Commentary Magazine

Cedars of Lebanon: Why a Jew Studies

Though the Torah had always been read and expounded in public, it was only in the last generations before the fall of the Second Commonwealth (70 c.e.) that the study of Torah became a decisive force in Judaism. The immense prestige of the scholar in Jewish tradition is based philosophically on the assumption made by the Rabbis that learning had a twofold significance. Outwardly it consisted of the reading and interpretation of a book. But in essence it was the attempt to comprehend divine thought. Through delving into the written word, the student tried to recapture the word spoken on Mount Sinai. The very process of immersion in the word lifted study to a plane above the mere gleaning of information or the mere mastery of a given issue. Like worship, study aims ultimately at communication with the Divine and the translation of the teaching into life. The following selections, culled from Talmudic and Midrashic sources, illustrate the central position occupied in classical Judaism by the study of the Torah.

—Nahum N. Glatzer


Scripture says: “To love the Lord thy God, to hearken to His voice. . . .” Thus, a man must not say: I shall read so that they will call me sage, I shall study so that they will call me rabbi, I shall learn so that I may become an elder and hold a seat in the assembly. No, you shall learn out of love of God, and glory may come to you after that.

He who studies the Torah holds it as dear each day as on the first day when it was given on Mount Sinai.

He who gives his heart to the study of the Torah frees himself from the fear of the sword and of starvation, of evil and of the yoke imposed by man. Nor is he obliged to offer sacrifice—his study is sacrifice. And if the student is from among the Gentiles, he is still equal to the High Priest: Scripture, when it refers to the Torah, does not speak of Priests, or Levites, or Israelites, but only of man. Study is prayer, and, it may be, higher than prayer; a man prays also for his needs in this world, but his study is wholly rooted in the eternal life.

Study of the Torah is a man’s constant companion. If he goes on his way and is lonely, the Torah will go with him. If his body feels pain, study of the Torah will allay it.

He who studies must be worthy to study, and then the Torah will be an elixir of life for him. Where two students sit together and exchange words of Torah, the Divine Presence abides between them. When three have sat at a table and eaten and spoken words of Torah—“this is the table that is before the Lord.” And if one alone occupies himself with Torah the Lord will come to him and bless him.

He who timely reads a sentence of Torah has caused goodness to be brought into the world. The word of Torah that enters the heart drives out a word of scoffing.

When God came to give the Torah to Israel on Sinai, he asked for guarantors to vouch for it, that it would be guarded. The children became the guarantors of the Torah.

The revelation of the Torah on Mount Sinai is the prototype for every study session wherein a father teaches his son, or a grandfather his grandson. Just as the event on Sinai took place in awe and fear and trembling, so every session of learning should take place in awe and in fear and in trembling.

The world endures only for the sake of the breath of school children; this is the breath in which there is no sin. School children may not be made to neglect their studies even for the building of the sanctuary in Jerusalem. Jerusalem was destroyed because children had ceased to study and scholars were no longer honored.

The teacher is considered the father, the student is considered a son. He who teaches Torah to the son of his neighbor is held by Scripture to be as the father who begot him. He who, by study of Torah, leads another human being under the wings of heaven is considered as if he had created him and brought him into the world.

Do not neglect the children of the ignorant, for from them comes Torah. Be heedful of the honor due to the children of the poor, for from them comes Torah.

Why is it not usual for scholars to have learned sons? Lest they, the sons, become arrogant, and so that it may not be said that the Torah is their inheritance.

Whoever is engaged in the study of the Torah by night, to him the Holy One extends a thread of grace by day. To him who is engaged in the study of the Torah in this world, which is as the night, the Holy One extends the thread of grace in the future world, which is as the day.

Scripture compares the Torah to water: as water flows away from the high places and seeks the low, so the words of the Torah remain only with the one who is meek. Scripture compares the Torah to water, to wine, and to milk: as these three liquids can be kept only in the simplest of vessels, so the words of the Torah are contained only in him who is meek.

This is the way of Torah: you will eat a morsel of bread with salt, and drink a measure of water, you will sleep upon the ground and live a life of hardship—and you shall toil in the Torah. Then will you be happy in this world, and well in the world to come.

The Torah may not he made a crown to magnify oneself with, nor a spade to dig with. He who draws material profit from the Torah cuts himself off from the life of the world to come.

Scripture says: “The book of the Torah shall not depart out of thy mouth but thou shalt meditate therein day and night.” This is not an obligation and not a commandment, but a blessing.

Whoever dedicates himself to the study of Torah for its own sake will become worthy of many things. He will be called friend and beloved, one who loves God and mankind, one who makes glad both God and mankind. The Torah clothes him in modesty and reverence, makes him ready to be just, pious, upright, and faithful; it draws him away from sin and brings him near to virtue. People enjoy his counsel and his understanding. He lives in humility and forgives those who insult him. This is his greatness.

The words of the Torah will remain only with him who is ready to die for them. Adhere to study even until the hour of death.


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