Growing Grain or Learning Torah?

The celebration of Lag Ba’Omer is an expression of the tension between two ideals in Judaism.

An "omer" is a measurement; the Torah portrays the counting of the Omer as a count towards a grain offering. Of course, it is also the count to the day when we received the Torah at Mount Sinai - the holiday of Shavuot. On the one hand, the lead-up to the grain offering celebrates the image of the farmer, tiller of the land, a person involved in the world and able to fulfill the many agricultural mitsvot. On the other hand, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, the "hero" of Lag Ba"omer, is the model of the Torah scholar who spends their time devoted to study and largely ignores the physical world. The former is the one who can actually fulfill many practical mitsvot; the latter is the one who can delve deeply into the Divine word and spend time in spiritual and intellectual bliss. How do we grapple with these two models in our own lives?

תנו רבנן ואספת דגנך מה תלמוד לומר לפי שנאמר לא ימוש ספר התורה הזה מפיך יכול דברים ככתבן תלמוד לומר ואספת דגנך הנהג בהן מנהג דרך ארץ דברי רבי ישמעאל רבי שמעון בן יוחאי אומר אפשר אדם חורש בשעת חרישה וזורע בשעת זריעה וקוצר בשעת קצירה ודש בשעת דישה וזורה בשעת הרוח תורה מה תהא עליה אלא בזמן שישראל עושין רצונו של מקום מלאכתן נעשית על ידי אחרים שנאמר ועמדו זרים ורעו צאנכם וגו׳ ובזמן שאין ישראל עושין רצונו של מקום מלאכתן נעשית על ידי עצמן שנאמר ואספת דגנך ולא עוד אלא שמלאכת אחרים נעשית על ידן שנאמר ועבדת את אויבך וגו׳ אמר אביי הרבה עשו כרבי ישמעאל ועלתה בידן כרבי שמעון בן יוחי ולא עלתה בידן
The Sages taught: What is the meaning of that which the verse states: “And you shall gather your grain”? Because it is stated: “This Torah shall not depart from your mouths, and you shall contemplate in it day and night” (Joshua 1:8), I might have thought that these matters are to be understood as they are written; one is to literally spend his days immersed exclusively in Torah study. Therefore, the verse states: “And you shall gather your grain, your wine and your oil,” assume in their regard, the way of the world; set aside time not only for Torah, but also for work. This is the statement of Rabbi Yishmael. Rabbi Shimon ben Yoḥai says: Is it possible that a person plows in the plowing season and sows in the sowing season and harvests in the harvest season and threshes in the threshing season and winnows in the windy season, as grain is separated from the chaff by means of the wind, and is constantly busy; what will become of Torah? Rather, one must dedicate himself exclusively to Torah at the expense of other endeavors; as when Israel performs God’s will, their work is performed by others, as it is stated: “And strangers will stand and feed your flocks, and foreigners will be your plowmen and your vinedressers” (Isaiah 61:5). When Israel does not perform God’s will, their work is performed by them themselves, as it is stated: “And you shall gather your grain.” Moreover, if Israel fails to perform God’s will, others’ work will be performed by them, as it is stated: “You shall serve your enemy whom God shall send against you, in hunger, in thirst, in nakedness and in want of all things” (Deuteronomy 28:48). Summing up this dispute, Abaye said: Although there is room for both opinions, many have acted in accordance with the opinion of Rabbi Yishmael, and combined working for a living and learning Torah, and although they engaged in activities other than the study of Torah, were successful in their Torah study. Many have acted in accordance with the opinion of Rabbi Shimon ben Yoḥai and were not successful in their Torah study. They were ultimately forced to abandon their Torah study altogether.

This text presents a machloket, a disagreement, between Rabbi Yishmael and Rabbi Shimon. Rabbi Yishmael believes that the Torah explicitly instructs us to work the land, so that we won't mistakenly think that we are really supposed to be involved with Torah at every moment. Rabbi Yishmael disagrees and explains work as a punishment, something that Jews must do only under duress.

Questions for Discussion:

1) Spend a few minutes engaging in this debate. What are the pros and cons of each position?

2) Do you have any models in your life, or can you think of historical figures, who embody either side of this debate?

3) Who wins this argument? How do you know?

דיתבי רבי יהודה ורבי יוסי ורבי שמעון ויתיב יהודה בן גרים גבייהו פתח רבי יהודה ואמר כמה נאים מעשיהן של אומה זו תקנו שווקים תקנו גשרים תקנו מרחצאות רבי יוסי שתק נענה רבי שמעון בן יוחאי ואמר כל מה שתקנו לא תקנו אלא לצורך עצמן תקנו שווקין להושיב בהן זונות מרחצאות לעדן בהן עצמן גשרים ליטול מהן מכס הלך יהודה בן גרים וסיפר דבריהם ונשמעו למלכות אמרו יהודה שעילה יתעלה יוסי ששתק יגלה לציפורי שמעון שגינה יהרג אזל הוא ובריה טשו בי מדרשא כל יומא הוה מייתי להו דביתהו ריפתא וכוזא דמיא וכרכי כי תקיף גזירתא אמר ליה לבריה נשים דעתן קלה עליהן דילמא מצערי לה ומגליא לן אזלו טשו במערתא איתרחיש ניסא איברי להו חרובא ועינא דמיא והוו משלחי מנייהו והוו יתבי עד צוארייהו בחלא כולי יומא גרסי בעידן צלויי לבשו מיכסו ומצלו והדר משלחי מנייהו כי היכי דלא ליבלו איתבו תריסר שני במערתא אתא אליהו וקם אפיתחא דמערתא אמר מאן לודעיה לבר יוחי דמית קיסר ובטיל גזירתיה נפקו חזו אינשי דקא כרבי וזרעי אמר מניחין חיי עולם ועוסקין בחיי שעה כל מקום שנותנין עיניהן מיד נשרף יצתה בת קול ואמרה להם להחריב עולמי יצאתם חיזרו למערתכם הדור אזול איתיבו תריסר ירחי שתא אמרי משפט רשעים בגיהנם שנים עשר חדש יצתה בת קול ואמרה צאו ממערתכם נפקו כל היכא דהוה מחי רבי אלעזר הוה מסי רבי שמעון אמר לו בני די לעולם אני ואתה בהדי פניא דמעלי שבתא חזו ההוא סבא דהוה נקיט תרי מדאני אסא ורהיט בין השמשות אמרו ליה הני למה לך אמר להו לכבוד שבת ותיסגי לך בחד חד כנגד זכור וחד כנגד שמור אמר ליה לבריה חזי כמה חביבין מצות על ישראל יתיב דעתייהו

The Gemara relates that this resulted due to an incident that took place when Rabbi Yehuda and Rabbi Yosei and Rabbi Shimon were sitting, and Yehuda, son of converts, sat beside them. Rabbi Yehuda opened and said: How pleasant are the actions of this nation, the Romans, as they established marketplaces, established bridges, and established bathhouses. Rabbi Yosei was silent. Rabbi Shimon ben Yoḥai responded and said: Everything that they established, they established only for their own purposes. They established marketplaces, to place prostitutes in them; bathhouses, to pamper themselves; and bridges, to collect taxes from all who pass over them. Yehuda, son of converts, went and related their statements to his household, and those statements continued to spread until they were heard by the monarchy. They ruled and said: Yehuda, who elevated the Roman regime, shall be elevated and appointed as head of the Sages, the head of the speakers in every place. Yosei, who remained silent, shall be exiled from his home in Judea as punishment, and sent to the city of Tzippori in the Galilee. And Shimon, who denounced the government, shall be killed. Rabbi Shimon bar Yoḥai and his son, Rabbi Elazar, went and hid in the study hall. Every day Rabbi Shimon’s wife would bring them bread and a jug of water and they would eat. When the decree intensified, Rabbi Shimon said to his son: Women are easily impressionable and, therefore, there is room for concern lest the authorities torture her and she reveal our whereabouts. They went and they hid in a cave. A miracle occurred and a carob tree was created for them as well as a spring of water. They would remove their clothes and sit covered in sand up to their necks. They would study Torah all day in that manner. At the time of prayer, they would dress, cover themselves, and pray, and they would again remove their clothes afterward so that they would not become tattered. They sat in the cave for twelve years. Elijah the Prophet came and stood at the entrance to the cave and said: Who will inform bar Yoḥai that the emperor died and his decree has been abrogated? They emerged from the cave, and saw people who were plowing and sowing. Rabbi Shimon bar Yoḥai said: These people abandon eternal life of Torah study and engage in temporal life for their own sustenance. The Gemara relates that every place that Rabbi Shimon and his son Rabbi Elazar directed their eyes was immediately burned. A Divine Voice emerged and said to them: Did you emerge from the cave in order to destroy My world? Return to your cave. They again went and sat there for twelve months. They said: The judgment of the wicked in Gehenna lasts for twelve months. Surely their sin was atoned in that time. A Divine Voice emerged and said to them: Emerge from your cave. They emerged. Everywhere that Rabbi Elazar would strike, Rabbi Shimon would heal. Rabbi Shimon said to Rabbi Elazar: My son, you and I suffice for the entire world, as the two of us are engaged in the proper study of Torah. As the sun was setting on Shabbat eve, they saw an elderly man who was holding two bundles of myrtle branches and running at twilight. They said to him: Why do you have these? He said to them: In honor of Shabbat. They said to him: And let one suffice. He answered them: One is corresponding to: “Remember the Shabbat day, to keep it holy” (Exodus 20:8), and one is corresponding to: “Observe the Shabbat day, to keep it holy” (Deuteronomy 5:12). Rabbi Shimon said to his son: See how beloved the mitzvot are to Israel. Their minds were put at ease and they were no longer as upset that people were not engaged in Torah study.

Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai struggles with the balance between farming and physical sustenance on the one hand, and encountering Torah and the Divine on the other. In this story, Rabbi Shimon and his son are pushed out of the "normal" world due to their subversive political views. In the cave, there is only the study of Torah. They are sustained by miraculous means; from the perspective of the storyteller, God supports their endeavor. Upon emerging from the cave, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and his son have lost all patience with the mundane, day-to-day activities of life. Rabbi Elazar becomes a source of destruction, and Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, perhaps trying to reassure and calm him, tells him that they are "enough for the world." In the end, seeing an example of the way physical, agricultural products can be integrated into one's spiritual life soothes them.

Questions for Discussion:

1) What do you think about this distinction between one's day-to-day occupation and Torah learning? How might those two be integrated? Are you interested in that kind of integration, or do you prefer to keep your "everyday life" and your religious life separate?

2) Why do you think that Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and his son have such a hard time rejoining the world after their time in the cave? What is it about that experience that changed them?

3) Have you ever had an experience where you felt you were away from the rest of the world? How did that experience impact the way you felt about "regular life" when you returned? How did it impact your feelings about your religious life (if distinct)?

(ב) רַבָּן גַּמְלִיאֵל בְּנוֹ שֶׁל רַבִּי יְהוּדָה הַנָּשִׂיא אוֹמֵר, יָפֶה תַלְמוּד תּוֹרָה עִם דֶּרֶךְ אֶרֶץ, שֶׁיְּגִיעַת שְׁנֵיהֶם מְשַׁכַּחַת עָוֹן. וְכָל תּוֹרָה שֶׁאֵין עִמָּהּ מְלָאכָה, סוֹפָהּ בְּטֵלָה וְגוֹרֶרֶת עָוֹן...

(2) Rabban Gamliel the son of Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi said: Excellent is the study of the Torah together with a worldly occupation; for the exertion [expended] in both of them causes sin to be forgotten. And all [study of the] Torah in the absence of a worldly occupation comes to nothing in the end and leads to sin....

Rabban Gamliel, in this source from Pirkei Avot, connects the study of Torah and "the way of the world" as not only both being of value, but as ways of life that enhance one another. Exerting oneself in both, he argues, helps a person avoid sin. In fact, Torah without "melakhah" - creative labor, the kind of work the Torah forbids on Shabbat" - will ultimately lead nowhere.

Questions for Discussion:

1) Why do you think that Rabban Gamliel believes that Torah study should be paired with work? What might he mean about the exertion helping a person to forget sin?

2) How do you think about the balance between study and work in your own life? What is your ideal, and why?

(ט) גְּדוֹלֵי חַכְמֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל הָיוּ מֵהֶן חוֹטְבֵי עֵצִים וּמֵהֶן שׁוֹאֲבֵי מַיִם וּמֵהֶן סוּמִים וְאַף עַל פִּי כֵן הָיוּ עוֹסְקִין בְּתַלְמוּד תּוֹרָה בַּיּוֹם וּבַלַּיְלָה וְהֵם מִכְּלַל מַעְתִּיקֵי הַשְּׁמוּעָה אִישׁ מִפִּי אִישׁ מִפִּי משֶׁה רַבֵּנוּ:

(9) Among the great ones of the sages of Israel, there were wood-choppers (1) and water-drawers (3), and blind men, and despite this, they engaged in Torah study during the day and night, and are included among the transmitters of the tradition from person to person from Moses, our teacher.

Maimonides (who was also a great Torah scholar with a secular profession) says that among the great sages of Israel are people of all different professions and abilities. This information is shared in the context of his presentation of the Laws of Torah Study, in which he emphasizes the mandate to learn Torah.

Questions for Discussion:

1) This source, like the previous one, speaks to the value of (or reality of) learning Torah while also pursuing a profession or having other things going on in life. What do you need in your life in order to block out distractions and make time for study?

2) Maimonides describes a very full life - of work, constant study, and transmitting tradition. How do we create a sense of serenity or joy in balancing all the things we want to do? Do you ever feel tempted, like Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, to retreat into your own cave? How might you cope with those feelings?

ior ability to