The value of Torah and secular wisdom
The value of Torah and secular wisdom

Questions about the Value of Secular Wisdom and the Menorah

Following my column (two weeks ago) about holiness meant to empower life, and about the Temple vessels signifying sacred values ​​- including the Shulchan alluding to all professions and livelihoods, and the Menorah referring to all worldly wisdom, some readers asked: What’s the source that the Menorah alludes to worldly wisdom? Their question is based on the assumption that there is no sacred value in secular wisdom, for if there were, we would be obligated to study secular subjects, so how could it be that in Talmudei Torah and yeshivas, they boast that secular studies are not taught? For this reason, the value of secular wisdom must be explained.

The Value of Secular Wisdom

From the words of our Sages, we have learned that the study of the wisdom of Creation, called “Ma’asey Bereshit,” (Account of the Creation) is part of the mitzvah of Talmud Torah, but in studying it, one must be careful so as not to err (Mishna Chagigah 2: 1). On this Mishnah, Rambam explained that “Ma’asey Bereshit” refers to “the natural sciences, and research of the origins of Creation,” and the greater exalted wisdom, “Ma’asey Merkavah” (“Description of the Divine Chariot”) as “the Divine Science.” This is also what Rambam wrote in the introduction of ‘Guide for the Perplexed’: “Ma’asey Bereshit” is the Natural Sciences, and “Ma’asey Merkava” is Metaphysics.”

Additionally, our Sages enacted to recite a blessing upon seeing a brilliant non-Jewish secular scholar: “Baruch Atta Hashem, Melech HaOlam SheNatan MeChachmato LeBasar VeDam” (‘Blessed be He who has imparted of His wisdom to His creatures,” Berachot 58a; Peninei Halakha: Brachot 15:18). We see then that secular science is also considered as Divine wisdom given by God to humans.

Nonetheless, the Torah is sacred and exalted above all the wisdoms, and therefore a special blessing was enacted upon seeing a Jewish Torah sage, because the foundation of the Torah is in the Kodesh HaKodashim (The Holy of Holies), whereas the foundation of secular wisdom in the Kodesh (Holy).

The Maharal of Prague (Netiv HaTorah, Chap. 14) wrote similarly. Also, our Sages said (Shabbat 75a) that anyone capable of studying astronomy but who does not, of him Scripture says: “But they do not regard the deeds of the Lord, or consider the work of His hands” (Isaiah 5: 12). And Rambam and Maharal explained that this refers to all wisdoms.

The Vilna Gaon also said that one is required to study secular wisdom, and whoever lacks the knowledge of a portion of the secular sciences, lacks a hundred (some say ten) portions of knowledge of the Torah, because the Torah and wisdom are in unison (also Maran HaRav Kook in his name, in the article “Drishat Hashem’ in the book “Ikvei HaTzone”).

The Menorah Alluding to Secular Wisdom

The idea that the pure Menorah in the Mikdash alludes to worldly wisdom is explained by the Rishonim and Achronim, the Kabbalists, and the literal Torah commentators. Accordingly, from the pattern of the Mikdash it emerges that the place of the Torah is in the Aron (Ark) of the Kodesh HaKodashim (Holy of Holies), and consequently, the Menorah that was situated in the Kodesh (Holy) alludes to the Seven Worldly wisdoms. Nevertheless, since the Torah is the source of all wisdom, some Rabbis wrote that the Menorah itself alluded to the secular wisdoms, while the lamps lit upon represented the Torah, whereas others said that the middle or western lamp alluded to the Torah.

The Menorah alluding to the secular wisdoms appears in the works of Rabbeinu Bechayeh, Abarbanel (Exodus 25:31); Rabbi Yonatan Eibshitz (Ye’arot Devash, Vol. 2: 7), as well as Malbim in “Ramzey HaMishkan” in the beginning of Parshat Terumah, and Natziv (HaEmek HaDavar, Exodus 39: 19).

Rabbi Moshe Sofer, author of Chatam Sofer (Nedarim 81a) similarly wrote about the mistaken people who blaspheme the Torah, but boast of wisdom: “In truth, it is written: [‘’When you light the lamps, the seven lamps] shall shine toward the center of the Menorah‘ which is the light of the Torah, toward the Torah the seven lamps shall shine, all the wisdoms which are Seven, all of them will shine towards the Torah, and serve it like perfumers and cooks, as Rambam wrote.” This is also what he wrote in his chiddushim on Parashat Beha’alothekha.

Rabbi Yosef Shaul Natanzon (author of Responsa ‘Sho’el U’Mashiv’) wrote similarly in his chiddushim on Tractate Shabbat (21b), that the term Seven Wisdoms alludes to the seven lamps, and the symbolism of the eight days of Hanukkah, is that the Seven Wisdoms serve the wisdom of the Torah.

The Torah’s Superiority over Secular Wisdom

The Torah is superior to all other wisdoms, for the foundation of all worldly wisdom is in the Kodesh, whereas the Torah is founded in the Kodesh HaKodashim, and therefore, all secular wisdoms are considered external in comparison to the wisdom of the Torah, the source of all of them. In other words, the value of the Torah is independent, because it is the direct word of God to the world, while all the other secular wisdoms explain the wisdom of the Creator revealed in creation, but not the purpose of creation and man.

The meaning of this is that the Torah elucidates the great destiny set before man to repair the world in the kingdom of God, and its fundamental influence is in guiding man to correct himself, so that he is able to take control of the negative sides of his desires, and direct and elevate them for the good so he can add goodness and blessing to himself, and the entire world. In contrast, the different wisdoms do not clarify the purpose of man and the world’s rectification, but rather, help to understand and fulfill the purpose. Therefore, as long as the secular wisdoms are connected to the Torah, they are sacred, since they make it possible to understand the purpose fully and realize it, but as long as they are not connected to the Torah – they are secular.

The Torah Empowers Secular Wisdom

One of the expressions of the superiority of Torah wisdom over other wisdoms, is that out of Torah study the sacred value of all wisdom is revealed, and by means of it, the importance of each wisdom and how it assists in tikun olam is revealed.  Therefore, the more connected we are to the truth of the Torah, the more we will understand the value of all the secular wisdoms. Conversely, if we connect with one of the external wisdoms, or even all of them, without Torah, we will not be able to understand the importance of other wisdoms and values, because without the Torah – the sacred, inner side of the secular wisdoms vanishes, remaining hollow, lacking value ​​and meaning. Therefore, it is a mitzvah to honor Talmedei Chachamim (Torah scholars), because by means of the Torah, the great value of all the secular wisdoms and all the productivity made to improve the world, are revealed.

The Mitzvah to Honor Talmedei Chachamim

It is a mitzvah from the Torah to honor Talmedei Chachamim, as it is written: “You shall fear [‘et’] the Lord your God” (Deuteronomy 6: 13) – “including Talmedei Chachamim” (Pesachim 22b). This mitzvah includes standing up in honor of a Talmid Chacham, even if he is a young, as written: “And give respect to the old [‘zaken’]” (Leviticus 19:32) – “’Zaken’ (reading zaken as an abbreviation, zeh kanah hokemah, literally, ‘this one has acquired wisdom’) means only one who has acquired wisdom” (Kiddushin 32b; Rambam, Laws of Talmud Torah 6:1). A Talmid Chacham is one who has learned Torah, and by its guiding light, understands life, teaches, guides and instructs according to Torah. However, someone who has studied, researched, and is very exacting but does not know how to educate, guide, and instruct on questions of life — is not considered a Talmid Chacham (see, Shach 244:11).

How to Rise, and For Who

The mitzvah is that it be evident that one’s rising is in honor of the Talmid Chacham, and therefore the mitzvah is to rise when the Chacham enters into one’s four amot (196cm), until he passes from in front of his face (S. A., Y. D. 244, 2:9). However, in honor of his Rav muvhak (any person from whom the student has received the majority of his Torah wisdom) the mitzvah is to rise when one sees him from afar, as long as it is evident that he is standing up for his honor, and continue standing until he sits down or until he passes from within his sight (Ran, Kiddushin 33a; S. A. 244, 9).

The mitzvah of honoring a Torah scholar is to fully stand up (Tur, 244; Taz, ibid. 4; Chayei Adam 69, 4). However, in practice, many people usually settle rising slightly in honor of a Talmid Chacham. Apparently, since rabbis have not taught students that the mitzvah is to fully stand up in their honor, seemingly, they agree to this, and a rabbi who forgives his honor – his honor is forgiven (S. A. 244:14).

However, in honor of one’s Rav muvhak, one is required to fully rise until he sits in his place. Similarly, during the period one learns Torah from a Rabbi, such as students learning from their rebbe, or from a Rav at a regular Torah class, it is a mitzvah for the students to fully stand in honor of the Rav when he is within their four amot. Also, it is a mitzvah to fully rise up in honor a local rabbi who teaches Torah to his community when he is within one’s four amot.

How Many Times a Day

The poskim disagree about students who study with a Rav in his home: some say they must rise up before him every time he enters and leaves the room – even a hundred times (Rosh; Birkei Yosef 242:21). Others say they have to stand up before him twice a day, one time in the morning, and a second time in the evening, so that the honor of his Rav should not be greater than that of Hashem (Rambam Laws of Talmud Torah 6: 8, according to Kiddushin 33b).

Even according to the lenient poskim, in a place that is not the home of the Rabbi, one is required to stand up before him when he enters and leaves, because there may be other people who do not know that he had already stood up in the morning, or plans to stand up before leaving in the evening (Tosafot, Rama 242:16). And if, during the same session in yeshiva, or during the same gathering, the Rav leaves or enters, in the opinion of the lenient poskim there is no need to stand up before him, since everyone knows that one stood up before him when he first entered, and will stand up before him when he leaves. This is the common minhag, except for instances where the Rav rises to give a class, is called to the Torah, or turns to talk to someone who is sitting, in which case, although they had stood up before him at his entrance, they are required to stand up before him once again.

Workers are not obligated to stop and stand for a Talmid Chacham while they are working (S. A. 244:5).One is not required to stand for a Talmid Chacham in a bathroom, or in an inner room of a bathhouse, because standing up in such a place is not considered respect or honor (ibid., 4).

Between Two Torah Scholars

Talmid Chacham is not required to stand up for another Talmid Chacham, but rather, it suffices to show him some form of respect (S. A. 244:8). Similarly, a Rabbi is not required to stand up before a student even if he is a very great Torah scholar, but it is good to show him some form of respect (Rama, ibid). Nevertheless, it seems that when called to stand before him, such as when he is about to give a class, he should rise.


One is obligated to stand for the wife of a Talmid Chacham, just as one is required to stand for the Talmid Chacham himself, because ‘eishit chaver, k’chaver’ (the wife of a Talmid Chacham should be treated with the same respect as her husband). Apparently, the intent is a Rabbanit who is a full partner in assisting his teaching and dissemination of Torah. And even if her husband passed away, as long as she did not re-marry, one is required to stand up (Shevuot 30b; Rishonim, ibid).

Similarly, a Rabbanit or a teacher who imparts Torah, her students are obligated to stand up before her when she enters within their four amot, and all of them are obligated to stand up when she enters the room to teach them.

This article appears in the ‘Besheva’ newspaper and was translated from Hebrew.