Talmud Tips

For the week ending 10 February 2018 / 25 Shevat 5778

Avoda Zara 16 - 22

by Rabbi Moshe Newman
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Whatever Your Heart Desires

Rebbi said, “A person learns Torah only from a place that his heart desires.”

In the gemara, a seemingly identical statement is made by Rava: “A person should always learn Torah in a place where his heart desires.” Both teachings are based on a verse in Tehillim (1:2) that states, “But his desire is in the Torah of G-d, and in His Torah he meditates day and night.” The words “his desire” indicate that the Torah’s learner’s desire is essential for his Torah study.

Question: Are Rebbi and Rava in fact expressing the same idea? This would seem unlikely: the gemara would be teaching a redundancy, which is something we would not expect to find in Shas. And are we able to clarify this idea, or these ideas, in a more concrete and practical manner?

First let us examine the context of Rebbi’s statement. The Sages Levi and Rabbi Shimon the son of Rebbi were sitting in front of Rebbi and learning the meaning of certain verses in Tanach from him. When they finished the sefer they were learning, they each made differing requests regarding what sefer to learn next. Levi said he wanted to learn Mishlei, and Rabbi Shimon the son of Rebbi asked for Tehillim. Somehow, Levi was overruled, and Sefer Tehillim was brought for them to learn. When they reached the second verse — “But his desire is in the Torah of G-d” — Rebbi expounded it to be teaching that “A person learns Torah only from a place that his heart desires.” Upon hearing this, Levi said, “Rebbi, with this teaching you have given me permission to stand up (from learning Tehillim, and to learn Mishlei instead, as I desire).” Rashi explains: A Rav should teach his student only a masechet that the student requests to learn from him, because if the Rav teaches a different masechet, the learning will not be successful since the student’s heart is distracted by his interest in the other subject that he desires.

The Maharsha explains that the statements of Rebbi and Rava are in fact emphasizing two different aspects of what a student needs in order for his Torah study to produce the greatest fruits. Rebbi emphasizes the importance of studying the masechet and sefer that the student desires. This is what Rebbi conveys with his choice of wording: mi’makom, from the place in the Torah that the student desires. This was illustrated in the gemara’s story about Rebbi, that involved his students Levi and Rabbi Shimon his son. Rava, on the other hand, selects the word ba’makom, meaning “in the place that the student desires”. This, the Maharsha explains, refers to the importance of a student of Torah to choose a teacher whom he feels will be best suited to teach him, and from whom he will learn Torah in an optimal manner. This reference to “in a place” might also mean going to another city or changing to another yeshiva in order to find the best Rabbi to learn from. Both teachings, Rebbi’s and Rava’s, are true and complementary.

I personally recall being told the principle taught in our sugya in the form of a practical response to a question I asked Rav Moshe Shapiro some 45 years ago. I was a student in his kollel at the time, and it was on the final day of the zman. As we travelled together to Bayit Vegan, after the final shiur until the next zman, I asked him, “Why do the bein hazmanim (intercession) periods in a yeshiva or kollel constitute more days per year than a person would normally receive as days off if he were working at a typical job?” His reply to me at the time was that these days are an opportunity to learn parts of the Torah, commentaries and Torah sefarimk’fi sh’libo chafetz” — according to the desire of each person’s heart. During the zman there is a strict regimen of what is studied at each hour of the day, generally being the same subjects for all of the students. But part of the year is left for the Torah student to leave his home, go to a beit midrash and study “that which his heart desires”. The practical decision of how to do this in an optimum manner, however, should be made with the guidance of a Rav — and Rav Shapiro guided me carefully at the time. And although the underlying goal in every case is to learn that which “one’s heart desires,” the exact path to achieving this goal will almost certainly vary from student to student, and from one time to the next.

  • Avoda Zara 19a

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