Avraham Borenstein was born in Bendin, Poland in 1840. His ancestors included prominent Rabbis such as Ramah and the Shach. Originally a chassid of the Kotzker Rebbe, after the Rebbe passed away he became a Gerrer chassid under the Chidushei HaRim (who also happened to be his uncle).
In 1883 he moved to Sochochov where he founded his own branch of chassidus named after the city, and which gave him the title of “the Sochochover Rebbe.” As a leading posek of his generation, his responsa were collected posthumously and published as the Shu”t Avnei Nezer which gave him the additional title of “The Avnei Nezer.”
Finally, he published the sefer Iglei Tal as well, which covers the 39 melachos of Shabbos. Here, we will analyze a section of his introduction to Iglei Tal1.
After discussing why he chose to write a sefer, why on this specific topic, and the style in which he wrote it, R’ Borenstein reaches his main point:
“…And by way of mentioning, I would like to recall what I have heard from some people who have shifted from the way of logic concerning learning the holy Torah. They said that if one learns and creates insights and is happy and enjoys his learning, he is not learning as lishma as one who learns simply and does not get any enjoyment whatsoever and only learns for the sake of the mitzvah. [The reason being that] one who enjoys his learning is mixing his own personal enjoyment into the learning. The truth is, this is a widespread mistake. It is the opposite! This is the essence of the mitzvah of learning Torah — to be able to rejoice, delight, and enjoy in his learning, and then the words of Torah are absorbed into his blood. And when one benefits from the words of Torah he becomes attached to them, to the Torah. (See Rashi on Sanhedrin 58a “בזכר עלא ודבק” where he states that “where there is no benefit there is also no attachment.”) And the holy Zohar states, “The evil inclination and the good inclination only grow through joy. The good inclination grows from the joy of Torah, etc.” And if you would say that because of the joy that he has from learning it is called not lishma or semi-lishma, [you are essentially saying that] this joy further lessens the power of mitzvah and weakens the light – how [does it make sense that] the good inclination will grow from this? Yet, since the good inclination grows from this, certainly this is the essential mitzvah. And while, according to the strict letter of the law, one who learns solely due to enjoyment and not because of the mitzvah, is called not lishma – like one who eats matzah because he enjoys it and not for the taste. About this they said, a person should still learn not lishma, because that will bring him to learning lishma. But one who learns for the mitzvah and enjoys it, this is learning lishma and completely holy, since he is rejoicing in the
He continues on to prove his point based of various opinions in the Gemara and rishonim. It is clear that R’ Borenstein believes that learning Torah is more that just an intellectual pursuit; for him, Torah study is an emotional excursion as well. Nonetheless, there seem to be a few points remaining that could use some elucidation.
Toiling In Learning
It is important to clarify that just because R’ Borenstein states that one should ideally enjoy learning, this does not mean that learning is easy. Indeed, often learning can become very difficult. However, it is exactly through hard work and toil that one can achieve the true joy of learning Torah. The joy emanates from completing a difficult sugya or working though a difficult point.
Why Enjoy It?
R’ Borenstein explained that it is important to enjoy one’s learning, but he didn’t explain why. There seem to be three possible answers to this question.
The most basic answer is to ensure that we keep learning Torah. Most mitzvos are “one and done”, meaning they last for only a specific amount of time. The mitzvah to learn Torah has no such criteria — it is always applicable. Therefore, since it can get very difficult at points, HaShem commanded us to enjoy it. This gratification will ensure that we are able to learn Torah as much as possible.
Yet, it is possible that there is no real answer to the question of “why.” Rather, when one properly learns Torah, the result is simply that he enjoys it. When learning Torah, one is engaged in the pursuit of the truth and the attempt to connect to HaShem. Torah is something that is inherently pleasurable. Hence, if you aren’t enjoying it, it would seem as if you are doing something wrong.
To take that idea a step further, R’ Borenstein said that when one learns properly — with enjoyment — the Torah becomes absorbed into his blood. This can be explained by the Gemara which says that in the womb every baby is taught the entire Torah, but once that baby is born an angel hits him on the mouth and he forgets it all. Torah is a part of us, hence the learning of it is really revealing what was already inside of us; this is the source of our joy. There is no greater joy than returning back to one’s proper place.
The most basic proof to R’ Borenstein’s idea is found in our daily prayers. We make three brachos on Torah every morning:
- “והערב נא”
- “אשר בחר בנו”
The first is a birchas mitzvah like those we say before performing all other mitzvos. The last is a bracha of thanks and praise. The function of “והערב נא”, though, is something different altogether. It is a prayer, a tefillah like shemoneh esrei. In it we ask that the words of Torah should be sweet for us. Such an aspect of joy does not seem to exist by other mitzvos. This, therefore, seems to enforce the position of R’ Borenstein that personal joy is an integral part of learning Torah lishma.
To conclude, we shall simply highlight the three main points made by R’ Borenstein:
- There is nothing wrong with learning and gaining pleasure from it.
- Not only is there nothing wrong with it, but this is even a good thing.
- Not only is it a good thing, but it is the essence of the mitzvah.
1. Many of the ideas here are based off notes given to me by one of my rebbeim.↩