Question: In our daily prayers we state that Talmud Torah – the teaching of Torah – is equivalent to all the other mitzvot. What, however, comes under the category of “teaching Torah”? Does someone who teaches students how to behave ethically come under the category of a teacher of Torah?
Answer: Numerous passages in the Books of Prophets contain the phrase “bnei hanavi’im.” The phrase literally translates as “the children of the prophets,” but it obviously means something else since the fact that the prophets had children is irrelevant in the contexts within which this phrase appears.
Don Isaac Abarbenel, a medieval scholar and the treasurer of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain, contends therefore that the phrase refers to those students whom the prophets taught ethical and moral conduct. These students wished to become ennobled by their ethical conduct so that they would be selected by G-d to serve as His prophets.
The implications of this explanation are potentially enormous. The Rambam (Hilchot Talmud Torah 1:1) writes, pertaining to the mitzvah of Talmud Torah, that “every Jewish scholar has a mitzvah to teach Torah to students as it is written, ‘Veshinantam levanecha.’ Tradition has it that ‘levanecha’ means students, for students are called children, as it says, ‘Vayatzu b’nei hanevi’im – And the students of the prophets departed.’” Thus, the Rambam explicitly rules that the obligation to teach Torah to students is derived from a phrase that deals with the prophets’ students who studied ethics.
We see therefore that someone who teaches ethics is considered a teacher of Torah – a rebbe – just as much as someone who teaches the text of the Bible or Talmud, and deserves proper respect. Furthermore, parents who imbue their children with mentshlichkeit and standards of moral behavior should also arguably be classified as rebbe’im to their children and afforded the respect due to rebbei’m of Talmud Torah.