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The Ultimate Mitzvah

V'etchanan (Deuteronomy 3:23-7:11 )

by Rabbi Yehonasan Gefen

"And you shall teach them thoroughly to your children and speak of them while you sit in your home, while you walk on your way, when you retire and when you rise." (1)

This verse is the source of the mitzvah to learn Torah (Talmud Torah), the mitzvah that is described as being equal in value to all the others combined. It is surprising that the source for Talmud Torah does not say 'you shall learn', rather 'you shall teach.' Why is this the case?

The Ktav Sofer notes that the Torah does actually instruct us to learn (vedibarta bam) but only after telling us to teach first (veshinantam). The order should be reversed - a person learns before he teaches?! He answers that that the Torah is alluding that one's own learning must be done with the ultimate goal of teaching others.(2) This also explains why the main source for the Mitzvah of Talmud Torah is teaching - because the ultimate purpose of learning is to be able to give it over through teaching.

Of course learning Torah is not merely a means to be able to teach, a person needs Torah to be able to develop a relationship with God, and without learning this is impossible. Nonetheless, it is clear from the commentaries that learning without teaching is a great lacking in the fulfillment of the Mitzvah of Talmud Torah. This is why the Sages teach us that it is essential to learn with the intent of teaching what one learnt. Moreover, the Meiri (3) and Maharal (4) both write that a person who learns but does not teach cannot reach completion.(5)

We now understand why the Torah stresses teaching ahead of learning. However, the choice of word it used needs understanding; usually 'you will teach' is translated as 'limadtem', but here the Torah says, 'veshinantam'. Rashi explains that this usage has an added meaning; it implies a high level of clarity so that one if someone asks a question, you can answer it without stumbling. From here we learn that a person can gain more clarity in his learning if it is in preparation to teach. A person who learns a Gemara knowing that people will challenge him on his understanding and explanations of it has a great incentive to learn with greater diligence. According to some commentators, this is the explanation of the Gemara: "Rebbi says, 'I learnt a great deal of Torah from my teachers, more from by friends, and the most from my students." (6) Students force a teacher to attain a higher level of understanding.

This idea was stressed by great Torah leaders: An avreich (someone who learns full time) was not succeeding in his learning so he asked the Steipler Gaon if he should continue in kollel or begin teaching. The Steipler answered that in the past everybody wanted to teach, and a person who did not find a position in teaching continued to learn in kollel. He then said, "That every Gadol Hador of the past grew greatly from giving lectures." (7) Teaching is also a great tool in helping one remember his learning. The Steipler once advised another Torah student to teach in Yeshiva katana, and explained that when one teaches others a piece of learning it is equivalent to learning it twenty times. He said further, "I know from my own experience that that which I learnt myself I have forgotten, but that which I taught to others I remember it to this very day." (8)

Thus far we have seen how teaching on a high level can greatly help one's own learning. However, it would seem that teaching people on a lower level would not have the same effect. However, a number of commentaries understand the Gemara that 'I learnt the most from my students' in a different way. The Chatam Sofer makes an extraordinary point in his introduction to his Teshuvot on Yoreh Deah in an essay entitled 'Pituchey Chosam'. He speaks at length about the importance of giving over of one's self for the sake of helping the spirituality of his fellow. He focuses on how Abraham devoted his time and effort to teaching the uneducated masses about Emuna (faith) rather than focus on his own growth. He then exhorts us to emulate Abraham and teach people even if they are on a low level of understanding. He addresses an argument against this approach. "If the Eved HaShem would say, 'my soul craves closeness to God and I want to get close to him. How can I do this and reduce my own learning and self-perfection in order to perfect my fellow's soul?!' The answer to this is found in the words of the Sages; '… I learnt the most from my students'. Is it beyond God to make up to you the growth that you forsook for the sake of His honor?! You should do what God commanded you - to teach the people - and He will fulfill His role…. He will make it possible for you to attain completion in a small time and you will be able to attain lofty heights beyond your own belief." (9) One who teaches people that are on a low level of learning will receive a great deal of Heavenly assistance which will enable him to attain greater heights than humanly possible.(10)

We have discussed much about the value of teaching Torah. Why exactly is it considered so great to the extent that the Eglei Tal writes that it is on an even higher level than learning Torah? (11) There are a number of reasons for this but one can be found in the verse we have discussed. The Torah says, "you will teach it to your children." The Sages learn out this does not only refer to one's genetic children, but also to one's students. Why doesn't the Torah just tell us to teach students? The answer is that the Torah is showing us that teaching Torah is similar in a certain aspect to having children. When a person brings a child to the world he is giving him the tremendous gift of life. When a person teaches someone Torah he is giving him the opportunity to gain eternal life. Thus by teaching Torah you are acquiring the quality of parenting - giving life. This is why students are referred to as children.

Indeed teaching Torah to a child is considered an even greater kindness than giving birth to him as the Mishna in Bava Metsia states; "If a person sees the lost objects of his father and his teacher, the teacher takes precedence." Why? "Because his father brought him to Olam Hazeh (this world) but his teacher who taught him wisdom, brings him to Olam Haba (the Next World)." (12) Teaching Torah is the ultimate act of kindness that one can do - may we all merit to fulfill it.


1. Vaetchanan, 6:6.

2. Quoted in Dvar Yerushalayim, 181, quoted in Relevance, ibid.

3. Meiri, Sanhedrin, 24a' also see Meiri, Avos 4:6.

4. Maharal: Chiddushei Aggadot, 23b; also see Netiv HaTorah, Ch.8 for a lengthy discussion of this topic.

5. There are many Gemaras that speak very critically about a person that learns but does not teach. See Rosh Hashana 23a, Sanhedrin Perek Chelek.

6. Makkot 10a, Taanit 7a.

7. Quoted in Mishel Avot, Kinyanei Torah, 'halomed al menat lelamed.'

8. Ibid.

9. 'Pituchey Chosam,' - Hakdama to Shut Chasam Sofer, Yoreh Deah.

10. The Tosefot Yom Tov expresses the same idea in Avot 4:5.

11. Hakdama to Eglei Tal - he proves this from a Gemara in Kesubos 17a.

12. Bava Metsia, 33a.



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