Why learn Nakh?2 It is a foolish question, really. Virtually all Torah Jews agree that learning Nakh constitutes talmud Torah, and it should therefore follow that a Jew’s familiarity with all twenty-four books of Tanakh is not only proper and appropriate, but mandated and expected. Nonetheless, the unfortunate neglect of Nakh that too many members of our community exhibit necessitates a quick review of some of the self-evident reasons, as well as more recent perspectives, why every Jew should seriously learn Nakh.
Nakh in the Traditional Sources
It is quite difficult to coax a Bible commentator to explain his rationale for spending years of his life on his area of study. He does not volunteer explanations, because the alternative never occurred to him. Nobody ever asked Rashi why he commentated on the Torah, just as nobody asked him why he did so for the Talmud. The Rishonim did not find it necessary to justify their occupation with the most basic texts of Judaism: Tanakh, Mishnah, Talmud, Halakhah, etc. Rashi would probably be dumbfounded were one to ask him why he seriously learned the Humash. Is it not devar Hashem? the purest form of divine revelation available to a Jew? the basis of our faith throughout the millennia?
Fortunately, it is fully accepted that Jews must learn Humash, and learn it well. The requirement of Shenayim Mikra ve-Ehad Targum is designed, according to Levush,3 to make one proficient in Torah. Better yet, many go far beyond the minimum and learn a variety of peirushim – Rishonim or Aharonim – to better understand the basic text as well as its deeper meanings.
Nakh does not have a Shenayim Mikra ve-Ehad Targum obligation, but this does not reflect a sense of disregard by Hazal; on the contrary, many statements in the Talmud reflect the importance of Nakh from various perspectives, even if not at the same level as Humash. The Nevi’im, or Prophets, are, obviously, a series of divinely transmitted revelations. The Ketuvim, or Writings, were written with Ruah ha-Kodesh.4 The Talmud5 says that all of Tanakh, and more, was given to Moshe on Mount Sinai.
Furthermore, Halakhah firmly backs the study of Nakh. The Talmud6 requires every Jew to split his learning into three equal parts: Mikra, Mishnah, and Talmud. Tur and Shulhan Arukh7 interpret Mikra as encompassing all of Tanakh.
Rabbeinu Tam offers a “way out” of this apparent obligation, quoted in three Tosafot comments in Shas.8 An aggadic exposition in Sanhedrin9 explains the origin of the Gemara’s proper name, Talmud “Bavli,” as “belulah” – a “mixture” of Mikra, Mishnah, and Talmud. Rabbeinu Tam extracts from here a leniency for people who learn Talmud Bavli, as he thinks that they fulfill their obligation to divide their learning in thirds with this alone. Indeed, Rema10 quotes Rabbeinu Tam as Halakhah. However, there are several important details that demand attention, and can potentially cast Rabbeinu Tam’s kula (leniency) in a new light.
The phrasing employed by Rabbeinu Tam does not exactly exude excitement. His wording (which varies from source to source) reflects, to a certain extent, a be-di’avad (less than ideal) approach. Tosafot in Avodah Zarah quote Rabbeinu Tam as saying, “Dayeinu,” “It is sufficient for us”; in Kiddushin, “Somekhin,” “We rely”; and in Sanhedrin, “Poterin atzmeinu,” “We exempt ourselves,” to refer to the fulfillment of the obligation with Talmud Bavli study alone. The three terms all indicate resignation, and suggest that something makes Rabbeinu Tam uncomfortable with his own hetter (permission).
The Ba’alei ha-Tosafot themselves seem uneasy about Rabbeinu Tam’s leniency. In all three places in which his opinion is cited, Tosafot also quote the practice of R. Amram Ga’on. In response to the Gemara’s requirement to learn Mikra, Mishnah, and Talmud, he introduced elements of each “third” of the Torah into the daily prayers: the Parashat ha-Tammid,11 the Mishnayot of Eizehu Mekoman,12 and the Beraita of R. Yishma’el.13 Now that a minimal degree of Mikra, Mishnah, and Talmud appears in the framework of Shaharit, all Jews fulfill, to some extent, the requirement of the Gemara. The Ba’alei ha-Tosafot, by quoting R. Amram Ga’on who upholds, rather than undermines, the Gemara, further seem to undercut the scope of Rabbeinu Tam’s hetter.
Moreover, when the Arukh ha-Shulhan discusses the sugya,14 he agrees that the custom is to study Talmud Bavli alone, in accordance with Rabbeinu Tam, but adds that everyone must surely still know Mikra and Mishnah.
The apparent uneasiness of Rabbeinu Tam and the Ba’alei ha-Tosafot, and Arukh ha-Shulhan in their footsteps, seemingly indicates that Rabbeinu Tam does not simply mean that a Jew need not learn Mikra. Instead, he means to provide a limmud zekhut (post-facto defense) for people in his community who do not occupy themselves with Mikra at all. With his leniency, a Jew who merely learns Talmud Bavli will not be in violation of the Gemara’s dictum.15
And it was not only Rabbeinu Tam who found the prevalent practice of his time at odds with the Gemara. At first glance, Rambam16 simply quotes the Gemara’s requirement, but he adds one qualification: Once a person is already familiar with Tanakh and Mishnah, he should devote almost all of his time to Talmud, pausing only to review Tanakh and Mishnah to maintain his knowledge. Lehem Mishneh17 comments that this is also intended as a limmud zekhut for people in Rambam’s generation, who did not spend a full third of their studying hours occupied with Tanakh.
Apparently, the troublesome trend continued for centuries. Shulhan Arukh ha-Rav (R. Shneur Zalman of Liadi), 18 over seven hundred years later, tries to justify the prevailing custom that a father would not hire a teacher to teach his son Nakh. Although the sources indicate that this is obligatory, Shulhan Arukh ha-Rav provides yet another limmud zekhut: Since modern sefarim with full punctuation are available, one’s son will be able to learn Nakh by himself when he gets older, so priority is instead given to other areas of Torah which require an instructor.
Based on these sources, it is well established that one is obligated to study Nakh; the burden has fallen on authorities throughout the ages to rationalize the common tendency to marginalize this study. In more recent times, some Orthodox Jewish thinkers have also expressed their frustration with the prevailing disregard for Nakh and proposed other motivations for studying it, beyond the most obvious one – that it is devar Hashem – which the Rishonim, through silence, provided.
Nakh in the Modern Era
R. Samson Raphael Hirsch, champion of the “Torah Im Derekh Eretz” philosophy (advocating the importance of secular studies in addition to Torah), articulated many fundamental Jewish philosophies in his book, Horeb. 19 His ideal educational system is based on the famous Mishnah in Avot that mandates the introduction of a young boy to Mikra, Mishnah, and then Gemara. R. Hirsch explains that the early exposure to Tanakh serves both to familiarize the child to its language and, ultimately, to instill in him its content. Echoing Rambam, Rabbeinu Tam, and Shulhan Arukh ha-Rav, he bemoans, “Why has this system been abandoned? Why has it been perverted?”20
R. Hirsch also provides a more complete picture of what a Jew gains when he or she studies Tanakh:
Learn from the Torah the origin and mission of your people, and the utterances of God which reveal to you how to fulfill this mission. Learn from the Prophets to know your people as the bearers of this law, in the fight against the deification of wealth and enjoyment and the evil example of the nations; learn to know your own destiny as the outcome of this struggle, and let your own spirit take fire from the spirit of the Prophets. Learn to contemplate, to understand, and to love the lofty mission of your people and its age-long record of scorn and sorrow; learn to recognize its grandeur in its degradation. And in order to support yourself spiritually and to guide your steps in your own passage through life, attune yourself to the sweet harp notes and the words of wisdom of the noble writers in the Ketuvim, drawn from the fountain of their own life-experience.21
R. Hirsch specifically addresses the relevance of Tanakh for children:
And when Torah and Nevi’im have opened their mind and heart and given them a clear and vivid idea of their duty as Jews, then to aid them in the struggle to fulfill that duty and to combat the storms that will befall their inner and outer life, place before them the book of the Ketuvim, in order that they may be inspired by the strains which have sprung from similar storms and conflicts, that they may be enlightened by the Proverbs, that ripe fruit of calm contemplation, and the Book may continually serve them as staff and a light in their wanderings.22
R. Hirsch’s approach to the significance of Nakh lies in its ability to develop one’s worldview and personal character. His central motive in learning Nakh is its spiritual relevance rather than halakhic obligation.
The recent resurgence23 of Nakh study, especially in Israel’s Dati Le’umi (Religious Zionist) community, has been matched by increased discussion about Nakh’s importance of the arguments to reinstitute serious Nakh study are similar to those made by R. Hirsch.
R. Aharon Lichtenstein, rosh yeshivah of Yeshivat Har Etzion, believes Nakh is relevant to modern Jews for its humanistic side.24 By understanding and relating to the great personalities who appear throughout Tanakh, one can learn spiritual lessons and strengthen personal commitment to God. 25 Of course, he concedes, the main text of the covenant between God and Jews is the Torah she-Be’al Peh.26 However, Tanakh speaks to the soul in a different way from the way other core texts of Judaism do. Ultimately, Torah she-Bikhtav and Torah she-Be’al Peh stand together as the “Yakhin and Bo’az”27 at the center of our world. In his own words:
When we speak of Talmud Torah generally… the sense of being in live contact with the heftzah of Torah is overpowering and awe-inspiring, and, spiritually speaking, energizing. But, there are areas of Torah, areas of Tanakh in particular, which speak to us more directly in terms of the element of power, in terms of the element of our experience, our moral sense, our religious sense. That has nothing to do with minimizing, has ve-shalom (God forbid), the importance of hukkim u-mishpatim (laws and statutes); those are central, that is the bread and butter. But the Ribbono Shel Olam (Master of the Universe) has created us multi-faceted, with various aspects in our personalities and a gamut of spiritual and emotional needs, some of which are satisfied in a more direct – in a more immediate – way by certain texts, and certain kinds of texts, than by others.28
RIETS rosh yeshivah R. Michael Rosensweig notes one more aspect of Nakh’s importance, that Nakh also provides a history of Israel’s implementation of Torah and Halakhah in a national religious society:
What Nevi’im and Ketuvim are crucial for is the application to real life of the values of Torah that are derived from Hamishah Humshei Torah and from Torah she-Be’al Peh and from Halakhah. That interface between real life, the models of the Avot (Patriarchs) and the Immahot (Matriarchs) and the Shofetim (Judges) and the Nevi’im, how Kelal Yisrael from the earliest time struggled, the mistakes they made, the triumphs that were theirs, the great potential that they had – that whole story – both in terms of its Hashkafah and in terms of what it reveals about the character of Am Yisrael as well as the sterling and very inspiring personalities that we encounter in Tanakh, all of these things are of course crucial to our worldview. 29
Nakh in the Here and Now
So why does no one care? The predominant yeshivah-education system in our community does not prioritize – indeed, it scarcely addresses – basic knowledge of even the most foundational portions of Nakh. In addition to my personal educational experience, years of conversations with my Modern Orthodox peers from across the country reveal that schools everywhere are missing the mark.30 Most of our grade schools gloss over Tanakh, giving it minimal attention and sandwiching it between classes in Mishnah and Talmud, areas which are supposed to be founded on a sound grounding in Tanakh. Our high schools do not fare much better. Israel programs vary; some offer students virtually no Nakh, others only superficial Nakh, and some, perhaps, advanced Nakh. Clearly, this is a losing battle.
R. Aharon Lichtenstein, who is rosh yeshivah of arguably the central institution of Tanakh study in the Modern Orthodox world, admits that there is a crisis that cannot be fixed with a year or two at his yeshivah. In the time and place ripe for serious, in-depth study of Tanakh, most of our teenagers know next to nothing of the prerequisite beki’ut (basic information). Still, some yeshivot choose to teach their students iyun (in-depth) topics in Tanakh, hoping that they will later gather the broader beki’ut independently on their own time.
Unfortunately, that time never comes, and what begins as an educational problem continues as a societal one. I had the misfortune of spending months of this past summer learning in a prominent beit midrash that did not have a single Tanakh among its collection of thousands of sefarim.31 I recently saw a shopping bag from a Jewish bookstore that depicted the many areas of Torah represented by the books they sold: Humash, Gemara, Aharonim, Posekim, Mussar, you name it. Nakh? Absent.
This problem is larger than any individual student, who cannot be blamed for never having been taught the entirety of Tanakh. But eventually it becomes a personal obligation to teach oneself. And, though it is a psychologically tempting way out, a mere acknowledgement of Nakh’s importance is not an exemption from actually learning it.
Fortunately, that is not so difficult: A good deal of Nakh is in straightforward Hebrew (there are fine translations available for beginners, as well), and there are great commentaries that guide a self-teaching student through the books. It is within reach, but it requires a steady commitment. Why not start right now?
Gilad Barach is a junior at YC majoring in Physics and Mathematics, and is a staff writer for Kol Hamevaser.
1 It is not the purpose of this article to support one method of learning Nakh over any other; the choice of derekh ha-limmud comes only after accepting the premise which is the argument of this article, that Nakh should be seriously learned at all. In addition, any significance that is herein attributed to the study of Nakh is not meant to take away from other areas of Jewish study, including the prominence of Talmud or Halakhah in our community.
2 R. Aharon Lichtenstein, in the first chapter of Leaves of Faith (Ktav Pub. House, 2003), analyzes two distinct meanings of the question, “Why?” It can mean either to challenge an assumption or to innocently inquire as to its reason. This article discusses the latter “why,” though it may well counter the attackers of the former.
3 Levush to Shulhan Arukh, Orah Hayyim 285.
4 Rambam, Moreh Nevukhim 2:45.
5 Berakhot 5a.
6 Kiddushin 30a and Avodah Zarah 19b.
7 Yoreh De’ah 246:4.
8 Avodah Zarah 19b s.v. “Yeshaleish,” Sanhedrin 24a s.v. “Belulah,” and Kiddushin 30a s.v. “Lo.”
9 Sanhedrin 24a.
10 Mapah to Shulhan Arukh, Yoreh De’ah 246:4.
11 Bemidbar 28:1-8.
12 Zevahim 5.
13 Sifra, Introduction.
14 Arukh ha-Shulhan, Yoreh De’ah 246:14.
15 As it happens, regularly learning Talmud Bavli (in a Daf Yomi type of setting) is a decent way to maintain one’s core knowledge of Torah even after he may stop dedicating more of his time for talmud Torah. As one comes across key ideas and central themes of Torah, he will be more likely to upkeep (if not significantly increase) his knowledge of Torah. Perhaps it is this type of “retired lamdan” which Rabbeinu Tam seeks to protect with his ruling. (I thank Rabbi Shalom Carmy for this perspective.)
16 Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Talmud Torah 1:12-13.
17 Lehem Mishneh to Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Talmud Torah 1:13.
18 Shulhan Arukh ha-Rav, Hilkhot Talmud Torah 1:6.
19 Horeb, translated by Dayan Dr. I. Grunfeld, (London: Soncino Press, 1962).
20 p. 410.
21 p. 371.
22 p. 414-415.
23 The term “resurgence” is intended only in relation to the more complete abandonment of Nakh by prior generations. Only a small number of Orthodox Jews are seriously engaged in studying this critical corpus of Judaism, far fewer than the number learning Talmud or Halakhah.
24 Hayyim Sabato, Mevakeshei Panekha (Tel Aviv: Yedi’ot Aharonot, Sifrei Hemed, 2011), 195-202.
25 R. Lichtenstein notes the dual danger one faces when relating to the great characters of Tanakh. On one hand, one must not demote them to a common status, where “Haman may be like a professor, next to them in the class.” On the other hand, even great people have emotions which must not be marginalized, and it is an error to say, “Avraham went to the Akeidah like a person goes to a wedding.”
26 See Gittin 60b.
27 Yakhin and Bo’az are the names of the two columns at the entrance to Solomon’s Temple, described in detail in I Kings 7. The metaphor refers to the dual centrality and significance of Written and Oral Torah.
28 Speech to the overseas program of Yeshivat Har Etzion, February 6, 2003. I edited the transcript minimally, for clarity purposes.
29 “How to Relate to the Study of Tanach?” September 18, 2008. The shi’ur is available at yutorah.org.
30 At this point, I speak primarily of the male education system. The obvious divide between men’s and women’s education in Nakh is both a blessing and a curse. Of course, it is wonderful that many women’s schools and Israel programs appropriately emphasize Nakh study. Unfortunately, the lack of equal commitment by men’s programs often suggests – incorrectly – that Nakh is an area of Torah study that is more relevant or suited for women, which further discourages men from learning the subject independently. Needless to say, all of the reasons to learn Nakh quoted earlier were intended equally or exclusively for men.
31 There were, in fact, a few forlorn sets of Mikra’ot Gedolot (Nakh volumes with commentaries) in the back of the room. They were outdone in both placement and quantity by the Zohar. Why is this acceptable?