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Torah Study vs. Acts of Loving Kindness: Which is More Important? Responsa in a Moment: Volume 8, Issue No. 3, December 2013

In memory of my father, Rabbi Noah Golinkin z”l, who taught us how to combine Torah study with gemilut hassadim on his 100thbirthday.

Regarding my father Rabbi Noah Golinkin z”l, see David Golinkin, Insight Israel: The View from Schechter, Jerusalem, 2003, pp. 157-167; Rafael Medoff, Encyclopaedia Judaica, second edition, 2007, Vol.7, pp. 740-741; Rafael Medoff and David Golinkin, The Student Struggle Against the Holocaust,Jerusalem, 2010[/note]

Question: We are all very busy and very pressed for time. If we only have a few hours a week of free time, should we devote it to Torah study or to gemilut hassadim [acts of loving kindness]? Similarly, is it more important to teach children and young adults Torah or to take them out into the field in order to practice gemilut hassadim?

Responsum: In Jewish life and law, we are frequently confronted by competing values: saving a life vs. observing Shabbat, honoring a parent vs. transgressing a commandment, easing pain vs. shortening a person’s life, mourning for a relative vs. rejoicing on a Jewish festival. Here too we are confronted by a case of conflicting values.

In rabbinic literature, the Hebrew term gemilut hassadim, acts of loving kindness, encompasses mitzvot such as visiting the sick, burying the dead, comforting the mourner, helping a bride and groom rejoice, and clothing the naked. (See Entziklopedia Talmuditin the Bibliography, cols. 150-152 regarding the many ways in which medieval rabbis understood this mitzvah.)

It is clear that both Torah study and gemilut hassadim are very basic Jewish values. Indeed, a well-known collection of Talmudic aphorisms (see Rabbi Moshe David Gross) lists 881 statements in praise of Torah and 90 in praise of gemilut hassadim. According to simple arithmetic, we would have to conclude that Torah study is more important than gemilut hassadim. Yet halakhah is not arithmetic. Let us therefore begin with statements in praise of Torah study, proceed with statements in praise of gemilut hassadim, and then sources which attempt to deal with these values when they compete for our time.

I) In Praise of Torah Study

As I have written elsewhere:

Limud Torah (Torah study) is without a doubt one of the central mitzvot of Jewish life.  We read in the Shema, the Torah portion recited three times daily:

These words which I command you this day shall be in your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, speaking of them when you stay at home, when you walk on the road, when you lie down and when you get up (Deuteronomy 6:6-7).

This is repeated in the Prophets:  “Let not this book of the Torah cease from your lips, but study it day and night so that you may observe faithfully all that is written in it” (Joshua 1:8).  And we learn once again in the Writings:  “Happy is the man… the teaching of the Lord is his delight and he studies that teaching day and night” (Psalms 1:1-2).

The centrality of Torah study was reiterated by the rabbis on numerous occasions. “Simon the Just used to say, ‘By three things is the world sustained:  by the Torah, by the Temple service and by deeds of loving kindness’ ” (Avot 1:2). “Hillel used to say: ‘The more Torah, the more life’ ” (Avot2:7). “Greater is learning the Torah than priesthood or kingship” (Avot 6:6). And a popular list of praiseworthy mitzvot concludes: “the study of the Torah is equal to them all”. (Responsa in a Moment,Jerusalem, 2000, pp. 43-44)

II) In praise of Gemilut Hassadim

On the other hand, there are numerous rabbinic passages which praise gemilut hassadim:

  1. 1. Kohelet Rabbah 7, ed. Vilna, fol. 18b

Rabbi Judah said: to teach you that whoever denies gemilut hesedit is as if he denies God.

  1. Sotah 14a  (The translations which follow are based on Soncino (Babylonian Talmud), Judah Goldin (Avot Derabi Nattan), Dov Zlotnick (Semahot) and Gerald Friedlander (Pirkei Derabi Eliezer)).
  2. Simlai expounded: Torah begins with gemilut hassadim and ends with gemilut hassadim. It begins with gemilut hassadim, for it is written: “And the Lord God made for Adam and for his wife coats of skin, and clothed them” (Genesis 3:21), and it ends with gemilut hassadim, for it is written: “And He buried him [=Moses] in the valley” (Deut. 34:6).
  3. Sukkah 49b (cf. Tosefta Peah 4:19, ed. Lieberman, pp. 60-61

Our Rabbis taught: In three respects is gemilut hassadim superior to charity: charity can be done only with one’s money, but gemilut hassadim can be done with one’s person and one’s money. Charity can be given only to the poor, gemilut hassadim both to the rich and the poor. Charity can be given to the living only, gemilut hassadim can be done both to the living and to the dead.

  1. 4. Avot Derabi Nattan, Version A, Chapter 4, ed. Schechter, p. 21 (cf. Version B, Chapter 8, ed. Schechter, p. 22)

Once, as Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai was coming forth fromJerusalem, Rabbi Joshua followed him and beheld theTemplein ruins.

“Woe unto us!” said Rabbi Joshua, “that this, the place where the iniquities ofIsraelwere atoned for, is destroyed!”

“My son,” Rabbi Yohanan said to him, “be not grieved; we have another atonement as effective as this. And what is it? It is gemilut hassadim, as it is said: ‘For I desire hesed [=mercy] and not sacrifice’ ” (Hosea 6:6)  (Regarding this story, see Baruch Bokser, Proceedings of the American Academy for Jewish Research 50 (1983), pp. 37-61).

  1. Nedarim 40a

…Did it not once happen that one of R. Akiba’s disciples fell sick, and the Sages did not visit him? So R. Akiba himself entered [his house] to visit him, and because he swept and sprinkled the ground before him, he recovered. “My master,” said he, “you have revived me!”. R. Akiba went forth and lectured: “He who does not visit the sick, is like a shedder of blood”.

  1. Pirkei Derabi Eliezer, Chapter 17, ed. Radal, fol. 41b (cf.Soferim 19:9, ed. Higger, pp. 335-336)

Solomon saw that the observance of gemilut hassadim was great before God, so when he built the Temple, he erected two gates, one for the bridegrooms, and the other for the mourners and the excommunicated.  On Sabbaths the Israelites went and sat between those two gates; and they knew that anyone who entered through the gate of the bridegrooms was a bridegroom and they said to him: “May He who dwells in this house cause you to rejoice with sons and daughters”.  If one entered through the gate of the mourners with his upper lip covered,  (In the Talmudic period and down into the middle ages Jewish mourners sitting shivah were required to cover their heads or their upper lips — see Yitzhak Zimmer, Olam Kiminhago Noheig, Jerusalem, 1996, pp. 191-210 (Hebrew)). then they knew that he was a mourner, and they would say to him: “May He who dwells in this house comfort you”…

When the Templewas destroyed, the Sages enacted that bridegrooms and mourners should go to the synagogues and to the houses of study.  The men of the place see the bridegroom and rejoice with him; and they see the mourner and sit with him upon the earth, so that all the Israelites may discharge their duty to perform gemilut hassadim. With reference to them he says: “Blessed are You, God, who gives a good reward to those who perform gemilut hassadim”.

  1. Ketubot 8b

This is part of a passage about birkat aveilim, the blessings which were recited in the Talmudic period immediately after a funeral:

…He [then] said to him: Rise [and] say something with regard to the comforters of the mourners. He spoke and said: Our brethren, bestowers of gemilut hassadim, sons of bestowers of gemilut hassadim, who hold fast to the covenant of Abraham our father… our brethren, may the Lord of recompense pay you your reward. Blessed art You who pays the recompense.

  1. Sotah 14a
  2. Hamason of R. Hanina further said: What means the text: “You shall walk after the Lord your God?” (Deut. 13:5)  Is it, then, possible for a human being to walk after the Shekhinah; for has it not been said: “For the Lord thy God is a devouring fire?” (ibid., 4:24)  But [the meaning is] to walk after the attributes of the Holy One, blessed be He. As He clothes the naked, for it is written: “And the Lord God made for Adam and for his wife coats of skin, and clothed them,” (Genesis 3:21), so do you too clothe the naked. The Holy One, blessed be He, visited the sick, for it is written: “And the Lord appeared unto him by the oaks of Mamre” (Genesis 18:1), so do you too visit the sick. The Holy One, blessed be He, comforted mourners, for it is written: “And it came to pass after the death of Abraham, that God blessed Isaac his son” (Genesis 25:11),  so do you too comfort mourners. The Holy one, blessed be He, buried the dead, for it is written: “And He buried him [=Moses] in the valley” (Deut. 34:6),  so do you too bury the dead.

III) Torah study and gemilut hassadim are equally important

  1. 1. Avot 1:2

Simon the Righteous was one of the last survivors of the Great Assembly. He used to say: On three things the world is sustained:on the Torah, on the [Temple] service, and on gemilut hassadim.

  1. 2. Yerushalmi Ta’anit 4:2, fol. 68a

We have learned there in a Mishnah: “Simon the Rigthteous [as above]…. and on gemilut hassadim“, and all of them appear in one verse (Isaiah 51:16) — “and I will put my words in your mouth” that is Torah, “and in the shadow of my hand I cover you” that is gemilut hassadimto teach you that whoever is engaged in Torah and in gemilut hassadim merits to sit in the shadow of the Holy One, blessed be He.

  1. Bava Kamma 17a (cf. Avodah Zarah 5b)

Whoever engages in Torah and gemilut hassadim inherits the portion of two tribes…Joseph…and Issachar…

  1. Sanhedrin 98b

…the students of Rabbi Eliezer asked him: what should a person do in order to be saved from the birth pangs of the Messiah? [He replied:] he should engage in Torah and gemilut hassadim.

  1. IV) Gemilut Hassadim is more important than Torah study

OR: Torah study must be accompanied by gemilut hassadim

  1. Semahot 11:7, ed. Zlotnick, p. 33

The study of Torah should not be interrupted for the sake of a dead person or a bride.

Abba Saul says: “action comes before study”.

And so did Rabbi Judahwhenever he saw a dead person [pass by] or those praising a bride approach. He would fix his eyes on his students and say: “action comes before study”.

There are many parallels to this passage in rabbinic literature (see Urbach, p. 545, note 64; Saul Lieberman, Hayerushalmi Kifshuto, Jerusalem, 1934, p. 425; and see below.) The Tanna Kamma or anonymous first Tanna, thinks that Torah study is more important than gemilut hassadim; both Abba Saul and Rabbi Judah think thatgemilut hassadim takes precedence.

  1. Avodah Zarah 17b

Our Rabbis taught: When R. Eleazar ben Perata and R. Hanina ben Teradion were arrested [by the Romans during the Hadrianic persecutions], R. Eleazar ben Perata said to R. Hanina ben Teradion: Happy are you that you have been arrested on one charge; woe is me, for I was arrested on five charges. R. Hanina replied: Happy are you, who has been arrested on five charges, but will be rescued; woe is me who, though having been arrested on one charge, will not be rescued; for you have occupied yourself with [the study of] the Torah as well as with gemilut hassadim, whereas I occupied myself with Torah alone.

This accords with the opinion of R. Huna, for R. Huna said: He who only occupies himself with the study of the Torah is as if he had no God, for it is said: “Now for long seasons Israelwas without the true God” (II Chronicles 15:3).  What is meant by ‘without the true God’? — It means that he who only occupies himself with the study of the Torah is as if he had no God.  (Regarding this story, see Ya’akov Blidstein in: Arnon Atzmon and Tzur Shafir, eds., Kitavor Beharim, Alon Shevut, 2013, pp. 249-259).

  1. Rosh Hashanah 18a

Rabbah and Abaye were of the house of Eli [which was cursed – see I Samuel 3:11-14]. Rabbah who devoted himself to the Torah lived forty years; Abaye who devoted himself both to the Torah and to gemilut hassadim lived sixty years.

V) Torah study is more important than gemilut hassadim

  1. Mishnah Peah 1:1

These are the things that have no measure: The corner of the field, the first fruits… gemilut hassadim, and the study of Torah. These are things of which a man eats the fruits in this world, while the principle remains for him in the World to Come: honoring father and mother, gemilut hassadim, and bringing peace between a man and his friend. But the study of the Torah is equal to them all.

  1. Avot Derabi Nattan, Version A, Chapter 41, ed. Schechter, p. 130

Toil over the words of the Torah and do not engage in idle matters.

A story is told of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai who was visiting the sick, and he found a certain man, who was bloated and laid up with bowel disease, uttering blasphemies against the Holy One, blessed be He.

“Good for nothing!” Rabbi Shimon said, “you should be beseeching mercy for yourself, and you utter blasphemies!”

The man said to him: “May the Holy One, blessed be He, remove the sickness from me and lay it on you!”

Rabbi Shimon said: “well has the Holy One, blessed be He, done with you, for I neglected words of Torah and engaged in idle matters!”  (I have translated according to the reading explained by Urbach, p. 543, note 58, and not according to the emendation by Schechter in his edition which was based on one of the manuscripts).

In this surprising story Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, who was known for his ascetic streak, preferring Torah study over earning a living (Berakhot 35b; Shabbat 33b), declares after visiting a sick person who blasphemed God that he should have continued to study Torah because visiting the sick is a waste of time!

  1. Semahot 11:7, ed. Zlotnick, p. 33 (as above)

The study of Torah should not be interrupted for the sake of a dead person or a bride.

Abba Saul says: “action comes before study”.

And so did Rabbi Judah whenever he saw a dead person [pass by] or those praising a bride approach. He would fix his eyes on his students and say: “action comes before study”.

In this passage, already quoted above, the Tanna Kamma, the first rabbi quoted, would have agreed with Rabbi Shimon – one does not interrupt Torah study for the sake of gemilut hassadim.

  1. Kiddushin 40b

Rabbi Tarfon and some elders were reclining in the upper chamber in the house of Nitza in Lod when the following question was asked of them: Which is greater, study or action? Rabbi Tarfon replied and said: Action is greater. Rabbi Akiva replied and said: Study is greater. They all replied and said: Study is greater because study leads to action.

  1. Yerushalmi Pesahim 3:7, fol. 30b = Yerushalmi Hagigah 1:7, fol. 76c

They voted and decided in the upper chamber of the house of Arom in Lod that study precedes action. Rabbi Abbahu sent his son Rabbi Hanina to acquire Torah in Tiberias. (I have translated according to Saul Lieberman,Hayerushalmi Kifshuto,Jerusalem, 1934, p. 425). They came and told [Rabbi Abahu]: he is doing gemilut hassadim. [Rabbi Abahu] sent and said to [his son]: are there not enough graves in Caeserea that I sent you to Tiberias! For they already voted and decided in the upper chamber of the house of Arom in Lod that study precedes action.

In other words, Rabbi Abbahu (ca. 300 CE) sent his son Hanina to study Torah at one of the well-known academies in Tiberias. Instead, his son was helping to bury people in Tiberias, which was a very popular burial spot at that time, especially for Jews fromBabylon. Rabbi Abbahu then sends his son a clever paraphrase of Exodus 14:11: “are there not enough graves inEgyptthat you [=Moses] have taken us to die in the desert!” I sent you to Tiberias to study Torah — Torah study precedes action.

VI) One stops studying Torah in order to do gemilut hassadimif there is no one else who can perform that mitzvah

  1. Megillah 29a = Ketubot 17a-b (cf. Avot Derabi Nattan, Version A, Chapter 4, ed. Schechter, p. 18)

The study of the Torah may be suspended for escorting a dead body and a bride to the canopy. It was told of R. Judah b. Ila’i that he used to suspend the study of the Torah for escorting a dead body and a bride to the canopy.

When does this rule [regarding the dead] apply? When there are not present sufficient numbers [to pay him due honor]; but if sufficient numbers are available, [the study of the Torah] is not suspended.

What numbers are sufficient? R. Samuel b. Inia said in the name of Rav: Twelve thousand men and [in addition] six thousand trumpets, and some say, twelve thousand men of whom six thousand have trumpets. Ulla said: Enough to make a procession extending from the city gate to the dam. (I have translated according to Michael Sokoloff, A Dictionary of Jewish Babylonian Aramaic,Ramat Gan, 2002, pp. 74 and 803). R. Sheshet said: The withdrawal of the Torah should correspond to its delivery: as its delivery was in the presence of sixty myriads, so its withdrawal should be accompanied by sixty myriads. This applies to one who knew by heart Scripture and Mishnah; but for one who [also] taught the Mishnah, there is no limit.

In this passage, we see the conflicting values at work. Rabbi Judah who was already quoted above in the passage from Semahot, says that gemilut hassadim takes precedence over Torah study.

The continuation of the beraita prefers Torah study and modifies his opinion in a drastic fashion – you only need to suspend Torah study if there are not sufficient people to attend the wedding or the funeral. If there are sufficient people, continue studying.

But the Amoraim then basically undo the second approach. They define “sufficient people” in such a way that you will always have to stop studying and attend the funeral.

  1. Yerushalmi Pesahim = Yerushalmi Hagigah quoted above – the continuation of the Rabbi Abahu story:

The Rabbis of Caeserea say: this applies when there is someone there to do [the action], but if there is no-one there to do [the action], the action precedes Torah study.

In other words, if there are enough people to bury the dead, then continue to study Torah. If not, leave the academy and bury the dead.

  1. The codes of Jewish law

Since the time of the Geonim (ca. 500-1000 CE), the passage inMegillah = Ketubot became a subject of great debate among the codifiers of Jewish law. Otzar Hageonim (to Megillah, p. 53 and toKetubot, pp. 56-57) and the Tur and Shulhan Arukh (Yoreh Deah361) cite many different opinions as to whether one may stop studying Torah in order to participate in a funeral, depending on the level of scholarship of the deceased. Here are some of the opinions on the subject:

  1. One may not stop studying Torah if the funeral procession has “kol tzorko“, “sufficient numbers” – without defining what that means (Rambam, Hikhot Evel 14:9).
  2. If the deceased had studied neither Bible nor Mishnah, one should not stop studying Torah, but one may stop studying Torah if there is no one else to deal with the funeral (Halakhot Pesukot, p. 164; Halakhot Gedolot, beginning of Hilkhot Evel, ed.Warsaw, fol. 42b and ed. Jerusalem, Vol. I, pp. 422-423).
  3. If the deceased had studied neither Bible nor Mishnah, one should stop studying and join the funeral if there is less than a minyan of people at the funeral (Teshuvot Rav Natronai Gaon, ed. Brody, No. 285, also quoted by Rabbi Yitzhak ibn Ghiyat,Sha’arei Simhah, part II, p. 37 and Ramban, Torat Ha’adam, ed. Chavel, p. 104).
  4. One may not stop the Torah study of children in order to attend a funeral since children are not supposed to stop studying even in order to help rebuild the Temple! (Rabbi Yom Tov of Joigny quoted by Tur Yoreh Deah 361)
  5. One should stop studying and join the funeral if there are less than the 12,000 people and 6,000 shofarot described by the Amoraim. In other words, one should always attend the funeral. (R. Yitzhak Alfasi)
  6. In our day, one should stop studying Torah and join the funeral for all Jews because, in our day, every Jew is filled withmitzvot like a pomegranate. (R. Moshe of Coucy, Sefer Mitzvot Gadol quoted by the Ritva to Ketubot 17a which was codified by the Rema, Yoreh Deah 361:1.)

VII) Summary and Conclusions

The many conflicting sources cited above show just how difficult it is to decide whether Torah study or gemilut hassadim are more important. By selective quotation, one can make the case for both opinions. Even if one tries to rule on the specific issue of stopping Torah study in order to attend a funeral, it is hard to do so on the basis of the many opinions presented in Megillah = Ketubot and in the codes. In the end, both of these mitzvot are very important and we all need to find a way to devote time every week both to Torah study and to gemilut hassadim.

David Golinkin
The 8th night of Hanukkah 5774


  1. N. Bialik and Y. H. Ravnitzki, Sefer Ha’agadah, Tel Aviv, 2000, pp. 528-530 (there is also an English translation)

Entziklopedia Talmudit, Vol. 6, cols. 149-153

Rabbi Moshe David Gross, Otzar Ha’agadah,Jerusalem, 1977, Vol. 1, pp. 174-177

Yehudah Moriel, B’derekh Tovim,Jerusalem, 1985, pp. 47-58

E.E. Urbach, Hazal: Pirkei Emunot V’deot, Jerusalem, 1971 (there is also an English translation entitled The Sages)

All four volumes of Rabbi Prof. David Golinkin’s Responsa In A Moment – Halakhic Responses to Contemporary Issues as well as other books by the author are available for purchase from the Schocken-JTS Press Bookstore.

David Golinkin is President of The Schechter Institutes, Inc. and President Emeritus of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies. For twenty years he served as Chair of the Va’ad Halakhah (Law Committee) of the Rabbinical Assembly which gives halakhic guidance to the Masorti Movement in Israel. He is the founder and director of the Institute of Applied Halakhah at Schechter and also directs the Center for Women in Jewish Law. Rabbi Professor Golinkin made aliyah in 1972, earning a BA in Jewish History and two teaching certificates from The Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He received an MA in Rabbinics and a PhD in Talmud from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America where he was also ordained as Rabbi. For a complete bio click here.

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