Learning Vs. Earning: The Proper Balance of Bitachon and Hishtadlus – An Analysis


By Rav Yosef Greenwald; Prepared for print by Rabbi Nechemya Klugman

On the one hand, we know that we are obligated to work in order to support ourselves. On the other hand, we know that learning Torah is our primary obligation, and we should be spending as much time as possible doing this mitzvah. In the following article we will examine two approaches as to how we are to balance our dual obligation to “learn” and to “earn.”

The Machlokes Between R’ Yishmoel and R’ Shimon Bar Yochai

In the second section of Shema, the Torah tells us that if we listen to Hashem’s commands and keep his mitzvos, Hashem will bring rain so that the crops will grow plentifully. The Torah then states “veasafta deganecha,” and you will gather in your grain.1 The Gemara in Berachos2 quotes a dispute among Tannaim about how to interpret this passuk.

R’ Yishmoel states that the passuk teaches that one is obligated to earn a living in the normal manner of the world (“hanheig bahem minhag derech eretz”). He should plant during the planting season, harvest during the harvesting season, etc. Obviously, one must devote some of his time to Torah since it is the most important mitzvah. However, one must also spend some time working to earn a living. In this way, he fulfills the will of Hashem, and Hashem will bless his efforts with success.

However, R’ Shimon bar Yochai argues that if a person will always be busy with his livelihood it will be impossible to dedicate himself fully to learning Torah, and he will never become a true talmid chacham. He therefore maintains that when the Torah states “and you will gather in your grain” it refers to people who do not perform the will of Hashem. Such people will be forced to work in order to have what they need. However, those who do the will of Hashem will have their needs filled by others (“melachtan naasis al yidei acheirim”), and will thus be able to devote all their time to Torah study.

So to summarize, it seems that R’ Yishmoel takes a more lenient position, and holds that one must learn but at the same time he has to live in this world and work to make a living. However, R’ Shimon bar Yochai is more strict, and holds that the ideal way is not to be involved in olam hazeh at all, but to completely dedicate oneself to Torah.

The Contradiction from the Gemara in Menachos

However, the Maharsha raises a difficult question on R’ Shimon bar Yochai’s approach. How can we say that “veasafta deganecha” refers to those who do not do Hashem’s will? As was explained above, the Torah in this section is discussing the reward the Jewish people will enjoy when they listen to Hashem’s word!

What is even more perplexing is that in the Gemara in Menachos3 both R’ Yishmael and R’ Shimon seem to contradict themselves. In the Gemara there R’ Shimon says that one fulfills the mitzvah of studying Torah merely by saying the morning and evening Shema, which is an extremely minimal amount of Torah study. On the other hand, the Gemara records that Ben Dama asked his uncle R’ Yishmoel whether it is permitted to study other wisdoms. R’ Yishmoel replied rather sharply that if a time could be found that is neither day nor night one can study such things in that time. Otherwise, one’s entire day and night must be dedicated to Torah study. So here we see that R’ Yishmoel is the strict one while R’ Shimon is more lenient!

The “Sliding Scale” of Limud Hatorah

The answer to the above questions is that all Tannaim agree that the chiyuv of talmud torah is not the same for everybody; rather, it varies according the person’s capabilities and personal circumstances. There are some people who are limited intellectually or need to put in many hours earning a living. Such people can suffice with just a minimal amount of study, such as Shema in the morning and at night. At the other end of the spectrum are people who are more naturally inclined to study and are financially secure. These people should spend all their time studying as R’ Yishmoel told his nephew. Then there are people in the middle who should devote as much time as they can to learning. Thus, even R’ Shimon agrees that a person who is unable to engage in full-time learning should involve himself in “veasafta deganecha.” However, some people can attain an even higher level of “doing Hashem’s will.” These people throw away olam hazeh completely, and merit that their work is done by others.

R’ Shimon’s Approach

However, R’ Yishmoel and R’ Akiva disagree on the proper approach to balancing one’s Torah learning with his other responsibilities.

R’ Shimon chooses the example of krias shema as the basic level of limud hatorah. Now, the main purpose of shema is not for the mitzvah of limud hatorah; rather, it is kabblas ol malchus shamayim, accepting Hashem’s kingship. This indicates that according to R’ Shimon one’s level in limud hatorahdepends on how much he accepts Hashem’s kingship. The more one makes fulfilling Hashem’s will his main focus in life and ignores what the physical world has to offer, the higher his madreigah in Torah will be. And to that extent he will be free of the responsibilities to make a living, because Hashem will provide his needs.

R’ Yishmoel’s Approach

However, R’ Yishmoel emphasizes a different point. He tells his nephew that Torah must be studied all day and all night, and there is no time left for other studies. We see that R’ Yishmoel is focused on using every available minute of one’s time for Torah study. Thus, according to him, the focus is on “time management;” i.e., structuring one’s day to allow for the maximum amount of Torah learning.

Practical Examples of the Two Approaches

To illustrate, an example of R’ Shimon’s approach is if a person who lives in a nice house and has a higher standard of living cuts down on these things in order to devote his life to Torahstudy. By doing this, he indicates that he values Torah study over material possessions. An example of R’ Yishmoel’s approach is a person delegates some of his business duties to his employees so he can spend more time learning. Or, he comes in an hour later to work, and spends that hour in a morning Kollel instead.

In Conclusion

To summarize, all agree that the balance of “learning” to “earning” depending on each person’s abilities and resources. As long as a person is honest with himself, and learns according to his capability, he is doing the right thing. But in terms of what to emphasize there are two paths. R’ Shimon’s path is to make Torah and ruchniyus the mainstays of one’s lifestyle, and R’ Yishmoel’s path is to manage one’s time to learn as much as possible.

1 דברים יא, יד

2 דף לה עב

3 צט עב





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