Rabbi's Son Syndrome: The Goal & Dangers of Torah Study

Articles written by the author on this topic can be found in English and Hebrew

Religious life, by definition, demands high religious standards. Growing up in a rabbinic home, however, puts children squarely in the center headquarters where those standards are shaped and regulated by the community:

When we think of children who carry the burden of having famous parents, we often think of the offspring of movie stars or politicians. But in the Religious Zionist sector of Israeli society, being the child of a prominent rabbi comes with some very heavy baggage.

Filmmaker Racheli Wasserman, herself the daughter of such a rabbi, carries this load, and decided to unpack some of it by making “The Rabbi’s Daughter.” The short documentary, which Wasserman made as a student at the Ma’aleh School of Television, Film & The Arts in Jerusalem, is an intimate and sensitive portrait of three young women who not only live in the shadow of their revered fathers, but who have also made the fraught decision to leave the religious life behind and forge new paths for themselves.

The Rabbi’s Daughter” has caught the attention of Israeli film critics and the Israeli movie-going public alike. In December, it was awarded the best student film prize for the Israeli Documentary Filmmakers Forum, and earlier last fall it won the award for the best short documentary at the 2012 Haifa Film Festival. In 2011, the film was awarded the Aliza Shagrir Prize for outstanding documentary. Exceptionally for a student film, “The Rabbi’s Daughter” has been viewed more than 45,000 times online.

The half-hour film follows three young women as they interact with their rabbi fathers and expose their previously private thoughts and feelings about their complicated relationships with them. Tamar Aviner, daughter of Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, head of the Ateret Cohanim yeshiva in the Muslim Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City (and who recently declared that women should not engage in politics or run for seats in the Knesset), is a free-spirited artist and sensitive soul who struggles with being thrust into the public eye. Still clearly a spiritual person, Aviner has adopted a hippy-like peripatetic existence, living in a van and working as a street artist...

However, the loneliness and isolation created by the religious expectations within the rabbinic home are, of course, nothing new. The Talmud was not oblivious to the phenomena of rabbinic children struggling with their religious affiliation and expression.

ומפני מה אין מצויין ת"ח לצאת ת"ח מבניהן אמר רב יוסף שלא יאמרו תורה ירושה היא להם רב ששת בריה דרב אידי אומר כדי שלא יתגדרו על הצבור מר זוטרא אומר מפני שהן מתגברין על הצבור רב אשי אומר משום דקרו לאינשי חמרי רבינא אומר שאין מברכין בתורה תחלה דאמר רב יהודה אמר רב מאי דכתיב (ירמיהו ט, יא) מי האיש החכם ויבן את זאת דבר זה נשאל לחכמים ולנביאים ולא פירשוהו עד שפירשו הקב"ה בעצמו דכתיב (ירמיהו ט, יב) ויאמר ה' על עזבם את תורתי וגו' היינו לא שמעו בקולי היינו לא הלכו בה אמר רב יהודה אמר רב שאין מברכין בתורה תחלה

the Gemara inquires: And for what reason is it not common for Torah scholars to give rise to Torah scholars from among their sons? Why are Torah scholars generally born to paupers, who are not Torah scholars themselves? Rav Yosef said: This is so that they should not say the Torah is their inheritance. Therefore, it is unusual to find that all the sons of a Torah scholar are also Torah scholars. Rav Sheshet, son of Rav Idi, said: This is so that they should not be presumptuous [yitgadderu] toward the community, with the knowledge that they will be Torah scholars like their fathers. Mar Zutra said: Because they take advantage of their fathers’ standing to lord over the community and are punished for their conduct. Rav Ashi said: Because they call ordinary people donkeys. Ravina says: They are punished because they do not first recite a blessing over the Torah before commencing their studies. As Rav Yehuda said that Rav said: What is the meaning of that which is written: “Who is the wise man that may understand this, and who is he to whom the mouth of the Lord has spoken, that he may declare it, for what the land is perished and laid waste like a wilderness, so that none passes through” (Jeremiah 9:11)? This matter, the question as to why Eretz Yisrael was destroyed, was asked of the Sages, i.e., “the wise man,” and of the prophets, “he to whom the mouth of the Lord has spoken,” but they could not explain it. The matter remained a mystery until the Holy One, Blessed be He, Himself explained why Eretz Yisrael was laid waste, as it is written in the next verse: “And the Lord said: Because they have forsaken My Torah which I set before them, and have not obeyed My voice, nor walked therein” (Jeremiah 9:12). It would appear that “have not obeyed My voice” is the same as “nor walked therein.” Rav Yehuda said that Rav said: The expression “nor walked therein” means that they do not first recite a blessing over the Torah, and they are therefore liable to receive the severe punishments listed in the verse. §

Of all of the explanations, Ravina’s seems to be the most puzzling. What does the Blessing on the Torah have to do with the religious outcome of one’s children? And are we really to assume that great rabbinic scholars all skipped the Biblically mandated Blessing on the Torah made each morning?

In order to better understand this whole concept, let us start with examining this Blessing:

אָמַר רַב הוּנָא: לַמִּקְרָא צָרִיךְ לְבָרֵךְ, וְלַמִּדְרָשׁ — אֵינוֹ צָרִיךְ לְבָרֵךְ. וְרַבִּי אֶלְעָזָר אָמַר: לַמִּקְרָא וְלַמִּדְרָשׁ צָרִיךְ לְבָרֵךְ, לַמִּשְׁנָה — אֵינוֹ צָרִיךְ לְבָרֵךְ. וְרַבִּי יוֹחָנָן אָמַר: אַף לַמִּשְׁנָה נָמֵי צָרִיךְ לְבָרֵךְ [אֲבָל לַתַּלְמוּד, אֵינוֹ צָרִיךְ לְבָרֵךְ]. וְרָבָא אָמַר: אַף לַתַּלְמוּד צָרִיךְ (לַחֲזוֹר וּלְבָרֵךְ) [לְבָרֵךְ]. דְּאָמַר רַב חִיָּיא בַּר אָשֵׁי: זִימְנִין סַגִּיאִין הֲוָה קָאֵימְנָא קַמֵּיהּ דְּרַב לְתַנּוֹיֵי פִּרְקִין בְּ״סִפְרָא דְבֵי רַב״, הֲוָה מַקְדֵּים וְקָא מָשֵׁי יְדֵיהּ, וּבָרֵיךְ, וּמַתְנֵי לַן פִּרְקִין. מַאי מְבָרֵךְ? אָמַר רַב יְהוּדָה אָמַר שְׁמוּאֵל: ״אֲשֶׁר קִדְּשָׁנוּ בְּמִצְוֹתָיו וְצִוָּנוּ לַעֲסוֹק בְּדִבְרֵי תוֹרָה״. וְרַבִּי יוֹחָנָן מְסַיֵּים בַּהּ הָכִי ״הַעֲרֵב נָא ה׳ אֱלֹהֵינוּ אֶת דִּבְרֵי תוֹרָתְךָ בְּפִינוּ וּבְפִיפִיּוֹת עַמְּךָ בֵּית יִשְׂרָאֵל וְנִהְיֶה אֲנַחְנוּ וְצֶאֱצָאֵינוּ וְצֶאֱצָאֵי עַמְּךָ בֵּית יִשְׂרָאֵל כֻּלָּנוּ יוֹדְעֵי שְׁמֶךָ וְעוֹסְקֵי תוֹרָתֶךָ בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה׳ הַמְלַמֵּד תּוֹרָה לְעַמּוֹ יִשְׂרָאֵל״. וְרַב הַמְנוּנָא אָמַר: ״אֲשֶׁר בָּחַר בָּנוּ מִכׇּל הָעַמִּים וְנָתַן לָנוּ אֶת תּוֹרָתוֹ. בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה׳ נוֹתֵן הַתּוֹרָה״. אָמַר רַב הַמְנוּנָא: זוֹ הִיא מְעוּלָּה שֶׁבַּבְּרָכוֹת. הִלְכָּךְ לֵימְרִינְהוּ לְכוּלְּהוּ.

Rav Huna said: For the study of Bible, one must recite a blessing, as it is the word of God, and for halakhic midrash, the derivation of halakhot from verses, one need not recite a blessing. And Rabbi Elazar said: For Bible and midrash, which includes halakhot derived from verses themselves, one must recite a blessing; for Mishna, which is only comprised of halakhic rulings issued by the Sages, one need not recite a blessing. And Rabbi Yoḥanan said: Even for Mishna, which includes final, binding halakhic rulings, one must recite a blessing as well, but for Talmud, which comprises a study of the Mishna and the rationales for its rulings, one need not recite a blessing. And Rava said: Even for Talmud, which is the means to analyze the significance of the halakhot, and is the only form of Torah study that leads one to its true meaning, one must recite a blessing. This statement is supported by the practical halakha derived from observation of Rav’s practice. His student, Rav Ḥiyya bar Ashi, said: Many times I stood before Rav to study our chapter in the Sifra, also known as Torat Kohanim, the halakhic midrash on Leviticus, of the school of Rav, and I saw that Rav would first wash his hands, then recite a blessing, and only then he would teach us our chapter. This demonstrates that even before their study of Torat Kohanim, which, due to Rav’s explanation of the reasons behind the halakhot, was the equivalent of studying Talmud, one must recite a blessing. The Gemara clarifies: What formula of blessings does he recite? There is a dispute over the formula of the blessings as well. Rav Yehuda said that Shmuel said: The formula of this blessing is like the standard formula for blessings recited over other mitzvot: Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe, Who sanctified us with his mitzvot and commanded us to engage in matters of Torah. And Rabbi Yoḥanan concludes the blessing by adding the following: Lord our God, make the words of Your Torah sweet in our mouths and in the mouths of Your people, the house of Israel, so that we and our descendants and the descendants of Your people, the house of Israel, may be those who know Your name and engage in Your Torah. Blessed are You, Lord, Who teaches Torah to His people Israel. And Rav Hamnuna said an additional formula: Who has chosen us from all the peoples and given us His Torah. Blessed are You, Lord, Giver of the Torah. With regard to this formula, Rav Hamnuna said: This concise blessing is the most outstanding of all the blessings over the Torah, as it combines thanks to God for giving us the Torah as well as acclaim for the Torah and for Israel. Since several formulas for the blessing over Torah were suggested, each with its own distinct advantage, the Gemara concludes: Therefore, let us recite them all as blessings over the Torah.

The text of the Blessing of the Torah contains a reminder that our personal pursuits of religious perfection should not come at the expense of our appreciation of others. The Blessing reads:

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה' אֱלהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעולָם אֲשֶׁר קִדְּשָׁנוּ בְּמִצְותָיו וְצִוָּנוּ לַעֲסוק בְּדִבְרֵי תורָה: וְהַעֲרֶב נָא ה' אֱלהֵינוּ אֶת דִּבְרֵי תורָתְךָ בְּפִינוּ וּבְפִיּות עַמְּךָ בֵּית יִשרָאֵל. וְנִהְיֶה אֲנַחְנוּ וְצֶאֱצָאֵינוּ. וְצֶאֱצָאֵי צֶאֱצָאֵינוּ וְצֶאֱצָאֵי עַמְּךָ בֵּית יִשרָאֵל. כֻּלָּנוּ יודְעֵי שְׁמֶךָ וְלומְדֵי תורָתֶךָ לִשְׁמָהּ: בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה' הַמְלַמֵּד תּורָה לְעַמּו יִשרָאֵל: בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה' אֱלהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעולָם. אֲשֶׁר בָּחַר בָּנוּ מִכָּל הָעַמִּים וְנָתַן לָנוּ אֶת תּורָתו: בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה'. נותֵן הַתּורָה:

Blessed are You, Lord, our God, King of the Universe, Who has sanctified us with his commandments and commanded us to be involved with words of Torah. And please, Lord, our God, make the words of Your Torah pleasant in our mouths and in the mouths of all of Your people, the House of Israel. And may we and our offspring [and the offspring of our offspring] and the offspring of Your people, the House of Israel - all of us - be knowing of Your Name and studying Your Torah for its sake. Blessed are You, Lord, Who teaches Torah to His people, Israel. Blessed are You, Lord, our God, King of the Universe, who has chosen us from all of the nations and given us His Torah. Blessed are You, Lord, Who gives the Torah.

Let us begin with a thought: if it were up to you to formally choose and institute a piece from Torah over which we would making the blessing of the Torah over what you choose? Maybe shema or the 10 commandments? Something really fundamental.

והצרפתים נהגו לומר פסוקים וברכת כהנים וגם אלו דברים שאין להם שיעור שהיא משנה (פ"א דפאה) ואלו דברים שאדם אוכל פירותיהן כו' שהיא ברייתא (מס' שבת קכז.)

But Tosafot here records the tradition, which we practice still, to recite the blessing regarding the receiving of the Torah before reading birchat kohanim - The Priestly Blessing. What message does the Priestly Blessing contain concerning our daily affirmation of our obligation to study

Why was birchat kohanim chosen to be instituted as the piece of torah we learn after reciting the blessing on the torah?

יְבָרֶכְךָ ה' וְיִשְׁמְרֶךָ: יָאֵר ה' פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ וִיחֻנֶּךָּ: יִשּא ה' פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ וְיָשם לְךָ שָׁלום:

שאלו תלמידיו את ר' אלעזר בן שמוע במה הארכת ימים אמר להן מימי לא עשיתי בית הכנסת קפנדריא ולא פסעתי על ראשי עם קודש ולא נשאתי כפי בלא ברכה מאי מברך אמר רבי זירא אמר רב חסדא אשר קדשנו בקדושתו של אהרן וצונו לברך את עמו ישראל באהבה

Rabbi Elazar ben Shammua was once asked by his disciples: To what do you attribute your longevity? He said to them: In all my days, I never made a shortcut [kappendarya] through a synagogue. Nor did I ever stride over the heads of the sacred people, i.e., I never stepped over people sitting in the study hall in order to reach my place, so as not to appear scornful of them. And I never lifted my hands for the Priestly Benediction without first reciting a blessing. The Gemara asks: What blessing does the priests recite before the benediction? Rabbi Zeira says that Rav Ḥisda says: Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe, Who has sanctified us with the sanctity of Aaron and commanded us to bless His people, Israel, with love.

For many Jews, birchat kohanim evokes memories of listening quietly to the Kohanic chants while under a tallit or with their faces buried inside of their prayer book. But the Priestly Blessing is not just an obligation for the Kohen to bless—it is also an obligation for the people to feel blessed. Before the Kohanim recite their blessing, they say a blessing of their own, “to bless the people of Israel with love.” No other blessing ends with this particular formulation. We do not recite the blessing on the lulav to “take it with love” or a blessing on matzah “to eat it with love.” Only birchat kohanim ends specifically with an acknowledgement of love, because inherent in the obligation of the blessing is that the recipient, the people of Israel, feels beloved.

כתב בספר חרדים מ"ע לברך כהן את ישראל שנאמר כה תברכו את בני ישראל וישראל העומדים פנים כנגד פני הכהנים בשתיקה ומכוונים לבם לקבל ברכתם כדבר ה' הם נמי בכלל המצוה עכ"ל והביאוהו האחרונים:

The commandment of the Priestly Blessing also applies to non-Kohanim that they should stand in front of the Kohanim and be blessed.

Birchat kohanim is an acknowledgement that the Jewish people are blessed and beloved.

...ולפיכך אם היו מברכין על התורה תחלה לומר ברוך נותן תורה לישראל, והיה אהבה אל הש"י במה שנתן תורה לישראל, כי זה ענין הברכה על התורה שהוא יתברך מבורך על זה ואוהב השי"ת בשביל הטוב שנתן לו התורה, ואז היה זה סבה ג"כ שתהיה התורה מתקיימת בישראל, שהיה השי"ת נותן בלבם לשמור ולעשות ולקיים אף אם היו עוברים לפעמים מצוה אחת, היו חוזרים מיד לשמור ולעשות ולקיים, וזה היה מן השי"ת אשר הוא סבה לתורה והוא גם כן סבה שלא תתבטל. דומה לזה, כאשר הגיע נזק אל ענף היוצא מן האילן, אז העקר שממנו יצא חוזר וגודל גדולו מן השרש אשר היה סבה לגדול שלו שיצא, ובלא השורש אין קיום לאילן כלל, ולפיכך אילו היו מברכין בתורה תחלה, מה שהוא יתברך סבה לתורה ונתן להם התורה, והיו דבקים בו יתברך באהבה במה שנתן תורה לישראל, מצד הדבקות הזה היה השי"ת סבה גם כן שלא תתבטל התורה. אבל מפני שלא ברכו בתורה תחלה, שלא היו דבקים בו יתברך באהבה במה שנתן תורה לישראל, לא היה כאן סבה מקיימת את התורה בישראל, ובאו לידי זה שעברו על התורה ודבר זה גורם שאבדה הארץ:

Here lies the connection between the blessing of the Torah, and Ravina's suggestion that this practice is related to the religious outcome of one’s children.

With Torah learning, it seems that one can become so involved with Torah learning, that everything else fades to background. This is a danger, when Torah learning instead of bringing you closer to God, makes you "zone out" God's existence!

The love for the ideals contained in Torah can easily distract one from loving God or even from loving other people.

הנה יש ס' אותיות בברכת כהנים והם כנגד ס' רבוא נפשות ישראל ... וזה ענין הס' אותיות שבברכת כהנים שיכניס לישראל לתקן אף בישראל שיש בהם מעשי' ממדרגת הנפש לבד.

The Blessing of the Kohanim teaches us to
embed within ourselves the love of every
Jew and the need to seek (דורש) everyone’s
best interest. Particularly those people
who, God forbid, are struggling, we should
anticipate and long for their serenity and

Thus, birchat kohanim, a blessing that engenders love of ones fellow is the perfect introduction to ones' pursuit of Torah because it highlights what is truly important: the love of people in Torah!

In order for personal religious achievement to translate into interpersonal success we need to recite the Blessing on the Torah. The Blessing on the Torah is not a typical blessing that one makes, for instance, on food or even other commandments; it is a prayer that our love for scholarship should not obscure our love for people.

This, in turn, may be why the Priestly Blessing follows the Blessing on the Torah. As we begin each day recognizing the centrality of our obligation to pursue our attainment of Torah, we pause to acknowledge the possible dangers inherent within. a singular focus on Torah study. The ideals of Torah study cannot be achieved at the expense of the appreciation of the people. Our study of Torah, like birchat kohanim, should leave those in our lives feeling more beloved and more blessed. The Priestly Blessing and the Blessing on the Torah preceding it dually ensure that ourTorah study is not just the fulfillment of a commandment, but an endeavor that is sweet for all those around us.