In The Service Of A Teacher


By: David Levin

For centuries, the Jewish people have been known as the “People of the Book”. And who could argue with such an appellation? One need only enter a yeshiva to see dozens of people engaged in passionate discussion and debate over a Talmud, a Rambam, or a Shulchan Aruch. Visitors to Jewish homes have grown accustomed to see walls of shelves laden with well-worn tomes and piles of books on tables that are in current study. The studiousness of the Jews is legendary throughout the world and it is rightly something of which the Jewish People can be proud. It is primarily the intense study of the works of Jewish scholarship that has produced innumerable, unparalleled sages and rabbinic giants that have crowned the Jewish People and led them through millennia of good times and bad. Or is it?

As much as the study of Torah is venerated and lauded and is unquestionably central to living life authentically according to the Torah, our Sages have pointed out something that is even more important, namely something called shimush talmidei chachamim (abbreviated as shimush); literally “service of talmidei chachamim”. This point is made simply in the Talmud by Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai, who says[1]: “The service of (teachers of) Torah is greater than its study.” The Talmud continues to prove its point by noting that the prophet Elisha, who was the primary student of the prophet Eliyahu, is praised not as the one who “learned from Eliyahu” but rather as the one “who poured water on the hands of Eliyahu.”[2] Similarly, Yehoshua is praised in the Torah not as being the student of Moshe, but rather as “the servant of Moshe”.[3]


So great is shimush that the achievement of greatness in Torah is considered to be entirely dependent on it. Rav Chaim Shmulevitz ztz”l, the Rosh Yeshiva of Mir, writes[4]:

“One can see two people striving equally in a yeshiva, both devoted to Torah and Heavenly service, and nevertheless one can tell with certainty that one of them will become a disseminator of Torah in Israel and will influence the masses with regard to Torah and Heavenly awe, whereas the other one will achieve nothing. And the only difference between the two is that the first one serves his Rav and absorbs his essence and outlook in every respect, while the second toils in Torah on its own.”

Conversely, learning Torah without shimush is considered by the Talmud[5] to be practically valueless or even worse:

“What is the definition of a ‘crafty rasha (wicked person)?’ Ulla said, ‘It is one who studied the written Torah and the Mishna but did not serve talmidei chachamim.’ (Regarding one) who studied the written Torah and the Mishna, but did not serve talmidei chachamim: Rabbi Elazar says ‘He is an ignoramus.’ Rabbi Shmuel bar Nachmani says ‘He is a boor’. Rabbi Yannai says ‘He is a Kussi’ (a person whose bread and wine were not considered kosher owing to his lack of concern about the teachings of the Sages). Rav Acha bar Yaakov says ‘He is a witch.’ Rav Nachman bar Yitzchak said ‘Rav Acha bar Yaakov’s approach is most appropriate as people say ‘The witch utters incantations and does not know what he is saying (so too, a person who has studied Torah but has not served talmidei chachamim does not really understand the Torah he preaches, however erudite he may seem).’’”

In fact, it appears that only the studying of Torah under the umbrella of such a relationship of service of a mentor is considered learning. This can be seen from the statement in the Talmud[6]: “Rav, and some say Rav Shmuel bar Marta, said: ‘Learning Torah is greater than the building of the Beis HaMikdash, for so long as Baruch ben Neriya (the mentor of Ezra) was alive, he did not leave him to go up (to Israel to build the Beis haMikdash).’” Now, it is certain that even if Ezra were to go to Israel he would continue to learn Torah. However, that learning of Torah would not be in the context of service of his mentor, Baruch ben Neriya. And it is for this reason that the Talmud refers only to his learning under Baruch ben Neriya as “learning Torah”, to indicate that, at least in some respects, the learning of Torah done in the absence of a relationship of service of one’s mentor is not considered learning of Torah.

Why is shimush so important?

What makes shimush so critical? There are many reasons. However, most importantly, shimush allows one to cultivate a relationship with a mentor who is a master of Torah. More specifically, being in such a relationship allows the student to receive not just the words of Torah, but also the context in which the words of Torah operate, as well as the value system of the Torah. Without such a context, one comes to view all aspects of halacha as equally weighty in all contexts, which is not the case, and can lead to egregious distortions. This sentiment was expressed in Rav Reuven Grozovsky’s eulogy of Rav Shlomo Heimann ztz”l, the Rosh Yeshiva of the Remaillis Yeshiva in Vilna and of Torah Vo’Daas in New York, when he said, “Rav Shlomo was a great Rosh Yeshiva in that he did more than other Roshei Yeshiva. Other Roshei Yeshiva taught what was right and what was wrong; Rav Shlomo went further and also taught ‘how right’ and ‘how wrong’.”

This awareness of the context and value system of the Torah is essential for appropriate practical application of Torah; for the transition from theory to practice. Just as a surgeon needs years of practical apprenticeship under a skilled and experienced mentor if he is to be able to apply his theoretical book knowledge effectively and safely, so too the proper development of a Torah scholar requires even more years of close practical apprenticeship with a master mentor who himself went through such apprenticeship. However, unlike in the medical analogy, in the case of Torah apprenticeship, the experience of the mentor is not sufficient. It is required that the mentor be a carrier of the correct context of the Torah, passed man-to-man, all the way back to Moshe and from Hashem Himself. This correct context is colloquially known as “mesora”, or “transmission”, and can be learned only from close association with one who is part of the line of the mesora.

The Rambam notes this when, in his introduction to the Mishna Torah, he traces the line of transmission of the Oral Torah from Sinai to the sages who compiled the Talmud Bavli. He writes: “It emerges that from Rav Ashi until Moshe Rabbeinu, a”h, were 40 generations and these are them… It emerges that all of them (received the mesora) from Hashem, the G-d of Israel.” We see then that this context embodied in the mesora is transmitted man-to-man only, and that only transmission in this manner carries the context initially provided by Hashem at Sinai.

It is to this that Rav Shlomo Wolbe ztz”l alludes when he says[7]: “(And only through the service of students of their mentors) will, with Hashem’s help, the innermost parts of Torah be transmitted, in its true form…A student who does not serve (his mentor) sufficiently, even if he would be a rosh yeshiva or a posek (one who pronounces rulings of halacha), he will never be someone upon whom one could rely in matters of Torah!”

For this reason, it is actually a halachic requirement for a Rav, who is part of the line of the mesora, to allow students to serve him, because it is only in this way that students will be able to receive properly the Torah in its fully authentic form. This is the ruling of the Rambam who states[8], “And anyone who prevents his students from serving him withholds from them kindness and casts off from them the yoke of awe of Heaven.”

Rav Shmulevitz also notes[9] that a person endowed with sufficient service of talmidei chachamim is considered a greater student than one who has far greater mental faculties and book knowledge. He explains from the Ramban[10] that Calev was a greater scholar than Yehoshua, and notes that the Ba’al HaTurim says that, in fact, there were in excess of 6600 scholars at the time of Yehoshua who were greater than him in terms of their knowledge and wisdom! Nevertheless, it was specifically Yehoshua who was chosen to lead Israel after Moshe and to bear the mesora after him, because there was nobody who matched his service of Moshe, as the first Mishna in Pirkei Avos says, “Moshe received the Torah from Sinai and transmitted it to Yehoshua.”

The challenge of finding a Rav

Nowadays, there may be a temptation for one to exempt himself from pursuing such a relationship in which he finds a mentor or Rav to serve. For many reasons, it is far more difficult in this generation to find a Rav who has himself served a Rav who was part of the line of the mesora all the way back to Moshe. This is because many of the rabbis who were part of that line were killed during the Holocaust and there are far fewer such rabbis to serve. Unfortunately, in this respect, Hitler, yemach shemo (may his name be blotted out), was largely successful. Additionally, there is a strong argument to say that even the few rabbis that survived and teach in this generation are not of the stature and scholarship of the rabbis of the previous generations. This concern is not a new one and was already raised in the Talmud. However, Chazal consistently point out that this approach is erroneous and apply[11] the verse, “Do not say ‘How was it that former times were better than these?’” Similarly, the Talmud[12] cites the verse[13], “Then you shall come to the Kohanim, the Levi’im, and to the judge who will be in those days”. On this, the Talmud asks “Did it ever occur to you that one would go to a judge that was not in his own days? Rather, (the verse teaches) that you should only (want to) go to the judge that is in your own days.” In a similar vein, the Midrash states[14]: “One should not say ‘If Rabbi Akiva had been alive, I would sit and learn before him.’”

Rav Chaim Shmulevitz notes[15] that the intent of the Talmud is not to say that one should also consult with the sages of one’s own generation insofar as one cannot access the sages of other generations. Rather, the intent of the Talmud is to say that one would not be able to relate at all to the sages of previous generations and the sages of one’s own generation are the only (and ideal) point of access one has to the mesora. In order to prove this, he quotes the continuation of the abovementioned Midrash which says “It is written[16]: ‘And Yehoyada, Aharon’s leader’. But was Yehoyada really Aharon’s leader (and therefore more senior to him)? Rather, (the intent of the verse is to teach that) if Aharon had been alive in the generation of Yehoyada, Yehoyada would have been greater than him at that time.” So it can be seen that even though, in absolute terms, Aharon was far greater than Yehoyada, nevertheless, in Yehoyada’s generation, Yehoyada would have been greater than Aharon even if Aharon had been alive at that time, considering the needs and leadership requirements of that generation. Yehoyada, quite simply, was better able to relate to his own generation than Aharon would have been. As a result, it is clear that one cannot exempt oneself from the requirement to serve a talmid chacham on the grounds that the rabbis of this generation are less great than previous generations. However, it is still imperative to ascertain that the talmid chacham one chooses to serve served a Rav who was part of the authentic line of the mesora extending all the way back to Sinai.

In any event, all of this leads one to reconsider the phrase “People of the Book”. To be only the People of the Book would indeed be tragic and it is not a goal to which we should aspire. To be only the People of the Book would be to gut the Torah of its soul and context and render it meaningless and dangerous. Rather, we should aspire to be the “People of the Rav”, coupling our devotion to studying books with an even greater devotion to the service of those capable of transmitting to us the mesora.

  1. Brachos 7b
  2. II Melachim 3:11
  3. Bamidbar 11:28, Shemos 33:11
  4. Sichos Mussar 14
  5. Sotah 21b – 22a
  6. Megilla 16b
  7. Alei Shur, Sha’ar Sheini, Perek 4
  8. Hilchos Talmud Torah 5:8
  9. Sichos Mussar 42
  10. Bamdibar 13:4
  11. Koheles 7:10
  12. Rosh haShana 25b
  13. Devarim 17:9
  14. Koheles Rabba Perek 1-4:4
  15. Sichos Mussar 40
  16. I Divrei haYamim 12:28

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