Learning How to Learn Torah
Mishna: “A person on the way to do a mitzvah is exempt from the obligation to dwell in a succah on Succot.”
Rashi offers three of what the mishna refers to as a traveling shaliach mitzvah (person on his way to do a mitzvah: a person travelling to learn Torah, or travelling to his Rabbi to greet him during the Festival (often as a sign of honor and to receive a blessing), or a person going to redeem captives. The gemara explains that the basis for exemption from succah-dwelling in these cases is the rule of ha’osek b’mizvah, patur min hamitzvah — a person who is involved in the fulfillment of one mitzvah is exempt from the need to fulfill another mitzvah during that time. According to some Rishonim, he is not only exempt for another mitzvah, but he is even prohibited from stopping his current mitzvah involvement to do a different mitzvah. Abandoning the first mitzvah in the middle of fulfilling it would be a show of disgrace to Hashem and his mitzvahs, and therefore a transgression instead of a mitzvah.
The commentaries address Rashi’s first example, in particular, asking why a person going to learn Torah should be exempt from the mitzvah of succah. The mitzvah to learn Torah, although being a mitzvah like every other mitzvah, also is essentially different in its nature. One should learn Torah with the intent to fulfill the Torah teachings that one learns. Elsewhere in Shas we are taught that a person who is learning Torah must stop to do any mitzvah if no one else can so it. If a person must stop learning Torah to do a mitzvah, how much more so should he need to pause his travel to go somewhere else to learn Torah, but is not actually engaged in Torah study at the moment! This question is addressed by many great Torah commentaries, with many fascinating answers. Here I will present one answer, the fruit of the teachings of Rabbi Meir Simcha Hakohen from Dvinsk (also known as theOhr Somayach — the name he gave to his writings relating to the Rambam’s Mishneh Torah — and the Yeshiva’s namesake). The following answer is found in his sefer called Meshech Chochmah on the Torah.
He suggests that the basic mitzvah of Talmud Torah must be paused when faced with another mitzvah, since Hashem commanded the study of Torah in order to know how to properly fulfill the mitzvahs. As the Talmud Yerushalmi teaches, even Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai would interrupt his Torah study to fulfill the mitzvahs of Succot “since if one learns Torah but does not accept upon himself to fulfill the mitzvahs, it would have been better had he not been created.”
However, posits Rav Meir Simcha Hakohen, there is another type of Torah study that is in a category of its own, and therefore follows different rules. This is Torah study that is not just geared to knowing what the Torah says and what the halacha is, but is Torah study to receive the Torah tradition directly from one’s Rabbi(s), who in turn, had received the tradition of the Torah Rabbis of previous generation. This “intimate” type of Torah study of the deepest understanding of the reasons and explanations of the mitzvahs is essential to the continuation of true Torah study and fulfillment for all generations. Accordingly, the mishna’s case of travelling to study Torah elsewhere is an example of this special category of Torah study. When a person travels to learn Torah, he presumably travels to a place where he is able to study Torah closely with a Rabbi who will transmit the very essence of the Torah to him. This type of Torah study is more than a normal mitzvah, and more than normal study of the words and mitzvahs of the Torah. Its special significance is such that a person even travelling for this purpose is exempt from the mitzvah of dwelling in the succah.
- Succah 25a