“From here we learn that if a Torah student does not see a ‘siman yafeh’ (a sign of success) within five years, he will not see it ever.”
This oft-quoted statement is found in our sugya. A Tana derives it from two apparently contradictory minimum ages mentioned in the Torah regarding the service of a Levi in the Mishkan Sanctuary or Beit Hamikdash. One verse states: “From the age of twenty-five years and upwards he (the Levi) shall enter for the service” (Bam. 8:24), but another verse (Bam. 4:3) states “from the age of thirty”! How can his be so? From the age of twenty-five he will study (the laws relevant to the Levi’s service), and he will begin to serve at age thirty. (Rashi in Chumash cites this teaching.)
Since one of the types of service a Levi would perform was to carry the Mishkan when traveling with it in the desert, physical strength was a requirement. The Maharsha notes that the minimum age of thirty taught here for a Levi is the source for the more general teaching of our Sages: “Thirty years is the age for strength.” (Avot 5:22)
Rashi in our gemara explains that the five years of study preceding the Levi’s service were for learning the laws applicable for his service. Since this “five-year course” was a matter of Torah study for the Levi, not seeing asiman yafeh (meaning that he learns and forgets – Rashi) during this time period would serve as a general rule of thumb for any Torah student. It would be an indication as to whether he will have a beracha in his future Torah study, being able to remember what he learns. Based on this concept, I have heard of a custom for families or benefactors who desire to support newly-married “Kollel couples,” that it would be their honor to financially assist the young couples for five years after marriage.
However, Rabbi Yossi is a Tana who disagrees with the five-year rule of the first Tana, and holds that the “time limit” for knowing if a Torah student will have a future siman yafeh is less than five years. He teaches that it is only three years, and learns this shorter time measure from a verse in Sefer Daniel regarding Daniel, Chanania, Misha’el and Azaria. These righteous young men were taken by the Babylonian King Nevuchadnetzer into exile, and were taught the local Kasdi language. The verse states that he “trained them for three years” (Daniel 1:5) to “teach them the script and the language of the Kasdim.” (Daniel 1:4)
The gemara explains that the first Tana did not want to learn a three-year time limit from the verse in Sefer Daniel since the study of the Kasdi language was relatively easy. And Rabbi Yossi did not want to learn an extended five-year “trial period” since learning the Levi’s service was relatively difficult. (Rashi explains that this service included not only learning the specific laws for service of the Levi, but also becoming highly trained in the physical activities of this service. This would include learning how to dismantle the Mishkan and handle its boards and beams correctly, in addition to gaining expertise in the songs and musical instruments that they would need while providing musical accompaniment for the offerings in the Beit Hamikdash.)
The Maharsha points out that the first Tana considered Daniel’s and his friends’ study of the Kasdi language relatively easy despite the verse (Daniel 1:4) saying that they also learned “Sefer” — which could be understood to imply learning Torah from a Sefer Torah. If this would be the meaning of the verse, their course of study would have been one that included Torah study, and, if so, the first Tana should agree to learn the time period of siman yafeh from the verse in the Book of Daniel. The Maharsha explains that this interpretation is not correct. Since we are taught that these youths “understood all wisdom and were erudite in all knowledge” (Daniel 1:4) it is clear that prior to their captivity they were already well-versed in Torah study.
(For “extra credit” I suggest seeing the ruling of the Rambam in Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Klei Hamikdash 3:7, who writes two different minimum ages for the Levi’s service: 13 and 30, while always requiring five years of study. The Kesef Mishneh offers three possible ways to explain the Rambam’s opinion.)
· Chullin 24a