The Tisch: Overcoming the Talmud Stumbling Block

Posted by Levi Cooper on March 29, 2017
Topics: Hasidic Lore Series

Studying Torah and sincere prayer are two pursuits that are central to the Jewish experience. What is the relationship between these two ventures? Are they complementary or do they compete with each other? Must one be sacrificed for the other, or can both be pursued and attained? Let us not be fooled: There are no easy or stock answers to these questions, but the compelling complexity and contemporary relevance of the issue prods us to consider the relationship between meditating on God and meditating on the texts of our hallowed tradition.

According to one approach in hassidic collective memory, associated with Rabbi Shmuel Shmelke Halevi Horowitz of Nikolsburg (1726-1778), the enterprise of studying Torah is perceived as a disruption to the lofty challenge of heartfelt communion with the Almighty.

Hassidic lore relates that Reb Shmelke began his career – together with his brother Pinhas – as students of the Vilna Gaon. The brothers, however, were drawn to the circle of the maggid (preacher) of Mezritch, Rabbi Dov Ber (d.1772) where they became enchanted by the nascent hassidic movement.

Reb Shmelke and Reb Pinhas came from a rabbinic family, and from 1754 Reb Shmelke served as the rabbi of Ryczwol. Some 10 years later he moved to the rabbinate of Sieniawa, and in 1773 he became rabbi of Nikolsburg, Moravia – today Mikulov, Czech Republic. In each of these posts, Reb Shmelke had a local yeshiva where some of the leading lights of the next generation of hassidism studied.

One of Reb Shmelke’s disciples was Rabbi Moshe Yehuda Leib of Sassov (1745-1807), who studied under Reb Shmelke in Nikolsburg. Reb Moshe Leib’s descendant – Rabbi Hayim Elazar Shapira of Munkatch (1871-1937) – recounted that Reb Shmelke charged his disciple Reb Moshe Leib with a specific job: When Reb Shmelke was teaching Torah, Reb Moshe Leib was tasked with audibly pronouncing the biblical verse “I have placed the Lord before me constantly.”

(Psalms 16:8) Reb Shmelke, it appears, was concerned lest the intensive immersion in Talmud study would result in a momentary lapse in focus on the Almighty. Reb Moshe Leib’s job was to remind all those present that the intellectual pursuit of Torah should not be disconnected or detached from God.

The great writer Shmuel Yosef Agnon (1888-1970) colorfully scripted a different – but germane – scenario: “The rabbi got up and went to the synagogue and prayed there together with the messengers from Buczacz, but he did not talk to them and did not look at them, for while he prayed he was removed from all worldly matters, and there are those who say, that he was removed even from the words of Torah, for he attained Divine assistance that Torah should not interrupt his prayers.

And in this matter he was truly unique in his generation, for most of the scholars of the generation required great effort to pray without being disturbed by explanations or questions and answers in Maimonides and the Tosafot and even more so the various commentaries” (Agnon, Ir Umeloah (A City and the Fullness Thereof), p. 395).

Reb Shmelke was concerned that Talmud immersion would temporarily sever the link with God; Agnon’s rabbi was a master of prayer, who – unlike his contemporaries – was able to lay the Talmud aside while communing with God through prayer. In both cases, Talmud is cast as a stumbling block to communion with God.

While Rabbi Hayim Elazar of Munkatch recounted his ancestor’s task to remind the Talmud learners of God, he himself may have felt differently.

According to the Munkatcher Rav, the only legitimate reason to stop meditating on the Divine is to focus on Torah study. The Munkatcher Rav buttressed his contention with a creative reading of an adage from the sages. In Ethics of the Fathers, our sages declare that there is no free person, except for one who studies Torah (Avot 6:2). Rabbi Hayim Elazar explained: The only time you are licensed to be free from focus on God, is when you are studying Torah! There are, therefore, at least two strands of thought in hassidic tradition regarding the relationship between studying Torah and meditating on God. According to one approach, Talmud is a honey trap – sweet as it may be, it flirts with the danger of losing focus of the Divine.

According to an alternative approach, not thinking about God is legitimate if we are engrossed in the holy study of Torah.

Interestingly, both approaches acknowledge that immersion in the intellectual pursuit of Talmud study may be coupled with a loss of focus on God. The only question is whether this is a price that we should be willing to pay in order to study Torah…

About Levi Cooper

Levi teaches Bible, Hasidut, Maimonides and Midrash at Pardes. Originally from Australia, Levi holds an LL.B., LL.M. and Ph.D. from the Law Faculty of Bar-Ilan University, and is a member of the Israel Bar Association. He is currently an adjunct professor in the Law Faculty of Bar-Ilan University and post-doctoral fellow in the Law Faculty of Tel Aviv University. Click here to read more.

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