Rabbi Eliezer Melamed
Rabbi Eliezer MelamedPR photo

All of Shabbat is Torah

It is a mitzvah to study a great deal of Torah on Shabbat. Concerning this our Sages said:

“The Sabbaths and Holidays were given to Israel in order that they might study Torah” (Jerusalem Talmud, Shabbat 15:3).

In practical terms, our Sages explained the intention is to dedicate half of the day to Hashem in Torah study in the Beit Midrash (study hall), and half to oneg Shabbat (joy of the Sabbath) by means of eating, drinking and sleeping (Pesachim 68b).

Our Sages also said:

“God said to Israel: “My children, did I not write to you in My Torah ‘Let not this book of the Torah cease from your mouths, but recite it day and night’? (Yehoshua 1:8). Even though you labor for six days, you shall dedicate Shabbat to Torah alone” (Tanna De’bei Eliyahu Rabba I).

Thus, it is understood that when one sets the half of Shabbat for Torah, then the meals are also considered Torah, because the special feature of Shabbat is that it makes peace between the soul and the body, and when the soul is expressed through dedicating half of Shabbat to Torah, then the body is also sanctified. Shabbat is me’ain Olam Ha’Ba (a taste of the World to Come), the world after techiyat ha’maytim (Resurrection of the Dead), in which the body will not limit the soul, but on the contrary, will intensify the full richness of its manifestation.

The most important study on Shabbat is the drasha (sermon), because there is no comparison between several people learning Torah, to an entire congregation learning Torah – under the guidance of a Talmid Chacham (a wise Torah scholar). In honor of this week’s Torah portion Parshat Vayak’hel, let us strengthen ourselves by participating in the Shabbat drasha.

The Drasha or Torah Lesson on Shabbat

It has long been customary for rabbis to deliver important derashot (sermons or homilies) on Shabbat, in which they deal with halakhic and theological matters. These would be attended by the entire community. This important practice has its foundation in God’s instruction to Moshe:

“God said to Moshe: “Gather together large groups and publicly teach them the laws of Shabbat. Thus, future leaders will learn from you to convene groups every Shabbat and assemble in the batei midrash to teach and instruct Israel about what the Torah permits and forbids. Thus My great Name will be glorified among My children.”

Based on this, the Sages averred: Moshe instituted that Israel discuss matters pertaining to the day – the laws of Pesach on Pesach, the laws of Shavu’ot on Shavu’ot, the laws of Sukkot on Sukkot. Moshe said to Israel: “If you follow this system God will consider it as if you enthroned Him in His world, as it is stated: ‘You are My witnesses, declares the Lord’ (Yeshayahu 43:10)” (Yalkut Shimoni, Vayak’hel §408).

The regularity of a Torah lesson on Shabbat is an expression of honor of Heaven, and honor of the Torah. By scheduling it on a regular basis, the entire public is reinforced in observance of Torah and mitzvot, as the Maggid Mishneh wrote:

“They would give drashot for the people on Shabbatot, and teach them the laws of God and His Torah, and this was of great benefit to all… the Rav was even critical of eminent Torah scholars who did not come to hear his words, because the gathering of large numbers of people together would strengthen observance of Torah and mitzvot, and the guarding of its boundaries” (Shabbat 23:19).

In order to strengthen the mitzvah, I will mention the words of our Sages about the virtue of participating in the Shabbat sermon, called in the language of our Sages “pirka“.

The Sages’ Running to Hear the Sermon

Rabbi Zeira recounts that originally he thought that people who ran to hear the drasha were desecrating Shabbat by not walking there unhurriedly. However, after he heard R. Yehoshua b. Levi say, “One should always run to hear words of Torah, even on Shabbat,” as it is written ‘They will walk after the Lord, who roars like a lion,’” he, too, would run to the drasha.

The Challenge of Our Sages

Since the intention of the drasha was to address the entire community, it was difficult to calibrate it to meet everyone’s needs. There were some who already knew everything that the rabbi was about to teach, while others could not understand a thing he was saying. Despite this, everyone was encouraged to attend the drasha, and especially the Torah scholars, so that from them, the entire community would learn to attend the sermon.

The story is told about Rabbi Yosef Karo and the holy Arizal, who went to hear the Shabbat sermon of Maharam Alsich. This, despite the fact that Rabbi Yosef Karo was the rabbi of Maharam Alsich, and the Arizal was the greatest of the generations in Kabbalah.

The Importance of the Participation of the Uneducated

It is said in the Gemara: “Rabbi Zeira said: The reward for attending the lecture is for running” (Berachot 6b). Rashi explains that since most individuals attending the lecture did not fully understand the material taught, the primary reward received for attendance was for their intention to hear the Torah being taught, as evidenced by their rush to arrive.

However, a question can be asked, for our Sages said (Shabbat 63a) that even those who do not understand their Torah learning, receive reward for it as if they had understood. The P’nei Yehoshua explained that the reward for the study itself is received in Olam Ha’Ba, but for running, one receives reward in this world – in children, health, and livelihood.

The Criticism of Torah Scholars Who Did Not Participate

It is told in the Gemara (Shabbat 148 a) about Rabbi Yehuda, a second-generation Amora who was the rabbi and head of the yeshiva in Pumbedita. “Rabba bar bar Ḥana happened to come to Pumbedita and he did not enter Rabbi Yehuda’s lecture. Rabbi Yehuda sent for Adda, his attendant, and said to him: Go drag him to the lecture. It should be noted that Rabbi Bar Bar Hanna was the same age as the rabbis of Rabbi Yehuda, and yet demanded that he come to the sermon. He went and dragged him forcibly to the lecture.

Rabba bar bar Ḥana came and found Rabbi Yehuda teaching that one may not reset a fracture on Shabbat. He said to him: This is what Rav Ḥana of Baghdad said that Shmuel, Rabbi Yehuda’s rabbi, said: The halakha is that one may reset a fracture on Shabbat. Rav Yehuda said to him: Ḥana is ours, a Babylonian scholar, and Shmuel is ours, and nevertheless, I did not yet hear this halakha; did I not rightfully drag you to the lecture?” Rabbi Yehuda humbly accepted the words of the elder Amora, a colleague of his rabbis, and added that he was right in demanding that he come to the sermon, by means of which he was able to correct him, and the halakha was clarified appropriately.

The Gemara (Berakhot 28b) also tells about Rabbi Aviya who was a bit sick, and therefore did not come to Rabbi Yosef’s sermon, and Abaye knew that Rabbi Yosef was very upset about that, and in order to placate him reproved Rabbi Aviya, and said to him that although he was weak, he should have prayed by himself, eaten something, and come to the sermon.

The Story of the Elders of Nezonya

The Gemara relates: The Elders of the city of Nezonya did not come to Rav Ḥisda’s lecture. Rav Ḥisda said to Rav Hamnuna: Go and put them in nidui [excommunication] so they cannot leave their houses until they do teshuva (repent), because they act disrespectfully toward the Sages.

Rav Hamnuna went and said to the Elders of Nezonya: What is the reason that the rabbis did not come to the lecture? They said to him: Why should we come, as we asked him about an issue, and he did not resolve it for us. We have nothing to learn from him. Rav Hamnuna said to them: I am his student. Have you asked me anything that I did not resolve for you? Ask me your question. They asked him a question, but Rav Hamnuna did not know the answer. They said to him: What is your name? He said to them: Hamnuna. They said to him in jest: You should not be called Hamnuna, (a good hot fish), rather, your name should be Karnuna, (a cold fish that is no longer tasty), because you do not know any Torah.

Rabbi Benedict ztz”l learned two things from this story. One, that the nidui was so profound, to the point where there is not one saying in the name of the Elders of Nezonya in the entire Talmud. Second, that when one goes to put someone in nidui because he acts disrespectfully to a rabbi and the Torah, one should not try to persuade him,but put him in outright nidui. Therefore, when Rav Hamnuna tried to persuade them by talking to them, he did not receive siyata d’shmiya (help from Heaven), and was ridiculed.

Prohibition to Schedule a Meal at That Time

Our Sages said (Gittin 38b) one may not schedule a meal during the drasha. According to the Sages, doing so is one of the reasons that wealthy people become impoverished. We are told there were two families in Jerusalem and they were both eradicated – one because they regularly scheduled meals during the drasha, and the other, because they regularly scheduled a meal on Friday, and as a result, entered Shabbat satiated, thus offending the honor of the Shabbat meal.

The Death of Rabbi Meir’s Sons

The dreadful story is well-known (Midrash Mishlei 10: 31) about the sons of Rabbi Meir who Rabbi Meir said would enlighten his eyes with their Torah learning, but both died on Shabbat. It is told how Bruria, the wise wife of Rabbi Meir, comforted him, telling him that their sons were a deposit from God, and now He had come to take His deposit back. The Midrash asks: “On account of what did the sons of Rabbi Meir become liable and die at one time? Because they were accustomed to leaving the study hall (on Shabbat), sitting down to eat and drink,” therefore, they died at the time of the sermon, which was the time of their sin (quoted in Magen Avraham 290:1).

The ‘Pirka’ Regulations – The Drasha

On account of the great significance of the drasha, the Sages ruled leniently in certain laws concerning it. They said in the Mishnah (Shabbat 126b) that if many people came to hear the sermon on Shabbat and there was no place for everyone, it is permissible to move baskets of straw or hay in order to prepare a place for everyone to sit. And Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi did just that: once, when he found there was not enough room for everyone in the usual place of the sermon, he went to a field, found it full of bundles of grain, and cleared the bundles from the entire field, so there would be room for everyone to hear the sermon (Shabbat 127a).

Even on Yom Kippur, when bathing is forbidden, our Sages permitted passing through water to go to the sermon (Yoma 77b, and Rashi, ibid).

The Prohibition to study Writings at the Time of the Sermon

Our Sages forbade studying the Writings at the time of the sermon, because studying Writings was appealing, and as a result, people would refrain from going to the Beit Midrash to hear the sermon (Mishnah Shabbat 115a; and Gemara Shabbat 116b).

Today’s Situation

Today, communities’ arrangements have changed greatly, and controversy amongst Jews has intensified. There are Hassidim, and there are Mitnagdim; there are Jews who follow halakha, and Jews who seek segulot. Sometimes, the position of the local rabbi contradicts everything some members of the community have learned from their rabbis. And most seriously, the official rabbi is not always the appropriate one, for the control of politicians in appointing cronies has escalated, and the status of the rabbinate has been greatly weakened. Consequently, it is difficult to set the sermon regulation in its proper place. Nonetheless, every congregation should strive with all its might to appoint a worthy rabbi, and to attend an important Torah lesson every Shabbat.

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