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4. Human “Ownership” of Torah

4. Human “Ownership” of Torah


The role that the human mind plays in processing and producing Torah is a recurring theme in many of the sayings of the sages. The Talmudic sage Rava cites Psalms 1:2, which describes the righteous person as one who “only in the Torah of G‑d is his desire, and his Torah he utters day and night,” and notes that in the first part of the verse the Torah is referred to as “the Torah of G‑d,” but in the latter part it is called “his (i.e., the scholar’s) Torah.” “Originally, it is called G‑d’s Torah,” deduces Rava. “In the end, it is called his.”1

A divine commodity becomes fully assimilated and “owned” by its human recipient

This same duality can be discerned in the prayer in which we ask of G‑d, “Grant us our portion in Your Torah.”2 We do not ask for “a portion in Your Torah,” nor do we seek “our portion in the Torah”; rather, we pray for the ability to acquire “our portion in Your Torah.” We acknowledge that it is Your Torah—the divine wisdom and will; and at the same time, we ask that we merit the acquisition of Torah in the ultimate sense, where a divine commodity becomes fully assimilated and “owned” by its human recipient.3

The idea that a student of Torah acquires ownership of Torah has actual legal implications, as evidenced from the following Talmudic discussion:4

Said R. Yitzchak bar Shila in the name of R. Matanah, in the name of R. Chisda: If a father forgives an affront to his honor, it is considered forgiven. But if a Torah master forgives an affront to his honor, it is not forgiven. R. Yosef said: Also a Torah master who forgives an affront to his honor, it is considered forgiven. As it is written, “G‑d went before them by day…”5

Said Rava: What is the comparison? In that case, the world is G‑d’s, and the Torah is G‑d’s; so He can abdicate His honor. But here (i.e., in the case of the Torah scholar), is the Torah his? Subsequently Rava said: Indeed, the Torah is his, as it is written, “…and his Torah he utters day and night.”6

This mirrors another statement by Rava, who also declared:

How foolish are those people who rise in deference to a Torah scroll, but do not rise before a great person! For in the Torah scroll it is written “forty,” and the sages came and subtracted one…7

Rava is referring to the rabbinic interpretation of the Torah’s laws of malkoth (“lashes”). In Deuteronomy 25:2–3, the Torah rules that in the case where a person is guilty of a crime whose punishment is lashes, “the judge shall cast him down and strike him, before him, according to his wickedness, by a count. Forty he shall strike him; he shall not add.” Although the plain meaning of the text is that forty lashes are to be administered, the sages interpret the phrase “by a count (of) forty” to mean not exactly forty, but one less than forty (i.e., thirty-nine).8 This exemplifies how the authority of the sages, who are entrusted with the task of interpreting and applying Torah, is equal to—and in a sense, greater than—that of the text inscribed in the Torah scroll.

The ultimate precedent for the human “ownership” of the Torah that a person Our relationship with the Torah is described as an inheritance, an acquisition, and a giftreceives and processes is the first recipient of Torah—Moses. The prophet Malachi enjoins, “Remember the Torah of Moses My servant.”9 But isn’t it G‑d’s Torah? The explanation given is: “Because Moses gave his life for the Torah, it is called his.”10

Accordingly, says the Rebbe, we find our relationship with the Torah described in three different, and seemingly conflicting, ways:

1) As an inheritance, as in Deuteronomy 33:4, “The Torah that Moses commanded us is the inheritance of the congregation of Jacob.” This implies that the Torah is the birthright of every Jew, regardless of how much toil and talent he or she has invested to study it.

2) As a “purchase” and an “acquisition,” implying an ownership commensurate with the degree of the person’s investment and achievement.11

3) As a gift (as in the citations quoted in chapter 1 above).

Our relationship with the Torah, explains the Rebbe, cannot be fully described by any single model, as it encompasses all three: certain elements of that relationship are analogous to an “inheritance,” other aspects to a “purchase” and others to a “gift.” The first two relate to the human aspect of Torah—the manner in which we assume ownership of Torah by virtue of who we are,12 and by virtue of what our mind and intellect accomplish with it. The third, or “gift,” aspect of Torah describes its divine element—the manner in which it transcends human reason and reach, and our apprehension of it is wholly a bestowal from Above.13

Talmud, Avodah Zarah 19a.
Avot 5:20.
Likutei Sichoth, vol. 13, pp. 118–119; Torath Menachem 5748, vol. 3, p. 381; based on Shaloh, Masecheth Shavuoth, 192a.
Talmud, Kidushin 32a–b.
Exodus 13:21. The full verse reads: “G‑d went before them by day in a pillar of cloud to guide them in the way, and at night in a pillar of fire to illuminate for them, to travel day and night.” Thus G‑d abdicates His honor to go before His people as a servant walks before his master.
In contrast, a king does not have the authority to forgive an affront to his honor, as an insult against his sovereignty constitutes an insult against the entire nation, and is not something that is “his” to forgive (Talmud, Kidushin 32b; Mishneh Torah, Hilchoth Melachim 2:3. See Tosafoth, Sanhedrin 19a, s.v. “Yanai”; Chatham Sofer to Esther 1:16; and Meshech Chochmah to Deuteronomy 22:22).
Talmud, Makoth 22b.
The particular form of the Hebrew word be-mispar indicates that it is joined to the following word, arba’im (“forty”). So although be-mispar is the last word of 25:2 and arba’im is the first word of the next verse, the two words are read together as the phrase “by a count of forty”—implying that the intention is not the number 40 itself.
Shemoth Rabbah 30:4; The Rebbe, Maamar Ve-Hayah Ki Thavo 5744.
See Proverbs 4:2; Shemoth Rabbah 33:1; Ethics of the Fathers 6:6. It is regarding this aspect of our relationship with Torah that the Mishnaic sage R. Yosei goes so far as to say—in apparent contradiction with the above-cited verse from Deuteronomy—“Perfect yourself for the study of Torah, for it is not an inheritance for you” (Ethics of the Fathers 2:12).
Likutei Sichoth, vol. 13, pp. 115–117.
Yanki Tauber served as editor of
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An excerpt from a larger work, titled The Lubavitcher Rebbe’s Philosophy of Torah.
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