5767 - #37


The last two mitzvot in the Torah, as presented by Sefer HaChinuch, Mitzvot 612, 613, essentially concern limud HaTorah, the study of Torah. Devarim 31:12 instructs the entire nation to gather, on the Succot after the Shemitta year, to hear the king read, publicly, a section of the Torah. The public reading of a section of the Torah is, by definition, an act of limud haTorah.  Devarim 31:19 commands each individual1 to write, for themselves¸ a sefer Torah. This writing of a sefer Torah, many commentators2 point out, is for the purpose of having texts from which one is able to study. Both practices are essentially tied to the process of Torah education yet, the two mitzvot are distinctive. In a certain way, they focus on different aspects of the full experience of limud haTorah; both aspects being necessary to appreciate the full nature of Torah study.

Obviously, there is a difference in these mitzvot in that one focuses on the communal experience of Torah study while the other focuses on the personal process. This can be noted in the very description of the purpose of each mitzvah as presented by the Chinuch. It is through our personal learning, the Chinuch points out, that we establish our personal behaviour, knowledge of Torah and personal relationship with God – but that is not enough. In explaining the reason for the national reading by the king, the Chinuch states that thereby one is to recognize the unique nature of the Jewish People, distinguished through its commitment to Torah. The Jewish relationship with God is ultimately through the nation, through our individual identity as a member of this unique community, of klal Yisrael. Personal study is important and, so, the last mitzvah in the Torah demands of us to be continuously and constantly prepared for Torah study with our own sefer Torah, our own sefarim, books. But there must also be a further dimension to our study, the national/communal one as presented in the second last mitzvah. We must join together, formally, in learning. Yet, this dimension demands further explanation.

A library demands silence for reading; the comprehension of ideas demands the concentration that emerges from privacy and silence. It is no different in Torah study and, as such, it should not be surprising that a great amount of the practice of limud haTorah of many gedolim, over the centuries, happened in the privacy of their rooms. This is the lesson of the mitzvah of ktivat sefer Torah, of writing our own Torah – of having our own sefarim – for, to fully comprehend the depth of Torah, we have to have the ability to learn within the personal realm of our own space. It is only within this context that we can concentrate and use our complete intellectual faculties to apprehend God’s Word. But, different from other methods of study, limud haTorah cannot exist solely in the academic atmosphere of the library and the personal space of concentration. Limud haTorah has an existential side to it that drives us to recognize that it is more than an intellectual endeavour, more that a process by which to know God and His Word; Limud haTorah is a defining experience in itself. There is clearly a difference between learning in a crowded beit midrash, amongst the chants of others learning, and learning in the privacy of one’s own study. It doesn’t just inform the Jew how to be a Jew; it is the defining statement of the Jew. In gathering together all the people to hear the king, there is great pageantry. The lesson of the moment goes beyond the words that are actually read. There is a lesson in the moment; that is why the command includes the bringing of children to the event. Limud haTorah is not just a process by which we learn how to act as a Jew; it is, in itself, part of being a Jew. As such, it must be done in the context of the nation, in the context of life experiences. We don’t just learn when we have the quiet moment for thoughtful introspection; we learn in all places and all times – limud haTorah must be part of living.

It is for this reason that the beit midrash is such a significant part of the process of learning. Of course there are times that we must leave the beit midrash so that we can have the space necessary to properly concentrate and understand the Torah message. Yet, our opening experience in learning is in the beit midrash, in the environment of a community devoted to this process. To truly experience limud haTorah it cannot be solely academic. It must touch our emotions. As in the pageantry of the king’s reading, we must experience the event. I remember when I was a teenager in Toronto’s Yeshivat Ner Israel, Rav Moshe Feinstein once visited Toronto and gave a shiur in our yeshiva. The shiur was in Yiddish, of which I do not understand a word. Nevertheless, being in the beit midrash, sitting attentively throughout the hour long presentation although I had no idea of what was actually being said, is one of my most lasting memories. I experienced Rav Moshe. There was a Torah lesson in the event. There is an important existential side to limud haTorah. This is the focus of the king’s reading.   

In the same way that one can lose sight of the existential side of limud haTorah and recognize only its academic dimension, one can also lose sight of its academic side and only see its existential side. We may introduce the child to the world of Torah study through the experience of hearing the king’s reading or, in our time, through bringing them to the beit midrash. 3 But we also have to ensure that the academic side of limud haTorah is not, thereby, ignored. Devarim 31:184 further warns us that there may be times that the pageantry of Torah is also hidden and still we must go on. This is the realm of the personal and Torah study fueled by its intellectual dimension. Through the process of the mind and concentrated Torah study, we must integrate the ideas of Torah into our being. We bring the child to hear the king’s reading but then we must direct the child, as an adult, to write a sefer Torah, for himself. Similarly, being in Rav Moshe’s shiur only had its lasting effect because of my connection to him, through the years, in his sefarim. The national and the personal. The existential and the intellectual. The variant dimensions of limud haTorah – which must be forged in creating the ideal of Torah study.

Rabbi Benjamin Hecht


1 The issue of whether this mitzvah applies to women or not is beyond the parameters of this Insight.

2 See Piskei HaRosh, Hilchot Sefer Torah 1 as well as Sefer HaChinuch 613 which extend this mitzvah to other sefarim beside a Sefer Torah, specifically because the very purpose of the mitzvah is study. One should note, however, the difference in language between these two Rishonim.

3 See, also, Rashi, Avot 2:8.

4 This is the famous verse of hester astir, alluding to the time period of the Diaspora and when God’s Face is hidden.

© Nishma, 2007

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© 2006 NISHMA