Literary critic Adam Kirsch is reading a page of Talmud a day, along with Jews around the world.

One of the most contentious issues in Israeli politics is the exemption of ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students from army service. The exemption dates back to the beginning of the state, when only a few hundred men were affected; today, as many as 50,000 choose to study Torah rather than serve in the IDF. A law was passed to limit this practice in 2014, but it was rolled back earlier this year as part of a deal between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the ultra-Orthodox parties in the Knesset. To secular Israelis, the exemption is patently unfair, as well as an economic burden on the state. To the haredim themselves, on the other hand, the idea of tearing students away from Torah study represents on attack on their core values and on Judaism itself.

One of the compelling things about reading Daf Yomi is that, in the middle of seemingly arcane debates about, say, planting onions or grafting vines, you can suddenly come across a passage that directly addresses today’s headlines. That is what happened this week with the question of army exemptions; and it turns out that, unsurprisingly perhaps, the haredim have clear Talmudic support for their position. “Rava said: It is permitted for a Torah scholar to say: I will not pay the head tax,” the Gemara says in Nedarim 62b. The reason is that a Torah scholar is legally equivalent to a priest, and in the Book of Ezra, the Persian king decrees that Jewish priests shall be exempt from minda, belo, and halakh. These were three kinds of taxes, which Rabbi Yehuda translates as “the king’s portion” (royal tribute), “the head tax” (a tax levied on each community based on its population), and “arnona,” using a Latin-derived term for compulsory labor service.

It is this third category that seems to apply in the case of the Israeli army: A Torah scholar has the right not to be drafted by the government. There is, of course, a major difference between the current Israeli situation and the situations mentioned in the Talmud, which is that the haredim today are being asked to serve a Jewish government, while the Talmud contemplates service to a gentile government, Persian or Roman as the case may be. But that may not make any difference in the eyes of the haredim, and in fact it might only make matters worse. For if any government should be expected to protect Torah study, surely it’s the government of a Jewish state. (After all, King David did not draft priests into his army to fight the Philistines.) Here is one of the numerous instances where the identity of Israel as a secular state is in tension with its role as a Jewish homeland.

Exemption from taxation and the draft is just one of the prerogatives of a Torah scholar, according to the Gemara we read this week. The subject comes up in Nedarim 62a, in the course of a discussion about when the summer is officially considered over. The Mishna is interested in this question because it wants to know how to deal with vows phrased in the form “such and such is forbidden to me until the summer has passed.” In this case, the rabbis say, we define summer not by the calendar but more practically: The end of summer comes when “people begin to bring fruit into their houses in baskets,” that is, at the harvest season. Alternatively, summer is over when “people set aside the knives,” meaning the knives they use for harvesting figs. Accordingly, that is when a summer-based vow expires—even if it comes before the actual autumn equinox.

“Setting aside the knives” marks the end of the harvest season, the Gemara goes on to explain. This means that any figs left in the field after the knives have been stored away are considered to be abandoned property, which means they are “permitted with regard to stealing”: Anyone can come and take them, since they are legally ownerless. Yet apparently this wasn’t always a safe thing to do, as we learn in an anecdote about the great sage Rabbi Tarfon. On one occasion, “a certain man found Rabbi Tarfon eating figs from his field at the time when most of the knives had been set aside.” Legally, then, Tarfon was in the right; but this didn’t stop the owner of the field from putting Tarfon in a sack and trying to throw him in the river, as punishment for theft. “Woe to Tarfon, for this man is killing him!” the rabbi cried out, whereupon the man, realizing that he had bagged a famous sage, set down the sack and ran away.

Tarfon regretted this episode for the rest of his life, we are told, but not for the expected reason. It wasn’t that he regretted eating the figs or almost being killed; rather, he believed he had done the wrong thing by identifying himself to his abductor. Why? Because in doing so, he derived a benefit from being such a well-known sage: The man freed him because the name of Tarfon was a venerable one. But it is a Talmudic principle that a scholar should not derive worldly benefit from his Torah learning. “Woe is me, for I made use of the crown of Torah,” Tarfon would say; he was so righteous that he believed even saving his own life was a misuse of Torah. It would have been preferable, the Gemara says, if Tarfon had offered to bribe his way out of the sack instead: “Since Rabbi Tarfon was very wealthy, he should have sought to appease him with money.” Better to make use of your money than of your reputation for sanctity. (Although if Tarfon was so rich, it makes you wonder why he was eating the free figs in the first place.)

Torah study was not only a service to God, but an avenue for social advancement

Tarfon’s example prompts the rabbis to extol the virtues of selflessness in study. Reading the Talmud, it is clear that the rabbis represent a social elite and that they generally look down on other, unlettered classes of Jews. This creates a moral problem, for it means that Torah study was not only a service to God, but an avenue for social advancement—which means it could be undertaken for the wrong reasons. That is why the Gemara repeatedly insists that Torah study should not be a means of self-glorification. “A person should not say: I will read so they will call me a sage; I will study so they will call me rabbi; I will review so that I will be an elder and sit in the academy.”

Instead of seeking titles and respect, the Gemara advises, “learn out of love, and the honor will eventually come.” This sounds like a difficult psychological trick to pull off: A Torah scholar is supposed to ignore the rewards of study in order to earn those rewards, which is a little like telling someone not to think of a pink elephant. But just because it is difficult doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it. “Speak words of Torah for their own sake,” says Rabbi Eliezer bar Rabbi Tzadok. “Do not make them a crown with which to become glorified.” He makes a biblical analogy with Belshazzar, the Babylonian king from the Book of Daniel, who made profane use of the sacred vessels plundered from the First Temple and was “uprooted from the world” as punishment. Torah knowledge too is sacred, and anyone who uses it for personal gain will be similarly punished.

And yet, the Gemara goes on to say, there are certain occasions when it is legitimate for a Torah scholar to benefit from his status. “It is permitted for a person to make himself known in a place where people do not know him”: If a sage comes to town, he can tell everyone he is a sage, so they will treat him with the proper respect. This includes giving him priority in judging his lawsuit and calling him first for a Torah reading and giving him first choice when food is being distributed. Again, the basis for this privilege is the analogy between the scholar and the priest. Just as, in Temple days, priests were given preferential treatment, so scholars should get it now that the Temple is gone. This is a clear statement of how, in rabbinic Judaism, learning replaces noble birth as a source of power and status. In this sense, the rabbis were democratic, since anyone could become a sage—Hillel, for example, was born extremely poor. No wonder learning was prized as a means of advancement, even though it was supposed to be a strictly selfless pursuit.


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