Are hobbies allowed according to halacha?
Thanks for your question. I assume your starting point is the statement of the Shulchan Aruch in Yoreh Deah (246:25) that anyone who is able to engage in Torah and neglects to do so is guilty of “despising” the Torah. This is actually a codification of a statement from Rabbi Nehorai in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 99a). The gemara there, and the Shulchan Aruch here, uses a phrase from Numbers 15:31. In its entirety, that verse reads, “He has despised the word of God and broken His commandment. That soul shall be completely cut off; he will bear his sin.” By incorporating this expression in its codification, the Shulchan Aruch is implying that this is some pretty serious stuff.
Similarly, Joshua 1:8 enjoins us that “This book of the Torah shall not depart from your mouth; rather, you shalt meditate on it day and night….” All this refers to the concept of “bitul Torah,” i.e., negating Torah study. If Torah study is something that we’re meant to do continuously, it is implicitly “sinful” to be doing something else with our time. But does this mean that every waking moment must be spent immersed in study? Let’s investigate.
Some authorities clearly feel that one must spend every moment engaged in Torah. The Mishnah Brurah (155:4) seems to lean this way, saying that the obligation of Torah study has no limit, applying whenever one has the opportunity. To support this assertion, he cites both the verse in Joshua and the gemara in Sanhedrin that we cited above. The Chayei Adam (klal alef) writes, “It goes without saying that if one is able to engage in Torah and mitzvos that he should not sleep for his own enjoyment.” Rashi on Succah 26b likewise explains that the reason sleeping by day is prohibited is because of bitul Torah. Nevertheless, one is permitted to nap during the day. The Shulchan Aruch, under the heading “That all of one’s actions should be for the sake of Heaven” (OC 231:1), rules that if one needs to take an afternoon nap, he should do so. One’s intention, however, should not be for physical pleasure but to strengthen his body the better to serve God.
But that’s merely to refrain from Torah study by sleeping. What about to actively engage in other activities? The first go-to that people normally have when addressing this question is sports and exercise. The Rambam (Hilchos Deios chapter 4) is a big fan of exercise, going so far as to say that the health of one who refrains from it will suffer (4:15). But a certain amount of exercise is necessary; can we extend the concept of recreation any further?
I would like to point out I Samuel chapter 16. There, King Saul is suffering from clinical depression and his advisors suggest that some music might help his disposition. He tells them to bring him an accomplished harp player and they come back with David (later King David).
Levites played instruments in the Temple but David wasn’t a Levite. Professional musicians existed but David was a shepherd. If David didn’t play the harp as a mitzvah, and if he didn’t do so as a career, why did he ever learn the instrument? It could only have been as a hobby.
I heard a story that a certain prominent rav – whom I won’t name because I haven’t been able to substantiate the story – used to repair cars for a hobby. When people complained that such was beneath his dignity, he didn’t stop working on cars, he just moved his hobby to where it wouldn’t be quite so public.
Now, how could David (or this rav) have a hobby if every moment is meant to be spent immersed in Torah? Well, remember what we said about napping being okay with the proper intentions? That applies to many other things as well. The Shulchan Aruch (OC 231:1 again) continues that, as with sleeping, one may enjoy the pleasures of this world so long as his intention is to better serve God rather than personal gratification. He cites Proverbs 3:6 – “In all of your ways, acknowledge Him” – with the Talmudic explanation that all of our actions – eating, drinking, working out, conversation, etc. – should be performed for the sake of Heaven. Optional things are praiseworthy when performed for the right reasons and prohibited when performed for the wrong reasons.
The Chovos HaLevavos (Avodah 4) takes this one step further. He writes that there are no “optional” things. Rather, everything is either obligatory or prohibited. Something that we perceive to be “optional” is actually required if done for the sake of Heaven and forbidden if performed with selfish motivations.
If you ask me, bitul Torah is a relative scale. The Talmud in Megillah (3a) says that the members of Rav Yehuda haNasi’s househould were “mevatel Torah” to go hear the megillah being read on Purim. Hearing the megillah on Purim is a mitzvah so most of us wouldn’t consider it bitul Torah but our Torah study isn’t on the level of Rav Yehuda haNasi’s. Along similar lines, the Rema on YD 246:25 (the very first source cited in this article) notes that bitul Torah includes engaging in conversation – not gossip or slander, just plain old conversation. (This is based on Talmud Yoma 19b, which is interpreting Deut. 6:7.) Nevertheless, I think you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who would expect us rank-and-file Jews to engage in no secular conversation whatsoever. I suspect that expectations are very much a factor of one’s personal level of Torah accomplishment.
Some things are mandatory – we’re all expected to hear the megillah on Purim. Other things are prohibited – none of us is permitted to speak gossip or slander. Other things fall in between. These things can be meritorious if our intention is to give us a needed break or to recharge our batteries. If our intentions are to be idle or frivolous, that’s another story.
Rabbi Jack Abramowitz
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