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The Proper Intent for Torah Study

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Mar 17, 2005
The Proper Intent for Torah Study

In addition to the general question of the requirement of intent in mitzvot, the Talmud also takes up the question of the proper intent for Torah study, and whether such intent is necessary for that study to be valuable. The Talmud appears to give conflicting approaches to the latter question, stating in some places that study for ulterior motives is worthwhile in that it leads to properly motivated study (Pesachim 50b) , and elsewhere indicating that no merit at all is due to one who engages in such study (Berakhot 17a) .

Tosafot (Berakhot 17a s.v. ha-oseh and Ta’anit 7a, s.v. v’chol ha-osek) suggest a distinction based on the type of ulterior motives that are present. Torah study motivated by a desire for honor, for example, would be useful in encouraging further growth, while attaining knowledge as a means to attack others is worthless. R. Moshe Shternbuch (Mo’adim U’Zmanim, V, 352, in footnote) writes that the dominant issue is whether there is merely a mixture of pure and impure motives, or is the motivation completely ulterior. The Spinka Rav (Resp. Da’at Kohen, 3:4) expanding on Tosafot, assumes that simultaneous intent for an ulterior motive need not neutralize the value of the Torah study, but intent focused on misbehavior is considered “negative intent”, and does cancel the mitzvah.

The Netziv (Resp. Meishiv Davar, I, 46) suggests a distinction within different types of study. One who is absorbing existing Torah concepts, even with ulterior motives, is at the very least aquiring Torah knowledge. One who is attempting to create new ideas, and to rule in halakhic matters, but is motivated impurely, is in much more dangerous territory, as his bias will lead to a falsification of Torah. Similarly, the Chatam Sofer (Resp. O.C. 208) notes that the permission to write down chiddushei Torah, which was only reluctantly granted, is given only to those with wholly noble motives.

The Klausenberger Rebbe, R. Yekutiel Yehudah Halberstam (Resp. Divrei Yatziv, likutim v’hashmatot, 90), in analyzing the requisite intent for Torah study, considers whether it is necessary to have actual mitzvah intent like mitzvot in general, or is Torah study, which results in knowledge, to be compared to a mitzvah such as eating matzah, which has physical benefits and thus is less dependent on intent.

The Ba’al HaTania, in his Shulchan Arukh (Hil. Talmud Torah 1:4) explains that there is a mitzvah of Torah study, and there is another mitzvah of Torah knowledge. Building on this, the Klausenberger Rebbe suggests that the basic mitzvah of Torah study does require proper intent, but the additional obligation of aquiring Torah knowledge is accomplished even without proper intent, as the tangible benefits are gained, similar to the eating of matzah.

(He suggests, homiletically, that this is the question of the wise son in the Haggadah: he refers to G-d’s commandment, asking in essence if intent to fulfill G-d’s will is vital. We answer him that we do not eat after the afikomen – just as there the main concern is that the taste of the matzah remain, so too the main concern of Torah study is that the knowledge remain afterward [or at least the effect of the study without the knowledge – see R. Kook’s Ein Ayeh to Berakhot 8b).


References: Berachot: 17a Taanit: 7a Pesachim: 50b Nazir: 23b Sotah: 22b 

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