Rabbeinu Tam Won’t Sign Off On Your Dusty Tanakh



At this point, it is somewhat of a truism to observe that a renaissance in Tanakh study is underway. One can hardly ignore the growth of interest in Tanakh-related Yemei Iyun, the resurgence of insightful and groundbreaking books on sifrei Tanakh by Orthodox teachers and scholars, and the efforts of passionate, articulate teachers to bring the joy of Tanakh study to broader audiences. For aspiring students of Tanakh, the natural response is excitement at new opportunities to delve into devar Hashem and commune with those who share similar passions. At the same time, one must be bitterly aware that in the background of this excitement lies an unfortunate truth. That is the fact that serious, reverent, and innovative study of Tanakh is something novel and unusual in the broader Torah community, large portions of which do not (yet!) share this enthusiasm.

Neglect of Tanakh study is not a new phenomenon, nor one whose scope is limited to complaints about day school curricula or anecdotes about the average yeshivah student’s abysmal level of Tanakh knowledge. It has a long pedigree, one that some scholars have traced back to the times of the Rishonim.[i] Over the generations, various sources and arguments have been invoked to justify the absolute primacy for study of Talmud and Halakhah, and the concurrent neglect of Tanakh. Some of the arguments are strong and deserve both reflection and reasoned consideration. Other arguments are flawed and rest on a misreading of the relevant sources.

One argument that falls in the latter category is the position oft attributed to Rabbeinu Tam that one effectively fulfills his obligation of Tanakh study through study of the Talmud Bavli. I hope to demonstrate that this notion is based on an egregious misunderstanding of Rabbeinu Tam. While I cannot claim that no authorities can be marshaled to support the interpretation that I reject, the interpretation of Rabbeinu Tam that is so often bandied about as irreconcilable with the source texts, unsupported by simple logical thinking, and rejected by the consensus of halakhic authorities. I acknowledge that principled objection to Tanakh study is a legitimate position and that Rabbeinu Tam is only one of many sources that it rests upon. Nonetheless, when sources are invoked to justify or even idealize the neglect of Tanakh study, those sources should be presented in a way that is accurate, as well as faithful to the interpretative tradition of the mesorah.

The topic of Rabbeinu Tam’s position on Tanakh learning was briefly taken up several years ago by Gilad Barach,[ii] and shortly thereafter by Shlomo Zuckier.[iii] However, both authors dedicated the majority of their discussion to disputing whether Rabbeinu Tam was “resigned” and “uncomfortable” with his position, which he intended only as a limud zekhut, or whether he was a “proud supporter of Tanakh non-scholarship.” [iv] A close reading of Rabbeinu Tam, together with the Rishonim and Poskim who clarify his position, will hopefully render this disagreement irrelevant, inasmuch as it takes a misinterpretation of Rabbeinu Tam as its starting premise.


In Kiddushin 30a, R. Yehoshua ben Chananya derives from a pasuk that one should divide his days of Torah study into thirds – one third Mikra, one third Mishnah, and one third Gemara.[v] Rashi understands that one divides up the week by spending two days on Mikra, two days on Mishnah, and two days on Gemara.[vi] (Going forward, I will refer to this halakhah as “shilush,” for the sake of brevity.) For reasons beyond the scope of this article, Rabbeinu Tam rejects Rashi’s interpretation and concludes that the time within each day is what should be divided into thirds. Tosafot, perhaps bothered that common practice is inconsistent with this imperative,[vii] quotes from Rabbeinu Tam that “We rely on what it says in Sanhedrin 24b that [the Talmud of] Bavel is an admixture of Mikra, Mishnah, and Gemara inasmuch as the name Bavel is a play on balul.[viii]

A superficial reading of Rabbeinu Tam suggests that he understands the Gemara’s imperative as requiring a balanced schedule of learning, of which Mikra is an important component. Rabbeinu Tam further asserts that one can fulfill this imperative simply by studying Talmud, which, because it contains all elements of a Torah curriculum, can adequately confer mastery of Mikra that would otherwise require separate study. In one fell swoop, Rabbeinu Tam has justified the common practice not to divide each day’s learning into thirds, and also set the stage for nearly a millennia of principled neglect of Tanakh study. This is the familiar understanding of Rabbeinu Tam, and it has the imprimatur[ix] of no less than the Rama[x] and the Shakh,[xi] the latter of whom explicitly invokes it for the purpose of justifying neglect of Tanakh study.[xii]

However, if we look closely at Tosafot, it seems that neither Tosafot nor Rabbeinu Tam understood the requirement of shilush as requiring one to cover (and eventually master) a corpus of Torah knowledge. Immediately before he cites Rabbeinu Tam, and immediately after rejecting Rashi’s interpretation that shilush requires one to divide up the days of the week, Tosafot write that the requirement of shilush was the impetus for Rav Amram Gaon to establish “before each day’s pesukei de-zimrah [reading of] Mikra, Mishnah, and Gemara.” This is a reference to the pesukim and Mishnayot that describe the sacrificial service, along with Beraita de-Rebbe Yishmael, which nowadays are printed in every siddur.[xiii] Evidently, Rav Amram Gaon understands shilush as a formal requirement that is fulfilled by minimal, daily involvement in each genre of Torah study. Only given such a premise is the notion of fulfilling shilush through a standardized text—one that takes only moments to read through—comprehensible. Rav Amram Gaon clearly does not understand shilush as requiring any sort of mastery, or even familiarity, with the corpus of Mikra, Mishnah, or Gemara as a whole.[xiv]

It is only after Tosafot quote Rav Amram Gaon and his conception of shilush that they proceed to quote Rabbeinu Tam. Whereas Rav Amram Gaon promulgated a standardized text as the means of fulfilling the daily imperative of shilush, Rabbeinu Tam simply suggests that daily Talmud study serves equally well,[xv] inasmuch as Gemara learning generally entails contact with Mikra and Mishnah as well. Talmud Bavli is balul mi-kol not because it subsumes Tanakh as a whole, but rather in the more modest sense that there are generally pesukim printed on each page.[xvi]

This reading of Rabbeinu Tam is not my own. It is how Rabbeinu Tam is quoted by R. Tzemach Duran (“Tashbetz”),[xvii] who adds that Rav Amram Gaon rejected Talmud as the means of fulfilling shilush because many people are incapable of regular Talmud study. It also seems to be the position of Rabbeinu Peretz,[xviii] whose formulation of Rabbeinu Tam’s position is that, “This [obligation of shilush] only applied before the Talmud was written down. But [now] learning Talmud is sufficient, because it is balul mi-kol.” Now, if shilush is a means of mastering a corpus of knowledge, it should be irrelevant whether the Talmud is written down or not. But if it is a formal requirement, having a standardized text is critical, because it means that one can consistently expect to encounter Mikra and Mishnah in the course of their Gemara study. There is not a single Rishon who quotes Rabbeinu Tam in a way that definitively supports the notion that Talmud study is a substitute for learning Tanakh. As for later sources, both Shulchan Aruch haRav[xix] and Shelah[xx] forcefully and definitively reject Shakh and Rama’s understanding of Rabbeinu Tam.[xxi] [xxii] The consensus of Rishonim and Ahronim thus reaches the same conclusion as a close reading of Tosafot—it is a misunderstanding to describe Rabbeinu Tam as a “proud supporter of Tanakh non-scholarship.”

Thus far, I have hopefully demonstrated this misunderstanding of Rabbeinu Tam has the support of neither text nor unchallenged tradition.[xxiii] Some brief reflection should show that it is not supported by common sense either. Recall that the misunderstanding has two premises—that shilush demands substantive mastery of Tanakh, and that serious Talmud study subsumes within it mastery of Tanakh as a whole. But can the latter honestly be sustained? I’ll lower the bar as far as possible—can even mastery of Talmud subsume within it mere familiarity with Tanakh as a whole? Of the thousands of pesukim in Tanakh, only a small fraction are quoted in the Talmud. Whatever knowledge of Mikrah one acquires from studying Talmud is fragmentary at best. And one should not overlook the fact that the Talmud generally quotes pesukim out of context, and/or explains them on the level of derash.[xxiv] If shilush demands substantive knowledge of Tanakh, how could Rabbeinu Tam possibly suggest that the fragmentary, incomplete knowledge of Tanakh gleaned from Talmud study meets that demand? Even as a limud zekhut, such an argument does not seem plausible.

While substantive knowledge of Tanakh is a worthy goal, it has nothing to do with shilush. Thus, although Rabbeinu Tam’s broader views about the importance of Tanakh study are still an open question,[xxv] his interpretation of shilush should be stricken from the canon of sources marshaled to support the neglect of Tanakh study. Hopefully then, the discourse about the relative importance of Tanakh study can focus on the sources and issues of policy that are genuinely relevant.

Nathan Hyman is a 2011 graduate of Yeshiva College, and a third year law-student at NYU Law School.

[i]      See the discussion in E. Kanarfogel, Jewish Education and Society in the High Middle Ages (Detroit, 1992), and E. Kanarfogel, “On the Role of Bible Study in Medieval Ashkenaz”, in The Frank Talmage Memorial Volume, Vol. I, ed. by Barry Walfish (Haifa, 1993), who identifies the thirteenth century as the beginning of this trend.

[ii]     Nakh: The Neglected Nineteen, Kol Hamevaser November 2011

[iii]    Defending the Opponents of Nakh: A Reluctant Devils Advocate, Kol Hamevaser Feburary 2012

[iv]    This is Shlomo Zuckier’s characterization of Rabbeinu Tam in Defending the Opponents of Nakh: A Reluctant Devil’s Advocate, Kol Hamevaser February 2012.

[v]     It is unclear from the Gemara whether this is a derashah gemurah, or simply an asmakhta. However, Zohar Chadash (Tikkunim Vol. 2, 78:2) and Levush (Orach Chaim 50:1) write that the requirement of shilush is rabbinic in nature.

[vi]    Presumably, one spends the seventh day reviewing one’s learning from the previous week.

[vii]    Other Rishonim have different interpretations of shilush which also reconcile this problem. According to Rambam (Hilchot Talmud Torah 1:11), shilush is not indefinite. After one reaches a certain mastery of Mikra and Mishnah, they dedicate the balance of their time to Talmud. According to Ran (Commentary on Rif, Avodah Zarah 5b), the whole concept of ‘thirds’ is lav davka, and R. Yehoshua ben Chananya simply means that one should dedicate appropriate time to each.

[viii]   Rabbeinu Tam’s position is also quoted by Tosafot on Avodah Zarah (19b) and Sanhedrin (24a), with minor stylistic variations.

[ix]    Tur (Yoreh Deah 246) also seems to hold this way, but he can be read as adopting the alternate interpretation I suggest below. At best, his position is ambiguous.

[x]     Yoreh Deah 246:4

[xi]    Yoreh Deah 245:5

[xii]    Nonetheless, it does not follow that this interpretation of Rabbeinu Tam is reflected in practice. See R. Moshe Tzuriel (Otztrot haMussar Vol. 2, pg. 779), who notes that Rabbeinu Tam is not quoted by either Shulchan Aruch haRav, Chayei Adam, Kitzur Shulchan Aruch, Mishnah Berurah, or Chofetz Chayim in his Kuntres Likutei Amarim in their discussions of the practical requirements of talmud Torah. I have opted for the more ambitious argument that Rabbeinu Tam himself never held the position that Rama and Shakh attribute to him.

[xiii]   See Tur (Orach Chayim 50). As for why R. Amram Gaon fixed these particular selections as opposed to any other combination of Mikra, Mishnah, and Gemara, see Beit Yosef, ibid.

[xiv]   However, this conception of shilush is clearly adopted by Rambam (Hilchot Talmud Torah 1:11), who understands that complete mastery of Mikra, Mishnah and Gemara is required. Rashi’s position on the matter is not explicit, but a compelling argument can be made that he rejects a formal conception of shilush fulfilled by a minimal, standardized text. See R. Mordechai Ashkenazi’s commentary to Hilkhot Talmud Torah (Perek 2, pg. 69).

[xv]    Presumably, he didn’t suffice with Rav Amram Gaon’s standardized text because it had not yet earned universal acceptance.

[xvi]   Ahronim struggle to reconcile the requirement of shilush with the curriculum in Pirkei Avot (5:25) of ben hamesh le-mikra… ben tet-vav la-Gemara, a simple of reading of which suggests that one concludes Mikra study at 15 and thereafter dedicates to Talmud. Maharsha (Chiddushei Agadot, Sanhedrin 24a) writes that for Rabbeinu Tam, the answer is simple. Because shilush requires only a minimal, formal involvement in Mikra and Mishnah, it is entirely consistent with dedicating the majority of one’s time to Gemara after age 15.

[xvii]  Yavin Shmuah (Commentary to Eizehu Mekoman, 1:1)

[xviii]  Hagahot ha-Smak, Mitzvah 105

[xix]   Hilkhot Talmud Torah 1:1, Kuntres Achron

[xx]    Masekhet Shavuot, Perek Ner Mitsvah

[xxi]   R. Shimshon Raphael Hirsch (Nineteen Letters, Letter 18, Feldheim ed. pg. 267) also writes that neglect of Tanakh study is based on a mistaken interpretation of the Gemara’s statement that Talmud Bavli is balul mi-kol. (Which is meant disparagingly, not as a complement.) R. Hirsch might be working with the Rama and Shakh’s understanding of Rabbeinu Tam, in which case he is arguing that Rabbeinu Tam misunderstood the Gemara (an ambitious argument), but it seems more likely that he is arguing that Rabbeinu Tam was misunderstood by others. This is how R. Joseph Elias (pg. 293 ibid.) understands R. Hirsch.

[xxii]  R. Ya’akov me-Lisa (Ethical Will, quoted by R. Moshe Tzuriel ibid.) and R. Yishmael haKohen (Responsa Zera Emet, Yoreh Deah 107) reach effectively the same conclusion even according to the interpretation of Rabbeinu Tam that I claim should be rejected. They argue that Rabbeinu Tam only justified an exclusive focus on Talmud for those who have already attained mastery of Mikra.

[xxiii]  I do not mean that the interpretation which I reject has no adherents of stature, only that there is a very strong consensus against it.

[xxiv]  See R. Moshe Tzuriel (Otzrot haMussar Vol. 2, pg. 780).

[xxv] As far as I am aware, there are no other places where Rabbeinu Tam directly addresses the role of Tanakh study in a Torah curriculum, nor any scholarly literature that attempts to reconstruct his position. We know that he wrote a commentary on Sefer Iyov, but that one can hardly extrapolate a broader conception of Tanakh learning from that fact alone.