Torah must be studied day and night according to biblical prescription: "And you shall meditate on it by day and by night."
This requires the Jew to set aside times for study every day, preferably with a partner. This day-to-day mitzvah of study – "learning" as the vernacular has it – made Torah the dominant feature of Jewish life, and it came to characterize the Jew throughout history.
A compulsory system of education was in place in the first century of the common era, while cavemen still stalked the North American continent. The Jews became known as the People of the Book, a title given them by Mohammed. Their love of the book is legendary and, no matter how intellectual other societies had become, they never achieved this zeal for the book.
Jewish tradition treats books as though they are living scholars themselves. The Torah is treated as a living Torah, not merely in the metaphoric sense. Jews do not leave books open, as though abandoned. That would be insensitive to their "feelings." Closed books are left face up and a lesser text is not placed on top of a more important one.
If a sacred book falls to the ground, Jewish people pick it up tenderly and kiss it, as though it were a bruised child. When the Torah is drawn from the Ark, everyone rises, as though in the presence of a great rabbi. As it passes by them, they kiss it, or throw it a kiss, in respect and affection.
If a sacred book falls to the ground, a Jew picks it up and tenderly kisses it.
If the Torah scroll is accidentally dropped, the entire congregation present at the time fasts on a chosen day and gives charity. When the Torah scroll ages and its letters begin to crack, it is reverently buried.
The reverence that was rendered the Holy Scroll eventually filtered down to everyday volumes. When Bibles and other religious books become old and unusable they are, like the Torah itself, buried in a grave close to a scholar, or deposited in a vault or separate room, called genizah.
Great authors were not called by their family name, but deferentially after the title of their books; they were more closely identified by their scholarship than by their families.
The rabbis of the second century debated over which was greater – study or practice. They voted on the issue and decided that study was the greater, because inevitably it would lead to practice. Knowledge, they held, had to affect behavior. "The ignoramus is not a saint."
Indeed, study – the process of learning itself-is the heart of Jewish religious practice.
Another debate in comparative religious values offers the choice of study or prayer. The Talmud makes short shrift of the subject. It records an incident of a rabbi who chastised a colleague for spending time praying when he could more profitably be studying. Praying, he held, should be considered materialistic – natural to the temporal, material world, as one could pray for health, success, peace. But the study of Torah belongs to the eternal world, the world-to-come – it is a spirited exercise in God-wrestling at the highest level of spiritual life.
Torah study is not just scholarship, it is an act of prayer.
Torah study is not simply a matter of punctilious scholarship and academic excellence, although it is surely that, too. It accomplishes two purposes: one is the accumulation of knowledge; the other is worship – because the process itself is an act of prayer.
Study is the highest mode of worship. The act of praying;.. is regarded as "permitted" by God-He agrees to listen to the pleading of His creatures. But study is "required" by biblical mandate. Torah study is crucial to the survival of the Jews, and it has earned Jews the reputation of being one of the most educated peoples in the history of the world.
Every man in Israel has an obligation to study the Torah, whether he is rich or poor, healthy or sick, young or old and without vigor. Even if he is poor and needs to beg from door to door, and even if he has a family to support, he is obligated to set aside time by day and by night to study Torah.
Learning as an Act of Love
More than a law, more than a prayer, learning is an act of love.
Many study in order to know; many more study in order to utilize what they know; others study for study's sake – they love to learn.
When the Greeks called Pythagoras sophos, "wise man," he answered that he was only philo sophos, a "lover of wisdom." There are scores of people in diverse cultures who are lovers of learning.
Among Jews, this is quite pronounced. The passion for learning being the heritage of generations and – the Torah for millennia being the cherished democratic possession of the common folk – the love of learning is natural.
But Torah to Jews is different, qualitatively different. Not only are they in love with learning; learning is itself love. It is the language adoration, the music of celestial spheres. It is the means and the goal.
Torah is both the arrow and the heart of Judaism.
More telling than the commandment to study and the importuning of the rabbis is the description of how the of Torah was integrated into the life-style of the Jews in the cities and shtetls of the diaspora.
An old book saved from the countless libraries recently burned in Europe, now at the YIVO Library in New York, bears the stamp, "The Society of Wood-Choppers for the Study of Mishnah in Berditchev."
Abraham Joshua Heschel describes the place of Torah in shtetl life:
There were many who lived in appalling poverty, many who were pinched by never-ending worries, and there plenty of taverns with strong spirits, but drunkards were rarely seen among Jews. When night came and a man wanted to pass away time, he did not hasten to a tavern to take a drink, but went to pore over a book or joined a group which – either with or without a teacher – indulged in the enjoyment of studying revered books. Physically worn out by their day's toil, they sat over open volumes, playing the austere music of the Talmud's groping for truth or the sweet melodies of exemplified piety of ancient Sages.
"Once I noticed," writes a Christian scholar, who visited the city of Warsaw during the First World War, "a great many coaches on a parking place, but with no drivers in sight. In my own country, I would have known where to look for them. A young Jewish boy showed me the way: in a courtyard, on the second floor, was the shtibl of the Jewish drivers. It consisted of two rooms: one filled with Talmud volumes, the other a room for prayer. All the drivers were engaged in fervent study and religious discussion ...
"It was then that I found out and became convinced that all professions, the bakers, the butchers, the shoemakers, etc., have their own shtibl in the Jewish district; and every free moment which can be taken off from their work is given to the study of the Torah. And when they get together in intimate groups, one urges the other: "Zog mir a shtickl Torah – Tell me a little Torah."