived. (I imagine if a kid wanted an iPod or a pair of roller blades for his birthday, Hillel would have to chop a few extra logs. Or more likely they did without -- yet another lesson our generation would be wise to learn.) Regardless, Hillel's workday was not ongoing. He did not work -- nor earn -- as much as he could. He did the minimum required -- and he knew just how much that was. His work was limited and finite. His Torah study, however -- in more ways than one -- was infinite.
(Of course, measured labor would not get us as far nowadays with our home mortgages, utilities, school tuition, auto insurance, etc. Life is just not as simple as it once was. However, 9-5 does not have to mean every waking moment. Our Torah study can be fixed in its primacy if not its quantity.)
There is an important practical side to this. On the one hand we must study in order to know how to fulfill. (For this reason it is recommended that a person of limited time and/or ability concentrate on the study of the basic and the most critical: practical Jewish law (Mishna Berura 155:9)). We likewise begin our day with Torah study in order to dedicate our first efforts to G-d, putting all our remaining activities in their proper perspective. Torah study on this level may be viewed as a means -- a way of spiritually preparing ourselves for the daily tasks ahead.
It is important to recognize, however, that there is an entirely higher aspect to our obligation to study Torah, which we might call the inspirational. In the beginning of the Book of Joshua, when G-d instructs Joshua to enter and conquer the Land of Israel, He warns him before all to be diligent in Torah study: "You shall delve into it day and night" (1:8). This was not just a practical commandment -- to set aside a fixed period every morning, to learn in order to know how to do. This was a command to "delve" into the Torah -- to study, to examine, and to plumb its depths, and to do so day and night, without respite or concern for the hour.
Thus, on one level the Torah can be viewed simply as a how-to guide, as a practical means for living properly and rewardingly in this world. But in truth it is so much more. It is equally a means of leaving this world, of transcending the mundane in order to achieve an understanding of and a closeness to G-d. The Torah is G-d's wisdom. It is a work of the eternal and infinite, through which one is able to fathom G-d's knowledge and G-d Himself. We study when we are inspired to truly understand and connect to our G-d. And there is no "schedule" for inspiration. Torah study of this sort is not a "fixed" obligation. It is an ongoing challenge. Day, night, hot, cold, comfort, want, poverty: Nothing truly matters to the one who is searching -- who is searching for G-d. For he breaks free of the shackles of the finite -- the world of day and night -- in his endless quest for the truth. (Based in part on a lecture heard from R. Yitzchak Berkovits of Jerusalem.)
(This is reminiscent of the popular (if recent) custom to stay up all night studying Torah the eve of the holiday of Shavous (Pentecost), which commemorates our receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai. At times we go beyond all sense of normality and rationality in our search for the truth. The overwhelming excitement of receiving G-d's Torah inspires us to truly seek G-d, forgetting ourselves and everything around us in the process. At least one day a year we reawaken ourselves to this ideal.)
Thus, "inspirational" study is far loftier than the routine, daily study in which all of us are obligated. It is the stuff of which greatness is formed. It's interesting to note that yeshivas (rabbinical colleges) even today reflect to some degree this ideal. Torah there is generally not studied in the organized, curriculum-based fashion we are familiar with from other institutions of higher learning. Students are generally not given set study plans, nor are they graded based on an orderly series of examinations. They are given the freedom to apply their own ingenuity and creativity to the Talmud. They seek to understand G-d's word for themselves -- not to memorize information handed to them in order to pass a test or receive a diploma. (Needless to say, for actual rabbinic ordination -- authorizing a student to decide matters of Jewish law -- the student must in fact pass specific exams demonstrating his mastery of the material.) The students are given the tools to achieve their own unique understanding of the Torah -- and their own personal connection with G-d.
And in the process they become energized, infused with a vitality not found in students of any other discipline. Those of us who have experienced or observed Torah study in a yeshiva know that it involves loud, energetic debates, in which students are consumed with a passion for knowledge and the word of G-d.
(Years back when I was at my parents during an intercession from Ner Israel Rabbinical College, Baltimore, MD, I was studying with a neighbor and co-student. While studying a certain section of the Talmud, we became involved in a heated debate which I imagine lasted a good couple of minutes. (I couldn't possibly tell you today for how long or what it was about 25 years later -- we had such little flare-ups all the time, my dear friend and I.) After my friend left, my mother, who had heard the raised voices and loud back-and-forth, became very concerned. She kind of assumed I had just lost a close friend: "Did you get into an argument? Did your friend leave mad?"))
One other fascinating thought we'll touch upon briefly. When people are inspired, something happens to them: they sing. When you touch deep enough inside your soul, it sings out. It cries out its exhilaration in being able to sense and express itself, something it cannot often do beneath so many layers of flesh and earthiness. R. Noach Weinberg of Yeshiva Aish HaTorah has observed that when people study Torah, they often find themselves breaking out in spontaneous song -- something which has never happened to me reading a geometry book.
Further, each person has his own unique song. Every soul wants to express its own innermost praise and emotions, to one time in its existence sing its song. The entire nation of Israel burst out in spontaneous song and harmony at the Red Sea, and we will all do so again when the final redemption arrives. When that day comes, our souls will instinctively know their tune; all mankind will sing in unison -- in a harmony the likes of which has never before been heard on earth. At that time each of our songs will emerge -- and will unite into the final Song of Man. But until then, we achieve the faintest glimmer of this inspiration, this song of our souls, when we touch ourselves with the study of Torah.
Finally we conclude with our mishna -- which at last comes along to take the wind out of our ever-expanding sails. Regardless of the inspiration Torah study evokes -- and you can be certain Shammai knew of it far better than we -- Shammai reminds us of the "lower" obligation of Torah study. Torah study must be a "fixed" and daily obligation -- regardless of the inspiration we are or are not feeling at any given moment. We cannot only live for -- and wait for -- inspiration. Torah study is not only for our own exhilaration. It is also our obligation towards the Almighty. And only through both means will our souls truly be able to sing their song of both ecstasy and fulfillment.