For the week ending 6 December 2003 / 11 Kislev 5764

Torah and 'Making a Living'

by Rabbi Yirmiyahu Ullman -
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From: Scott in Dallas, TX

Dear Rabbi,

I was told that according to Jewish law a person must work for a living. If so, how do those people who only study Torah all day justify their lifestyles?

Dear Scott,

At first glance it would seem that what you were told is correct. Maimonides strongly criticizes one who relies on charity to support full-time Torah study: "Anyone who decides to study Torah and not work, making his living from charity, desecrates G-ds name and disgraces the Torah.Any Torah that is not accompanied by work will lead to its own undoing and cause sin".

However, elsewhere Maimonides appears to contradict this statement. While teaching that the Tribe of Levi has a special dispensation from laboring for their living he adds: "And not only the Tribe of Levi [is exempt from working], but any person whose spirit moves him to separate himself and stand before G-d, to serve Him in order to know Him...behold he has become sanctified as the Holy of Holies, and G-d becomes his portion, his inheritance forever. And G-d will provide his basic necessities for him in this world, as with the Priests and Levites".

The "Brisker Rav" resolves this apparent contradiction based on the fact that both of these lifestyles are taught in the Talmud. Rabbi Yishmael teaches that the study of Torah is to be accompanied by earning a livelihood, as in the verse "And you shall gather your grain". Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, however, contends that when Israel is sincerely dedicated to learning Torah, G-d sees to it that others will do their work. Abaye remarks that many did like Rav Yishmael and succeeded in both working and learning, while most of those who did like Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai did not succeed in either.

The Brisker Rav explains that Abaye intends to clarify that Rabbi Yishmael's path is for most people, while Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai's approach is appropriate for only a few, determined individuals. Therefore, the first statement of Maimonides which encourages working, is referring to the masses. The average person's commitment will not stand up to the demand of full-time Torah study. However, the second statement exempting Torah scholars from labor is directed to those individuals who are able to fulfill such a commitment.

Rabbi Moshe Isserlis (Rama) states that ideally one must work to support himself and family, but only to provide for the basic essentials, while the rest of ones time should be dedicated to learning Torah. He notes, however, that the custom of "all places in Israel" is that Torah scholars are supported by the community. Rabbi Israel Meir Kagen (Chafetz Chaim) adds that nowadays anyone may learn Torah full-time, since it is so difficult to simultaneously devote oneself to a livelihood and also master the Torah.


  • Maimonides, "Yad Hachazaka", Talmud Torah, 3:10
  • Ibid., Laws of Shemita and Yovel, 13:13
  • Rabbi Yitzchak Ze'ev Soloveichik (Brisker Rav), "Maran R.Y.Z. on the Torah", Parshat Chayei Sarah
  • Talmud, Berachot 35b
  • Shulchan Aruch, Laws of Talmud Torah, 246:21, Rama
  • Rabbi Israel Meir Kagen (Chafetz Chaim), "Mishna Berura", Laws of Berachot 231:1, Biur Halacha

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