Centuries ago, Rabbi Hillel taught that an ignoramus cannot be a righteous person. He presumably did not mean that ignorant people necessarily lack the desire to do good. Their deficiency rather is intellectual. Right actions require knowledge, and people lacking that knowledge will not know the proper way to behave.
For this reason, Talmudic rabbis ranked studying as the most important commandment of all in Jewish law. They also advised about the importance of learning with a reliable study partner, to hone one’s understanding. On January 14th, 2020, I embarked on a study journey with my wife Leora. We agreed that we would take time each day to study one whole chapter of Mishneh. The Mishneh presents the substance of the Oral Law divided into six main sections. There are a total of 4224 mishnayot in the Mishneh’s 535 chapters. Each tractate focuses on closely-related topics ranging from benedictions, laws of agricultural produce, Jewish festivals, laws of cleanliness, issues related to women, holy objects and practices in the Temple, and so forth. It was our goal to finish all six main divisions within about 18 months.
Each day we set aside time to study the text and commentary. To our amazement we did not miss a single day! When we went away on vacation, we made sure to take our Mishneh volumes with us. Although approximately half of the Mishneh no longer has practical bearing, this never detracted from the value of learning and interpreting its meaning and possible implications. The Mishneh allowed us to appreciate the concern of the rabbis as they interpreted Biblical texts in minute detail.
On June 10, just 10 days before our 50th wedding anniversary, we completed the final chapter of Mishneh. I was not only proud of this monumental accomplishment but also thankful to have a wife who could be my study partner in this venture.
A few weeks ago, realizing that we were getting close to completion, my wife asked: “What are we going to study once we finish?” (Pretty amazing from a woman who once told her late father, a Professor of Education, that she would never ever marry a rabbi.”) My father-in-law Dr. Joshua Weinstein was an amazing educator, who wrote his dissertation on Maimonides the Educator. As one who also studied educational principles when I attended Columbia University’s Teacher’s College, I learned that Maimonides and his principles of education were way ahead of their times. We both decided that a wonderful way to remember my father-in-law would be to study a condensed version of the Mishneh Torah of Moses Maimonides each day. This work was the first fully comprehensive code of Jewish law. In his introduction to the work Maimonides expressed the hope that people would be able to consult the Torah and his code and find the applicable Jewish law without having to consult any other text. Concurrently we also plan to study Sefer HaAggadah—the Book of Legends compiled by Hayim Nachman Bialik and Yehoshua Rawnitzki. It is an amazing compilation of Jewish folklore with wonderful stories and teachings.
I look forward to this next study venture and am especially excited that learning is part of my daily routine. Perhaps when reading this you may be inspired to find something to study on a daily basis with a study partner who can challenge you and extend your learning!