Dear Jew in the City,
Are boys supposed to learn all day or get a job? Are Jewish men expected to be employed and provide for their families? I have read of some Orthodox men who shun work and study Torah all day while the wife is the breadwinner and raises the children.
Thanks for your question. In a previous article we discussed whether Jewish schools are allowed to teach secular studies. There we cited several sources along the lines of Kiddushin 29a, that a man is obligated to teach his son a trade. Rabbi Yehuda comments on this that if a father doesn’t teach his son a trade, it’s tantamount to teaching him to steal.
It follows logically that a man is expected to support his family, so why, you may ask, do so many men learn in kollel? (A kollel is a yeshiva in which married men learn while their wives typically work.) To answer this, let us first turn to the last parsha in the Torah, parshas V’zos HaBracha.
In Deuteronomy 33:18, Moshe blesses the Tribes of Yisachar and Zevulun saying, “Rejoice, Zevulun, in your going out, and Yisachar in your tents.” Rashi there cites Bereishis Rabbah (99:9) as follows:
Zevulun and Yisachar entered into a partnership: Zevulun would live on the shore and go out in ships. They would engage in trade and earn money. They would then support Yisachar, who would sit and study Torah. For this reason, Moshe mentioned Zevulun before Yisachar, because Yisachar’s Torah was enabled by Zevulun.
A relationship in which one person supports another who studies Torah, in exchange for which they share the merit of the Torah study, has come to be called a “Yisachar-Zevulun” relationship. A part of the aforementioned midrash not cited by Rashi tells us that the verse, “It is a tree of life to those who grasp it” (Proverbs 3:18) refers to this kind of relationship, i.e., Torah is a source of life both to those who study it and to those who financially support its study.
When one uses the term “Yisachar-Zevulun relationship,” he’s probably thinking about the donors who support the kollel but it absolutely applies to the kollel student’s wife as well, probably more so. The Talmud in Sotah (21a) is explicit that a woman shares the merit of Torah for facilitating the study of her husband and sons.
Now, you may think this is a raw deal for the woman, who is “forced” to work to support her “lazy” husband, but if you do, there are a few things you haven’t considered.
First of all, women who marry men who study in kollel generally want to marry men who study Torah full-time. They feel that the religious and spiritual growth is good for the family as a whole and are on board with the agenda. (When dating, girls are often asked if they’re looking for “a learner or an earner.”)
Secondly, most men don’t study in kollel for an extended period of time. It’s usually just for a few years when they first get married. They might have a baby or a toddler at home but the woman is rarely the sole provider for a large family.
Additionally, keep in mind that kollels pay a stipend to married students. It’s not big money but it is an income. Studying Torah is their job, and they’re paid to do so.
Finally, it’s important to remember that this is how we groom religious leaders. Sure, some men should probably leave kollel and become accountants, salesmen or restaurateurs but others truly distinguish themselves and go on to become our top religious authorities.
Regarding kollel, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, the seventh Lubavitcher Rebbe, wrote:
It is, of course, well known that Torah study equals all (other mitzvos), as we recite every morning, even before the regular prayers. Even so, there can be a case where other things take priority over it. I have in mind, particularly, the case of our modern-day Jewish youth, a situation that is one of saving souls. Certainly, when one considers what his special mission is, there are options depending on the category to which he belongs. There are Jews whose primary job is to study Torah, and those whose primary job is to engage in mitzvos and communal work, and those whose job is to engage in education, working with our Jewish youth to bring them to a life of Torah and mitzvos, among others. (Personal correspondence dated Dec. 28, 1973)
So you see that kollel may not be for everyone – but it is definitely for some! As Rav Moshe Feinstein wrote, those who oppose the institution of kollel have fallen prey to the yetzer hara’s propaganda, as dismantling the system would cause bona fide Torah scholars to abandon their entire raison d’être. (Iggros Moshe, Yoreh Deah II, 116)
So before getting righteously indignant about the presumed injustice or sexism of the system, check in with the women who generally opt in to such an arrangement for at least the short run because of the rewards it provides.
Rabbi Jack Abramowitz, JITC Educational Correspondent