The People of the Book

As we begin the cycle of reading and studying the Torah once again from Bereshit, Genesis, I believe that it is appropriate to focus on the commandment of Torah study.  One of the hallmarks of Jewish life throughout the ages has been a passion for study.  This characteristic is so marked that for centuries we have been identified as the “People of the Book.” Unlike other religions and cultures, Judaism has never restricted academic learning to a particular caste, tribe or family. Torah study was and is the preoccupation not only of teachers and clergy, but of the entire nation. The renowned Jewish scholar of the 12th century, Maimonides, writes:

Among the great Sages of Israel were woodchoppers and water-bearers, and some who were blind.  Nevertheless, they engaged in the study of Torah day and night, and they were part of the chain of transmission of the Torah, person to person, back to Moses our teacher.

Throughout history, Jews with widely varied backgrounds have been outstanding Torah scholars.  Two of the greatest Talmudic Sages, Shmaya and Avtalyon, were descended from Sennacherib, the Assyrian ruler who invaded Israel and exiled ten of the twelve tribes. Onkelos, whose Aramaic translation of the Torah is printed in almost every Hebrew Bible, was a convert and nephew of the Roman Emperor, Titus.  Judah the Prince, editor of the Mishnah, was a fabulously wealthy businessman;  Hillel, a revered leader and president of the Sanhedrin9 was a pauper.

Among the great medieval commentators, Rashi was a vintner, Rabbi Yehuda Halevy was a professional poet; Maimonides and Nachmanides were both physicians.  In short, the Torah is the universal inheritance of the entire Jewish people, regardless of their origin or social standing.

The obligation to study and teach Torah is emphasized repeatedly in the Bible and in the works of the Sages and the reward for this mitzvah is considered equal to that of all the others together. Jewish law is unequivocal in exhorting people to study Torah:

Every Jewish man is obligated in the study of Torah, whether he is rich or poor, whether in good health or suffering, young and old, even if he is of an advanced age and very weak.  And even if he was so poor that he was living on charity, and begging at doorways, and even one who must support a wife and children, is obligated to set aside time, every day and every night, for the study of Torah.

Although the Biblical obligation of Torah study is directed toward Jewish men, women are not exempt from the commandment to study. The Code of Jewish Law rules: Every Jewish woman is obligated to study all the laws of the Torah that are applicable to her.

Commenting on the obligation of women in Torah study, the Chafetz Chaim, one of the most influential of scholars of the last century, stated:

In the days that everyone lived in the place of their forefathers, and the chain of tradition was strong, it was possible to exempt women from study, since they could rely on what they had learnt and received from their parents.  However, nowadays, when people do not live where their parents live, and the transmission of the Torah has been weakened, and especially since women study the languages and cultures of other nations, it is beyond any doubt, a great obligation to teach our daughters the Torah, the books of the Prophets and the Writings, and the ethical teachings of our Sages, such as the Ethics of the Fathers… and other such works…

Non-Jewish observers have often noted with wonder the degree to which the Jewish people have taken the obligation of universal education to heart, and have made Torah study a central part of Jewish life.  A Christian scholar visiting Warsaw in the early twentieth century recounted the following incident:

Once I noticed a great many coaches in a parking place but with no drivers in sight.  In my own country, I would have known where to look for them.  A young Jewish boy showed me the way; in a courtyard on the second floor was the shtieble [combination synagogue and study hall] of the Jewish drivers.  It consisted of two rooms — one filled with Talmud volumes, the other a room for prayer.  All the drivers were engaged in fervent study and religious discussions… It was then that I found out… that all professions — the bakers, the butchers, the shoemakers etc. have their own shtieble in the Jewish district; and every free moment which can be taken off from work is given to the study of Torah.

In my neighborhood in Jerusalem, literally thousands of people spend much of their spare time studying. Classes are offered in Hebrew, English, Yiddish, Spanish, French and Russian.  There are Talmud classes that meet before sunrise, women’s Bible study groups that meet every Shabbat afternoon and on weekday mornings, special programs in which parents and children study together at a synagogue, and public lectures attended by hundreds every Saturday night. Doctors, lawyers, accountants, refrigerator repairmen, storekeepers, university professors and police officers gather every evening to study Torah together. This scene is common in Jewish communities around the world, and was a widespread phenomenon in the lives of our ancestors, regardless of what was going on in the outside world. A 12th century monk observed:

…the Jews, out of zeal for God and love of the law, put as many sons as they have to letters, that each may understand God’s law…  A Jew, however poor, if he had ten sons, would put them all to letters, not for gain, as the Christians do, but for the understanding of God’s law, and not only his sons, but his daughters.

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