Friday, June 08, 2007

Why do we learn Torah?

I was learning yesterday a fascinating Bach (Rabbi Yoel Sirkis (1561-1640) was a prominent Polish Posek and Halachist – courtesy on Tur Orach Chaim # 47. The Tur, explaining the importance of Birchot Hatorah quotes the Gemara in Nedarim 81a that says that the reason for the destruction of the first temple was because the people of the time did not make a Bracha before learning Torah. Bach finds this quite fascinating. How can a seemingly small ritual be the cause for such a calamitous event?

He explains that HKBH wants us to learn Torah so that we should find and attach ourselves to God who is the source of the Torah. HKBH gave us the Torah so that every part of our body should partake in this endeavor[1]. We learn Torah so that we keep the Mitzvot and through them continually remember to question the reason for doing them and thus continually reminding ourselves to think about God and the search for Him. It is this state that puts man under the auspices of Divine Providence because he acts in harmony with God and how He runs things. He is no longer totally subject to the laws of nature which operate on chance.

On the other hand learning Torah so that we know how to follow the rituals without any further deep thoughts is counter productive and we end up losing our land. The way Bach puts it, if we learn Torah for material reasons so that we know the laws of tort (dinei mamonot)so that we can take advantage of them when engaged in business, or we learn to show off and be respected by others, we have not done anything. We remain under the rules of nature and subject to their randomness and chance.

The Bracha brings this thought to the fore. It reminds us to think about the source of the torah which is its whole purpose.

Unlike contemporary popular understanding of Divine Providence, Bach understood it like the Rishonim that it is a function of man’s actions. Just like individuals, a people that try to understand their part in God’s universe and act accordingly, act within the parameters of Divine Providence. They remove themselves or at least significantly reduce their dependence on the natural flow of events. They do not act just for their own survival but with a greater and broader outlook. They take control of their lives by acting in harmony with God and His creation. That is Hashgacha.

Shabbat Shalom.

A note of caution: Bach writes in a flowery language using many allegories. I have interpreted his words and translated them into a simpler language. Read the original carefully and I believe you will agree with my reading.

I hope to write a synopsis of RYBS, the Rav, shiur on Birchot Hatorah shortly. He too equates Torah with Tefilah which has the same purpose - searching for God.

[1] He refers to the symbolism of the 613 Mitzvot equaling the 248 bones and 365 muscles in our body. Rambam in the beginning of sefer Hamitzvot based on the original Gemara Makot 23b replaces the 365 muscles with 365 days of the solar year. Much has been written about the accuracy of the 248 and 365 bones and muscles.


  1. Or maybe it fell because Israel at the time did not care for geographical expansion like everyone else on the planet at the time?

  2. see maharal in intro to tiferes yisrael who similarly explains that the bracha defines the learning as a form of dveikus and ahavas Hashem the severing of which was the cause of churban.

  3. "They remove themselves or at least significantly reduce their dependence on the natural flow of events. "

    "This I believe in because of Tradition,
    This I believe in because I sense it.
    This I believe in because I can prove it empirically (I know it)."

    So which of the three is the reason we believe in this?

  4. >This I believe in because of Tradition,
    This I believe in because I sense it.
    This I believe in because I can prove it empirically (I know it)."

    None of the above.

    Man's ability to think is just like any other quality that other animals have. It is required for his survival in his environment. In his natural undeveloped satge man uses his brain to survive and no more. That leaves him at the mercy of nature and a sophisticated mathematical model can predict what he will do. IOW he is under the control of nature and chance.

    However when man uses his ability to think in self observation and deals with existential questions such as purpose of life, existence of God and his plans for existence and starts to understand and act in accord with this, his actions are geared to a broader and longer term outlook. He now no longer is predictable in his actions. That choice of acting for aloftier purpose takes him out of the natural sequence of natural events. That is Divine Providence.

    This requires a long article but I hope answers your specific question.

    Shavua Tov.

  5. "Why do we learn Torah?"

    I think that the answers that King Solomon gives to this question in Mishlei are very interesting: "Praiseworthy is a person who has found wisdom, a person who can derive understanding, for its commerce is better than the commerce of silver, and its produce [is better] than fine gold. It is more precious than pearls, and all your desires cannot compare to it. Length of days is at its right; at its left, wealth and honor. Its ways are ways of pleasantness and all its pathways are peace. It is a tree of life to those who grasp it, and its supporters are praiseworthy . . . [The words of the Torah] will be life to your soul and a graceful [ornament] for your neck. Then you will walk on your way securely, and your foot will not stumble. When you lie down you will not fear; you will lie down and your sleep will be pleasant. You will not fear sudden terror, nor the holocaust of the wicked when it comes. For Hashem will be your security, and He will guard your feet from entrapment" (Mishlei 3:13-18,22-26).

    While I am certain that these pesukim can be learned on a deeper level, Shlomo ha'Melech also tells us that they can be understood by an unlearned youth (1:4). On a simple level, his answer to the question "Why should I learn?" is: "Learning Torah and chochmah is the greatest pleasure, which will also be instrumental in providing external physical goods and removing harms and insecurities."

    Unlike the religious man, who says "Learn Torah because God says so!" or the philosopher who says, "Learn Torah because it is reality, and through it you will be closer to God," King Solomon's answer is: "Learn because learning will bring you the happiest life."