Rabbi Eliezer Melamed
Rabbi Eliezer MelamedPR photo

Two weeks ago, I proposed encouraging communities to appoint rabbis even without pay – rabbis who would focus on the core rabbinic duty of teaching Torah, such as by giving a regular lesson between Mincha and Maariv, or after Maariv. I made this proposal out of an assessment that in the coming years, the Ministry of Religious Affairs is unlikely to appoint and finance rabbis acceptable to Religious-Zionist communities. Some readers took umbrage at my words, fearing harm to the prospects of communities funding rabbis and empowering their role.

Just as I Teach for Free, You Too Shall Also Teach for Free

I too believe it is good to fund synagogue rabbis, but my proposal stemmed from recognizing the reality that in the vast majority of Religious-Zionist synagogues in the larger cities, there is no rabbi. City and neighborhood rabbis do not fill this void either, since for decades, almost only rabbis who do not share the Religious-Zionist public’s Torah outlook have been appointed to these positions. To begin amending this, we must get back to basics – the deepest and most primary role of the rabbi – to teach Torah. And this role should be carried out for free.

Our Sages said that rabbis should teach Torah for free, “As God commanded me – just as I teach for free, you too shall also teach for free” (Nedarim 37a). Thus, our Sages instructed in the Mishnah (Nedarim 35b) that even one who swore off benefit from another, may still teach him ” midrash, halakhot, and aggadot,” since one must teach them for free. So by teaching him, one does not provide him monetary worth.

The Guidance of Our Sages

This was also the advice of our Sages to rabbis, not to make a living from the Torah: “Rabbi Zadok said: do not make them a crown for self-exaltation, nor a spade with which to dig. So too Hillel used to say, “And he that puts the crown to his own use shall perish.” Thus you have learned, anyone who derives worldly (monetary) benefit from the words of the Torah, removes his life from the world” (Avot 4:5). And Rashi, Rambam, Bartanura and others interpreted in the same manner.

And this is how many of Israel’s eminent Torah scholars conducted themselves when not engaged in leadership positions. Hillel the Elder, before being appointed Nasi, was a woodcutter. Shimon Pakuli dealt in flax and wool, and Rabbi Yochanan Hasandlar made a living by sewing sandals. Rabbi Meir was a scribe, Rav Pappa planted trees, as well as many others (cited in Teshuvot Tashbetz, 147). The custom of the rabbis was to live modestly, and thus, in a relatively short time, provided for themselves.

Indeed, rabbis appointed to leadership roles received their livelihood honorably from the community. But most rabbis worked for their livelihood, and after their daily work, as well as on Shabbats and Festivals, they taught Torah to students, and answered queries.

When the number of students proliferated, and the rabbi lacked the time to both work and teach them all, they would ask him to curtail his labor, and instead, teach Torah to the students, paying him a “sekhar batala,” (payment to refrain from doing other things), in other words, the amount he lost by teaching students instead of working (see Ran, Nedarim 37a, ‘ve’le’inyan halakha’).

The Need to Support Torah Scholars

However, over the generations, a difficult problem arose. Study material increased greatly, and the rabbis who were able on the one hand to cover the entire Torah in iyun (in-depth analysis) and bekiut (broad familiarity with large swaths of data), and on the other hand, make a decent living, dwindled. Ultimately, almost all agreed that if communities would not provide for the rabbis (even those not occupying leadership roles), the Jewish people would have almost no Torah scholars left. Thus, salaries were instituted for rabbis, Torah teachers and educators, and it was even agreed that students training for rabbinic and teaching positions would receive a stipend so they could grow in Torah knowledge (see Teshuvot, Vol.1, 142-147; BY, Rema YD 246:21; Marashal and Shach ibid).

Problems that Arose

However, since the livelihood of the rabbis was not regulated by the mitzvot of the Torah, such as the terumot and ma’asrot (tithes) to the Kohanim and Levites, or through formal rabbinic enactments, the need to provide for rabbis often led to the desecration of Torah, and desecration of God.

Consequently, Rambam (Maimonides) fiercely condemned the funding of Torah scholars (Laws of Talmud Torah 3:10): “Anyone who comes to the conclusion that he should involve himself in Torah study without doing work and derive his livelihood from charity, desecrates God’s name, dishonors the Torah, extinguishes the light of faith, brings evil upon himself, and forfeits the life of the world to come, for it is forbidden to derive benefit from the words of Torah in this world. Our Sages declared: “Whoever benefits from the words of Torah forfeits his life in the world.” Also, they commanded and declared: “Do not make them a crown to magnify oneself, nor an axe to chop with.” Also, they commanded and declared: “Love work and despise rabbinic positions. All Torah that is not accompanied by work will eventually be negated and lead to sin. Ultimately, such a person will steal from others.”

However, only exceptionally gifted individuals, such as Rambam, could support themselves by a craft, and at the same, time teach Torah and instruct halakha. Thus, for lack of any other option, despite the grief and humiliation, communities had to provide for rabbis, else they could not maintain Torah amongst the Jewish nation.

The ‘Sefat Emet’s’ Guidance against Rabbinical Office

Rabbi Yehuda Aryeh Lieb Alter (1847-1905), the author of ‘Sefat Emet’, who led Polish Jewry’s largest and foremost Gur Hasidut for about thirty-five years, guided his Hasidic rabbis to prefer earning their living through a craft or commerce over the rabbinate. Apparently, the flattery sometimes involved in attaining and working in a rabbinic office was not to his liking, and he therefore often shunned obtaining rabbinical posts in a manner that was not pure and clean.

Once, a disciple of his who was a Torah scholar, asked if he should take up a community’s rabbinate. He replied: “I would be more jealous of you had you become a shoemaker.” Sometime later, that same rabbi came to him, and presented the Rebbe a pair of shoes he had made with his own hands.

On another occasion, one of his enthusiastic Hasidim strove to obtain for a Gur Hasid the post of rabbi in the Warsaw community. When he had nearly attained his goal, he came to receive the Rebbe’s approval for the appointment. But the Rebbe shrugged his shoulders in a motion of dismissal, signifying that striving for this was unimportant. Boldly, the Hasid asked: “Who then will be the rabbis?” The Rebbe replied: “Those who don’t ask me!”

Not Making a Living from Torah

The ‘Sefat Emet’ was accustomed to subsist on very little, and not benefit at all from his Hasidim’s money. His wife sold tobacco, which provided their livelihood. Once, when one of their sons fell ill and was in mortal danger, his wife, the Rebbetzin, came to him and said: “You help everyone through your prayers – why not our son!?” He replied: “Let us closely examine the matter. Perhaps we benefited in any way from the Hasidim.” The Rebbetzin admitted that once, when in dire straits, she received some help from a Hasid. He said to her: ‘Return what you took, and accept upon yourself never to benefit from the Hasidim again at all, and we will have no more heartache raising children” (From the book on the ‘Sefat Emet’ by Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Bromberg z”l‘).

The Vision and Rectification for Now

In the final analysis, the ideal situation would be synagogues having rabbis who will teach Torah and provide comprehensive religious guidance to the community, and as compensation, receive an orderly salary, according to known reasonable standards. This would not bring desecration, rather, sanctification of God. Still, since this does not seem imminent, I proposed returning to the basics, and growing from there. The basis is that Torah scholars of the Jewish nation are commanded to teach Torah for free, the public is commanded to honor its teachers, and with no other alternative, these will be the synagogue rabbis.

In other words, Torah scholars already earning their living (usually from teaching), who in any case attend synagogue daily for Shacharit, Mincha, and Maariv, and to set times for Torah study – should be the ones asked to sit up front in the ‘Mizrah‘ (“eastern wall”), give regular daily lessons, and deliver sermons and Torah classes on Shabbat and Festivals.

Through this, many will come to understand the importance of community rabbis’ role, and find a way to arrange a salary for them, at least as sekhar batala. This will enable them to fulfill their role more successfully, enhancing Torah study for adults, youth and children, for regular synagogue attendees, and those who come only rarely, for the glory of Torah, the Nation, and the Land.

Teachers’ Status

Incidentally, praise is due to the representatives of the Ministry of Finance and Education and Yaffa Ben-David, the Secretary General of the Teachers’ Union, for reaching a salary agreement last year that greatly improves the salaries of teachers, especially new ones. They have thereby progressed in the right direction, encouraging young people’s joining the educational system. The agreement stipulated an additional salary of about 1,500 shekels per month for new teachers, while the most veteran get less than 100 shekels more monthly. Thus, in practice, from next year a beginning teacher working as a homeroom teacher at full-time, will earn 10,000 shekels per month, while the most veteran will receive approximately 19,000 shekels for this work. This comes in addition to ample benefits, such as vacation pay, etc.

It is important to mention this, because many people think teachers’ salaries are considerably lower than they actually are. Thus, young, idealistic people who would be willing to dedicate themselves to the sacred work of education prefer to pursue other professions, thinking they cannot support a family through teaching. The reality, though, is better.

Let’s hope that the Teachers Union also acts in this spirit, caring especially for beginning teachers, because the gap between the veterans and the beginners is too vast (by international standards), and education’s future depends on young people entering the field.

We should also hope that in the future, teachers’ pay and status will continue rising, so that the best and most suitable candidates will join the educational system, since our future depends on it.

This is not a far-fetched hope, for it appears that as the years pass, practical and technological work will increasingly be done by computers, and the public will grasp that investing in education is most important, for it is through education that students become better, more moral, wiser, and more creative. This, of course, will also be reflected in the overall investment in the educational system, and rise in teachers’ wages. Then, the Torah scholars among them, will also be able to serve as synagogue rabbis. “The finest to education”!

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