Rabbi Yehoshuah ben Levi said… And it says, “And the tablets were the work of G-d, and the writing was the writing of G-d, graven upon the tablets” (Exodus 32:16). Read not haruth [‘graven’] but heruth [ ‘freedom’]. For there is no free man but one that occupies himself with the study of the Torah. And whoever regularly occupies himself with the study of the Torah he is surely exalted, as it is said, “And from Mattanah to Nahaliel; and Nahaliel to Bamoth” (Numbers 21:19). (Avot 6:2)
Rabbi Nehunia ben Hakkanah said: whoever takes upon himself the yoke of the Torah, they remove from him the yoke of government and the yoke of worldly concerns, and whoever breaks off from himself the yoke of the Torah, they place upon him the yoke of government and the yoke of worldly concerns (Avot 3:5).
The Link Of Freedom To Torah
Rebbe Yehoshua ben Levi taught: “Ein lecha ben chorin ela mi she’osek b’talmud Torah – Only those involved in Torah learning are (truly) free.” Rebbi Yehoshua derived this idea from the Torah’s description of the writing on the luchot as “charut,” a word spelled the same way as “cheirut, free.” What did Rebbi Yehoshua mean by that? In what way are those not involved in Torah learning not free?
Many commentaries connect Rebbi Yehoshua’s statement to an earlier one of Rebbi Nechunya ben Hakanah: “The ol (yoke) of malchut and of derech eretz are removed from anyone who accepts the yoke of Torah” (Ruach Chaim Avot 6:2, Rambam Avot 3:5). Man is put in this world to work and chooses what kind of work to focus his energies upon. He can opt for backbreaking work in the fields, or “work” with his mouth by learning Torah instead. If he chooses the latter, he is “freed” from the former (Bereishit Rabbah 13:7, Eliyahu Rabbah 13:7).
How does that happen? How does a person who accepts the yoke of Torah have other responsibilities removed from him?
Rashi and the Rambam explain that other people do his work for him. Rebbi Shimon bar Yochai (Masechet Berachot 35b) famously applied this idea to the second parsha of kriyat shema. He explained that the parsha’s reference to our working in the field (Sefer Devarim 11:14) must refer to a time when the Jewish people are not fully committed to Hashem’s will. At a time when we are, though, our work is done for us by others.
How does this happen? Who does the work for those learning Torah and why?
A Divine Directive
Rabbeinu Yonah (quoting quotes Sefer Ezra 7:24 and Talmud Bavli, Masechet Bava Batra 8a) explains that our mishnah mandates the exemption of those fully immersed in Torah learning (torato umanuto) from both contributing to community tax collection as well as the responsibility to join the rotation of government-required work. Other people are required to cover the talmid chacham’s share.
Rebbi Yochanan (Masechet Shabbat 114a and Masechet Yoma 72b) understood this principle in an even broader way. He taught that in addition to covering the talmid chacham’s share of communal responsibilities, people are also responsible to do the talmid chacham’s personal work for him. All of us should express our appreciation of the importance of Torah by working to facilitate the Torah learning of those who choose to devote themselves to it.
A Divine Promise
The Rambam himself explains the mishnah differently. Instead of a Divine directive, the Rambam understood the mishna as a Divine promise. Rebbi Nechunya (and Rebbi Yehoshua by association) teaches us that Hashem spares those committed to Torah from the challenges and burdens most people endure (See Divrei Hayamim 2:12). The person devoted to Torah learning is freed from the yokes of malchut and derech eretz by Hashem, not other people.
The midrash (Midrash Tanchuma, Parashat V’zot Habracha 5) quotes this idea in Hashem’s name in reference to ol malchut. Moshe asked Hashem how He expected people suffering persecution in exile to devote time to Torah learning. Moshe wondered how people could commit themselves to the yoke of Torah learning while suffering under the yoke of shibud galuyot. Hashem replied, “Kol ha’osek baTorah, nitzol mi’shibud galuyot – Hashem saves those involved in Torah from the yoke of exile” (see Masechet Bava Batra 8a, Masechet Avodah Zarah 5a).
The gemara (Masechet Sanhedrin 94b, quoting Yeshayahu 10:27) summarizes this idea beautifully by asserting that it was the oil that Chizkiyahu used to light up the batei medrash and batei knesset that merited the removal of the ol of Sancheirev from the Jewish people.
The Machzor Vitri and Bartenura apply this idea to the yoke of derech eretz as well. It is Hashem who ensures that those committed to Torah learning are unhindered by the need to (work too hard to) earn a living. The gemara (Masechet Kiddushin 82b) quotes Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar who points out that Hashem takes care of animals without them having to work for a living. Hashem would take care of our needs as well (with minimum effort on our part) if we lived our lives correctly.
Before man ate from the eitz hada’at, he had what he needed without having to work “by the sweat of his brow” (Sefer Bereishit 3:19. See also Rashi there). Rebbi Shimon and Rebbi Nechunya teach us that if we focus our lives on Torah learning, we are still (even after the original sin) able to tap into the pre-sin ideal of survival without difficult work.
The Chassidim Harishonim were an excellent historical example of this principle. The Chassidim HaRishonim spent nine hours a day davening. The gemara (Masechet Berachot 32b) wonders how their work got done and answers that Hashem ensured that their work was completed quickly and easily. How long our tasks take and how hard they are to complete hinges on whether we devote ourselves to something (else) that Hashem wants to help us find the time and headspace for.
The Chicken And The Egg
People often feel like they do not have the time to commit to Torah learning because they are saddled with work and other burdens. The mishna teaches us that, in truth, the linkage goes the other way. We are saddled with burdens because we do not commit ourselves to Torah learning.
May we devote ourselves properly to what matters most so we do not have to spend our time on what matters less.
We have seen how many associate the freedom mentioned by Rebbi Yehoshua ben Levi in the sixth perek with the removal of the yokes mentioned in the third perek. Next week, we will, iy”H, see a second (more intrinsic) understanding of the freedom Rebbi Yehoshua describes.