Part of the series 'Practical Mishneh Torah,' following the 3 chapter-a-day Rambam daily study cycle of Maimonides' Mishneh Torah.

Regarding a student who presents troublesome behavior, we find an interesting law. Maimonides, in chapter four of Hilchot Talmud Torah, seems to forbid accepting a student whose deeds are not praiseworthy. Maimonides encourages the teacher to attempt to positively influence the potential student, and only if the teacher is successful may this individual be taught.

This is codified almost word for word by the major codifiers such as the Tur and the Shulchan Aruch.1 If we look at the Shulchan Aruch penned by Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, however, we find an added twist:

Torah should not be taught to a student who is not proper. First the student should be positively influenced and only then may he enter the study hall to be taught. If, however, it is not possible to influence him positively, and the student persists with his petition to study, then [the student should be treated in the manner referenced by the Talmud in Sotah 47a] "push away with the left, but draw close with the right, unlike R. Yeshua Ben Perachya who pushed away one of his students with both hands." 2

Even if the teacher fails to positively influence the student, according to Rabbi Shneur Zalman, if the potential student persists with his application, the teacher is exhorted to accept him.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe takes this even further: He quotes a fascinating law regarding an individual who killed someone inadvertently. The law is that one who commits manslaughter is exiled to one of the cities of refuge. Maimonides quotes the Talmud which states that if a student is exiled, his teacher is exiled with him.3 This is because in the city of refuge, all the needs of the exiled individual must be provided, and since Torah study is considered vital to life itself, therefore the tools necessary for study—namely the teacher—must be present in the city of refuge.

The Rebbe asserts that this law is actually referring specifically to a student who is far from perfect; an improper student. “From the wicked comes forth wickedness,” the Talmud says regarding an unintentional murderer. i.e the fact that death was caused by this individual is proof that he was by no means perfect. What emerges is that not only may a teacher teach such a student, but the teacher would actually be exiled together with his student if the student inadvertently caused the death of another.

The Rebbe wonders how this can be, since the language Maimonides uses when describing this student does not imply any lack on the part of the student. On the contrary, this student is described as “an individual of wisdom and seeker [of Torah.]” Seemingly, this law only applies to a student whose entire life is dedicated to Torah, such that his very life depends on it.

About such a student it’s appropriate to say, “Without Torah he is considered dead” (necessitating the teacher to relocate to teach this student).

How does this fit with the fact that—as the Rebbe points out—this law seems to be specifically referring to a student who is not up to par? Can we really say that a wayward student's entire life is dependent on Torah?

The Rebbe resolves this difficulty by giving new meaning to the term “seeker.” A “seeker” in this context, says the Rrebbe, does not refer to someone who is both “an individual of wisdom and a seeker [of Torah].” Maimonides is actually referring to two different students. It should be read as “an individual of wisdom or a seeker [of Torah],” and according to Maimonides the teacher would need to relocate to teach both an individual of wisdom and someone who strives to be such a person.

At this point in time, this student is not yet on the correct path, but is seeking the correct way. Since this person is moving in a positive direction, even if his current actions do not yet reflect this, it is considered as if he has already reached a place of righteousness, since the Torah guarantees “Seek and you will find”.4

This is why his teacher must accompany him into exile. It is the teacher who will bring this from potential to actuality. When we say that all the exilee’s needs must be met, we are not only referring to the needs of this present moment. Indeed, right now we cannot in truth say that this student's very life is dependent on Torah, but since he has taken the first steps on the journey, since he is a seeker, who desires Torah, eventually he will reach the stage where his very life will depend on its study.5

Practical Application:

Even if an individual's actions leave much to be desired, still he must be taught, especially if the student is eager to study. As long as the teacher sees that this student is a “seeker,” he must teach. And if, for whatever reason, the teacher is not willing to take on a particular student, the student is obligated to study on his own (as the Rebbe pointed out in a talk in 1977).6 True, the teacher may not be able to teach because this individual is considered rebellious and perhaps not quite in the category of a “seeker.”7 This, however, is only in reference to the teacher. The individual however, still has the obligation to study. And when this individual strikes out on his own, then the Torah study itself will lift him from a state of rebelliousness to a state of righteousness.