Every morning, Jews traditionally recite a series of blessings expressing gratitude for various aspects of our lives. Interestingly, one of these is a blessing for studying Torah, and because one cannot recite such a blessing without performing its associated mitzvah, the liturgy includes three passages for us to “study” immediately after saying the blessing. The third of these is a fairly well known passage from Mishnah Peah, which lists a number of commandments, and concludes with the words:
And Torah study is k’neged them all.
What does this word k’neged mean? It might be familiar to you from the book of Genesis, when Eve is created to be a helpmate k’neged Adam — a companion standing opposite him. Generally, k’neged is translated as “against” or “in opposition to,” which doesn’t really seem to make sense, either in the story of Adam and Eve or in the context of Mishnah Peah. So most translations of this mishnah, including in most prayerbooks, render it “Torah study is equal to them all,” which would mean the mishnah is teaching us that study of Torah is equal to all other mitzvot.
But that’s also a puzzling conception of Torah study. If studying Torah is equal to all other commandments, why do we have so many other commandments?! Let’s just study Torah and fulfill all our religious obligations!
A passage on today’s daf helps elucidate this.
Rabbi Yosei says: Anyone who says he has no Torah, has no Torah.
Isn’t this obvious? Rather: Anyone who says he has nothing other than Torah, has nothing other than Torah.
Isn’t this also obvious? One does not receive more reward than he deserves. Rather: It means that he does not even have Torah.
What is the reason? Rav Pappa said: The verse states: “That you may learn them (the commandments) and perform them.” (Deuteronomy 5:1) This verse teaches that anyone who is engaged in performing mitzvot is considered to be engaged in Torah study, while anyone not engaged in performing mitzvot is not engaged in Torah study.
Rav Pappa is making an amazing claim here: Performing mitzvot and studying Torah cannot be separated from one another. If a person thinks that because she is spending all her time learning Torah she is exempt from other mitzvot, not only is she incorrect, but she also negates her learning so that she is not considered to have studied Torah!
The implication of this claim is that a life of study is religiously meaningless if it is not also a life of action, of performing mitzvot that strengthen our relationship with God, and of being involved in mitzvot through which we care for others and the world around us.
Bringing this passage back to our original question, Rav Pappa’s statement suggests that whether we translate k’neged as “opposite” or as “equal,” the mishnah in Peah should be read as cautionary. If we are wrapped up in learning, we may come to view Torah study as more important than any other mitzvah, as equal to all of them combined. Or, we may see our study as “against” other mitzvot, in conflict with them. Either understanding could lead us to privilege learning over action, to shrink back from our world and into the refuge of our books.
In this reading, the passage from Peah is an appropriate way to start each day: We remind ourselves of the importance of Torah study, but not to the exclusion of engaging in our world through other mitzvot, thereby challenging us to bring both learning and action into our day.
Read all of Yevamot 109 on Sefaria.