Torah Im Derech Eretz

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Torah Im Derech Eretz ravCarmell

Torah Im Derech Eretz –

Rav Hirsch and Rav Dessler

Rabbi Aryeh Carmell

We have been led to believe that there are two and only two possible approaches to the vexed question of Torah im Derech Eretz.

The yeshiva world is said to believe that the lechat’chila of Torah life – the optimum course to be adopted in all cases – is to devote oneself to full-time Torah learning for as long as humanly possible. To go out into the world and earn one’s living in a normal way is a course to be adopted only bedi’eved – when there is no other alternative. The Hirschian principle of Torah im Derech Eretz, which seems to encourage early entry into commerce or the professions, is seen as hora’at sha’ah – an extraordinary decision intended to meet special circumstances.

The Hirschians on the other hand see the situation in precisely opposite terms. According to them, entry into commerce or the professions is a lechat’chila of Torah life. An intensive education in both Torah and secular studies should enable young people to excel in their chosen occupation and become independent financially, while at the same time maintain the highest standards of halachic behaviour and a regular schedule of Torah study. This is seen as the norm. The modern model which directs young people to devote their lives to Torah to the exclusion of all economic activity is seen by Hirschians as hora’at sha’ah.

In reality both these modes co-exist in Torah. The Hirschian approach can be soundly based on the famous dictum of Rabban Gamliel III (3rd cent.) in the Mishna (Avot 2:3) from which the slogan “Torah im Derech Eretz” is taken:

The study of Torah goes well with earning a livelihood, for the effort required by both together puts sin out of one’s mind.

It is also firmly based in halacha. Rambam in Hilchot De’ot (“Laws of Behaviour”) expects every “sensible person” to provide himself with a livelihood before marriage (5:11) and gives him advice on how to arrange his business affairs on a sound economic basis (5:13). He should also eat properly and dress properly according to his means (5:10) and sleep eight hours every night (4:4).

Rambam’s severe strictures on one who prefers to learn all day and live on charity (Hilchot Talmud Torah 3:10) are well known. On the whole, it would seem a sensible, soundly based life style is recommended, in which Torah, mitzvot, and derech eretz are all given due attention.

Side by side with this balanced, “normal” view, we find a completely different ideal. In the same Hilchot Talmud Torah (3:9) Rambam writes “the words of the Torah are to be found only in one who… removes all desire for worldly pleasures from his mind; doing each day a little work, just sufficient for his needs – if he has nothing to eat – and learning Torah the rest of the day and night.”

And a little later (3:13) he writes:

He who wants to acquire the crown of Torah must be careful not to lose any one of his nights in sleep, or in eating and drinking and conversation.

Gone is the prescription for the normal eight hours sleep a night. Gone the balanced life-style. Single-minded pursuit of Torah is now the order of the day. Absent-mindedness for the normal concerns of life is considered praiseworthy. On the verse in Mishle (5:19): “In her love (i.e. love of Torah) you shall be ravished always,” Rashi comments “For love (of Torah) you shall make yourself absent-minded and foolish, forsaking your own affairs and running to (hear) a word of halachah” (Eruvin 54b). In order to learn Torah, Rabbi Yohanan sold property which could have supported him in his old age (Shemot Rabba 47:5).

Rabbi Eliezer the Great, at the age of twenty-six, gave up a large inheritance and ran away from home to study Torah in Jerusalem at the yeshiva of Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai, where he rose to unprecedented greatness.

The following ringing declaration comes from Rambam at the end of Hilchot Shemitta veYovel:

Not only the tribe of Levi but any person in the world whose spirit prompts him and whose mind convinces him to separate himself to stand before God in order to

serve Him… and who casts off the yoke of the many calculations pursued by other

people1 — he is sanctified, holy of holies, and God will be his portion in all eternity, and will also grant him a sufficiency for his needs in this world.

Here we have in the sources, side by side, the Hirschian way and the way of the yeshivot and kollelim of the present day. “These and those are the words of the living God.” But how to decide which way to adopt?

An eminent contemporary rabbi has suggested that each person should be guided by the custom of his family. But apart from the fact that this course is often not feasible in present circumstances, in the writer’s opinion the decision must be made on a much deeper level.

What did Rambam say? Let us listen to it again. “Whoever wants to acquire the crown of Torah…” “Anyone whose spirit prompts him and whose mind convinces him…” It must be an individual, personal decision, arrived at after much heart-searching and clarification.

The Gemara (in Ta’anit 21a) relates an episode in the lives of two amoraim, Ilfa and Rabbi Yohanan, in their student days in Eretz Yisrael. They were suffering such deprivation that they made up their minds to leave the yeshiva and go out to earn a living. After all, they said, earning one’s living is also a mitzva. They sat down to eat their lunch in a field, in the shade of a rickety wall. As they were eating Rabbi Yohanan heard two angels conversing. One said “Look at these two. They are leaving eternal life for the life of the moment. Let us push the wall over and do away with them.” The other replied, “No, leave them alone. One of them is destined for greatness.” Rabbi Yohanan said to himself, “Since I heard this and Ilfa didn’t, it must be meant for me.” Rabbi Yohanan went back to yeshiva, suffered, and eventually became Rosh Yeshiva and Gedol Hador. Ilfa went on to become a shipping merchant, but retained his greatness in Torah. His words are frequently quoted in both Talmudim.2

Here we have the essence of the problem. Rabbi Yohanan listened to the inner voice of his spirit and chose to suffer at first in order to realise his full Torah potential. Ilfa did not blindly follow his colleague but followed the mitzvah as he saw it. It is certainly a kiddush Hashem when the world sees that a successful businessman or professional can still be a fully observant Jew and a talmid-hacham. On the other hand, along this road, one has reason to believe, one’s livelihood will be more secure. One may even hope to achieve a degree of affluence, which will of course be used to support Torah and one’s needier brethren. The road of “Torah only” is likely to involve a good deal of insecurity and financial difficulty. The rewards may be great, but they will be of a purely spiritual nature.

Which road to follow must be the person’s own, genuine, inner choice.3 To adopt the “Torah only” life-mode just “to follow the crowd,” without strong inner motivation, will not succeed. We must remember that Abaye begged his students “not to inherit two Gehinnoms” (Yoma 72b). If they were not sincere they would have one Gehinnom in this world, since learning Torah involves much effort and deprivation, and still face another Gehinnom in the other world, when they fail to reach the spiritual goal that beckoned to them here.4

Young people are often enthusiastic for the more challenging lifestyle, while their parents insist on what they consider the more normal, safer road. The present writer well remembers the struggles Rabbi Dessler z.t.1. had with Orthodox parents in his endeavours to persuade them to allow their children to follow the other path. Sometimes he succeeded; sometimes he failed. His “failures” became outstanding examples of Torah im Derech Eretz. His “successes” all proceeded to occupy important and influential positions in the Torah world.

Of course his “failures” were not really failures. A person who makes a genuine choice because “the spirit moves him” to serve God in this particular way, is without doubt pursuing a Torah ideal. Gedolim who consider the all-round needs of Klal Yisrael are fully aware of this. When Rabbi Y. Abramsky, the acknowledged head of yeshivot in Eretz Yisrael, heard that the son of one of his friends intended to become a doctor, he said “Good. We need more frum doctors in Eretz Yizrael.”

Rabbi Dessler considered it a “failure” if any member of his kollel in Gateshead accepted any position other than direct involvement in a yeshiva or other Torah educational institution. The writer personally recalls the anguish he suffered when one of his talmidim, under pressure from his wife, accepted a responsible communal position not directly connected with education. This must be attributed to the pressing needs of the immediate post-Holocaust period. (See the moving declaration in “And it came to pass after the destruction,” Strive for Truth: I, p. 205). Even after fifty years, post-Holocaust needs are still in the forefront of our concern. There can be no doubt that this partly accounts for the extraordinary emphasis on this derech in yeshivot all over the world. However in America, Great Britain and other countries it is considered perfectly normal and acceptable if a ben Torah, after having learnt in Yeshiva as many years as necessary to become a lamdan, then goes into business or a profession. There are many business partnerships in New York at the present time which enable each partner in turn to take off half days for learning. This might be called “delayed Torah im Derech Eretz” emerging at a higher level.

The conclusion is therefore that there is no one Torah ideal to the exclusion of any other. Each is legitimate in the right circumstances and at the right time. Which to adopt at any given time must be an individual decision. It is a decision which must come from the heart, and at all costs it must be honest and sincere.


  1. This does not mean that one who opts for “Torah first” lives a type of quasi-monastic existence, oblivious of the affairs of this world. This would not be Torah Judaism. When Rambam writes “to separate himself… to serve God” he does not mean “separate himself from the world” but “separate himself from his selfish interests.” The mitzvot by which he serves his creator include looking after the needy and oppressed and taking up the cause of justice wherever necessary. They also include disseminating Torah and sanctifying God’s name in all his human contacts. The “calculations” referred to are e.g. those which people normally make when they are thinking about their careers; such as, “If I study for so many years I will get a salary of such an amount,” and so on.
  2. Though he knew more Torah than R. Yohanan, because of the time spent on his shipping activities he failed to attain the status of Rosh Yeshiva (see Ta’anit 21a and Rashi ib.) It may or may not be relevant that “Ilfa” in Palestinian Aramaic means “ship”.
  3. It is also possible to guide a son to opt for this life-style, but only if he shows extraordinary natural propensities for this kind of life. This emerges from a discussion of a difficulty in the last mishna of kiddushin. First Rabbi Meir states that a father is obligated to teach his son a trade; otherwise it is as if he taught him banditry. Later in the mishna Rabbi Nehorai (who according to Rambam is Rabbi Meir by another name) declares: “I will leave all trades and teach my son only Torah.” What about the obligation to teach one’s son a trade? Some commentators answer that Rabbi Meir’s statement refers to ordinary people, while the son referred to in the second statement showed unusual alertness, smartness and desire for Torah-learning, so that he would certainly merit having his physical needs looked after by others (Pnei Yehoshua). Alternatively, he showed at an early age the exceptional faith and trust in God needed to carry him through this type of life successfully (Sefer Hamakneh). Here we have a clear statement of the nature of the two options.
  4. There are other pitfalls for the unwary. The Mishna on Torah im Derech Eretz which we quoted above (Avot 2:2) continues with the words: “All Torah study without work will not last, and will lead to sin.” Rabbenu Yonah Girondi (13th Cent.) in his commentary on the Mishna is not slow to point out the sins that are likely to result. Poverty, he says, will lead one to accept gifts from all and sundry (itself fatal), and this will lead to attempts to manipulate the donors. When gifts dry up, the person in his destitution will be compelled to resort to dishonesty, and this opens the floodgates to all the crimes in the Torah. According to the view presented in this article, all this applies to the person who chooses the path of Torah only for reasons of peer pressure or from some other external motivation, without possessing the love of Torah, the abundant faith and the inner toughness needed to triumph over the undoubted trials and difficulties which this path involves. Support may be found for this view in the commentary of Maharal on this Mishna.

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