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Is Torah a Burden? Part I

Chapter 6, Mishna 2(a)

By Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld

This class is dedicated to the refuah shlaimah (speedy and complete healing) of R. Dovid ben Gittel.

"Rabbi Yehoshua ben (son of) Levi said, on every day a heavenly voice emanates from Mount Horeb, announcing: 'Woe to them, the people, because of the affront to the Torah.' For anyone who does not study is called 'rebuked,' as the verse says 'As a golden ring in a swine's snout, so too is a beautiful woman who has turned from sound reason' (Proverbs 11:22). It also says, 'And the tablets were the handiwork of G-d, and the writing was G-d's writing engraved on the tablets' (Exodus 32:16). Do not read 'charus' (engraved), rather 'chairus' (free). For you will not find a freer person than one who is involved in the study of Torah. And all those who study Torah are uplifted, as it states, 'From Matanah [the Israelites traveled to] Nachaliel, and from Nachaliel [to] Bamos' (Numbers 21:19)."

Before analyzing our mishna more closely, a few comments are appropriate on its simple meaning -- hardly understandable from the translation alone. First, Mt. Horeb is another name for Mt. Sinai. Thus, G-d mourns at the place of the Torah's giving its lack of serious attention. Second, the verse at the mishna's end is seemingly a description of the Israelites' travels in the desert -- cryptically inserted immediately after Israel's Song of the Well (Numbers 21:17-18). The Talmud understand it allegorically: If a person merits to receive the gift ("matanah") of Torah (and use it properly) it will become an inheritance from G-d ("nachaliel"). Once it becomes an inheritance, he will rise to great heights ("bamos") (Eiruvin 54a). Thus, the verse quoted contains a veiled reference to the great heights one may reach through Torah study -- which Israel instinctively recognized as they reveled in the supernatural qualities of the well of the desert. Regarding the relevance of the verse of the ring-adorned swine, keep reading.

An interesting observation about our mishna is that it speaks in almost poetic terms. R. Yehoshua does not state that X is wrong or forbidden -- using the precise terminology typically employed in discussions of Jewish law. Rather, he speaks in metaphor -- depicting G-d Himself as crying over Israel's lack of serious Torah study. The message is of course more poignant, but in a way it is less exacting. The Sages do not impose specific guidelines for Torah study -- here or elsewhere -- stating for example that anyone who studies less than X hours a day is sinful. In fact, Torah study is listed as one of the few mitzvos (commandments) for which there is no set amount -- no minimum (or maximum) daily requirement (Mishna Peah 1:1).

The reason for this is because Judaism is very careful not to be a one-size-fits-all religion. Every Jew will at least recite the Shema every morning and evening -- so that no Jew will go a single day with not a word of Torah on his lips. And of course, great Jews will study much more. But beyond that the Sages do not -- and cannot -- dictate exact standards. What is trivial and effortless for the full time yeshiva student -- in quantity and quality -- may be a great challenge for the busy professional or family man with little background in learning. Each individual alone knows what he or she is capable of and what is too little or too much. Our Sages exhort and advise, but only we -- as well as G-d -- truly know.

Thus, our mishna cannot arbitrate; it certainly cannot talk specifics. But it does mourn. G-d Himself mourns that Israel just does not study Torah as it should. It is a tragedy of the worst sort, a loss to each person and to the world.

To emphasize, our mishna quotes a verse in Proverbs -- whose relevance to our mishna is not immediately apparent. The verse compares a beautiful woman who has turned from modesty to a swine with a golden ring in its snout. The essential person is quite ugly. The attractive outer appearance is no more than an external ornament -- one dragged into the dirt by the woman's shameful behavior (see Rashi's commentary).

The lesson is powerful but apt. Physical beauty is no more than a shell, which -- as in the case of our foremothers (I think a word) -- enhances, complements and reflects inner beauty. But on its own it is an empty and useless husk, as inappropriate and misplaced as a ring in a pigpen.

The relevance to Torah study would seem to be that a person without the golden crown of Torah too is basically an animal. He has not used G-d's wisdom to refine his soul, developing himself into a human being formed in the image of G-d. His human brain, capable of such sublime thoughts and emotions, becomes a mere golden trinket adorning a soulless body. His body will drag it down to its level -- occupying it with thoughts of lust, conniving and treachery. His higher intelligence will in no way distinguish him from the rest of the animal kingdom.

A frightening statistic of Holocaust studies is that fully one third of all the commandants of the death camps were either PhD's or MD's (Martin Gilbert, The Holocaust.) A human brain in an animal's body -- heeding the impulses of its physical master, is an ugly -- as well as dangerous -- creature indeed.

The imagery is again powerful but actually seems a little misplaced. Our mishna is not discussing sinners per se. G-d is not mourning Israel's sinfulness, only its lack of serious Torah study. If so, presumably we are discussing basically mitzvah-observant Jews, who observe the commandments but perhaps do not study to the extent they should. Are they really no better than swine? Doesn't mitzvah observance uplift a person and transform him into a more sanctified being? Perhaps Torah study uplifts more than all other mitzvos, but is our mitzvah observer really no better than a pig?

Well, windbag Rosenfeld is going on strong with no end in sight! G-d willing we'll pick this up next week!

Text Copyright © 2006 by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld and

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