On Moses and MLK
Balancing liturgy with poetry

Talmud Torah

The birchot ha'shachar ("blessings of morning") include a bracha for Torah. In a shining example of Jewish liturgical logic, we assume that if we're blessing God's teaching, then we need to study in order to justify the blessing. So we pause and read a few texts of ritual study, in order that the blessing not be an empty one.

One of the traditional passages that's read in this context is an excerpt from the Babylonian Talmud which lists duties which have no limit, such as leaving crops for the poor, acts of lovingkindness, honoring one's parents, and bringing peace between people. "And the study of Torah," the quotation ends, "is equal to them all." (Well, that's how I know it. More on that in a moment.)

The reasoning is that the study of Torah will lead to righteous acts; therefore, study is the highest mitzvah, equal to all the rest. Being an inveterate geek, I'm delighted that the standard morning ritual involves some studying (however cursory it might be), and doubly delighted that studying Torah is considered to be the highest thing we can do. I like the implication that study will necessarily lead to righteousness. As the Babylonian Talmud also records (in Tractate Kiddushin 40b), the rabbis are said to have debated, "Which is greater, study or action?" Rabbi Akiba said, and the sages agreed, "Study -- if it leads to action."

Here's an interesting detail, though. That last phrase in the ritual-study passage, v'talmud Torah k'neged kulam, is translated differently in each standard denominational siddur. Gates of Prayer reads "and the study of Torah is equal to them all, because it leads to them all." Sim Shalom reads "and the study of Torah is the most basic of them all," and The Complete Artscroll Siddur reads "and the study of Torah is equivalent to them all."

That tricky word, k'neged, seems to inevitably be a sticking-point in translation. In Bereshit (Genesis) 2:18, God muses that it is not good for the earth-creature (whose name is a derivative of adamah, "earth") to be alone, and therefore God resolves to make an ezer k'negdo: "an help-meet for him," or "a suitable helper-for-him," or "a partner equal-to-him." Clearly, how one translates k'negdo has some impact on how the Biblical story of woman's origin reads.

Personally, I favor the "partner equal-to-him" translation. I also favor translating the end of that morning Talmud passage as "the study of the Torah is equal to them all." (I'm not fluent in Hebrew, but at least I'm internally consistent.) One way or another, I'm with the tradition on this: study is righteous stuff. Here's to it.