Talmud Torah as Self-Actualization

Very much enjoying working on my current VBM series on Torah study. I particularly enjoyed writing the section below, in which I discuss Talmud Torah as a form of self-actualization.


A final perspective on the nature of talmud Torah emerges from a consideration of the laws governing the mourner, who is prohibited from studying Torah. What is the basis of the mourner’s prohibition, and how might this rule reflect more broadly on the nature of talmud Torah?

The Gemara in Mo’ed Katan (15a) derives a series of prohibitions incumbent upon the mourner from a verse in Yechezkel (24:17), in which God instructs the prophet that although he will be stricken by a plague, he must abstain from engaging in typical mourning observances. He is therefore instructed “He’anek dom,” “Moan silently,” among other practices. On the basis of this verse, the Gemara derives the prohibitions against she’eilat shalom (greeting a friend) and Torah study. At first glance, the nature of the latter derivation is unclear. We understand the linkage between silence and not greeting a friend. The mourner often finds him or herself in an inward, anti-social state. It is therefore inappropriate for him to greet others. But the reasoning behind the prohibition of Torah study is unclear. Presumably, a mourner can study privately yet remain “silent.” How are we to understand the Gemara’s basis for the issur of talmud Torah?

Perhaps troubled by this strange linkage, some Rishonim reinterpreted the issur in light of another Gemara concerning Torah study on Tisha Be-Av. As the Gemara (Ta’anit 30a) points out, many of the prohibitions of aveilut apply on Tisha Be-Av as well, including that of talmud Torah. The Gemara also rules that one is permitted to study sorrowful materials, such as the relevant sections of Iyov and Yirmeyahu. Yet the Gemara, after citing this prohibition and adding that children similarly do not attend class on Tisha Be-Av, cites the verse from Tehillim (19:9), “Pikudei Hashem yesharim mesammechei lev,” “God’s precepts are right, rejoicing the heart.” This implies that the issur talmud Torah on Tisha Be-Av is rooted not in “He’anek dom,” but in the fact that talmud Torah is an inherently joyous experience, which contravenes the spirit of Tisha Be-Av, the saddest day on the Jewish calendar.

Based on this Gemara, some Rishonim seek to reinterpret the prohibition of Torah study for a typical mourner. Rabbeinu Tam (cited by Tosafot, Mo’ed Katan 21a, s.v. Ve-asur), for example, while having initially held that a mourner is barred from all forms of Torah study, concluded in his old age that a mourner may also study Torah that is mournful in nature. Ramban (Torat Ha-adam, cited in Beit Yosef, YD 384) cites various views on this subject. According to Rabbeinu Tam, the true conceptual basis for the mourner’s issur is “Pikudei Hashem yesharim mesammechei lev.” As for “He’anek dom,” Rabbeinu Tam argues that the verse cannot be taken as the literal source for the mourning prohibitions. In support of this view, he points to the prohibition of wearing tefillin, which only applies only on the first day of mourning, despite there being nothing in the verse to support this conclusion. Similarly, Rabbeinu Tam concludes, “He’anek dom” is not the true basis for barring the mourner from engaging in talmud Torah.

Others, including Rabbeinu Yitzchak (cited by Tosafot above; cf. Meiri, Mo’ed Katan 15a, s.v. Avel), disagree, maintaining that there remains a basic distinction between the nature of the prohibition for typical mourners versus the prohibition on Tisha Be-Av. In Meiri’s words, “For the avel, the matter depends on silence; whereas on Tisha Be-Av, it is only a matter of suffering.”

Assuming we do take the view that the mourner’s prohibition is truly rooted in “silence,” we must inquire more deeply as to its reasoning. The mourner, after all, is not barred from speaking. And if the matter is dependent on interacting with others, as the issur of exchanging pleasantries would appear to imply, why is he barred from private Torah study?

Another perplexing detail in the Gemara should be noted in this context. Mo’ed Katan 21a rules that if the mourner is needed by the community, he may teach them Torah. This seems unusual: if he is barred from Torah study, why do we relax the prohibition simply because he is needed by the community? Similarly, the Yerushalmi (Mo’ed Katan 3:5, cited in Beit Yosef, YD 384), rules that a mourner who feels compelled to study (literally lahut achar ha-Torah, ignited to pursue Torah) may do so. Again, why break the rules simply for one who wants to study? Do we permit milk and meat for someone who craves a cheeseburger?

To appreciate what is happening, let us turn to a classic aggada in Nida (30b). The Gemara teaches:

R. Simlai delivered the following discourse: What is the fetus like in its mother’s womb? A folded writing tablet. Its hands rest on its two temples respectively… A light burns above its head and it looks and sees from one end of the world to the other, as it is said, “Then his lamp shined above my head, and by His light I walked through darkness” (Iyov 29:3)... And there is no time in which a man enjoys greater happiness than in those days, for it is said, “O that I were as the months of old, as in the days when God watched over me” (ibid. v. 2). It is also taught all the Torah from beginning to end, for it is said, “And he taught me, and said unto me: Let your heart hold fast my words, keep my commandments and live” (Mishlei 4:4), and it is also said, “When God was familiar in my tent” (Iyov 29:4).

What could this possibly mean? Why learn in order to forget?

As Rav Soloveitchik notes in his article “Redemption, Prayer, Talmud Torah” (Tradition 17:2, pp. 55-72),[7] this passage is highly reminiscent of the Platonic theory of anamnesis, which asserts that all learning is really a form of recollection.[8] While at least in some instances Plato presents this notion on the basis of the immortality of the soul, the Gemara does not invoke the transmigration of the soul. Instead, as the Rav contends, the Rabbis seem to be suggesting that the Torah is an essential part of our identity. In the Rav’s words:

R. Simlai wanted to tell us that when a Jew studies Torah he is confronted with something which is not foreign and extraneous, but rather intimate and already familiar, because he has already studied it, and the knowledge was stored up in the recesses of his memory and became part of him. He studies, in effect, his own stuff. Learning is the recollection of something familiar. The Jew studying Torah is like the amnesia victim who tries to reconstruct from fragments the beautiful world he once experienced. In other words, by learning Torah man returns to his own self; man finds himself, and advances toward a charted, illuminated and speaking I-existence. Once he finds himself, he finds redemption. (ibid. 69)

In light of Rav Soloveitchik’s striking thesis, we may better understand the nature of the mourner's exclusion from talmud Torah. Talmud Torah is a form of self-expression in that it constitutes a search for personal identity. By learning, we find not only the wisdom of Torah but also, in a sense, our deeper selves. Such a search for personal identity is contrary to the experience of the mourner. An avel experiences a sense of alienation not only from those around him (as exemplified by the prohibition of she’eilat shalom) but also from himself. For this reason, the personal search of Torah study runs counter to the experience of the mourner, who is torn asunder by the terrifying news of personal loss.

Armed with this interpretation, we may return to the two puzzling halakhot we noted above. If Torah study is prohibited, why may the avel teach if he is needed by the community? Perhaps the reason for this leniency is that in this instance, the mourner’s motivation in studying is not to forge one’s own identity but to teach others. In this situation, there is a unique reason for leniency.

We may similarly explain the passage in the Yerushalmi regarding someone who is emotionally attached to talmud Torah. Due to one’s love for learning, one whose identity is so inextricably interwoven with Torah study will not be capable of foregoing one’s sense of personal identity during the mourning period. For such an individual, there is no use in prohibiting Torah study during this period of aveilut.

This approach allows for a fuller appreciation of the importance of talmud Torah. To properly grasp Torah study allows us to understand not only God’s will, but also the Torah that He has implanted within us.

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