Rabbi Bernard Fox



“And if you will be obedient to my commandments that I command to you this day, and you will love Hashem your G-d and serve Him with all your heart and soul, then I will provide rain in its proper time – in the beginning and the end of the season – and you will gather your grain, oil and wine.”  (Devarim 11:13-14)

In these pesukim, Moshe relates Hashem’s promise to Bnai Yisrael.  The nation must be obedient to the Torah.  The people must wholeheartedly love and serve the Almighty.  Hashem promises that, in return, He will assure that the land produces its bounty.  These passages are recited in the second paragraph to the Shema.

In Tractate Berachot, the Talmud describes a fundamental dispute regarding these passages.  Rebbe Yishmael notes that the passages above tell us that if we observe the commandments of the Torah, then we will successfully gather our harvest.  The passages promise that our observance will be rewarded with abundant harvests.  But the passages also imply that we will be responsible for the gathering of these harvests.  Rebbe Yishmael asks a simple question.  The Torah admonishes us to devote ourselves to the ceaseless and uninterrupted study of the Torah.  In His charge to Yehoshua, Hashem commands him, “This Sefer Torah should not be removed from your mouth.  You should contemplate it day and night.”[1]  It seems that Hashem is suggesting that we should strive to achieve constant study of the Torah.  Rebbe Yishmael points out that this seems to contradict the message of our passages.  Our passages tell us that Hashem will provide us with abundance but we must actually harvest the bounty.  Hashem’s charge to Yehoshua seems to indicate that we should not involve ourselves with the mundane – gathering the harvest.  Instead, we should devote all of our time and energy to the study of Torah!

Rabbi Yishmael suggests a resolution for this problem.  He explains that Hashem’s charge to Yehoshua should not be understood literally.  We are not expected to study without interruption and completely neglect the necessities of our material existences.  We should devote ourselves to the study of the Torah but also give proper attention to our practical needs.  In other words, we are required to care for our needs and gather our harvest.  But we must not allow these material needs to become our main focus.  Instead, the study of Torah must be the focus of our lives.

Rebbe Shimon ben Yochai argues with Rebbe Yishmael.  His objection is interesting.  He observes that mastery of the Torah requires complete devotion.  If a person must plow his fields, plant his grain, harvest the crop and then perform all of the activities required to produce the final product, a tremendous amount of his time and energy will be expended in these efforts.  The time and energy that remains will be inadequate for the mastery of the Torah.  Therefore, he suggests that we should not concern ourselves with materials issues.  Hashem will provide for us.

In short, these two authorities disagree on the extent to which we should rely on Hashem to provide for us.  Rebbe Yishmael asserts that we should not assume that we can ignore the practical necessities of life.  We must devote ourselves to the study of Torah.  But we cannot ignore our practical needs.  Rebbe Shimon ben Yochai suggests that we rely completely on Hashem.  Our responsibility is to study the Torah.  Hashem will provide for our needs.  We should not divert our attention from the study of Torah.

The discussion concludes with the comments of Abaye. Abaye notes that those who adopted the approach of Rebbe Shimon ben Yochai generally failed.  But those who adopted the approach of Rebbe Yishmael generally succeeded.[2]  Since the Talmud’s discussion ends with Abaye’s comments, it seems that the Talmud adopts the position of Rebbe Yishmael. 

However, Maimonides seems to adopt the position of Rebbe Shimon ben Yochai.  Maimonides explains that when the Land of Israel was divided among the tribes of Bnai Yisrael, Shevet Leyve was not given a portion.  Why was this shevet excluded from receiving a portion?  Maimonides explains that Shevet Leyve was selected by Hashem to serve in the Bait HaMikdash, to study and to teach the Torah to the nation.  In order to enable the members of Shevet Leyve to completely devote themselves to this sacred task, they were not given a portion of the Land of Israel.  Instead, it is the obligation of the other members of the nation to provide Shevet Leyve with support. 

Maimonides continues.  He explains that Hashem does not only provide sustenance to Shevet Leyve.  Any person who completely devotes himself to Hashem – to His serve the study of His Torah – can enjoy the same support provided to Shevet Leyve.  Hashem will provide the person with his needs.  Hashem will sustain him.[3]  This seems to be Rebbe Shimon ben Yochai’s position!  This raises a question.  Why does Maimonides adopt Rebbe Shimon ben Yochai’s position?  Based on Abaye's objections, the Talmud seems to accept Rebbe Yishmael’s position!  In other words, Maimonides seems to be arguing with the conclusion of the Talmud!

In order to understand Maimonides position, we must return to the discussion in the Talmud.  On a superficial level, this discussion is difficult to understand. It seems that Rebbe Yishmael and Rebbe Shimon ben Yochai are arguing over whether Hashem will provide for those individuals who are dedicated to His service and the study of His Torah.  Rebbe Yishmael contends that they must provide for themselves and Rebbe Shimon ben Yochai contends that Hashem will provide for such individuals.  Abaye seems to take the position that the issue can be resolved through observation.  Observation indicates that Rebbe Yishmael is correct. 

This simplistic understanding of the Talmud’s discussion presents a difficulty.  It seems that Abaye is siding with Rebbe Yishmael because observation indicates that Rebbe Shimon ben Yochai is incorrect in his assessment.  His position is not consistent with the observable facts!  In other words, Rebbe Shimon ben Yochai does not understand how the world really works!  Simply put, the implication is that Rebbe Shimon ben Yochai’s position is based upon an uninformed and perhaps, naive view of the world!

Nachmanides, in his comment on our passages, provides the basis for an alternative understanding of the Talmud’s discussion.  Essentially, he contends that the degree to which Hashem provides for a person is proportionate to one’s devotion to Hashem and His Torah.  Hashem does provide for those who are completely dedicated.  But one who does not achieve this ultimate level of devotion must be prepared to face the challenges of living in the material world and care for oneself.[4]

Based on these comments, we can understand the debate between Rebbe Yishmael and Rebbe Shimon ben Yochai.  Both agree that Hashem provides for those who are completely devoted.  However, they disagree on how we should conduct ourselves.  Rebbe Yishmael suggests that – at a practical level – most of us cannot expect to achieve the level of devotion required to secure Hashem’s complete and comprehensive support.  We must strive to achieve the highest level of commitment that we can achieve.  But we must be prepared to provide for ourselves.  Rebbe Shimon ben Yochai suggests that we must strive towards the level of devotion that will secure Hashem’s complete and comprehensive support.  We must seek a level of devotion that will allow us to abandon all material concerns and distractions.

Abaye does not disagree with the fundamental premise outline by Nachmanides.  He agrees that a person can secure Hashem's complete support.  However, he questions the practicality of the average person taking this approach.  He notes that the level of devotion that Rebbe Shimon ben Yochai would mandate is difficult to achieve and many have failed in their attempts to reach this level.  Therefore, he suggests that – at a practical level – Rebbe Yishmael’s approach is more appropriate.

Rebbe Shimon ben Yochai would not dispute Abaye’s observation.  It is difficult to achieve the level of commitment necessary to secure the complete support of Hashem.  He would acknowledge that most people fail to achieve this exalted level.  Nonetheless, we are required to strive for this commitment.

Now, let us return to Maimonides comments.  According to this analysis, there is no contradiction between Maimonides’ position and the conclusions of the Talmud.  Maimonides is not adopting Rebbe Shimon ben Yochai’s position. He is not suggesting that the Torah mandates that we forsake the concerns and distractions of the material world and rely completely on Hashem to provide for all of our needs.  Instead, he is suggesting that if we choose such a path, and we are successful in achieving complete devotion, Hashem will provide for us.  This is completely consistent with the Talmud’s discussion.

[1] Sefer Yehoshua 1:8.

[2] Mesechet Berachot 35b.

[3] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Shemitah Zve’Yovel 13:12-13.

[4] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban / Nachmanides), Commentary on Sefer Devarim 11:13.