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Jack Of All Trades, Master Of None (Bechorot 29 a)


There are no problems in life, only expenses. The compensation for performing a mitzvah is the opportunity to perform another mitzvah. These two truisms often conflict because, like most everything else in life, the performance of mitzvot often requires funding.

On the one hand, we are told we should be like Moses, our teacher, who taught Torah for free. Like him, we should accept no money for teaching Torah. We are also told that a dayan, a judge should accept no money for adjudicating a case.

But teachers have to be paid, and judges have to be independent. How are we to fulfill one without violating the other?

Several answers have been provided throughout the ages.

As far as teachers go, a distinction is drawn between written Torah, Torah Shebichtav, and the Oral Torah, Torah She’be’al Peh. Teaching young children to read Hebrew requires more than teaching Torah. It requires a certain amount of childcare to make sure they are looked after during school hours. Whereas one may not be compensated for teaching Torah, one may be compensated for childcare. However, as for Torah She’ba’al Peh, which is not taught to small children, but rather to older children who require no childcare, no compensation should be taken.

Another answer relies on the distinction between compensation and indemnification. Whereas one may not be compensated for teaching Torah or adjudicating cases, one may be indemnified for the money one could have earned had one’s time not been monopolized with the demands of teaching or adjudication.

Thus Karna, the judge who earned his living as a wine taster, would accede to the demands of litigants and adjudicate their disputes as long as he was indemnified for his lost wages. Similarly, Rav Huna, the judge and farmer, would request to be indemnified for the extra expense incurred in hiring irrigators to water his fields while he sat in judgment. Both parties to the litigation, irrespective of who would eventually win or lose, indemnified these two judges equally. This indemnification payment is referred to in halacha as sechar betailah.

But what if the demands are so pervasive on teachers and judges that they have no time to pursue any other remunerative activity?

Take the case of Ayala, the scholar and veterinarian, who was so inundated with requests to examine the blemishes of firstborn animals in order to determine whether these blemishes freed the animals them from their hekdesh status that he had no time for any other occupation. And what about a Torah teacher who instructs all day, every day? How can one compute the amount each has lost by not being able to engage in another occupation when judicial or teaching responsibilities do not even leave time to look for another occupation, let alone engage in one?

For judges, the recognition that the community must foot the bill has solved the dilemma. Accordingly, the Jerusalem judges of old would draw their salary from the Temple treasury, which was funded by the payment of half Shekels imposed on the community. Thus, even though the payment was by way of compensation and not by way of indemnification, the halacha permitted it. The Rosh justifies this halacha in graphic terms: “The judges were entirely caught up adjudicating and had no time for any other activities. They could not be expected to die of hunger. They required a living wage.”

The same is true for Torah teachers. In an ideal world, says the Shach, it would be great if one could juggle the responsibilities of a business or profession with the need and responsibility to teach Torah. But in a practical world, the inevitable result will be that Torah will suffer and be forgotten. Accordingly, even if the strict letter of the halacha does not permit one to draw compensation for teaching Torah, the survival of the Torah depends on it. Where the very body of religious observance is threatened, the rabbis have the authority to temporarily suspend the application of a law in the spirit of “Et la’asot l’ashem, heferu Toratechah.”

In dealing with the subject of public funding of Torah scholars in higher institutes of learning, Rav Moshe Feinstein lays it out very candidly. “Those who would prohibit communal funding of houses of learning may well be motivated by an evil inclination to give business priority over Torah. Ultimately, they will forget all the Torah they ever learned. For if the great scholars of old were of the opinion that one cannot hone one’s professional Torah skills and hold down an occupation at the same time, it would be most presumptuous for our Torah impoverished generation to claim that one can.”

Raphael Grunfeld’s book “Ner Eyal on Seder Moed” (distributed by Mesorah) is available at OU.org and your local Judaica bookstore. His new book, “Ner Eyal on Seder Nashim & Nezikin,” will be available shortly.

About the Author: Raphael Grunfeld’s book, “Ner Eyal on Seder Moed” (distributed by Mesorah) is available at OU.org and your local Jewish bookstore. His new book, “Ner Eyal on Seder Nashim & Nezikin,” will be available shortly.


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