Learning Torah Is Equal to them All

On Shavuos, many of us will stay awake throughout the night, learning until we daven k’vasikin (pray at dawn). But as we finish our final cup of coffee and pat ourselves on the back, we should acknowledge for a moment that for many this is a weekly practice. And we should ponder, further, how unique this makes our nation.

During my first year in college, a lighthearted op-ed in the town newspaper complained that it was difficult to hire a student babysitter due to frequent breaks and vacations: mid-semester break, Thanksgiving weekend, winter vacation, reading period, post-exam break, and the list goes on. I responded with a letter to the editor, co-signed by my roommates, arguing the importance of independent research and our other efforts outside the classroom.

All of that was true, of course. But as I continued my college career, I slowly learned things covered neither in class nor the student handbook. Rules such as “9 am classes are for freshmen,” “the weekend begins on Thursday evening,” and “you need to be on the field by 4:30” were as important as any published by the school. Our schedules were augmented by sports, theater, music, the school newspaper, debating clubs, and even campus businesses. And, of course, that op-ed had a point: the weeks of classes and exams added up to barely six months of the year.

To say that going from college to yeshiva involved a culture shock is the quintessential understatement. The baseline expectation suddenly became nine to ten hours of learning every day plus 90 minutes of davening – for nine months or more each year. “Extracurricular activities” included eating, sleeping, and doing laundry.

But more than that – even in the best of colleges, the respected students are the top athletes, the editor of the newspaper, the top debater. Genius and innovation are respected, but due to talent more than dedication. In yeshiva, the greatest respect is reserved not for the natural genius, but for the student who commits himself above and beyond the norm.

It is the study of Torah that has produced a nation that excels in intellectual pursuits. Jews constitute just 0.2% of the world’s population, but over one-quarter of the winners of the Nobel and similar prizes in research fields are Jewish. From where did the Jewish people gain its phenomenal dedication to intellectual exploration and inquiry? Without recognizing the role of traditional Jewish learning, it is difficult to find an answer free of racial overtones.

But despite much-deserved admiration for scholarship in medicine and physics, Torah remains unique. Upon completing a Masechta (Tractate of Talmud) or Seder Mishnayos (Order of Mishnah), part of the “Hadran” compares Torah scholars to others. It says, “we toil and receive reward, they toil and do not receive reward.” Is that really true? Is there no compensation for other forms of “toil?”

The answer speaks to the unique nature of Torah: other fields reward not the effort, but the results. Even an hourly employee will be dismissed if the work product is considered deficient. Only in the field of Torah scholarship is the effort an end unto itself.

Nearly 30 years ago, an article in a prominent newspaper lionized yeshiva learning. It compared a yeshiva to an elite music conservatory, and asked readers to imagine the pride that they would feel if the world’s best violinists gathered in their city to practice their art 10 to 12 hours each day.

The newspaper was the Philadelphia Inquirer, and the article, written by a non-Jewish writer, concerned the Talmudical Yeshiva of Philadelphia. It is a sad truth that such articles are not written by Jewish writers, whether in American Jewish community papers or in Israel. In Jewish circles, these same scholars are described as lazy, or taking too many vacations – and the material they study deemed unnecessary.

Without question, no kollel should harbor a yungerman unwilling to do the work; to do so is both dishonest and gives our detractors the ability to make absurd generalizations. But neither can we fall prey to their slanderous, sweeping judgements. The average yungerman is not merely the best of our nation in our own eyes. By any impartial standard, the intensity of his scholarship deserves admiration, respect, and our support.

This article first appeared in Ami Magazine.

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23 Responses

  1. b/c says:

    With all due respect. And with the caveat that I myself will soon be a yungerman. The average kollel guy is not the masmid you describe and certainly not the genius. The average guy is average. He’ll sit at the table, read some shach/taz, go out for coffee, shmooze a little bit, some more shach, repeat. The number of kollol guys I have met who have a serious bren to inhale Torah in all the places you can find it are few and far between. They are there but the miut. Perhaps we can use smoch miuta lichazaka (Yevamos 119b) assuming that we want to end up on only one side of a machlokes between R’Hai Gaon and tosfos. Now if you tell me the average kollel guy will get that reference than I hear the lionization more.

    Non Jewish columnists don’t know about the shmoozing or the coffee breaks. Not a raya.

    [I didn’t say he’s a genius. For the rest of your argument, you will need to compare the study-to-shmooze ratio at university study sessions and library carrels. If we compare average to average (or superlative to superlative), the yeshiva guy remains far ahead, and not by a small margin. –YM]

  2. Thomas Lowinger says:

    You must have gone to a real party school. Most colleges students study very hard for courses such as organic chemistry, physics etc. They pull all-nighters, studying for exams, prepare for GRE’s. They take exams, sometimes under terrific pressure to get into Med school, Law school or graduate school. Which Kollel ever gives exams ? The yungeleit relax, drink coffee and wait for the check from their in-laws. It is a life with less pressure.

    [I went to Princeton, so… try again. I pulled all-nighters in both Princeton and Lakewood, which is what gives me license to comment. Two weeks of intense pressure at the end of the semester is both less productive and less healthy than constant study throughout. –YM]

  3. Y. Ben-David says:

    During the ongoing debate about the Kollel lifestyle here in Israel, we constantly hear the refrain that says “talmud torah k’neged kulam” apparently means that anyone studying Torah is exempt from all other mitzvot, including in the Israeli debate case, military service in a milhemet mitzvah.
    I have also hears people claim that “talmud Torah k’neged kulam” does NOT mean anyone studying Torah is equal to all the other mitzvot, it means TEACHING Torah is equal to them. I just saw in Daf Yomi in “Rosh Hasahana” that someone who knows Torah but does not teach it is like a tree in a waterless desert IIRC.
    I have heard another interpretation that “Talmud Torah k’neged kulah” means that studying Torah LEADS to the performance of the other mitzvot, but, again, it is not INSTEAD of the other mitzvot.
    Can anyone give me guidance on the true meaning of the phrase?

  4. david a. says:

    Rabbi Menken
    WADR, Your post is way off. you are comparing apples to oranges. most undergraduate college kids are there to earn a degree with the least effort and have fun doing it.

    you should be comparing graduate or doctoral students to learners of Torah. You will find that radically different. Many of this latter secular group sleep in the lab 24/7 to get their results. now that’s hasmodah.

    [For months? No. I’m just being realistic about both. –YM]

  5. Nachum Boehm says:

    This article compares Kollel men to college students, who are at a point in their lives when they are only preparing themselves for employment. A more fair comparison would be to working men. Most working men, Jewish or not, put in 9 to 10 hour workdays, without all the options for coffee breaks or going home for lunch or picking up the kids from school.

    [And that explains, of course, why all the guys who can’t hack learning, go out to work. –YM]

  6. Big Maybe says:

    @b/c, wadr, I feel compelled to protest. This is simply untrue. The vast majority of kollel guys learn shtark for 3 to 4 consecutive hours per seder. The bais medrash is a roaring ocean of Torah energy. It is a jaw-dropping, awesome experience for any visitor unaccustomed to seeing it. Possibly spending too much time in the coffee room with a dozen zitz-fleish-challenged guys introduced some bias to your assessment.

  7. Nachum Boehm says:

    I think you misunderstood me. My point was that there are aspects of Kollel life that are much easier than work life. Some examples are that it is quite normal to see Kollel guys: going home for lunch, picking up the kids from school, taking long coffee breaks.

    This is not far from the norm. What you describe is the Mitzuyanim. I do acknowledge that they exist. But they are certainly not the majority.

    [I didn’t misunderstand at all. Their ability to do these things hardly reverses the fact that people who can’t hack it in yeshiva anymore go out to work, rather than the opposite. To argue that work is somehow more demanding flies in the face of reality. — YM]

  8. Nachum Boehm says:

    You are absolutely wrong. There are plenty, plenty of people who can’t hack learning as you describe it, who are in Kollel. What is the overall percentage of Kollel guys learning until 12:00 at night? Most begin their learning at 9:00 to 9:30, and the day ends at 6:00. They then return for night Seder for an hour and a half. It’s not a very grueling schedule.

    There are also many people who have the ability to learn like an average Kollel guy, but don’t do so, either because they don’t have anyone supporting them, or because they do not see Kollel life as the ideal.

    But I do join you in taking my hat off to the biggest masmidim among us, which was ultimately the point of your article.

    [Welcome to America, where quitting time is 5 pm. Why on earth would you expect Kollel guys to be learning at midnight, if they are up before 7 for Shacharis? “It’s not a very grueling schedule” except by comparison to any other. The point of my article is that the average Kollel guy deserves the respect you reserve for “the biggest masmidim.” –YM]

  9. dr. bill says:

    I have a number of nephews. One is a brilliant kollel student – wife working with a growing family. His brother is a physics Ph.D. student in one of the top universities in the world. The latter, a genius by most measures, spent many years with (much) older bachurim, learning in a post-high school kollel before going on to college. (He, the latter, attended a chareidi HS, and despite its almost non-existent secular curriculum, was a self-taught Merit finalist.) The former is currently seen as a rare metzuyan, a genius among his peers in kollel. The latter is finally just average among his peers in the Ph.D. program. I do not think their experience is just anecdotal, and it raises a number of issues that must be considered thoughtfully when comparing (current and pre-WWII) kollel students and the top tier of Ph.D. programs.

    [Even if we disregard the apparent foolishness of imagining yourself in a position to accurately evaluate the relative acuity of two nephews, what you have said is that both are recognized as metzuyanim — one, in his kollel, where his dedication is appreciated as much as his genius, and the other, by getting into a PhD program at a top university. Of course the latter is “just average among his peers” — because in that university, his peers are the metzuyanim! — YM]

  10. Steve Brizel says:

    Great article! Talmud Torah is unique precisely because of the element of Amelus BaTorah, which the secular world dismisses as worth no more than a proverbial “E for effort.”

    Nachum Boehm wrote in part:

    “Some examples are that it is quite normal to see Kollel guys: going home for lunch, picking up the kids from school”

    try contrasting that to the average Baal BaHabayis on a week day who walks in exhausted after a long day, grabs a quick dinner, says hello to his equally exhausted spouse and kids and who then has either communal or personal endeavors ( shiur, chavrusa, mnachem avel,lchaim, vort, chasunah, sheva brachos, etc) to go to on at least one weekday night,

  11. Steve Brizel says:

    Mortimer Zuckerman wrote a wonderful article after his visit to BMG. It is a great proof for R Menken’s POV.

    Please see this description of his visit, as well as Noah Feldman’s “Where Jewish Life Thrives in America.”

  12. Steve Brizel says:

    I don’t think that anyone should summarily dismiss what happens either in a Beis Medrash or a Kollel without spending some time inside learning with a chavrusa , listening to a chaburah, and davening there. I spent the larger part of an afternoon a number of years ago in the Mir, and was literally blown away by seeing the Ameilus BaTorah in practice. I was once in Lakewood during the summer on a Sunday for a vort and was given a tour of BMG-one should never dismiss what happens inside the walls of any yeshiva, Beis Medrash or Kollel without spending at least part of a day on the inside. The same rule is applicable for any community kollel that one can find in any North American Jewish community.

  13. Reb Yid says:

    The unfair comparison, as has been noted earlier, is undergraduate studies to kollel studies.

    Unless the author of this post has been a graduate student at a university (and I spent 10 some years getting multiple graduate degrees, including a PhD), there is no possible way he can compare the two experiences.

    Like the author of this post, I also went to an Ivy school for my undergraduate years…altogether different from graduate studies.

    [And how much time did you spend in a yeshiva or kollel? I was a faculty brat — did you grow up surrounded by yungerleit? Did you work with them in your undergraduate years? Right. Yes, graduate school is more intense than undergraduate, even in the Ivy League — but it’s not the chasm separating either from yeshiva. I wouldn’t go as far as Mort Zuckerman, who said Lakewood made Harvard Law School look like a kindergarten, but it’s not close. –YM]

  14. Steve Brizel says:

    I think that the advocates for and critics of the kollel system can agree that kollel forn post war Torah Jewry serves a vastly different function than pre war Kollelim such as those in Kovna and/or Slabodka. Many RY view Kolellim as a means of setting a proper tone for marriage for young Bnei Torah and their families., as opposed to rarefied spiritual atmospheres for training future Talmidei Chachanmim, Poskim . etc. Whether one leaves the atmosphere of the Kolel is a difficult individual choice, but one reads far too many articles in the Chareidi media where someone who was in kollel and now is a learner/earner, is viewed as inferior.

    [Steve, you are absolutely correct that Kollel is intended to be for everyone, not merely the elite, as it does help set a tone for marriage. But don’t read the attitude towards the learner/earner as a put-down, but rather giving the one who stays in Kollel due credit for his (or, more correctly, their) dedication. –YM]

  15. Wolfman says:

    I had the zechus to learn in kollel for six years. I wish everyone would be zoche.

    In two of the rejoinders to the comments the idea is expressed that those who can’t “hack” kollel, join the workforce, thus implying that the workforce is the easier option. Many avreichim leave kollel due to financial reasons. Many leave kollel in order to teach Torah. Many leave due to reasons of sipuk. I don’t think it’s possible to quantify how many leave because they can’t “hack” it. The number may be rather small. The absence of such data undermine using it as proof.

    [I don’t think we disagree on more than semantics. What does it mean to no longer “hack” being in Kollel? To me, leaving “due to reasons of sipuk” is synonymous. In many cases, leaving due to financial reasons is also synonymous — meaning, it was possible but difficult to continue. Depending upon the situation, teaching Torah may not qualify as leaving learning at all, whether or not one receives a salary rather than a Kollel stipend.

    The point, and I think we agree upon this, is that those six years you spent in Kollel were very demanding, very challenging, and incredibly rewarding. The hours were demanding, and the financial reward minimal — by leaving to go to work, one intends to get more money for the same or less effort. Kollel is hardly the vacation some would paint it to be. –YM]

  16. Steve Brizel says:

    R Menken-the Kolleleit in the community kolellim in N America play an undeniably huge role in kiruv and chizuk. That role is critical, regardless of whether the avrech eventually becomes a learner/earner or stays in Klei Kodesh in some form, and requires great Mesiras Nefesh while his contemporaries are buying homes, etc elsewhere.

  17. Y. Ben-David says:

    Rav Menken-
    You stated in your comment to Steve Brizel that “kollel is for everyone” for marriage reasons. My question is that for us in Israel….is the Israeli taxpayer required to finance this “kollel for everyone”? Does this mean everyone born in a Haredi family is entitled to this open-ended kollel life-style, even those who are not cut out for it? Does is mean that everyone born into a Haredi family is entitled to a permanent exemption from military or national service which all other Jews are expected to perform on this basis?

    [As Wolfman said, everyone should learn in Kollel, it gives a marriage a different start. And every second of learning is a tremendous contribution to the individual, the family and all Israel. Is a Kollel student in the Jewish state any less entitled to a stipend than any other grad student?

    This is not the time or place to rehash the military exemption discussion, in which you vigorously participated just weeks ago. –YM]

  18. Nachum Boehm says:

    >>>”don’t read the attitude towards the learner/earner as a put-down, but rather giving the one who stays in Kollel due credit for his (or, more correctly, their) dedication. –YM]”

    Although you may be insensitive to this, the statement “those who can’t hack kollel join the workforce” is a put-down of non-Kollel attendance.

    [By which standard, of course, I was putting myself down. Fair enough — because it’s simply true. As discussed above, joining the workforce is certainly not harder, and thus “can’t hack kollel” is among the reasons one does it. –YM]

  19. Mosh says:

    The comments disparaging kollel students are very simply disproven. I implore all of the negative posters to spend a week in Lakewood. Rotate between the botei midrashim,spending a couple of days in each. Then go to the coffee-room. You will then be the next contributor to Cross-Currents writing of the treasures in our midst who toil in Torah. I know this because I experienced it firsthand. (By the way, I had a good laugh at the “break” yungeleit get when babysitting their children. Of course they choose such a lifestyle which necessitates it, but it is not a break by any standard.)

  20. Andrew Greenberg says:

    Rabbi Menken asks “is a Kollel student in the Jewish state any less entitled to a stipend than any other grad student?”

    What an odd question. Is there any moral, halachic, or policy basis for “entitling” any graduate student to government support?

    If Israeli taxpayers decide that they want to support a small number of advanced students to study academic fields, most of which will enhance Israel’s economy and national security, then the taxpayers are free to do so. But they are hardly obligated to do so, and the grad students are not “entitled” to be supported.

    Similarly, if it Israeli taxpayers want to fund extended kollel education for nearly every charedi young man, they may choose to do so. They may also choose not to do so if they do not feel that indefinite kollel for all charedim is the best use of limited taxpayer shekels.

    [Andrew, you’ve put it quite well. As Israel is governed by coalitions, every party has the right to put forth what it believes valuable, and you have neatly disarmed the idea that Kollel students are “taking” more than any other. The exception in today’s case is that when, for the first time, the government responds to the absence of charedi parties in the coalition by suddenly taking away all funding — a guaranteed recipe for widespread misery rather than workforce integration. That expresses a level of disdain for those in Kollel (and charedim in general) that equals the government’s idiocy in withdrawing from Gaza. –YM]

  21. Yitz says:

    How many of the Jewish Nobel winners of the last 50 years spent major time in a yeshiva? A very tiny percentage. Seems there must be some other reason for Jewish success.

  22. Steve Brizel says:

    Yitz-How many Jews, let alone Jewish Nobel winners of the last 50 years ever experienced a Shabbos or opened a Chumash or a Gemara? We all know too well that science without morality can lead to a worship of technology and social planning that views those who are different, whether ethnically or disabled, as expendable at the least, and less than human at the worst-whether in the Nazi universe which functioned in no small part on technological precision furnished by IBM and others, or academicians and so-called “ethicists” like Peter Singer who view humans as no different than animals and who advocated euthanasia for anyone with serious disabilities. Look at it this way-many of those who played critical roles in perpetuating the Holocaust had at least a college degree.

  23. Steve Brizel says:

    For those who are subscribers ( the article is not yet on the website) look at Dr Jack Werteheimer’s excellent survey of Charedi ( Williamsburg, Flatbush, Boro Park, Flatbush) and Litvishe ( Lakewood) in the just released issue of Commentary. For those interested, Dr. Wertheimer noted in afootnote that 20% of talmidim in Lakewood were raised in non Charedi homes.

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