Parshat Bechukotay

In memory of Reuven ben Sarah

Toiling in Torah

1. …אם בחקתי תלכו…ונתתי גשמכים בעתם
2. Yeshiva Education
3. Behind the Scenes
4. The Ultimate Example of Continuity
5. “Do Not Disturb!”
6. Genuine Torah
7. Post Script

…אם בחקתי תלכו…ונתתי גשמכים בעתם

(If you follow my statutes…I will provide you with rain at the appropriate time…)

As Rashi explains, this verse teaches us about “toiling in Torah study” (שתהיו עמלים בתורה) Indeed, the Chazon Ish
( ק”א ח”א ס י’ב ) points out, all the brachot in the following verses are reserved for those who exert themselves in studying Torah. This concept of toiling in Torah – known in Hebrew as amal ba’Torah – refers to more than intellectual exertion alone, as we shall soon see.

One sign of amal ba’Torah is total absorption in one’s Torah learning. One can witness this in a serious beit midrash where study partners often voice their opinions in booming voices without disturbing those studying right next to them. Compare this with the library or study hall in the secular world where it is accepted that people need silence in order to concentrate.

This is just one of the many differences between the approach to learning in the yeshiva world versus the approach just about everywhere else. Indeed, many yeshiva students are unaware of the many significant differences which they simply take for granted. A few years ago, a non-religious Israeli professor visited Yeshivat Mir in Jerusalem – host to almost 6,000 students – and recorded the differences he observed:

The Talmudic scholar studies and explains his point of view using his hands.
He often sways while studying.
He usually studies with a partner.
When he asks the teacher a question, he gets up and goes over to the teacher. Out of respect, he usually remains standing while the teacher continues sitting. This is different from the secular classroom where the student usually raises his hand, and the teacher address the question while the student remains seated.
In Talmudic study, the student is expected to manage relatively long periods of concentration – at times even four and a half hours. This is very different from the secular educational systems where focused learning times or class periods tend to be no more than an hour.
The study halls of yeshivot thunder with noise, and it does not seem to bother anyone.Instead of learning by reading with the eyes alone, the students insist on verbalizing, considerably slowing the reading.
A question-and-answer format is very widely used.
No cell phones are allowed in the beit midrash.
Yeshiva Education

After thinking about these differences, the professor reached the conclusion that the learning in the yeshiva beit midrash is education at its best. “Education” comes from the Latin word “educor” – to pull out or extract. And this is just what yeshiva learning is all about. Let us elaborate.

Upon being asked a question by a teacher, a student’s mind will extract the information on his own. This is far superior to being spoon-fed by a teacher. Real education involves drawing conclusions through outside guidance. This results in recall far superior to that of the student who is responsible only to swallow information. When studying in pairs, the student is expected to verbalize the information and ideas in his own words while relaying it. By learning in pairs, each partner stimulates the other’s intellect for maximum results.

Verbalizing the information and ideas with excitement (even if sometimes a bit artificial), helps one focus and contributes to long-term memory. Studies have proven that students absorb information in noisy classes better than in silent ones. The commonly used technique of starting off in a low tone of voice and gradually increasing the volume adds to the listener’s excitement about the information and ideas being discussed.

The swaying while learning affects body heat and helps blood circulation, sending oxygen to the brain which contributes to clear thought and focus. The rhythm caused by swaying enhances concentration as well. This is why it is more effective to study while standing, pacing or walking. (It is not surprising that the theory of relativity was conceived while walking!) Body movement keeps the mind awake and energetic, and brings emotion into learning.

Behind the Scenes

Although the professor’s observations are revealing, there are many things that he could not possibly be aware of. Behind the scenes, the first conscious decision the true yeshiva student must make is how high he wants Torah study to be in his hierarchy of values. A good resource for the serious student for the proper way to Torah learning is found in the end of Pirkei Avot (6:5) where the 48 traits and techniques needed to succeed in acquiring Torah are listed. All the blessings attributed to one who toils in Torah are for learning through these 48 “ways.” The first on the list is learning with continuity. We see this clearly from the Chafetz Chaim’s characterization of a proper Torah study session: It must be uninterrupted Torah learning unless something comes up that must be taken care of specifically by the learner and specifically in the midst of learning (Mishna Berura, Shaar HaTzion 250:9). The ultimate example of continuous learning (besides Moshe Rabbenu) was that of Rabbi Akiva.

The Ultimate Example of Continuity

Rabbi Akiva was encouraged by his wife Rachel to maximize his potential by learning Torah away from home for twelve years. Rabbi Akiva grew in his studies and became Rosh Yeshiva for 12,000 students. When the twelve years had passed, Rabbi Akiva returned home with his students, all the while expressing the gratitude he felt towards his wife. All of our Torah learning is in her merit, he told them. Before entering his home, he overheard his wife saying to a friend that if it were up to her, she would be delighted if her husband would continue learning for an additional twelve years. Upon hearing this, Rabbi Akiva returned to his yeshiva to complete a total of twenty four years of uninterrupted Torah study. (Ketubot 63b)

Rabbi Chaim Shmuelevitz asks the obvious question: Why didn’t Rabbi Akiva enter his home for a few minutes, and have a cup of tea with his wife before returning to learn for a further twelve years? His answer is legendary: In this context, twelve plus twelve does not equal twenty four!

But, we might ask, doesn’t the question remain? If R Akiva had already left yeshiva to come home to his wife, had he not already broken his continuity?

The answer to this question provides us an important rule of thumb. As long as Rabbi Akiva was doing what the Torah expected of him – such as visiting home for family obligations – he was still in the same flow of constancy in Torah learning by living according to its obligations. But once he overheard his wife saying that she would rather he continue learning another twelve years, then entering his home for his own reasons would break his 24-year learning streak.

“Do Not Disturb!”

Anything that will interrupt continuity, such as the use of cell phones, is a breach in a proper study session. I remember a more subtle application of this important principle. In one yeshiva where I studied, there were no cups for the students to drink from the water fountain. Wanting to offer students the option of drinking in a more comfortable way, I set up a “cup fund.” But when the Rosh Yeshiva found out about it, he approached me and asked if he could donate all the cups. He wanted to keep his yeshiva a place where nothing else is “going on” except for learning – not even cup funds.

Genuine Torah

During this time of year especially – the period of Sefirat HaOmer – we should remind ourselves that the proper approach to Torah study goes all the way back to Matan Torah and the Mishkan. The Ba’al HaTurim writes that the two Cherubim facing each other on top of the Holy Ark symbolized (among other things) two students learning together, asking questions and answering one other (Sh’mot 25:18). Furthermore, the way we accepted the Torah at Mt. Sinai – with thunder, lightning and fire – is the way it must be passed on through the generations. Practically speaking, this means that whatever excitement or “fire” that can be instilled into our Torah learning is essential for re-living Matan Torah. Unity and mutual responsibility – like all the 48 requirements listed in Pirkei Avot – are absolutely necessary for Torah learning. These, too, were a crucial part of accepting the Torah at Mt. Sinai (כאיש אחד בלב אחד). This is the way we accepted the Torah – and the only way it can be passed on is in its original form. These qualities are so crucial that all 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva perished because they did not possess them to the extent they should have. Thus, despite their superior learning, they were prevented from being the ones to transmit Torah to future generations.

Post Script

Students of Torah sheh-Ba’al Peh know that the Gemara repeatedly uses a question-and-answer format. Indeed, it never hesitates to question even basic assumptions. And this is a technique we can use effectively in our own lives as well. The way a question is asked is going to affect what type of answer the brain will come up with. A great question can give birth to a new approach; it can even change humanity.

One powerful question that a Jew should ask himself is the one asked by Rabbi Akiva, then a shepherd, when he noticed that steady dripping of water had cut through rocks. Must a rock always remain a rock, or can small, constant change as consistent and gentle as dripping water make a major revolution – either to a seemingly rock-hard assumption or even to person set in his ways? In our terms: Can I get more out of life than I am at the moment; can I change significantly for the better and realize my full potential?

Shabbat Shalom

In memory of Reuven ben Sarah

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About the author, Yosef

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