Learning Torah - More Precious Than Pearls Honor For Pharaoh’s Priests

Dec 30, 2011

Towards the end of Parshas Vayigash, Yosef purchases land for Pharaoh from the Egyptian people.  The Torah then narrates: "Only the land of the priests he did not buy, since the priests had a stipend from Pharaoh, and they lived off their stipend that Pharaoh had given them; therefore they did not sell their land." (Bereishis 47:22)


A few psukim later, the Torah repeats - "Only the priests' land alone did not become Pharaoh's." (Ibid. 26) Why does the Torah inform us of this detail and why is it emphasized by repetition?  One explanation is that the Torah wishes to stress a kal vachomer: "If Pharaoh accords such honor to his idol-worshipping priests, by providing them with food and not confiscating their land, how much more so must we honor our Kohanim who serve Hashem in the Beis Hamikdash!" (see Bereishis Rabbasi Parshas Vayigash).  The way we provide for our Kohanim is by giving them matnos kehuna - the priestly gifts.


The Gemara (Bechoros 26b) tells us, "Kohanim, Leviim, and the poor, who help in the house of the shepherds, the threshing floor, and in the slaughterhouses, we (the owners) do not give them trumah or maaser as a reward. If they do so, they have desecrated them.  Regarding them the pasuk states, 'You have corrupted the covenant of Levi,' (Malachi 2:8) and another pasuk further states, 'Sanctities of the Children of Israel you shall not desecrate, so that you shall not die.' (Bamidbar 18:32)"  Conversely, a Kohen may not offer any form of assistance to the one who has given him trumah; doing so incurs  the death penalty.


A Yisrael may suggest that his fellow Yisrael give his matnos kehuna to a particular Kohen, and the Yisrael who gives the priestly gifts is permitted to accept compensation from the Yisrael who asked him to do so.  The Kohen or Levi himself, however, is forbidden under any circumstances to give any form of compensation to the Yisrael who gave him trumah or maaser.  According to the above Gemara, payment may not even be made discreetly, such as by assisting the owner with some of his tasks.


Why is this so?  Does Judaism not encourage a person to have hakaras hatov - recognition and gratitude - for the good another has done for him?  With so many Kohanim to choose from, should the recipient Kohen not be grateful that he was chosen above all the others?  He may even have received a large share which otherwise would have been divided among many Kohanim.  Is some show of appreciation not called for?  Hakaras hatov is such an intrinsic part of Judaism that Chazal tell us that one who lacks hakaras hatov toward his fellow human being will eventually have no gratitude to Hashem.  As the Torah tells us, Pharaoh at first "did not know Yosef," (Shmos 1:8) and eventually proclaimed, "I do not know Hashem!" (Shmos 5:2, see Shmos Rabba 1:8)  If hakaras hatov is so basic to our belief, why should the Kohen or Levi who wishes to express it be punished?


The Torah provides us with the reason why the Kohen and Levi are given gifts.  "For it is a wage for you in exchange for your service in the Tent of Meeting." (Bamidbar 18:31)  The Kohanim and Leviim are not being given handouts; they are salaried employees of the Beis HaMikdash!  If they were to show appreciation to those who gave them matnos kehuna, for example by assisting them, that would be like declaring that working in the Beis HaMikdash was not sufficient cause for compensation!  This amounts to disdain for their work, and it is said of one who does so: "You have corrupted the covenant of Levi." (Malachi 2:8)


Recently I came to the understanding that perhaps this explains the nature of the sin committed by Korach and his followers.  Moshe Rabenu asked them, "Is it not enough for you that the G-d of Israel has segregated you from the Assembly of Israel to draw you near to Himself, to perform the service of the Tabernacle of Hashem, and to stand before the Assembly to minister to them?  And He drew you near, and all your brethren, the offspring of Levi, with you - yet you seek priesthood as well!" (Bamidbar 16:9-10)  Should Korach not have been praised for yearning for a higher degree of spirituality and wishing to serve as a Kohen?  His method of demanding it - by publicly degrading Moshe Rabenu and his prophecy - may leave much to be desired, but what is wrong with the actual wish to serve alongside the Kohanim?  Is this just cause for punishment?


Based on what we have just discussed, the answer is clear.  The work of the Leviim was of great significance, as we can deduce from the Rambam's words: "Just as the Leviim are warned against performing the work of the Kohanim, so too the Kohanim are warned against performing the work of the Leviim." (Rambam Hilchos Klei HaMikdash 3:10)  Korach was in fact declaring that being a Levi was not honorable enough for him and he wished to climb one step higher and become a Kohen.  Holding the tasks of the Leviim in contempt amounts to "corrupting the covenant of Levi," an offense punishable by death.


The matnos kehuna as compensation for services rendered is not just a mere philosophical idea.  The Ktzos HaChoshen (243:4) claims that it has legal implications.  The Gemara (Yevamos 99b) tells us that trumah may be given to a Kohen who is under age.  How is this possible?  After all, a child does not halachically take possession of gifts which are given to him, so how does a person who gives trumah to a child Kohen fulfill the mitzvah of giving trumah?  The Ktzos HaChoshen explains that although a child may not make an ordinary acquisition, he may be compensated for a job done. (See Tosafos Sanhedrin 68b "katan")   Given that the Kohanim are compensated for tasks performed in the Beis HaMikdash, the child may receive and legally acquire trumah.  Although a child does not perform any actual function in the Beis HaMikdash, he is given these priestly gifts as compensation for work performed by other family members and Kohanim in general.


Although, as we have said, the Kohanim earn a salary for their work, the Torah did not intend them to work only for the purpose of receiving compensation.  The Kohen's motives must be leShem Shamayim, for the purpose of performing Hashem's mitzvah.  Now, one may ask if there is really a difference whether we view the payment as compensation for a job performed or as a gift.  There is a major difference!  The recipient of a handout is embarrassed, which is why charitable gifts should be given in the most inconspicuous way possible.  However, there is no halachic requirement for an employer to compensate his employees discreetly.  The Kohen and Levi have no reason to be embarrassed.  They are employees of the Beis HaMikdash and as such have earned whatever compensation they may receive.




In the same way as we view gifts for Kohanim and Leviim as compensation for services rendered, so too must we view financial support of those who study Torah.  Stipends given by the Yeshiva or Kollel are not a gift but a salary - they are earned.  The Jewish nation is in need of people who spend their days studying Torah, just as it is in need of Kohanim to serve in the Beis HaMikdash. 


Although learning only for the sake of receiving a salary transforms the Torah into "an axe with which to dig (for food)," (Avos 4:5) it is preferable to study Torah shelo lishma than not to learn at all.  "One should always be involved with Torah and mitzvos even if not with the proper intention, for doing it without the proper intention will lead to doing with the proper intention." (Pesachim 50b)  We find a similar notion regarding Balak.  Chazal (Sotah 47a) tell us, "In reward for the forty-two sacrifices that Balak, king of Moav offered, he merited that Ruth descended from him and Ruth was the ancestress of Shlomo HaMelech, of whom it is said, 'Shlomo offered up a thousand offerings on that Altar.' (Melachim I 3:4)" Balak's base intention in bringing the offerings was to help him curse the Jewish nation, yet despite his negative intentions, he was rewarded for having brought them.  There is value in learning and performing mitzvos even shelo lishma. 


A person whose whole desire is to learn, who accepts a stipend in order to be freed from the burden of having to earn a living, is not learning "for the sake of receiving a reward" (Avos 1:3) but rather lishma.  The compensation enables him to learn, for we know "If there is no bread, there is no Torah." (Avos 3:17)  The fact that the Yeshiva provides him with three meals a day and, if he is married, also provides assistance in supporting his family, does not turn the Torah into an axe with which to dig for food, rather the food becomes the axe with which to "dig" into the Torah.


Just as the Kohen and Levi are obligated to value their work and to recognize that they deserve compensation, so too is it incumbent on one who studies in Yeshiva and receives any sort of compensation to realize that he is earning his wage.  The Torah he learns is worth far more than what he is receiving, "For wisdom is better than pearls and all desires cannot compare to it." (Mishle 8:11)  Not only is he not being given a handout, but he is making an enormous contribution to the Jewish people.  There is a tremendous need for Torah scholars and an even greater need for Gedolei Yisrael.  The Gemara relates how the tzdukkim incited Yannai to kill all the sages of the time.  Yannai asked: "'But the Torah, what will become of it?'  (They responded) 'Behold the Torah scroll is rolled and it rests in the corner. Anyone who wishes to study it, let him come and study.'" (Kiddushin 66a)  The tzdukkim's retort was that killing the sages would make no difference because the Torah is always available for people who wish to learn it.  The Gemara continues, "This answer is satisfactory for the Written Torah, but what of the Oral Torah?" (Ibid.)  The Written Torah may be placed in a corner, but without sages and Torah giants to interpret it and explain it to us, we cannot possibly understand it.  This did not bother the tzdukkim, because they denied the existence of the Oral Torah in any case.  We, however, understand that without Torah sages, there can be no one to teach the Torah.  Having people devote their lives to the study of Torah is of the utmost importance, and it is up to us to ensure that there will be a next generation of gedolim.




In a similar vein, the Gemara tells us, "If either he or his son can study, he takes precedence over his son." (Kiddushin 29b)  In other words, if at any particular time it is impossible for both the father and son to learn Torah, if, for example, there is urgent work to be done in the house, the father's obligation to learn takes precedence.  Rav Yehuda qualifies this: "If his son is diligent, bright, and retains that which he has studied, his son takes precedence over him." (Ibid.) In fact, this is the halacha.  Why?  Although the son cannot fulfill his father's obligation of Talmud Torah by his own learning, we have an additional obligation to produce gedolei Yisrael.  Rav Yehuda is of the opinion that this obligation is greater than one's personal obligation to learn.  Thus, if the son has the potential to become a gadol, his obligation takes precedence.  Where would we be without gedolei Yisrael?  What would have become of Shabbos observance without the Mishna Brura and Shmiras Shabbos KeHilchasa?  A person can master the entire Shulchan Aruch and still not know whether or not he is permitted to answer his telephone on Shabbos.  New situations arise in each generation, and without gedolim, there would be no one to rule on such issues.  One can argue, "When in doubt follow the more stringent view," but this is not always a practical approach.  For example, the Israeli Army as well as hospitals are often in need of heterim.   Only gedolim can guide us in these areas and teach us what is permitted under extenuating circumstances and what is forbidden even in such situations.


We are in need not only of gedolei Torah, but also of other holy vocations such as Rabbonim, soferim, mohalim, etc.  Such people will certainly not arise from the secular element of our population unless they become baalei tshuva, speedily in our day.  Until the Baga"tz (Israeli Supreme Court) rules that there can be secular Rabbonim, we will have to produce them from within our own ranks!  The same goes for soferim, mohalim, and shochatim.  Furthermore, the Gemara states that one who says, "Of what use to us are the Rabbis? They study Scripture only for themselves, and they study Oral Law only for themselves," (Sanhedrin 99b) denies the explicit words of the Torah: "I would spare the entire place on their account." (Bereishis 18:26 - referring to the possibility of tzaddikim in Sodom)  Had there been righteous people in Sodom, Hashem would have pardoned the entire population in their merit.  People who study Torah are not simply fulfilling their own needs; they are providing for the entire Jewish people. "If My covenant with the night and with the day would not be; had I not set up the laws of heaven and earth." (Yirmiyahu 33:25) - they are sustaining the entire world.




Today, we are unfortunately witness to the fact that those who do not engage in Torah study often descend to the depths of depravity, sometimes becoming involved in drugs, satanic cults, etc.  "ki hem chayenu"  - "for they are our life" is not simply a figure of speech; it is to be taken literally!  The Torah is "the tree of life for those who grasp it." (Mishle 3:18)  A drowning man can survive only as long as he can keep his head above water.  If he spots a log floating above the water, will he begin searching for kulos?  Will he ponder whether holding on with one hand is sufficient to save his life, or perhaps only with three fingers?  Certainly not!  He will grab the tree with both hands and with all his strength.  If possible he would wrap his legs around it as well!  He understands that his life depends on that log and once he relinquishes his hold, he will drown.


Ideally we should study Torah non-stop, for learning is our life.  Would anyone contemplate ceasing to breathe for the next fifteen minutes?  Torah is oxygen - we cannot stop learning for even one moment.  The only reason we cannot learn non-stop is that "the Torah was not given to ministering angels." (Kiddushin 54a)  We are human beings and must live our lives accordingly.  The only stipulation is that we do not waste time unjustifiably.  A person who takes advantage of every available moment will never be asked why he did not learn more.  Eating and sleeping are necessities and valid reasons for not learning - "Hashem exempted one in extenuating circumstances." (Avoda Zara 54a)  Not only is such a person not punished for the time spent not learning but he is rewarded: "Even if a person contemplated fulfilling a mitzvah and was unavoidably prevented from performing it, Scripture credits him as if he had fulfilled it." (Berachos 6a)  How much greater is his reward for eating and sleeping if it was with the intention of gathering more strength to enable him to learn!  Yet someone who squanders his time by involving himself in purposeless pursuits has shown where his true priorities lie - he is not eating and sleeping out of necessity, but out of choice.  He will be accountable for every moment he did not learn, even when such moments are justified.


We can learn an interesting principle in Torah study from a particular distinction in the laws of Shabbos.  One of the thirty-nine categories of prohibited acts on Shabbos is to pick up objects in a private domain and put them down in a public one.  The Talmud asks, what would happen if a person were to pick up an object in a private domain, walk outside, and then stands still, without placing the object on the ground?  Is he liable as if he had put the object down?  The Gemara distinguishes between "omed lekasef" - one who stops in order to rearrange his load, thereby easing the remainder of his journey, and omed lafush - one who stops in order to rest.  The former is not considered as having put the object down, because he paused only for the sake of the continuing journey - it is as if he did not stop.  The latter, however, is considered as having put the object down and is thus liable for having violated Shabbos. (See Shabbos 5b)


The same distinction applies to bitul Torah - the prohibition of wasting time which should have been spent learning Torah.  A person who truly yearns to spend every available moment learning and wishes he did not have to break for eating, drinking, and sleeping is omed lekasef; he interrupts his learning only in order to be able to continue and is therefore rewarded even for the time he does not learn.  If, on the other hand, he proclaims, "Baruch Hashem, my learning seder is over and I can finally sit down to a good meal and get a good night's sleep," his sleeping and eating are viewed as time wasted that should have been spent learning.  Two people may do the identical act, yet its value is determined by their intention.




Bitul Torah is a very severe offense indeed.  Regarding the destruction of Yerushalayim, Chazal teach us, "Hashem forgave them for avoda zara, adultery, and murder, but did not forgive them for bitul Torah." (Yalkut Shimoni Yirmiyahu 282)  The primary reason for the churban of Yerushalayim was bitul Torah.  To this was added the nation's guilt for transgressing the three cardinal sins, but the underlying cause of all their sins was bitul Torah.  On Pesach we are all extremely meticulous not to allow even a minuscule amount of chametz into our possession.  Are we all aware that just as the minutest quantity of chametz may not be consumed, so too is the smallest amount of bitul Torah also prohibited? (barring extenuating circumstances, as we mentioned above.)


The Torah commands us: "You shall teach them thoroughly to your children and you shall speak of them," (Devarim 6:7) not only - "while you sit in your home," (ibid.) but even "while you walk on the way." (ibid.)  Travel does not exempt a person from his obligation to learn Torah.  There is no reason not to keep a pocket-sized sefer handy so that whenever the occasion arises, one can learn, for example, while waiting at the bus stop.  The Gemara teaches that for reasons of safety, a person may not study in depth while traveling, but he is permitted 'to recite.' (Taanis 10b)  Everyone knows something which he can recite by heart - perhaps the psukim of the Shma or Ashrei. (One should first make sure the area is clean, otherwise it is forbidden to recite any words of Torah.)  We must remember that the Jewish people are depending on our learning - this is our oxygen.




While we are on the subject of Talmud Torah, I would like to make an additional point.  The Gemara (Megilla 3b) implies that giving honor to the Torah takes precedence over actual Torah study.  We are obligated to treat our holy books with the respect they deserve.  The halacha instructs us as to which books may be placed on top of others - Neviim and Kesuvim may not be placed on top of Chumashim, and books of the Oral Law may not be placed on top of Neviim and Kesuvim, and certainly not on top of Chumashim.  Although our printed Chumashim do not have the same sanctity as Sifrei Torah, nor do the Names of Hashem contained therein, they still are considered as the Written Torah, so books of the Oral Law may not be placed on top of them.            We must take extreme care not to place the books upside down.  A human being would not take too kindly to being turned upside down, with his head down and his feet sticking up in the air!  Just as we would never consider placing a Sefer Torah upside down inside the Aron HaKodesh, so must we view our books in the same manner.  Just as, "Those who write Torah scrolls, tefillin, and mezuzos are not allowed to turn the parchment face down," (Eruvin 98a) we may not place our open books face down.  If one has to leave the Beis Midrash and feels he will not be able to find the page he is on, he should close the book leaving a marker in the page.  Piling up large stacks of books in such a way that one touch will send them all flying off the shtender or table is certainly disrespectful.  How can it be that the Raavad worked so hard to knock down the words of the Rambam, and with one wave of a hand we manage to knock down six volumes of his works!


Honoring the Torah is not only an obligation in itself, but it helps us to learn better. Valuing our books properly, and certainly the living Sifrei Torah - our talmidei chachamim, affords us the opportunity to learn so much more from them. 


The Gemara relates that Rav Chisda was unsure of the halacha in the case of zeh ne-heneh vezeh lo chaser, where an individual benefited from something which belongs to another at no cost to the owner.  For example, someone slept in another's yard: the man benefited by not having to rent a room, while the owner did not incur any loss. (Baba Kama 20a)  Rami bar Chama informed him that he could prove from a particular Mishna what the halacha would be.  When Rav Chisda inquired which Mishna he was referring to, Rami bar Chama's response was: "I will answer this 'as soon as you perform a personal service for me.'" (Baba Kama 20b)  It was only after Rav Chisda folded Rami bar Chama's cloak that he was given the answer.


Did Rami bar Chama really need Rav Chisda to fold his cloak?

Furthermore, Rav Chisda was not only Rami bar Chama's Rebbe, he was also a Kohen, (see Berachos 44a) in addition to being his father-in-law.  It seems Rami bar Chama should have been honoring Rav Chisda, not the other way round.  One way of understanding Rami bar Chama's behavior is that he feared that Rav Chisda would not take his words seriously.  For Rav Chisda's sake, he first demanded that Rav Chisda perform some task for him, causing him to feel a certain subservience, thus making him more open to accepting what Rami bar Chama said.  Later we read that Rava indeed challenged Rami bar Chama's proof and there is no record that Rava served him.  Had Rav Chisda not initially served Rami bar Chama, perhaps he too would have questioned Rami bar Chama's proof.


We find a similar story involving the relationship between Avimi, Rav Chisda's rebbe, and Rav Chisda. (See Menachos 7a)  The Gemara relates that Avimi went to Rav Chisda to learn Maseches Menachos.  The Gemara asks how that could be.  Should it not be Avimi teaching Rav Chisda?  The Gemara answers, "Avimi forgot Maseches Menachos and he came before Rav Chisda to be reminded of his own teachings."  The Gemara goes on, "But Avimi should have sent a message to Rav Chisda requesting that Rav Chisda come to him."  Why did Avimi go to his student?  Rav Chisda would have considered it a privilege to go to Avimi. The Gemara responds: "Avimi thought that by behaving in this way, he would be more likely to succeed." Avimi felt that by making the extra effort to go to Rav Chisda, he would appreciate Rav Chisda more as a true "source of living waters" (Yirmiyahu 2:13) and he would feel more receptive to learning from him.  Rav Chisda's shiurim would have been the same in either case.  This is tremendous mussar for us - it teaches us how to respect and value our books properly as well as those who learn Torah.  "A poor man's wisdom is despised." (Koheles 9:16)  If we wish to learn from them, our seforim and talmidei chachamim must be valuable in our eyes.




This principle applies at all times, but especially now that - "It is a time of trouble for Yaakov." (Yirmiyahu 30:7)  As usual Yerushalayim remains on the negotiating-table, religious life is being scorned upon.  What a terrible disparagement of the Torah and the Jewish people!  Who knows what they will decree next? 


During these difficult times, we must strengthen our learning.  Our job is to enhance the glory of Torah.  During the Chmielnitzki years, in the mid-seventeenth century, there lived a great mekubal by the name of R' Shimshon Ostropoler who eventually died al Kiddush Hashem.  He tried his utmost to have some of the decrees placed upon Klal Yisrael rescinded.  Suddenly the Satan appeared to him, informing him that he was willing to cancel some of the decrees on one condition; he would permit observance of Shabbos and other mitzvos but learning Torah must be banned.  R' Shimshon refused to pay such a price under any circumstances.  We must realize that learning Torah is the best merit we have to withstand these decrees.


Talking of segulos for helping us during these difficult times, my Rebbe, HaRav Gedalia Eisman shlit"a is fond of quoting Chazal: "If someone responds "Amen, yehei Shmei Rabba" "Amen, may His great Name be blessed" with all his might, the evil decree in judgment against him is torn up." (Shabbos 119b)  Some claim that "with all his might" refers to shouting loudly, literally with all his might, while others maintain that it refers to a person's kavana - to proclaim that one's entire purpose in life is that the Great Name of Hashem be blessed throughout all the worlds!  If we strengthen our belief in the A-mighty, give tzedaka and perform other acts of chesed; if we strengthen our Shabbat observance, shmiras halashon, and whatever else requires strengthening, then Hashem will help us and protect our holy sites. May we then merit seeing the rebuilding of our true connection to Har HaBayis, speedily in our day. Amen.

Venue: Yeshivat Netiv Aryeh Yeshivat Netiv Aryeh


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