Rabbi Isaacs describes how the primary texts of Jewish tradition, even the Shema itself, enjoin Jews to study Torah. Following one standard approach, Rabbi Isaacs states that Torah study is rewarded because it leads to the performance of the commandments. This is, perhaps, an oversimplification. For some rabbis, Torah study is clearly a value in and of itself. Nevertheless, the citation at the end of this article from Menachem Mendel of Kotzk certainly alludes to the greatest reward of all: By studying with and in the presence of children, Jews try to ensure the ongoing study of Torah and our Jewish heritage. This article is reprinted from The Bible: Where Do You Find it and What Does it Say?, published by Jason Aronson.
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and all your soul and all your might. Take to heart these instructions with which I charge you this day. Impress them upon your children. Recite them when you stay at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise up.” Deuteronomy 6:5-7
Because the Torah is the touchstone of the Jewish people, Jews are often called “the people of the book.” The book of course is the Torah, the Five Books of Moses. But Torah is more than just one book. It can also refer to all of Jewish sacred literature and learning. The rabbis emphasized the study of Torah because they believed that Torah study leads a person to the observance of other mitzvoth [commandments].
In the first paragraph of the Shema, which is derived from the Book of Deuteronomy 6:4-8, the Jew is charged to express his or her love for God through constant study, “When you lie down and when you rise up.” Such study has the potential to bring the people into a closer relationship with God. Torah study sweetens one’s life. To emphasize this sweetness, children–especially in Eastern Europe–used to begin their study of Hebrew with letters that had been written in honey. As they learned the letters and enjoyed the honey, they also learned that the study of Torah was sweet.
We find the instruction to study Torah wherever we turn in Jewish tradition. Torah study was encouraged not only to sharpen one’s mind, but also to serve as a guide for living a moral life. The logic goes this way: One who takes Torah study seriously will most likely choose the right path in life. For this reason, the mitzvah of Torah study outweighs all other commandments. The rabbis of the Talmud wrote: “These are the things for which a person enjoys the dividends in this world while the principal remains for the person to enjoy in the world to come. They are: honoring parents, loving deeds of kindness, and making peace between one person and another, but the study of the Torah is equal to them all” (Talmud Shabbat 127a).
Here are some statements from rabbinic tradition that aptly sum up the importance of Torah study.
-“The world stands on three things: on Torah, worship, and loving deeds of kindness” (Ethics of the Fathers 1:2).
-“Make your home a regular meeting place for scholars” (Ethics of the Fathers 1:4).
-“Be a disciple of Aaron: love peace and pursue it, love your neighbors, and attract them to Torah” (Ethics of the Fathers 1:12).
-“Shammai taught: Make the study of Torah your primary pursuit” (Ethics of the Fathers 1:15).
-“One who has acquired Torah has acquired eternal life” (Ethics of the Fathers 2:8).
-“If you have studied much Torah, your reward will be abundant” (Ethics of the Fathers 2:21).
-“The Torah is a tree of life to those who cling to it. All who uphold it are happy”(Proverbs 3:18).
-“If you truly wish your children to study Torah, study it yourself in their presence. They will follow your example. Otherwise, they will not themselves study Torah but will simply instruct their children to do so” (Rabbi Menahem Mendel of Kotzk).
Pronounced: MITZ-vuh or meetz-VAH, Origin: Hebrew, commandment, also used to mean good deed.
Pronounced: shuh-BAHT or shah-BAHT, Origin: Hebrew, the Sabbath, from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday.
Pronounced: shuh-MAH or SHMAH, Alternate Spellings: Sh’ma, Shma, Origin: Hebrew, the central prayer of Judaism, proclaiming God is one.
Pronounced: TALL-mud, Origin: Hebrew, the set of teachings and commentaries on the Torah that form the basis for Jewish law. Comprised of the Mishnah and the Gemara, it contains the opinions of thousands of rabbis from different periods in Jewish history.
Pronunced: TORE-uh, Origin: Hebrew, the Five Books of Moses.