Gamliel, the son of Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi, said, “Yafeh Talmud Torah im
Derech Eretz.” According to most commentaries, this means that “Learning
goes well with working.” That’s because, as the mishna goes on to say,
“the toil that a person puts into both of them keeps him far from sin; and all
Torah that doesn’t have in it work, in the end will be negated, and will lead
him to sin.” (Avos 2:2)
The first and second parts of the mishna appear to
contradict each other. The first part says that it’s nice to have Torah im
derech eretz. That implies that it’s nice but expendable; without it, it’s
also okay. The next part says that if you have Torah without work, the Torah
will be negated and lead one to sin. That’s far from just not being nice.
In order to understand this mishna, we have to turn to
the gemora in Brochos which points out a contradiction between two
pesukim: on the one hand it’s written, v’hegisem bah yomam v’lailah,
you should learn Torah day and night. But it’s also written, v’asafta
deganecha, you shall gather in your crops. How can you maintain a total,
non-stop learning schedule and keep the farm going at the same time?
Rabbi Yishmael advises: Tanheg imahem derech eretz,
together with the Torah you should have a trade. But Rabbi Shimon counters that
if one is going to work, what will become of the Torah? Rabbi Shimon resolves
the matter by explaining that the first posuk refers to Klal Yisrael when
they are doing the ratzon HaShem; then their work will be done by others,
and the Jews will be able to learn day and night. The other posuk is
referring to a time when they’re not doing the Ratzon HaShem; that’s when
you’ll have to gather in your grain—you’ll have to work. In all cases, people
are expected to learn Torah, but if it’s not on the highest level, l’shem
shemayim, then it’s not called retzono shel Makom, and you’ll have to
work, as well.
The gemora concludes by informing us that many did
like Rabbi Yishmael and were successful; whereas many did like R. Shimon and
were not successful. The Brisker Rav asks a beautiful question: Where do you
ever see a gemora that takes a poll? Who cares whether they were
successful or not? The gemora should just have said what the halacha
is, as it does everywhere else.
Furthermore, in a mishna in Kiddushin: “R.
Meir says ‘A person should always teach his son a trade, an easy and clean
trade.’ R. Nehurai says ‘I always put aside trades and I’ll only teach my
son Torah.’” It looks like a machlokes: Torah with or without a
trade. But, as the Brisker Rav points out, the gemora in Eruvin
says that R. Meir and R. Nehurai are actually the same person. R. Meir was his
nickname, for he illuminated the exile with his Torah.
There is a similar problem in the Rambam. At the end of
Hilchos Shmitta and Yovel, he writes, "Not only Shevet Levi but anyone who
feels dedicated to HaShem and willing to give up the mundane pursuits of
everyday life, is sanctified like the Holy of Holies…And HaShem will take care
of his livelihood, like he takes care of the kohanim and levi’im. In Hilchos
Talmud Torah the same Rambam says that anybody who learns Torah and doesn’t
work and lets the community support him desecrates the Divine Name and
extinguishes the light of Torah.
The Brisker Rav explains as follows: “Many did like Rabbi
Yishmael and succeeded”—that’s the psak din. “Many did like R.
Shimon”—that’s also the psak din. Meaning that there’s an approach
for the majority and one for the minority. For the majority, the halacha
is like Rabbi Yishmael, yafeh Talmud Torah im derech eretz. But for the
minority there’s a different way of life. This also explains the seeming
contradiction in R. Meir and R. Nuhorai, as well as the two Rambams. One psak
is for the minority, the other for the majority.
What is it that separates one from the other? According to
Rambam it depends on motivation.
Anyone who thinks he can learn Torah as a profession and make
a good living that way at the expense of the community is the kind of person
that it is extinguishing the light of Torah.
However, if his motivation is to fulfill a responsibility to
the Jewish people; if he feels that Hashem has blessed him with an
opportunity to dedicate myself to Torah, that’s something else entirely. Such a
person is like the levi’im and kohanim who serve in the Mikdash and are
supported by the community. So too, HaShem promises that this person
shall have his needs taken care of. For, as the Rambam says, he is Kadosh
HaKadoshim, the Holy of Holies.