5769 - #19




From the direction in Shemot 25:11 that the wooden ark, made of shittim wood,1 should be covered both within and without with gold,2 T.B. Yoma 72b states that this teaches us that a talmid chacham, a Torah scholar, whose inside is not like his outside is not a talmid chacham. The gemara is setting a standard for the Torah scholar – tocho k’boro, one’s inside should be as his outside. The question is, though: what does this mean? Even more bewildering: how can this standard even be measured? We can only judge based on what we are able to see. How can we know if such outer behaviour and conduct is a true reflection of what a person is actually feeling and thinking or whether these outer behaviours are really only false illusions?

            From T.B. Brachot 28a, it actually seems that there was a time when there was an attempt to apply this standard. When Rabban Gamliel was the Nasi, the President of the Sanhedrin, he at first proclaimed that any student whose inside was not like his outside could not enter the beit medrash, the study hall. Only those who were tocho k’boro could enter the beit medrash to study Torah. But how could this standard even be assessed? How could one determine whether another person is tocho k’boro? The answer may be that, indeed, this method of evaluation is beyond us. The gemara continues that when Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya became the Nasi, he changed this policy and, as a result, there was a great influx of students into the beit medrash. Even Rabban Gamliel was concerned that his previous policy may have lessened Torah study within the nation.3 Yet, isn’t it obvious that if a strict standard of admission is removed that there would necessarily be an increase in attendance? Would not Rabban Gamliel have recognized that, with any standard of admission to the beit medrash, there would necessarily be fewer studying Torah? It must be that with this new policy of Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya, Rabban Gamliel, as did the other leaders of the generation, experienced an increase not only in the quantity of Torah study but in the quality. Something must have occurred to make Rabban Gamliel question his original standard. While there must be some standards in the determination of to whom it is proper to teach Torah, these standards can only be evaluated through the externals.4 We don’t know whose tocho is k’boro. Then what is the point of the gemara in Yoma informing us that a talmid chacham whose tocho is not k’boro is not a talmid chacham?

            The simplest way to possibly understand the gemara is through maintaining that it is commenting on the respect due to a Torah scholar. Viewed this way, it would be understood as asserting that even someone who is learned should not be treated as a talmid chacham if his behaviour is unacceptable. Yet such an assertion would suffer from the very challenge presented above. The gemara is applying the standard of tocho k’boro, a standard that one cannot really evaluate in another. How then could someone even apply this standard to determine whom it is really proper to respect? The gemara, also, seems to be asserting that such a person is not only not deserving of the respect owed a talmid chacham but that such a person is not even one. Ben Ish Chai, Ben Yehoyada, Yoma 72b explains tocho k’boro as an indication of someone who learns Torah for the right reason, l’shma, for the proper sake of the mitzvah.5 A person who does not learn because of this proper reason but for other reasons will, in the end, make mistakes in his Torah study and thus lack in the subsequent acquisition of Torah knowledge. It is for this reason that this person cannot be defined as a talmid chacham. The Ben Ish Chai is necessarily asserting that this is the very meaning of the gemara: the absence of the standard of tocho k’boro necessarily means that one cannot be a talmid chacham, truly knowledgeable of the truth within Torah. Yet, even if this is true, what lesson can we specifically learn from this?

            The gemara informs us that one who is not tocho k’boro is not a talmid chacham. Our first question would be: what does tocho k’boro mean? Ben Ish Chai maintains that it describes someone who learns Torah l’shma. Maharsha, Berachot 28a maintains that it refers to someone who contains yirat Shamayim, a fear of God, with his Torah knowledge.6 How does either of these two possibilities imply that one’s inner self is in line with one’s outer conduct? A further question, though, is: what is the gemara attempting to teach us with this statement? If it is trying to give us some guidance in the evaluation of another, how can we even apply these yardsticks? While it may be true that one who is not tocho k’boro, who does not learn Torah l’shma or who is lacking in yirat Shomayim lacks as a talmid chacham, how can we make such an evaluation in another? And if the gemara is attempting to assert a standard for us to each, individually, internalize, do we not already know the importance of tocho k’boro, Torah l’shma and yirat Shomayim? Yet, the only one for whom we could make an evaluation of tocho k’boro is ourselves.

            Rabban Gamliel originally felt that the only one who should be a student of Torah is the one who was tocho k’boro. The lesson of Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya was that this was not a possible standard for being a student. How could a teacher know what is in a student’s heart? Furthermore, how could one expect to reach such a standard while still a student? Tocho k’boro effectively demands consistency. The growth of a student emerges from the attempt to be consistent, from motivating oneself to reach for the aspirations one dreams for oneself even while living with the gulf between whom one actually is and whom one wishes to become. To ask the student to be consistent means to ask the student to accept a lower standard of whom one is today rather than who one wishes to be. Yet at some time, such a disparity yields a problem. One cannot be a talmid chacham unless there is some consistency between who one is internally and how one acts externally. At this point, one cannot live with disparity even if it reflects a desire to reach a higher standard. True knowledge emerges from a consistency of self. There is a point when we cannot simply dream about who we wish to be but be who we are. It is at this point that we can understand what it truly means to be a talmid chacham.

Rabbi Benjamin Hecht e-mail


1 Referred to in Shemot 25:10.

2 Rashi, quoting the gemara, explains that, in fulfillment of this verse, there were actually three containers or arks created by Betzalel, one of wood and two of gold. The smaller of the gold ones was intended to fit within the wooden ark and then this wooden one was to fit within the larger gold one.

3 The gemara does recount, though, that Heaven attempted to appease Rabban Gamliel since the purpose of his policy was l’shem Shomayim, for the sake of Heaven

4 See, further, Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Talmud Torah 4:1.

5 While Torah l’shma is the standard to which we are to aspire in our Torah learning, the actual meaning of this term is a matter of dispute throughout the Torah literature. My attempt was to translate it in a most generic way, in a manner that could imply various different understandings of this term. Further on this subject, though, see Rabbi Norman Lamm, Torah Lishmah.

6 This would be in line with Tehillim 111:10.

 (c) Nishma, 2009




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