Torah Study on Shabbat: A Match Made in Heaven

Parshat Vayakhel opens by informing us that Moshe Rabbeinu gathered the entire community and conveyed to them the laws of Shabbat. Noting that no other parsha in the Torah with the term vayakhel, and implicitly attempting to account for the link between this phrase and the day of rest, the Midrash Tanhuma (408) relates:

Said God: Make for yourself great throngs of people, and publicly expound before them the laws of Shabbat, so that future generations will learn from you to gather groups of people every Shabbat… to teach the laws of what is prohibited and permissible, so that My great name will be praised among my children.

Interestingly, this midrash is not the only source that links Shabbat and Torah study. As a punishment for having feasted during the community’s weekly shiur, Gittin 38b teaches, a wealthy family lost its entire fortune. Indeed, R. Joseph Karo codifies the obligation of Torah study on Shabbat in Shulhan Arukh (O.C. 290:1).

At first glance this requirement is perplexing. There is a daily obligation for males to study Torah; why ought Shabbat be any different? A survey of the commentaries reveals a variety of explanations.

On pragmatic grounds, one who works all week long has more time available to study on Shabbat than throughout the week. Tur (O.C. 290), for instance, cites a moving midrash that when the Jews entered the land of Israel and ran to their respective fields, the Torah approached God, inquiring as to whom would be his match. God responded:

I have a partner I will match up with you; its name is Shabbat, during which they desist from work and are able to engage with you.

Along similar lines, in a remarkable passage the Talmud Yerushalmi (Shabbat 15:3) cites a view that the very reason God instituted the mitzvah of Shabbat was to facilitate widespread Torah study!

Other commentators suggest (Meiri, Shabbat 118b; Bakh, O.C. 290) that as Talmud Torah involves a unique degree of joy (pikudei Hashem yesharim mesamhei lev), Torah study constitutes an ideal fulfillment of oneg Shabbat.

A third approach may be suggested on the basis of the aforementioned Tanhuma. After the section cited above the text continues,

Moses declared, If you [study Torah], God considers it as if you have appointed Him king in this world, as the verse states, ‘You are my witnesses, this is the word of God (Isaiah 43:10).’

In other words, by engaging in public Torah study on Shabbat and yom tov, we implicitly testify that God is Creator and Master of the world, a theme uniquely appropriate to Shabbat and yom tov.

At first glance, the midrash's conclusion appears baffling. What precisely is the connection between Talmud Torah and testimony to creation? Apparently, this association rests on two underpinnings. First, properly conceived, Torah study constitutes the paradigmatic act of kabbalat ol malchut shamayim, acceptance of the yoke of heaven. The Torah itself serves as the paramount witness to God’s role as Creator and Master of the world. For this reason, many commentators maintain that one may fulfill the biblical obligation of reciting the Shema by studying Torah (e.g., Ritva Berakhot 21a s.v. sha'anei). Second, acceptance of the yoke of heaven, as an outgrowth of the recognition of God as Creator, occupies a central place among the themes of Shabbat (see Ramban Devarim 5:14, as well as the introductions of the Arukh Ha-Shulhan, Hayyei Adam and Mishnah Berurah to the laws of Shabbat).

Ultimately, the uniqueness of Torah study on Shabbat illuminates both. On one hand, it serves to illustrate the importance of kabbalat ol malchut shamayim as a Shabbat motif. On the other hand, it also underscores an essential ingredient of Torah study. Ideally conceived, Torah study is far more than a mere intellectual exercise. Instead, Talmud Torah inculcates an ethic of surrender and submission to the Almighty, centerpieces of our religious philosophy and experience (see The Halakhic Man, footnote 4). Torah study on Shabbat, then, is truly a match made in heaven.