Torah and Derech Eretz.
Torah study is unquestionably a pillar of Judaism. Its relations to earning a living is, as is well known, subject of a disagreement between Tannaim. The following passage is found in Sifri Vaeschanan but I first quote in the version found in the Talmud
“Why does the Torah tell us, “And You shall gather your grain?”. Because another verse says, “This scroll of the Torah shall not depart from you mouth and you shall meditate in it day and night”. We might understand it literally; therefore note that “You shall also gather your grain” – combine Torah study with the way of the world. These are the words of R. Ishmael. R. Shimon Bar Yochai says, “If a person plows at the time of plowing, sows at the time of sowing, winnows when it blows, what will become of Torah However, when Jews do the will of Hashem, their work is done by others…when they do not do the will of Hashem, they not only do not accomplish their own work but do the work of others. ”. Abbaye says, “Many have followed the words of R. Shimon Bar Yochai and did not succeed”. Rava said to the scholars: “: Do not come to the academy at harvest and gathering time lest you become impoverished and will have to engage in making a living the rest of the year (Brochos 35b).
R. Ishmael recommends combining Torah study and work while R. Shimon Bar Yochai urges Torah study to the exclusion of other pursuits .
Surprisingly, other sources ascribe diametrically opposite opinions to these two Tannaim.
Ben Dama, the nephew of R. Ishamel asked him, “A person like me who has learned the entire Torah – can I go and study the wisdom of the Greeks””. He replied: ”Go and find time which is neither day nor night and study Greek wisdom then” (Menachos 99b)
“This scroll of the Torah shall not depart from you mouth and you shall meditate upon it day and night”. R. Yochanan said in the Name of R. Shimon Bar Yochai, ”Even if one reads the Shema morning and evening he has fulfilled this verse… (Ibid).
This contradictions, as you may expect, did not escape the notice of Torah scholars throughout the ages and many reconciliations have been proposed . Consideration of the version preserved in the Sifri suggests a novel but sensible and reasonable explanation. It appears from the Sifri R. Ishmael is speaking only to the permission, not obligation to engage in earning a living. It stands to reason that he may rule differently about someone who already has means of support. Certainly studying Greek wisdom is unlikely to increase his nephew's earning power and should not be permitted. R. Shimon Bar Yochai, similarly, speaks of a utopian situation, when other nations materially support the Jews so they can freely study Torah. He will not necessarily apply it to the time in which he lived when such was not the case. I cite the relevant passage:
Why does the Torah tell us, “And You shall gather your grain?”. Because it says, “This scroll of the Torah shall not depart from you mouth and you shall meditate in it day and night”. We might understand it literally; therefore understand that “You shall also gather your grain” – Torah spoke of the way of the world , you are permitted to let it (the scroll) go . These are the words of R. Ishmael. R. Shimon Bar Yochai says, “ There is no end to it. If a person harvests at the time of harvest, plows at the time of plowing, sows at the time of sowing, winnows when it blows, when does he learn Torah? However, when Jews do the will of Hashem, their work is done by others…when they do not do the will of Hashem, they not only do not accomplish their own work but do the work of others…”.
This is a good example of the situation when consideration of earlier sources reveals what appears to be a minor variation of language that turns out to suggest a resolution to knotty problems.
1 The intensity fo R. Shimon's opposition to working is well described in the story of his years in the cave in Shabbos 33.
2 See Y. Levy, Torah Study: A survey of Classiv Sources on Timely Issues, Feldeheim, 1990, pp.58-63 and mo With All Your Heart: The Shema in Jewish Worship, Practice and Life, Targum/ Feldheim, 2002, Ch. 13. The answer proposed above does not appear in this book.