Among the many wise statements recorded in Pirkei Avot/Ethics of the Fathers is the following from Rabbi Ishmael the son of Rabi Yosi: “He who learns in order to teach will be enabled both to learn and to teach. But he who learns in order to practice, will be able to learn, to teach, to observe and to practice” (4:6).

Lest anyone become alarmed, Rabbi Ishmael is not demeaning the important role of teachers or teacher training. Rather, this is one of several discussions that are found throughout the Talmud that weigh in on the ever-present issue of whether it is best to study or to act. This discussion applies only to the study of Torah, and it is one that often elicits strong responses (both from the rabbis of the Talmud and the rabbis of today).

In general, the Talmudic opinion is a moderate one. As Rabbi Akiva explained: “Study is greater (than practice) because it leads to practice.” (Talmud Kiddushin 40B) In this he means that those who practice without study, who perform only the rituals that their parents performed and never learn the reasons why, will be stunted in their religious growth. Those who study, however, will be inspired to not only increase their performance of mitzvot, but to be more precise when performing the mitzvot that they already practice.

This mishna is a reminder that the Torah is not simply a book to be studied as an academic exercise, but a guidebook for life. One who learns its laws in order to grow spiritually will find far greater reward than one who thinks of it merely as a static text.

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