Being Mekori – “Is there a halakhic imperative for one to make a living?”

One of my goals in this series – and indeed one of the goals that inspires many who end up on the path of mekoriut – is to demonstrate that an honest and simple return to the sources (particularly in a way that is unaffected by the Zohar, Kabbalah, and later Hasidic theology) will ultimately solve many of the social and religious ills that have cropped up during the current exile. Poverty, entitlement, sectarianism, ethnocentrism, sexual abuse, women’s issues, the divorce rate, etc. – I firmly believe that all, or nearly all, could be largely avoided or overturned through a return to the sources and a submission to the unique authority of Hazal. Such a return is in opposition to the widespread hashkafah that the rabbis of our time (other than being effected by a supposed “yeridas ha-doros” common to all Jews) are essentially an extension and continuation of Hazal. I do not intend by this statement to assert that mekoriut can or will bring about a Utopian Jewish ideal – it will not. There are no utopias, not even during the yemot mashiah, but we can discuss that another time. All I mean to say is that a return to our original texts is a return to original Jewish values.

One such social problem in the Jewish community is the development of a mass reliance on public charity and state-sponsored welfare, such that it has become almost standard among Haredi-Hasidic Jewry. The system of kollels, yeshivoth, and other institutions today within [mainly] Haredi-Hasidic circles utilize certain latter-day “heterim” that supposedly allow one to make his living from the full-time study of Torah, a notion that was roundly condemned by Hazal during much more difficult times than our own. In fact, even when the Torah was almost lost, Hazal – in their great wisdom – never, ever, resorted to supporting full-time learners and their families with public charity as a “solution” (instead, they viewed the committal of Torah she-be`al Peh to writing as solution enough). They never considered such a course of action because they knew exactly where such a course would lead and what kind of Jew this type of “solution” produces, as will be seen in the passages cited below.

The news of this phenomenon – the phenomenon of a refusal to be productive citizens by an overwhelming number of religious Jews – has spread to nearly all parts of the Jewish world, including the US, Canada, Europe, and Israel. And the non-Jewish world has naturally sat up and taken notice, making [understandably] negative comments that have made their way even into the mainstream news media. This should concern us and, in my opinion, we as Jews should take responsibility for such aspects that contribute to the irrational fire of anti-Semitism.

There is a (seemingly) little-known halakhah in the Mishneh Torah which leaves absolutely nothing to the imagination of whether or not it is either desirable or permitted to make a living from learning Torah.

The Rambam writes the following in Hilkhot Talmud Torah 3:10 –

“Everyone who determines in his heart that he will be occupied with learning Torah and will not engage in labor, and therefore sustain himself from public charity – behold, such a one profanes the Divine Name, denigrates the Torah, extinguishes the lamp of the Jewish religion, brings evil upon himself, and removes his life from `olam haba because it is forbidden to benefit [monetarily] from the words of the Torah in this world. The Sages said, “Everyone who derives [monetary] benefit from the words of the Torah removes his life from the world [to come].” They further commanded and said, “Don’t make them [the words of the Torah] into a crown to make yourself great with them, nor a spade with which to till the ground.” They further commanded and said, “Love engaging in labor and hate the service of being a public rav. And all study of Torah that is not accompanied by engaging in labor, in the end it is worthless and the one who engages in such [exclusive Torah study] will in the end become one who steals from his fellow creatures.”

Now, to be sure, nearly everyone needs financial help (i.e. hesedh and ssedaqah) at certain times throughout their life, and to varying degrees – and this is why the Torah commands us to be open-handed toward our brothers and to care for the poorer segments in Jewish society (e.g. orphans, widows, and converts). To do so is certainly a misswah. However, the Rambam writes in the next halakhah (3:11) that

It is a great virtue for one to be sustained through the work of his own hands, and to do so was a character trait of the ancient devoted ones (the “hasidim rishonim“, a group often mentioned in the Mishnah for their particular piety and devotion to God). And in doing so, one will merit all of the honor and goodness that is available in this world and in olam haba. As it says, ‘When you eat from the labor of your hands, you will be contented and it will be good for you’ (Tehillim 128:2) – ‘contented’ in this world, ‘good for you’ stored for olam haba which is entirely good.”

Hilkhot Edut 10:14 further explains that making a living from playing dice – or apparently from any other form of non-labor – is called avak gezel (“dust/trace of theft,” a phrase meaning, “not technically theft, but it might as well be”). In addition, it invalidates someone as being a reliable witness in a beit din.

Hilkhot Aniyim 10:18 further says:

“A person should always push himself and exist in painful difficulty rather than cast himself on the mercy of the community. Thus the Sages commanded and said, “Make your Shabbath like a weekday and do not demand your needs from your fellow creatures. Even if a poor person is a greatly honored hakham, he should sustain himself through a trade, even if it is a miserable one, and not demand his needs from his fellow creatures. It is better for a person to spread out the tanned skins of neveloth in the shuq rather than saying to the people, ‘I am a hakham, I am a great person, I am a kohen, so support me.’ And in this matter the Sages commanded us to do thus. Even the greatest of the hakhamiym were woodchoppers, carriers of building materials, water drawers for use in vegetable gardens, smelters of iron and producers of charcoal, and they did not ask for charity from the community, nor would they accept gifts from the community even while serving the community.”

There can be no doubt that there is certainly a halakhic directive for a person to make a living to support himself.

It should be noted, however, that these injunctions do not necessarily apply to a modern community rabbi. Community rabbis are paid for their time spent functioning in a pastoral capacity. He is not paid to learn Torah, but rather for his visits, availability, organization, etc. This is a newer community structure of more recent invention. However, le-aniyut da`ati, I think that it is always better for even a community rav to have a worldly occupation, as it lends itself to a higher level of integrity since he may speak his mind freely within his community without fear of economic reprisal by community members. This was the model of Yemen and other non-European communities, where rabbanim were engaged in artisanship, agriculture, commerce, et al while serving as leaders. However, due to the circumstances involved in the modern pace of life and the commensurate needs of religious Jews, a community rabbi supporting themselves is often not possible.

So, what would a practical return to the sources entail? First and foremost it would mean a public teshuvah by those leaders that currently support the welfare-based system of “learners.” I personally think that such a prospect is unlikely to happen, as this entitled way of thinking is ingrained so deeply within the minds of many, being further validated by their leadership and a plethora or “gedolim.” However, on a grass-roots level, it would mean that people begin to encourage religious Jewish youth to learn Torah seriously in a yeshivah, but then to prepare for marriage and family by acquiring higher education or a trade of some sort. Jewish youth should be encouraged to do well in their chosen profession(s) – all the while being told that working to provide for one’s own needs and those of his family is a great mitzvah that has no shame attached to it. Shame should instead be attached to willingly living off of public welfare or the largess of others.

I have seen advertisements for yeshivot that teach trades, but they are largely seen as options for those young men who are in danger of “going off.” Many young men from these groundbreaking institutions end up apprenticing within the trades or starting their own businesses. If we want true change, then places like these need to be seen as le-khatehilah and not bedi`avad.

The effects of such changes over time would arguably be transforming, and could eventually bring about an almost complete metamorphosis in the Torah world. The depression and alienation that arises due to a culture of elite “learners” would be all but undone, an emphasis on middot and respect for the Torah would return, financial crises would be ameliorated, marriages would be strengthened, broken marriages could be healed, and a general simhat ha-hayim would return. As it says in Kohelet 2:24-26

There is nothing better for a man than to eat and drink and cause his soul to have goodness from his labor. This, too, I have seen, that it is from the hand of God. For who will eat and who will enjoy, if not I? For to a man that is good before Him, [God] has given wisdom and understanding and joy, but to the sinner He has given the task of gathering and collecting in order to give it to the one who is good before God. This is also vanity and striving after the wind.”

May HaShem help us to return to the simple truths of Jewish faith, once safeguarded to His people by Hazal.

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