September 18, 2008
Week 253, Day 4
18 Elul 5768

EILU D’VARIM: THE STUDY OF TORAH IS EQUAL TO THEM ALL
Rabbi Richard Sarason

Torah-study, both communal and private, forms a central part of Jewish liturgy because it is a crucial element of Jewish religious practice.  Rabbinic tradition maintains that every Jew must study a bit of Torah every day (hence, Ten Minutes of Torah, right?): “One should always divide his years into three parts, devoting one-third to the study of Scripture, one-third to the study of Mishnah, and one-third to the study of Talmud” (b. Kiddushin 30a). The Talmud concludes that the only certain way to fulfill this obligation is to do it daily.  That’s why the study of short passages from the Torah, from the Mishnah, and from the Talmud has been included in the morning liturgy since the time of Seder Rav Amram (c. 865).

Early on, there was variation in the precise passages studied.  Many communities studied passages dealing with the daily morning sacrifices on the theory that, if the actual sacrifices no longer could be offered, their verbal narration still could.  (This remains the practice in traditional communities.)  Another custom was to read the Priestly Benediction (Numbers 6:24-26), and M. Pe’ah 1:1, together with other talmudic materials. The present custom of studying the two Eilu d’varim passages, M. Pe’ah 1:1 and the tradition in b. Shabbat 127a, together with the Priestly Benediction, seems to be Franco-German in origin.  The Tosafists (Rashi’s students and grandsons) identify this as a French custom.  Over time, both customs—Priestly Benediction + Eilu d’varim, and the sacrificial readings—were maintained. 

The sacrificial readings were dropped from the outset in Reform prayer books. Gates of Prayer, which restored the Torah-study passages to North American Reform practice, omitted the Priestly Benediction and gave a conflation of the Pe’ah and Shabbat texts, both of which extol the value of Torah study (and are conjoined here on that basis as well as because of their verbal similarity).  MT follows the text of GOP in this section.  Here are the original texts (as part of our Torah-study today!):

            These are the things (=obligations) that have no set measure (=no upper limit):

  1. the corner of the field (=the obligation to leave the corner of the field for gleaning by the poor and needy);
  2. the first-fruits (of the new spring produce, which are brought to the Temple);
  3. the pilgrimage offerings (brought up to Jerusalem on the festivals);
  4. deeds of lovingkindness,
  5. and the study of Torah
    1. Pe’ah 1:1)

These are the things the fruits (=interest) of which a person enjoys in this world, but the principal remains for him in the world to come:

  1. honoring father and mother,
  2. deeds of lovingkindness,
  3. early arrival at the study-house morning and evening,
  4. hospitality to guests,
  5. visiting the sick,
  6. dowering the bride,
  7. accompanying the dead (to burial),
  8. devotion in prayer,
  9. making peace between a man and his fellow,
  10. and the study of Torah is equal to them all.
    (b. Shabbat 127a)

Note that Chaim Stern, in GOP, added at the end that “the study of Torah is equal to them all because it leads to them all,” but that is not what this text actually claims.  There is an ongoing dispute in early rabbinic literature about which is greater, Torah-study or deeds.  One tradition (b. Kiddushin 40b) indeed maintains that Torah-study is greater because it leads to deeds, but not all of the texts giving primacy to Torah-study (including this one) make that concession.  For the Rabbis, Torah-study is an intrinsic good and a supreme value in itself because, through it, one encounters God.  And that is why Torah-study remains an important part of Jewish worship.

 

 

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