Maimonides and Kollel
Last week there was a bit of a discussion in the comments of Thoughts on the Tragic Divorce Article in Ami Magazine and on Facebook about the position of Maimonides on the issue of the Kollel lifestyle. What follows is not a discussion of the practical halacha. Rather, this is an exploration of the sources in the writings of the Rambam.
In a responsa, R’ Moshe Feinstein clearly holds that one is permitted to take money to study in Kollel, even according to the Rambam. See the Responsa here: Igros Moshe. Indeed, the Kesef Mishnah largely dismisses the sources for Maimonides’ position and simply states that no one really goes with this Rambam.
So it is clear, this is not a referendum on Kollel. This is simply an academic exercise to determine precisely what Maimonides meant in two seemingly conflicting passages.
We begin with the source that seems to frown upon one benefitting financially from one’s status as a Torah scholar and shunning typical work. (Translations courtesy of Rabbi Touger)
Mishneh Torah, Talmud Torah, 3:10
Anyone who comes to the conclusion that he should involve himself in Torah study without doing work and derive his livelihood from charity, desecrates [God’s] name, dishonors the Torah, extinguishes the light of faith, brings evil upon himself, and forfeits the life of the world to come, for it is forbidden to derive benefit from the words of Torah in this world.
Our Sages declared: “Whoever benefits from the words of Torah forfeits his life in the world.” Also, they commanded and declared: “Do not make them a crown to magnify oneself, nor an axe to chop with.” Also, they commanded and declared: “Love work and despise Rabbinic positions.” All Torah that is not accompanied by work will eventually be negated and lead to sin. Ultimately, such a person will steal from others.
This is a pretty hard line. If we would stop here, we would be left with one obvious conclusion. The Rambam holds that one must earn a living through any means besides one’s Torah prowess. One is obligated to study and achieve scholarship in Torah. But one is not allowed to leverage one’s Torah status into a free ride. It seems unequivocal from this source.
But then we turn to the end of the Laws of Shmitta and Yovel.
Mishneh Torah, Shmitta V’Yovel, 13:12
Why did the Levites not receive a portion in the inheritance of Eretz Yisrael and in the spoils of war like their brethren? Because they were set aside to serve God and minister unto Him and to instruct people at large in His just paths and righteous judgments, as [Deuteronomy 33:10] states: “They will teach Your judgments to Jacob and Your Torah to Israel.” Therefore they were set apart from the ways of the world. They do not wage war like the remainder of the Jewish people, nor do they receive an inheritance, nor do they acquire for themselves through their physical power. Instead, they are God’s legion, as [ibid.:11]: states: “God has blessed His legion” and He provides for them, as [Numbers 18:20] states: “I am your portion and your inheritance.”
Mishneh Torah, Shmitta V’Yovel, 13:13
Not only the tribe of Levi, but any one of the inhabitants of the world whose spirit generously motivates him and he understands with his wisdom to set himself aside and stand before God to serve Him and minister to Him and to know God, proceeding justly as God made him, removing from his neck the yoke of the many reckonings which people seek, he is sanctified as holy of holies. God will be His portion and heritage forever and will provide what is sufficient for him in this world like He provides for the priests and the Levites. And thus David declared [Psalms 16:5]: “God is the lot of my portion; You are my cup, You support my lot.”
Blessed be the Merciful One who provides assistance.
To summarize these two selections: The Levites did not bear the burden of earning a livelihood. They were the tribe of teachers and servants of God. They were supported by the tithes that the Jewish people gave to them. This is what it means in Numbers when it states “I am your portion and your inheritance”. The “I” refers to God and the method by which He is the portion of the Levites is that He provides for them via the tithes.
Next, the Rambam provides an allowance for a non-Levite to do the same. The non-Levite can dedicate his life to God as well. God will be his portion as well. What does it mean to be God’s portion in this context? It would seem that it would be analogous to being supported by tithes, that is via charity.
So which is it? Can a Torah scholar who wants to teach and inspire remove the shackles of earning a living and be supported by God, meaning charity? Or not?
I think the resolution to this problem is really quite simple once we look at Commentary on the Mishnah of Maimonides. In the fourth chapter of Ethics of our Fathers, Rabbi Tzadok says that one should not use the Torah as a crown to appear great. Further, one should not use the Torah as a plowshare to be used for plowing.
Maimonides gets on his soapbox and literally rants for several paragraphs about the issue we are discussing in this post. He says that he is going to be very clear because his opponents, the greatest of the Torah scholars of the time, twist the sources to suit their needs and will not change their minds even though they are absolutely incorrect. It seems that the primary complaint he raises against them was that they required people donate charity against their will to support people who were studying until those people were too old and frail to work and then they needed the money simply to live.
Among his proofs that he is correct are assertions that the great Tannaim and Amoraim all worked for a living. He then uses two stories from the Talmud to demonstrate that the giants of the Talmud refused to use their scholarly status for personal gain or financial gain.
All the way at the end of his truly epic manifesto on this subject are the key phrases to unlocking this secret. What follows is the best translation I could muster. Items in brackets are my additions to make the text clearer. All emphasis and errors are mine. (Full Hebrew text here: Page 1, page 2, page 3, page 4)
But the thing that the Torah did permit for Torah scholars [to benefit from their scholarship] is to allow someone else to manage their investments on their behalf, if the other person is willing [and to do it free of charge], and one who does this for a Torah scholar will receive [heavenly] reward for his efforts, and this is one who fills the pockets of Talmidei Chachamim [who is privileged to sit in the Heavenly Academy as per Pesachim 53B]. Similarly, to [make a deal whereby one makes a standing] offer to purchase all of the Torah scholar’s goods before they hit the marketplace [is permissible] because these are the special rights that God has provided [Torah scholars] just like God provides the gifts and tithes to the Priests and Levites, as this [the enumerated special rights] come to the Torah scholars through that prophets. Similarly, the Torah exempts Torah scholars from all community taxes that are used for infrastructure needs and other public works, even if he is a wealthy Torah scholar he is exempt from these payments. […] and these exemptions are similar to the exemption the Priest had from paying the half-shekel as we have explained in its place. And so too all analogous cases.
It seems to me that we have the resolution to our problem. In the Commentary to the Mishnah, Maimonides describes minor economic benefits as appropriate for Torah Scholars. In his views, these benefits are God given. He then compares these minor benefits to the benefits that God provides the Priest and Levite. In other words, when he writes in Shmitta and Yovel that God will provide for the Torah scholar just as God provides for the Levite it seems that he is referring to this kind of economic benefit. It does not mean that God will provide for the Torah scholar through charity. Rather, as we have seen, there are some economic benefits through which the Torah scholar may get a leg up on the competition.
Maimonides’ objection to benefitting financially from Torah scholar status or the dissemination of Torah remains constant. It is forbidden to use communal funds to support Torah scholars and it is forbidden for Torah scholars to take money in return for Torah related services. When Maimonides mentions the idea that a non-Levite can dedicate his life to God and God will provide, the meaning is that God will provide via the minor economic benefits enumerated above. It does not mean that God will provide via miracles or charity.
True to his teaching, Maimonides earned a livelihood as a physician. But it is also possible that he availed himself to the economic benefit he mentions in the excerpt from the Commentary on the Mishnah. We know that his brother David managed his investments on his behalf. It is certainly not outside the realm of possibility the David did not charge his brother Moses for his services as per the economic benefit accorded to Torah scholars.
In closing, I think Maimonides was in fact speaking to a specific set of circumstances when he unequivocally banned Torah scholars from using their Torah knowledge to earn a living. It seems it was an involuntary system that he most abhorred as well. Today, most people supporting others in learning and rabbis or teachers taking salaries for Torah related jobs are under very different circumstances whether it is the giver or the taker. Certainly, the refrain of the Kesef Mishnah is appropriate in our day and age. If we don’t support some Torah scholars we might not have any Torah scholars!
However, to assert that Kollel as a standard for everyone is the “way it always was and always will be” is to ignore the plain facts as Maimonides saw them. In his opinion, the Torah sources demand everyone achieve Torah scholarship and that they earn a living from another source of income. Even if we do not find Maimonides’ ruling binding on us today, his social commentary still carries a lot of weight. He felt the ultimate Jewish society did not need to pay non-Priests and non-Levites to learn and teach Torah. He certainly felt that we are supposed to work and earn a living and not that earning a living is only for the weak Torah scholars or unsuccessful Yeshiva students.
No matter how the orthodox Jewish community proceeds, I think it worthwhile to present this view of Maimonides approach to, at the very least, lessen the unfortunate stigma that has become attached to people going to work for a living. Working for a living should feel like the right thing to do because according to Maimonides that is how it is supposed to be and how it always has been.