Mo'ed Katan 9 - 15
The Measure of a Mitzvah
Rabbi Yonason ben Asamai and Rabbi Yehuda ben Geirim both said, “One verse refers to a mitzvah that can be done by others, whereas the other verse refers to a mitzvah that cannot be done by others.”
The gemara relates an occasion when Rabbi Yonason ben Asamai and Rabbi Yehuda ben Geirim were learning Masechet Nedarim in the Yeshiva of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. They displayed signs of very wise and pious Torah scholars, and when they departed, Rabbi Shimon sent his son to catch up with them to request a brachah from them. When he found them, he heard them teaching the meaning of two verses in Sefer Mishlei that appear to contradict one another.
One verse states, “The Torah is more precious than pearls, and all your desirable things cannot be compared to it.” (Mishlei 3:15) Rashi on our daf explains this to mean that a person should “nullify” his personal desires in order to pursue Torah study.
These two Sages note that the verse says “your desirable things,” implying that only personal pursuits should be desisted from in order to study Torah. However, “things of Heaven” — i.e. mitzvahs — should be pursued even when a person is involved in Torah study. This verse seems to teach that a person who is studying Torah should pause from his learning if there is a mitzvah that needs to be fulfilled.
Another verse in Mishlei, note these Sages, seems to contradict this teaching. Because Torah wisdom is better than pearls, and all desired things are not comparable to it. The phrase “all desired things” includes mitzvahs. And this verse seems to teach that a person who is studying Torah should not pause from his learning in order to fulfill a mitzvah.
Rabbi Yonason ben Asamai and Rabbi Yehuda ben Geirim reconcile the apparent contradiction taught in these verses regarding a person who is studying Torah and faced with a mitzvah that needs to be fulfilled. The first verse implies that he should pause to fulfill the mitzvah, whereas the second verse implies that he should not. The Sages explain how this can be reconciled: “One verse refers to a mitzvah that can be done by others, whereas the other verse refers to a mitzvah that cannot be done by others.” In other words, if a mitzvah cannot be done by others, a person should pause from his learning to fulfill it, but if it can be done by others, he should continue his studies while others fulfill it.
This concept is taught in Shulchan Aruch Yoreh De’ah 246:18. “When a person is faced with the opportunity to both study Torah and to fulfill a mitzvah, if it is possible for the mitzvah to be fulfilled by others, he should not pause from this study; and if it is not possible to be fulfilled by others, he should pause to fulfill the mitzvah and then return to his Torah study.”
In any practical case, one should consult with a local authority as needed in order to clarify what constitutes a “mitzvah that cannot be fulfilled by others” in any given case. For example, if a student is studying Torah and knows of an injured student who needs lunch brought to his room, may the student involved in learning Torah assume that other Yeshiva students not currently learning will be able to fulfill the mitzvah to bring the lunch?
Commentaries point out that although as a rule a person who is involved in a mitzvah is exempt from doing another mitzvah that arises at the time, a person involved in Torah study is an exception. “A greatness of Torah study is that it leads to action” — i.e. mitzvah fulfillment. Torah study is not meant to be purely academic. Rather, it should not only instruct but also compel the Torah student to fulfill the teachings of the Torah.
When I was a newcomer to Eretz Yisrael and a talmid of HaRav Moshe Shapiro, zatzal, I once asked him a sheilah pertaining to this halacha in Shulchan Aruch. I began, “There seems to be an almost daily levayah (funeral) for a great and holy Torah scholar, and my understanding is that there is an obligation to attend each one, wherever it may be. Then I asked, “Am I obligated to pause from my Torah study to attend them all?” The Rav replied that he heard from a great Rabbi of an earlier generation to carefully look at the concluding words in Shulchan Aruch that pertain to the obligation to pause Torah study to fulfill a mitzvah: “And then he will return to his Torah study.” He explained, “One has an obligation to also return to his Torah study, and must therefore determine appropriate criteria for when to go to a levaya and when to stay in the Yeshiva to learn Torah.”
- Mo'ed Katan 9b