The Most Important Mitzvah

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There is a famous story of a Jewish man, imprisoned in the 16th century, who was unexpectedly given the opportunity to choose one day of freedom. On that one day, his captor explained, he would be free to go home to visit his family and to practice his religion in any way that he saw fit. In a sense he would have one day to be a full practicing Jew. What an incredible opportunity the Jewish prisoner thought to himself! But what day would he choose? If he chose Passover he would be able to observe the Seder, eat Matzah and drink the four cups of wine. On the other hand, if he chose Rosh Hashana he would be able to hear the Shofar and pray during the High Holidays. Not knowing what Mitzvah was most important and which day to choose, this Jewish prisoner turned to the great Rabbi David ben Abi Zimra (Radbaz) for guidance. Amazingly, the Radbaz replied, “The day you must choose is the very first day available, be it Shabbat, a weekday, or any holiday.”

The Radbaz’s response to choose the first day available such that he would never be forced to choose between Mitzvot, helps emphasize the notion that no Mitzvah is greater than the next. In fact, previously in the Pirkei Avot (2:1) Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi wrote, “Be scrupulous in performing a minor Mitzvah as you are with a major one, for you do not know the rewards given for Mitzvot.” Every commandment needs to be treated with the same respect and diligence as another. All of the Mitzvot are Divine and it is not man’s place to judge and choose which Mitzvot are more important than others. Therefore, how could the Jewish prisoner possibly choose any one specific day over another?

Yet what is interesting is that there are a number of different sources that seem to suggest that perhaps there is not true equity in all of G-d’s commandments. The Gemara in Tractate Shabbat (127a) writes:
These are the things which man performs and enjoys their fruits in this world, while the principal remains for him for the world to come—honoring one’s parents, the practice of loving deeds, and making peace between man and his fellow, while thestudy of the Torah surpasses them all.
The ‘study of Torah surpasses them all’ or in the Hebrew, ‘Talmud Torah Kineged Kulam’ seems to suggest that Torah study takes precedence over all other Mitzvot and deeds which a person is obligated to perform. In other words, the attainment of Jewish knowledge and wisdom is the highest priority for the Jewish people. From this perspective the ideal Jewish life is one spent in the Beit Midrash, in the study halls striving to understand the holy Torah. There is, therefore, no need for occupations or anything else for that matter that might come in the way of absolute Toraha study.

Amazingly, this is not the only source that suggests that the study of Torah takes precedence over one’s deeds or actions. In fact the Gemara in Tractate Kiddushin (40b) tells the story of a group of Rabbis gathered on the balcony of the home of Nitza in the city of Lod. The question was raised as to what was more important—studying Torah or practice? Rabbi Tarfon answered that practice was more important. Rabbi Akiva countered and argued that studying is greater for it leads to practice. “Then they all answered and said, ‘Study is greater for it leads to action.’” Once again, it is the commitment to Torah study that seemingly outweighs practice, deeds, and everything else.

As has been discussed before, the importance of Torah study is the essential theme of the Third Chapter of Pirkei Avot. Throughout this chapter Rabbis have taught about the centrality of Torah study—Whoever accepts the yoke of Torah removes from himself the yoke of government and the yoke of earning a living (3:6), One that walks on the road while studying Torah but interrupts his study to appreciate nature puts his life in danger (3:9), among others. Yet, the Chapter concludes with a teaching of Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya in Mishna 22 who writes that one whose wisdom exceeds his deeds is compared to a tree with many branches but with few roots. However, one whose deeds exceed his wisdom is comparable to a tree with few branches but many roots. It seems that Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya is making the argument that it is one’s deeds, that are more important than one’s Torah study and wisdom. After all, as he continues in the Mishna, a tree without many deep roots can easily be knocked down by a prevalent wind. If that is the case, how can this opinion be reconciled with the other texts in the Gemara about the importance of Torah study? Is it possible that it is deeds that are truly more important than even Torah study?

It is interesting to note that that this is actually not the first time that the discussion of practice and deeds versus wisdom and Torah knowledge comes up in Pirkei Avot. In fact Mishna 17 in Chapter 1 quotes Rabbi Shimon the son of Raban Gamliel who taught that “not learning (Midrash), but doing (Maaseh) is the main thing.” It is the Maaseh not the Midrash that is most important. In addition, and perhaps most obviously, earlier in Chapter Three Mishna 12, Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa teaches that if one’s good deeds exceed their wisdom than their wisdom will endure. On the other hand, if one’s wisdom exceeds their good deeds than their wisdom will not endure. There therefore seems to be great support within Pirkei Avot for the notion that practice and deeds outweigh Torah study. In other words, that Torah study is not any more important than the other G-d given commandments.

While it seems clear that Pirkei Avot is ‘taking a stand’ on this question, it is certainly strange for so many Mishnayot to emphasize this distinction. In fact, more than that, Mishna 22 and Mishna 12 are identical in language. What is Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya adding to Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa’s previous teaching? The only difference between these two Mishnayot is the extended metaphor used in Mishna 22 of a tree and its branches and roots. For this reason, both Rambam, Maimonides, and Rabbeinu Yona, Rabbi Yona ben Abraham Gerondi, state that their commentaries for Mishna 12 suffice to explain Mishna 22 as well. In addition, Rabbi Ovadiah of Bartenura does not even address Mishna 22 as if to imply that there is nothing new to learn from it. For what reason is this teaching then included in Pirkei Avot? As a side note, some editions of Pirkei Avot actually leave out Mishna 23 altogether such that Mishna 22 serves as the last Mishna of chapter three. Of all the Mishnayot to complete a chapter with, why choose one that is nothing more than a repetition of previous statements within the same chapter?!

It is this tension that helps underscore that ‘Talmud Torah Kineged Kulam,’ that Torah study takes precedence over everything else, is not quite as black and white as one may think. In fact, one possibility as suggested by Rabbi Dr. Yehuda Levi in his book, “Torah Study” is that the phrase, ‘Talmud Torah’ is properly translated to mean teaching Torah rather than learning Torah. In addition, throughout Rabbinic literature, there are actually five other distinct Mitzvot that are described as being ‘equal to all other Mitzvot together’—Eretz Yisrael, Shabbat, Brit Milah, Tzizit, and Gemilut Chassadim. It is therefore impossible to suggest that Torah study is of greater importance than other Mitzvot in the Torah. How could five different Mitzvot all share that distinction?!

In addition, Rabbi Benjamin Blech in his book, “Understanding Judaism” sees the discussion between Rabbi Tarfon and Rabbi Akiva in Tractate Kiddushin from a different perspective. At first glance when the Gemara says “Then they all answered and said, ‘Study is greater for it leads to action’” it seems as if the Gemara is accepting the view of Rabbi Akiva (Torah study is greatest). However, Rabbi Blech points out that if that was the case, then the Gemara should have more simply said, “The law is like Rabbi Akiva.” Instead, the Rabbis choose neither side of the debate, and instead offer a third path forward. “Talmud Torah, study is not the greatest Mitzvah as an isolated act. The philosopher in an ivory tower, who attains total familiarity with the text and will of G-d cannot be the greatest hero if his knowledge simply remains ensconced in the mind, if intellect produces no tangible results in life lived on this earth.” It is only when studying is done such that one can put their wisdom into action, is such study greatest. Similarly, the notion of ‘Talmud Torah Kineged Kulam’ teaches us that Torah study is ‘Kineged Kulam’ not as we have translated it to mean greater than everything else, but rather ‘Kineged’ meaning opposite the other Mitzvot. Deeds become holy only if they are performed within the parameters outlined by the Torah. As Rabbi Blech concludes:
“Neither study nor deed alone is sufficient; they are both necessary and interdependent. Study is not a goal or an ultimate end in Judaism. It is merely the means to the good life, the way in which we learn what G-d asks us to do.”
Torah study, therefore, is a stepping-stone to allow mankind to practice and perform Mitzvot such that G-d’s will is fulfilled.

After studying the Third Chapter of Pirkei Avot, one might draw the wrong conclusion that Torah study as an end on to itself is more important than any other commandment. One might walk away from this chapter and think they don’t need to get a job, or go out into the real world and do anything. However, that is not the essence of this chapter. The Torah study that is emphasized as the theme of the Third Chapter of Pirkei Avot is specifically Torah study that will lead to implementation and deeds. In fact the Rambam, Maimonidies in Hilchot Talmud Torah (3:3) writes clearly that:
There is no Mitzvah amongst all the Mitzvot which is the equivalent of the study of Torah, but rather the study of Torah is opposite all Mitzvot for study leads to action; therefore study precedes action in every place.
In fact this is precisely why Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya repeats Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa’s previous teaching from Mishna 12. It is Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya in the previous Mishna, Mishna 21, who taught about the relationship between Torah and sustenance and Torah and Derech Eretz. Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya needed to clarify the relationship between Torah study and participating in the outside world through one’s occupation or deeds lest one think they are both equivalent. Torah study is part and parcel of doing Mitzvot and participating in the world. Torah is not equal to deeds, but rather is an important element of it.

Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya adds to the teaching of Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa by including the metaphor of a tree to illustrate this concept. One might have thought that wisdom is the metaphoric roots of a Jewish person. However, Mishna 22 teaches us otherwise. Actions form the basis of our beings. It is not enough to just think about what is right and what is wrong. Knowing what Mitzvot we are commanded to do and what we are commanded not to do is not what counts. We need to literally practice what we preach. A person who acts with conviction, who stands for something and ‘walks the talk’ is firmly rooted like a tree and cannot be blown down by any wind or outside force. The Torah is compared to a Tree, ‘Eitz Chaim Hi.’ The Torah way of a life filled with deeds, much like a tree rooted in the ground, lasts for generations and generations. What a perfect metaphor to provide context as well as to conclude Chapter 3 of Pirkei Avot.