Learning Torah is Like Taking Deadly Poison: A Dangerous Shiur

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

Numerous Talmudic statements extravagantly praise Torah study “lishmoh”, and/or denigrate Torah study Torah “not-lishmoh”.  However, the term “lishmoh” is never defined[1].  What is the proper motivation for studying Torah, and what motivations are improper?  More sharply: is there a mental state of motivation for Torah study that is both humanly achievable and unquestionably proper?

Let’s start from a passage on Taanit 7a. [2]

A beraita:  R. Bena’ah would often say:

Anyone who is deeply involved in Torah lishmah – his Torah becomes an elixir of life for him,

as Scripture says “She is a tree of life for those who grasp her” (Proverbs 3:18)

but anyone who is deeply involved in Torah not lishmah – it becomes an elixir of death for him,

as Scripture says: “My teaching will be oref like rain”,

and oref refers to killing,

as Scripture says: They must be oref (=break the neck of) the calf there, in the wadi.

The term “tree of life” identifies Torah with the original Tree of Life in Eden.  The implication is that Adam was expelled from Eden because he failed to learn Torah lishmoh.  Similarly, Rava teaches (Berakhot 17a[3]) that one who learns not-lishmoh “would have been better off not created”, i.e. has not fulfilled the purpose of Creation.

The problem with this interpretation is that Adam was expelled from Eden to prevent him from eating of the Tree of Life. Why would G-d want to prevent him from learning Torah lishmoh?!  Moreover, if the Tree of Life is in Eden, and human beings are banned from entering, how can it be possible for us to learn lishmoh?

One might suggest that it is not possible, that learning lishmoh is a category of religious experience reserved for an age in which the Light of the First Day of Creation is again revealed to the righteous.  But R. Bena’ah goes much further than excluding not-lishmoh from the Tree of Life.  Torah not-lishmoh, he claims, is not the absence but rather the antithesis of lishmoh, and is therefore deadly.

His prooftext for this claim seems badly forced. While the noun oref means ‘back of the neck’, and in the context of the Eglah Arufah the root ערפ means ‘to break the neck’, it is very difficult to assign it that meaning in the context of rain.  I am unaware of rain ever falling with enough force to literally break a human neck.  Moreover, in other places in Tanakh, rain seems to be a positive thing.

There is however an excellent literary reason to associate Torah with death.  Eden contained two trees, one of life and one of death.  The tree that brings death is that of “knowledge of good and evil”, and, Torah is the proper source of knowledge of good and evil.  It follows that Torah is the Tree of Death as well as the Tree of Life.

Moreover, in Genesis 3:3, Chavah tells the snake that G-d said not to eat from the tree that was in the midst of the garden.  Thus the tree of knowledge of good and evil must be the tree in the midst of the garden.  Yet Genesis 2:9 tells us that “the tree of life was in the midst of the garden”!?

I suggest that Chazal read the whole verse as follows: “The tree of life was in the midst of the garden, which was also the tree of knowledge of good and evil.  There was only one tree at the center of Eden.  Learned lishmoh – it gave life; not-lishmoh – death.

An apparent problem with this reading – and indeed, with the whole concept that learning Torah not-lishmoh is discouraged – is that it seems to leave those who do not already learn lishmoh with no access to the primary means of self-improvement, or to any way of knowing which actions are proper and which improper.

This difficulty is both intensified and addressed on Pesachim 50b:

Rava posed a contradiction:

Psalm 57 says: “Your Grace extends to Heaven”,

but Psalm 108 says “Your Grace extends above Heaven”!?

How can we resolve this?  Here (108) we are discussing those who do lishmoh, there (57) those who do not-lishmoh.  

This statement of Rava seems to disagree strongly with the idea that Torah learned not lishmah should be discouraged, or in any way disapproved.  G-d’s grace extends greatly to those who learn not-lishmoh, just not quite so far as to those who learn lishmoh.  This directly contradicts his statement on Berakhot 17 that a person who learns not-lishmoh would have been better off not created.

The Talmud continues by identifying Rava with a position cited by Rav Yehudah in the name of Rav:

This follows the statement of R. Yehudah in the name of Rav, for R. Yehudah said in the name of Rav:

A person should actually be deeply involved in Torah and Mitzvot even not-lishmah, 

because not-lishmah will lead to lishmah.

The import of this identification is that learning ‘‘not-lishmoh has instrumental rather than intrinsic value.  But this is not sufficient to reconcile Rava and Rav here with Rava on Berakhot 17a, or with Rav Benaah, each of whom evaluate not-lishmoh as negative.

This contradiction bothered all the Tosafist interpreters, who responded in their usual manner – by creating okimtot.  In other words, they say that there are different kinds of not-lishmoh.  There are three levels of motivations for learning Torah – lishmoh, not-lishmoh A, and not-lishmoh B.  Not-lishmoh A has instrumental value while not-lishmoh B is worse than worthless.

Here is a thematically arranged series of Tosafist-style categorizations:

Maharam Chalava Pesachim 50b[4]:

TYPE A = out of love or fear

to know the wisdom of Torah

TYPE B = lehitgader or lekanter[5]

Tosafot HaRosh Megillah 25b[6] complicates this taxonomy.

TYPE A =         out of love or fear of G-d.

TYPE B =         out of love or fear of punishment

It is not clear whether Maharam Chalava agrees to this bifurcation of “love and fear”.  He might instead hold that even learning out of fear of punishment or love of reward is instrumentally valuable.


Tosafot Sotah 22b[7]

TYPE A =         out of fear of suffering or love of reward

TYPE B =         not out of love or fear, but rather to compound his transgressions, making his accidental sins deliberate, for even though he knows that he transgresses he does not refrain from fulfilling any of his heart’s desires

This Tosafot contradicts Tosafot HaRosh above, which held that learning out of love of reward or fear of suffering does not have even instrumental value.


Tosafot Berakhot 17a[8]

TYPE A =         one who learns so that he will be respected

TYPE B =         one who learns only to attack his colleagues

Rivvan Pesachim 50b[9]

TYPE B =         not to become great and arrogant

The question is whether RIVVAN’s type B overlaps with TYPE A Tosafot Berakhot’s 17a.


Tosafot Pesachim 50b[10]

TYPE A =         no evil intent but is simply lazy[11]

TYPE B =         to be arrogant and attack and diminish his colleagues in the realm of halakhah, and doesn’t learn in order to practice

How would this Tosafot classify the TYPE A cases of any other position?  It seems likely that he resorted to his unparalleled case because he thought all others were TYPE B.    


It emerges that it is at least possible that, with the exception of Tosafot Pesachim 50b’s case of
“laziness”, every example offered of TYPE A by one rishon is classifies as TYPE B by a different rishon.

But Tosafot Pesachim’s suggestion is not a safe bet either, as it[12] seems contradicted by a statement of R. Eliezer bar Tzadok on Nedarim 62b[13].

R. Eliezer son of R. Tzadok said:

Do things for the sake of their Maker, and speak in them lishmah.

Do not make them a crown to be exalted through them, nor a shovel to dig with.

A fortiori:

If Belshazzar, who only used for his own benefit sacred utensils which had lost their sanctity, was uprooted from the world,

all the more so one who uses the crown of Torah for his own benefit!

Learning Torah to avoid other work seems to be an obvious instance of “making it a shovel to dig with” or “using it for his own benefit”!

Moreover, the entire Tosafist enterprise here founders on the rock of Nazir 23b[14]:

R. Yehudah said in the name of Rav:

A person should actually be deeply involved in Torah and Mitzvot even not-lishmah,

because not-lishmah will lead to lishmah.

because as a reward for the 42 sacrifices Balak the evildoer brought, he merited being the ancestor of Ruth

Presumably Balak’s sacrifices, which were brought with the intent of bringing out the annihilation of the Jewish people, do not match any of the criteria for TYPE A cited above!  Yet the Talmud identifies his not-lishmoh motive with the not-lishmoh that Rav said a person should engage in.

It therefore seems to me that the most likely correct explanation of the apparent contradictions regarding not-lishmoh is offered by Responsa Rabbeinu Chaim Or Zarua 163:[15]

Once shelo lishmah has come upI’ll say something else about it.

R. Tam said there are two types of not-lishmoh,one forbidden and one permitted.

But I, insignificant and small, say that all not-lishmoh is the same, and all are transgressive, but that transgression is permitted if it will lead in the end to a mitzvah,

like when a man saves a woman in a river or digs someone out of a pile on Shabbat.

This is also implied by the comparison (of a mitzvah not-lishmoh) to Yael (whose seduction of Sisera is called a “sin lishmoh”).  

But one who stiffens his neck, who will never do the mitzvah – better for him not to have been created.

Rabbeinu Chaim rejects the idea that not-lishmoh has instrumental value regardless of its actual consequences.  Rather, he holds that it has value only if it in fact leads to lishmoh.[16]  

In other words: A person who cannot yet learn lishmoh makes things worse if they nonetheless learn.  Every moment of learning is like taking deadly poison.  If they merit reaching lishmoh – they reach the antidote before the poison takes effect.  But it is perfectly possible that they will die without reaching lishmoh, and in that case the Torah they have learned will at best have been valueless.

Rabbeinu Chaim thus emphasizes a point that also emerges from the incompatibility of the Tosafistic solutions with each other: HALAKHIC RELIGIOSITY IS NOT A WAY OF AVOIDING SPIRITUAL RISK.  There is no way to achieve lishmohwithout passing through not-lishmoh.

Learning Torah is necessarily dangerous, but that does not mean that shev v’al taaseh adif, that we are better off playing it safe.  Indeed, there is no way to play it safe.  For human beings, who inevitably have mixed motives, every spiritual act is a double-edged sword.

I suspect that this point will be either liberating or obvious for many readers.  But for those who find it merely disturbing, here is a way out.

The Tosafistic approach is fundamentally incompatible with the Eden metaphor central to Rav Bena’ah’s statement.  The Torah mentions at most two trees “in the midst of Eden” not three.  Remember as well that Rabbi Bena’ah never explained how we can achieve lishmoh now that a flaming sword blocks the path to the Tree of Life.

Perhaps the sword only blocks the direct path.  In Eden, there were only two possible trees.  But in the world beyond Eden, intermediate motives are possible which make our study of Torah neither deadly nor life-giving.  Torah studied for such motives is instrumentally valuable, and may enable us to reach Eden through a back entrance.

For Rabbeinu Chaim Or Zarua, there is only one entrance, but the sword does not kill all who enter.  Perhaps that is why sword “revolves” – the blade sometimes faces away, as an invitation to the brave.  But only fools rush in where fearsome angels tread.



[1] Prior investigations of this issue sought to define “lishmoh”, with “not-lishmoh” defined negatively as whatever occupied the remaining intellectual space. (See in this regard especially Rabbi Norman Lamm’s Torah for Torah’s Sake.)  My approach here will be the reverse, focusing on the definitions of “not-lishmoh” found in Rabbinic literature.

[2] תניא: היה רבי בנאה אומר:

כל העוסק בתורה לשמה, תורתו נעשית לו סם חיים, שנאמר “{משלי ג’} עץ חיים היא למחזיקים בה” . . .

וכל העוסק בתורה שלא לשמה, נעשית לו סם המות, שנאמר “יערף כמטר לקחי”,

ואין עריפה אלא הריגה, שנאמר “{דברים כ”א} וערפו שם את העגלה בנחל”

[3] וכל העושה שלא לשמה נוח לו שלא נברא

[4]מהר”ם חלוואה פסחים נ:

תרתי שלא לשמה איכא:

דעביד מאהבה ומיראה או לדעת חכמת התורה – מתוך שלא לשמה בא לשמה,

אבל העוסק להתגדר ולקנטר – נוח לו שלא נברא

[5] The meaning of “lehitgader” is unknown – the other context in which it appears is “makon hinichu lanu avoiteinu lehitgader bo”, where it most likely means “to become great”, but I wouldn’t put very much weight on that.  “Lekanter” means to tear someone else down.  But “love and fear” are certainly praiseworthy.

[6]תוס’ הרא”ש מגילה כה: ד”ה מהו

דתרי מיני מאהבה ומיראה הן:

מאהבת שכר ומיראת עונש – אינו טוב,

מאהבת המקום ומיראתו – תרי מעליותא הם.

[7]תוס’ סוטה כב: ד”ה לעולם

עוסק שלא לשמה כגון מיראת יסורין . . . ומאהבת קיבול פרס, שאינו מתכוון להשלים רצון יוצרו שציווהו על כך אלא להנאתו . . .

אבל ההיא שלא לשמה דתענית ומס’ ברכות – אינו עוסק בתורה כדי לקיים לא מאהבה ולא מיראה, אלא להוסיף על חטאתו פשע, שעתה שגגות מעשו לו זדונות, שאע”פ שידע שעובר לא מנע מכל תאות לבו

[8]תוס’ סוטה כב: ד”ה לעולם

דהכא מיירי שאינו לומד אלא לקנטר חביריו

והתם מיירי שלומד ע”מ שיכבדוהו

[9]ריבב”ן פסחים נ:

לשם שמים ולא להתגדל ולהתייהר

[10]תוספות פסחים דף נ: ד”ה וכאן בעושים


דהתם מיירי כגון שלומד כדי להתיהר ולקנטר ולקפח את חביריו בהלכה ואינו לומד ע”מ לעשות

אבל הכא מיירי דומיא דההיא דלעיל “יש שפל ונשכר, דלא עביד כוליה שבתא ולא במעלי שבתא”, שאין מתכוון לשום רעה אלא מתוך עצלות, אפ”ה גדול עד שמים חסדו:

[11] Tosafot does not explain directly why laziness is a plausible motive for Torah study.  But it seems that this is evidence for early kollels.

[12] also RIVVAN

[13] נדרים סב. 

רבי אליעזר בר ר’ צדוק אומר:

עשה דברים לשם פעלם, ודבר בהם לשמם,

אל תעשם עטרה להתגדל בהם, ואל תעשם קורדום להיות עודר בו,

וקל וחומר: ומה בלשצר שלא נשתמש אלא בכלי קדש שנעשו כלי חול – נעקר מן העולם,

המשתמש בכתרה של תורה – על אחת כמה וכמה.

[14]נזיר כג:אמר רב יהודה אמר רב:

לעולם יעסוק אדם בתורה ובמצות אפי’ שלא לשמן, שמתוך שלא לשמן בא לשמן,

שבשכר מ”ב קרבנות שהקריב בלק הרשע – זכה ויצאה ממנו רות

[15] שו”ת מהר”ח אור זרוע סימן קסגושלא לשמה, הואיל ואתא לידן, נימא ביה מילתא –

כי ר”ת אומר:

שני עניני שלא לשמה יש, חד אסיר וחד שרי,

ואני הדיוט ופעוט אומר:

דכל שלא לשמה חד הוא, וכולם עבירה, א[ך] אותה עבירה הותרה, שסופה לבא לידי מצוה,

כמו מציל אשה בנהר, ומפקח גל בשבת.

וכן משמע בנזיר, שמדמה אותה למעשה דיעל.

אבל מי שמקשה ערפו לעולם לא יעשה מצוה – נוח לו שלא נברא.

[16] Or some other positive result.  I suggest that according to Rabbeinu Chaim, Balak’s sacrifices earn him the reward of being Rut’s ancestor only because his efforts actually lead to Bila’am blessing rather than cursing the Jews.


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