The Talmud: Selections, by H. Polano, , at sacred-texts.com
The Law and its Study.
"The Lord created me as the beginning of his way" (Prov. 8: 22). This means that God created the law before he created the world. Many sages have made their lives as black as the raven, that is, cruel to themselves as the raven is to her children, by means of continual study, day and night.
Rabbi Johanan said, "It is best to study by night, when all is quiet; as it is written, 'Shout forth praises in the night.'"
Reshbi Lakish said, "Study by day and by night; as it is written, 'Thou shalt meditate therein day and night.'"
Rabbi Chonan, of Zepora, said, "The study of the law may be compared to a huge heap of dust that is to be cleared away. The foolish man says, 'It is impossible that I should be able to remove this immense heap, I will not attempt it;' but the wise man says, 'I will remove a little to-day, some more to-morrow, and more the day after, and thus in time I shall have removed it all.'
"It is the same with studying the law. The indolent pupil says, 'It is impossible for me to study the Bible. Just think of it, fifty chapters in Genesis; sixty-six in Isaiah, one hundred and fifty Psalms, &c. I cannot do it but the industrious student says, 'I will study six
chapters every day, and so in time I shall acquire the whole.'"
In Proverbs 24: 7, we find this sentence: "Wisdom is too high for a fool."
"Rabbi Jochanan illustrates this verse with an apple depending from the ceiling. The foolish man says, 'I cannot reach the fruit, it is too high;' but the wise man says, 'It may be readily obtained by placing one step upon another until thy arm is brought within reach of it.' The foolish man says, 'Only a wise man can study the entire law;' but the wise man replies, 'It is not incumbent upon thee to acquire the whole.'"
Rabbi Levi illustrates this by a parable.
A man once hired two servants to fill a basket with water, One of them said, "Why should I continue this useless labour? I put the water in one side and it immediately leaks out of the other; what profit is it?"
The other workman, who was wise, replied, "We have the profit of the reward which we receive for our labour."
It is the same in studying the law. One man says, "What does it profit me to study the law when I must ever continue it or else forget what I have learned." But the other man replies, "God will reward us for the will which we display even though we do forget."
Rabbi Ze-irah has said that even a single letter in the law which we might deem of no importance, if wanting, would neutralise the whole law. In Deuteronomy 22: 17, we read, "Neither shall he take to himself many wives, that his heart may turn away." Solomon transgressed this precept, and it is said by Rabbi Simon that the angels took note of his ill-doing and addressed the Deity: "Sovereign of the world, Solomon has made Thy law even as a law liable to change and diminution. Three precepts he has disregarded,
namely, 'He shall not acquire for himself many horses;' 'neither shall he take to himself many wives;' 'nor shall he acquire to himself too much silver and gold.'" Then the Lord replied, "Solomon will perish from the earth; aye, and a hundred Solomons after him, and yet the smallest letter of the law shall not be dispensed with."
The Rabbis have often applied in a figurative sense, various passages of Holy Writ, among others the opening verse of the 55th chapter of Isaiah. "Ho, every one of ye that thirsteth, come ye to the water, and he, too, that hath no money; come ye, buy and eat; yea, come, buy without money and without price, wine and milk."
The three liquids which men are thus urged to procure are considered by the sages of Israel as typical of the law.
One Rabbi asked, "Why is the word of God compared to water?"
To this question the following answer was returned: "As water runs down from an eminence (the mountains), and rests in a low place (the sea), so the law, emanating from Heaven, can remain in the possession of those only who are humble in spirit."
Another Rabbi inquired, "Wherefore has the Word of God been likened to wine and milk?" The reply made was, "As these fluids cannot he preserved in golden vessels, but only in those of earthenware, so those minds will be the best receptacles of learning which are found in homely bodies."
Thus, for instance, Rabbi Joshua ben Chaninah, who was very homely in appearance, possessed great wisdom and erudition; and one of his favourite sayings was, that "though many have exhibited a vast amount of knowledge, notwithstanding their personal attractions, yet had they
been less handsome, their acquirements might have beet more extensive."
There is another reason for comparing the Word of God to the last-mentioned liquids, namely, that they demand watching, lest they be spilled or spoiled, and in the same manner our acquaintance with the Bible and the traditions requires constant cultivation, else it will be lost.
The precepts are compared to a lamp; the law of God to a light. The lamp gives light only so long as it contains oil. So he who observes the precepts receives his reward while performing them. The law, however, is a light perpetual; it is a protection for ever to the one who studies it, as it is written:
"When thou walkest, it (the law) will guide thee; when thou liest down, it will watch over thee; and when thou awakenest, it will converse with thee."
When thou walkest, it will guide thee--in this world; when thou liest down, it will watch over thee--in the grave; when thou awakenest, it will converse with thee--in the life to come.
A traveller upon his journey passed through the forest upon a dark and gloomy night. He journeyed in dread; he feared the robbers who infested the route he was traversing; he feared that he might slip and fall into some unseen ditch or pitfall on the way, and he feared, too, the wild beasts, which he knew were about him. By chance he discovered a pine torch, and lighted it, and its gleams afforded him great relief. He no longer feared brambles or pitfalls, for he could see his way before him. But the dread of robbers and wild beasts was still upon him, nor left him till the morning's dawn, the coming of the sun. Still he was uncertain of his way, until he emerged from the forest,
and reached the cross-roads, when peace returned unto his heart.
The darkness in which the man walked was the lack of religious knowledge. The torch he discovered typifies God's precepts, which aided him on the way until he obtained the blessed sunlight, compared to God's holy word, the Bible. Still, while man is in the forest (the world), he is not entirely at peace; his heart is weak, and he may lose the right path; but when he reaches the cross-roads (death), then may we proclaim him truly righteous, and exclaim:
"A good name is more fragrant than rich perfume, and the day of death is better than the day of one's birth."
Rabbi Jochanan, the son of Broka, and Rabbi Eleazer, the son of Chismah, visited their teacher, Rabbi Josah, and he said to them:
"What is the news at the college; what is going on?" "Nay," they answered, "we are thy scholars; it is for thee to speak, for us to listen."
"Nevertheless," replied Rabbi Josah, "no day passes without some occurrence of note at the college. Who lectured to-day?"
"Rabbi Eleazer, the son of Azaryah."
"And what was his subject?"
"He chose this verse from Deuteronomy," replied the scholar:
"'Assemble the people together, the men, the women, and the children;' and thus he expounded it:
"'The men came to learn, the women to listen; but wherefore the children? In order that those who brought them might receive a reward for training their children in the fear of the Lord.'
"He also expounded the verse from Ecclesiastes;
"'The words of the wise are like goads, and like nails fastened (are the words of) the men of the assemblies, which are given by one shepherd.'
"'Why is the law of God compared to a goad?' he said. 'Because the goad causes the ox to draw the furrow straight, and the straight furrow brings forth a plenty of good food for the life of man. So does the law of God keep man's heart straight, that it may produce good food to provide for the life eternal. But lest thou shouldst say, "The goad is movable, so therefore must the law be," it is also written, "as nails," and likewise, as "nails fastened," lest thou shouldst argue that nails pounded into wood diminish from sight with each stroke, and that therefore by this comparison God's law would be liable to diminution also. No; as a nail fastened or planted, as a tree is planted to bring forth fruit and multiply.
"'The men of assemblies are those who gather in numbers to study the law. Frequently controversies arise among them, and thou mightest say, "With so many differing opinions how can I settle to a study of the law?" Thy answer is written in the words which are given by one shepherd. From one God have all the laws proceeded. Therefore make thy ears as a sieve, and incline thy heart to possess all these words.'"
Then said Rabbi Josah, "Happy the generation which Rabbi Eleazer teaches."
The sages of the academy in Jabnah expressed their regard for all human beings, learned and unlearned, in this manner:
"I am a creature of God and so is my neighbour. He may prefer to labour in the country; I prefer a calling in the city. I rise early for my personal benefit; he rises early
to advance his own interests. As he does not seek to sup plant me, I should be careful to do naught to injure his business. Shall I imagine that I am nearer to God because my profession advances the cause of learning and his does not? No. Whether we accomplish much good or little good, the Almighty will reward us in accordance with our righteous intentions."
Abaygeh offered the following as his best advice:
". . . Let him be also affable and disposed to foster kindly feelings between all people; by so doing he will gain for himself the love both of the Creator and His creatures."
Rabba always said that the possession of wisdom and a knowledge of the law necessarily lead to penitence and good deeds. "For," said he, "it would be useless to acquire great learning and the mastery of Biblical and traditional law and act irreverently towards one's parents, or towards those superior on account of age or more extensive learning."
"The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; a good understanding have all those who do God's commands."
Rabba said, "Holy Writ does not tell us that to study God's commands shows a good understanding, but to do them. We must learn, however, before we can be able to perform; and he who acts contrary through life to the teachings of the Most High had better never have been born."
"The wise man is in his smallest actions great: the fool is in his greatest actions small."
A pupil once inquired of his teacher, "What is real wisdom?" The teacher replied, "To judge liberally, to think purely, and to love thy neighbour." Another teacher answered, "The greatest wisdom is to know thyself."
"Beware of conceit and pride of learning; learn thy tongue to utter, 'I do not know.'"
If a man devotes himself to study, and becomes learned, to the delight and gratification of his teachers, and yet is modest in conversation with less intelligent people, honest in his dealings, truthful in his daily walks, the people say, "Happy is the father who allowed him to study God's law; happy the teachers who instructed him in the ways of truth; how beautiful are his ways; how meritorious his deeds! Of such an one the Bible says, 'He said to me, Thou art my servant; oh, Israel, through thee am I glorified.'"
But when a man devotes himself to study, and becomes learned, yet is disdainful with those less educated than himself, and is not particular in his dealings with his fellows, then the people say of him, "Woe to the father who allowed him to study God's law; woe to those who instructed him; how censurable is his conduct; how loathsome are his ways! ‘Tis of such an one the Bible says, 'And from his country the people of the Lord departed.'"
When souls stand at the judgment-seat of God, the poor, the rich, and the wicked each are severally asked what excuse they can offer for not having studied the law. If the poor man pleads his poverty he is reminded of Hillel. Though Hillel's earnings were small he gave half each day to gain admittance to the college.
When the rich man is questioned, and answers that the care of his fortune occupied his time, he is told that Rabbi Eleazer possessed a thousand forests and a thousand ships, and yet abandoned all the luxuries of wealth, and journeyed from town to town searching and expounding the law.
When the wicked man pleads temptation as an excuse for his evil course, he is asked if he has been more tempted
than Joseph, more cruelly tried than he was, with good or evil fortune.
Yet though we are commanded to study God's law, we are not to make of it a burden; neither are we to neglect for the sake of study any other duty or reasonable recreation. "Why," once asked a pupil, "is 'thy shalt gather in thy corn in its season' a Scriptural command? Would not the people gather their corn when ripe as a matter of course? The command is superfluous."
"Not so," replied the Rabbis "the corn might belong to a man who for the sake of study would neglect work, Work is holy and honourable in God's sight, and He would not have men fail to perform their daily duties even for the study of His law."