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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.


46 Comments
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  • Anonymous


    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

    Ha! not likely. Mostly the givers and the takers are not doing it out of their own will. The takers take because its the system they are in and the givers give because they have to and it makes them look good in their communities.

    • http://finkorswim.com E. Fink

      Certainly no one is being forced to give. Social pressure does not rise to the level of force. And yes, there are some people who are in Kollel against their will. But most are not.

      • Anonymous

        a. maybe “will” was too strong of a word, but certainly many many people are in kollel because of lack of other opportunity or ability.

        b. the givers really are against their will, it is certainly one of the most social pressure ridden things Jews do today. no question about it.

        • http://finkorswim.com E. Fink

          a) Indeed. I am sure the Rambam would disapprove of that.

          b) To give money to kollels? I think kollels are near the bottom of the charity heap.

          • Anonymous

            no no, i mean parents, in laws, supporting their learning kids,

            • http://finkorswim.com E. Fink

              Ah. That is true. But parents can do as they please with their children. Can’t they?

              • Anonymous

                @efink:disqus But parents can do as they please with their children. Can’t they?

                Really? So there are no halachot with regards to raising children? How about thinks like teaching Torah? Or teaching to swim? Or teaching a trade? Or finding a spouse? Aren’t those halachot regarding how to raise children?

                (and, even worse, to prevent them from becoming “sorer umoreh”-like by sponging off of parents for an extended time)

                • http://finkorswim.com E. Fink

                  Obviously. All I meant is that it’s hardly “forcing” when it is parent / child.

                  • Anonymous

                    So you agree that it (kollel support by parents) may have some aspects of mitzvah haba m’aveira?

                    • http://finkorswim.com E. Fink

                      Sure.

                    • Yankel

                      Why is the Rambam the only opinion counted? The Rema in Shulchan Aruch is machria against the Rambam. Halocho has been decided by that Rema, the Mishna Berura and many years of tradition. I know many will say it is a new phenomena, but the truth is the only difference between today and the old days is the polarization of the issue. On the one hand, some people are fully dedicated to learning Torah, and on the other hand, some people are publicly marrying shiksas. The in between is also more polarized. Before the enlightenment, the best sat and learnt and the worst only said tehillim, except the extremley rare avaryan. We do not have more full-time learners today that 400 years ago. We just have more irreligious people who have been excluded from the pool.

                    • http://finkorswim.com E. Fink

                      Are you hard of reading? This specific post was written to try and understand the Rambam’s exact and precise position. That’s all.

                    • yankel

                      Are you suggesting that your post was not connected to anything practical, that the current state of affairs in the charedi community is not the reason why this is a topic of discussion, and that nothing written here has any bearing on halocho lema’aseh? This is a strictly academic discussion and of course the Kollel system is the correct one, and following the anti-kollel system is a da’as yochid. Somehow I find that hard to believe, and if you really meant that there would be a clear disclaimer to that effect.

                    • http://finkorswim.com E. Fink

                      THERE IS A DISCLAIMER. READ THE POST.

                    • yankel

                      You do suggest social changes based on your explanation of the Rambam. The ‘nisht oif shabbos geredt’ disclaimer at the beginning is thus rendered moot.

                    • Avi Shevin

                      Social changes are not necessarily Halachic changes. The disclaimer was for the Halacha, not the social commentary.

                    • http://finkorswim.com E. Fink

                      Disclaimer? What do you call this?!

                      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.

                    • Just Popping In

                      “We do not have more full-time learners today that 400 years ago.”

                      What on earth are you talking about?

              • Anonymous

                no, they dont. firstly, most parents wont let their kids and grandkids starve, especially after ending up in that world based on the yeshivot you sent them to. and secondly, yes, there is a lot of social pressure and “stature” that comes along with supporting kids in learning.

                • http://finkorswim.com E. Fink

                  Alright. I’ll concede that parents may not be willing to stand up to their children, but it’s hardly the same as a tax from rabbinic authorities.

                  • Anonymous

                    It’s not only “parents not willing to stand up to their children”, it’s also parents not willing to stand up to community, to rabbanim, to daas Torah. And the parents really do have a valid concern, if they don’t follow the usual yeshiva route, their children won’t get [good] shidduchim. Perhaps yet another example of mitzvah haba m’aveira.

      • David J

        “Certainly no one is being forced to give.” I somewhat disgaree. The government of the Israel subsidisies yeshivas and kollel learners in various ways, One is required to pay taxes.

  • Jacob Alperin-Sheriff

    One caveat to this part.

    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.

    The “involuntary system” is essentially what exists in the state of Israel right now, though, i.e. tax dollars go directly towards kollel stipends, don’t they?

    • http://finkorswim.com E. Fink

      Is it? I don’t know enough about it.

  • Anonymous

    Talmud Torah T 3:10 is completely clear as to its meaning. And it specifically is within Hiclhot Talmud Torah! Shmitah veYovel 13:13 is not so clear as to its meaning. The leviim were selected to serve God AND to teach. So it is possible that Rambam thought that idly studying Torah while living off of someone else who is working is forbidden, yet TEACHING Torah for a wage may be permitted (in some cases).

    And, in fact, that is how we should look at it today. Fathers are commanded to teach their children Torah (and swimming) and they often aren’t completely qualified to do so, thus they hire someone to do it for them. That is permitted, and perhaps even encouraged.

    • http://finkorswim.com E. Fink

      You are welcome to that interpretation. I just think that after reading the Pirush HaMishnayos his intent in Shmitta V’Yovel is obvious.

  • Anonymous

    The current kollel system didn’t exist until recently. In fact, it couldn’t possibly have existed because the entire community would have starved if a substantial percentage of the young men didn’t work (farming, trades, etc).

  • http://www.facebook.com/bwaxman Ben Waxman

    I don’t see RMF stating that one can take money to learn even according to the Rambam. He gives two other s’varot: either the halacha is not like the Rambam (but like the Kesef Mishne, Rama, etc) or kollel today falls under “Et La’asot LaShem”. The second reason seems to be the bottom line for RM.

    • http://finkorswim.com E. Fink

      Indeed. As the post says, RMF holds we don’t pasken like the Rambam.

  • http://twitter.com/daniopp Daniopp

    There are many other commentaries that hold likewise. Many who lived hundreds of years after Rambam who many regard as “classic” commentaries/sages.

    One is Ovadia Ben Yaakov Sforno (who was also a physician) who commented on yaakov working for lavan stated that of course a tzaddik would make sure to have an income and a means to support his family before getting married!

  • http://www.facebook.com/steven.pollan Steven Pollan

    The Levi’im didnt “not work” and just sit and learn. The Levi’im were the maintenance of the Bais Hamikdash and were also the teachers of torah. That’s a far different set of circumstances than just “sitting and learning and having the community somehow support your wife and 10 kids”. Like you said, I understand there needs some function of supporting torah scholars otherwise there wouldnt be any, however this system is a far cry from what it was meant to be.

  • Anonymous

    The hardest part for me to understand is that having a personal money manager and someone to buy your goods is called a “gift from G-d,” and compared to trumah and maaser. How are these gifts? If I’m not a Talmud Chacham, I can’t accept free money managing from a friend or have someone buy my products pre-market?

    • http://finkorswim.com E. Fink

      It seems that Maimonides does not allow one to use their status as a Torah scholar for ANY benefit. Thus, it requires a “gift from God” to allow the Torah scholar to use this benefit.

      • Anonymous

        That clarifies the reading of the Peirush HaMishnayos, but the comparison to Trumah and Masser seems pretty far-fetched. To me, the fact that Rambam doesn’t qualify his statement in the Mishnah Torah implies that he changed his mind from the Peirush.

        • http://finkorswim.com E. Fink

          He says THERE that he is comparing the two!

          • Anonymous

            The fact that Rambam compares the two in the Peirush does not help me. When he mentions the actual halacha, he says that anyone who joins shevet Levi, Hashem will provide for him “just like for shevet Levi.” this. Implies he can be sustained by public funds just like the leviim. If Rambam meant that he can only benefit by getting pro-bono money managing and pre-market consumers, he should have said so. Saying “like shevet Levi,” implies exactly the same way. The Peirush is not a commentary in the mishna Torah, and, in my opinion, should not be used so here, as the Peirush is so incongruous with the plain meaning if the halacha.

            • http://finkorswim.com E. Fink

              The “like shevet Levi” part that we are discussing is where he says “God is their portion”. He tells us what that means in his mind in Pirush HaMishnayos.

              • Anonymous

                So when he wrote that G-d is their portion, he expected people to know that means they can benefit in the very specific way he mentions in the Peirush, or that they wold know to look in the Peirush? I don’t buy that. Can you keep your explanation without having to make this assumption about his intentions?

    • Solomon

      The Rambam appears to be a Republican – special tax breaks, pre-market pricing, and free services for Torah scholars (vested interest, no?).

  • harediandproud

    I find your focus on the Rambam’s opinion on certain issues quite selective. The Rambam also makes a big deal about having the proper Ahavas Hashem, Yiras Shomayim and Shmiras Einayim. Do you take his words there as seriously as you do on this subject? You surely don’t emphasize it as much.

    • http://finkorswim.com E. Fink

      Read what you wrote and please tell me how in the world you can justify such a judgmental, hateful comment?

      • harediandproud

        Reread, looks fine. Your piece is a thinly veiled hit on Lakewood and you call me judgmental?

        My point is simple. You choose to base your outlook on life on the parts of the Rambam that are convenient for you while not attempting to take a more holistic approach. The Rambam requires people to work (for argument’s sake); he also requires tremendous avodas hashem among many other things. What I see is an attitude that embraces the former while kvetching how hard the latter is, but “we’re just human, so what are you gonna do?”

        Therefore in Lakewood, they do it the opposite. They focus on the OTHER Rambam’s and do their best to meet those requirements. As for this Rambam, “nu, what are you going to do, we’re just human”.

        • http://finkorswim.com E. Fink

          Do you lack basic reading comprehension skills. How many times did I say that the article was not about practical Halacha? How many times did I say that I was purely speaking from an academic perspective on the intent of the Rambam? Seriously? And you take this as a hit piece on Lakewood? Get a grip.

          • Mordy

            Thanks for standing up for yourself, Eli

  • Ben

    Very interesting article. I learned in shiur tonight a “modern” opposing opinion to Rambam from R’ Shimon Shkopp in his introduction to Shaar Yosher it would appear that full time learning is the only path. As to how one will survive he writes that just as God made Moshe wealthy from the clippings of the new luchos so to God will provide. R’ Shimon also writes that the only source of true knowledge is Torah. More fascinating is the fact that he agreed to become Rosh Yeshiva of YU shortly after he published his sefer!