My Rosh Yeshiva would always give a talk during the week of Parshas Vayeitzei about the importance of staying to learn in yeshiva for extra time. He would point out how the sixty-four-year-old Yaakov Avinu — who was obviously already a great scholar — felt the need to fortify himself with an additional fourteen years of learning before entering “the big wide world.” While Yaakov Avinu was still unmarried, today we would be hard-pressed to find someone learning for so long a time without having a wife and family. Let us therefore take a look at the concept of long-term learning as it pertains to the kollel system.
Those against the kollel system, and the idea of taking money for learning Torah, most famously quote a Rambam in Talmud Torah (3:10) against the idea. Indeed, Rambam there speaks in strong terms, calling people who take money to teach or learn Torah ones who “desecrate God’s name.”
However, before we discuss other opinions, Rambam’s position itself needs further examination. Those who support the concept of kollel point to a different comment of Rambam (Shemita 13:13) that states that anyone can decide to be part of Shevet Levi and dedicate himself to only learn Torah. Rambam promises that HaShem will supply such a person with income to support himself. Supporters of the kollel system further point out that the ancient shevatim had numerous separate jobs, all related to the learning, or teaching, of Torah. Levi learned and served in the Beis HaMikdash; the tribe of Shimon were the teachers of children; Yissachar was supported by his brother Zevulun; the tribe of Dan were judges. This accounts for one third of klal yisrael involved primarily in Torah-only pursuits. We have yet to reach this percentage nowadays, even with the kollel system in place. If it worked back then, surely, the argument goes, it can work today as well.
Before I discuss the sources themselves, let me point out that the Rabbis who support, push for, or encourage, the kollel lifestyle are all quite familiar with the comment of Rambam in Talmud Torah that seems to speak disparagingly of said kollel system. In particular, Gedolim such as the Chazon Ish or R. Aharon Kotler — both supporters of the kollel system — had “kol ha’Torah kula” at their fingertips. Therefore, it behooves us not to think that we superficially found some Rambam which they “forgot.” There is more than a tinge of arrogance in such an attitude, and we should think twice before expressing it.
Let us now turn to the sources: Kesef Mishnah, a commentary on Rambam’s Mishneh Torah written by the author of the Shulchan Aruch, has a lengthy piece on our Rambam in Talmud Torah. His conclusion is that Rambam was only talking disparagingly about someone who had the ability to support himself from other means, while also learning, but instead chooses to take money from others. However, one who is not capable of both earning a living and learning is allowed to take money. Further, the Teshuvos Tashbetz (1:147, 148), the author of which died in approximately the year 1425, has a long responsa that argues against our Rambam entirely. He states that perhaps Rambam could maintain a job and learn, but in the Tashbetz’s day people were not so capable. It must be highlighted again that this responsa was written almost 600 years ago. Abarbanel similarly argues on our Rambam, and this is the opinion of Rema as well (Y.D. 246:21). Rema further states that it is the custom to financially support those learning Torah. (It also behooves one to read a sefer by the name Yeven Metzulah which, while primarily recounting the Chmelnitsky massacres, at the end describes Poland before said massacres explaining how there was not a town of fifty households which did not support thirty people learning!)
Surely, we have not exhausted this topic by any means. I think, however, that we have at least shown that not only are there halachic sources to support the kollel system’s existence, but we even have precedence for it in our people’s history.
While I do not like to use this forum for mussar, I think the sources and precedent is so obvious that those whom, on ideological grounds, like to object to the kollel system should think further and deeper if indeed it is due to ideological reasons. Perhaps it is just a lack of appreciation for the value of Torah, or simply not wanting to part with hard-earned money. This is not to say that there are no faults in the kollel system, or abuses that may exist therein, but we have only discussed the technical permissibility of the kollel system in light of Rambam’s opinion. I hope to continue our discussion in a subsequent essay.