Wages for Sages

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Rivital Singer

Parshat Korach ends with the laws of Truma and Maaser. The passuk on Maaser says: ”וְלִבְנֵי לֵוִי הִנֵּה נָתַתִּי כָּל-מַעֲשֵׂר בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל לְנַחֲלָה חֵלֶף עֲבֹדָתָם אֲשֶׁר-הֵם עֹבְדִים אֶת-עֲבֹדַת אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד”. We are to give the Leviim a tenth of our produce in return for the work they do in Ohel Moed. This halacha implies that we have a communal obligation to pay our spiritual leaders and teachers for their services. Despite this, there are discussions in a few different places in the gemara regarding whether or not one should be allowed to accept payment for teaching Torah. What is the difference between the work of the Leviim and the work of Rabbinic figures in the time of Chaza”l?

One possibility is that the work of the Leviim is a more encompassing job as a spiritual leader, and therefore they need to be paid so they can devote all their time to serving their community without having to worry about making a living on the side. My only problem with this answer is that it seems to imply that other people who teach Torah aren’t granting a communal service which requires a similar devotion of their time. We know that many of Chazal had other jobs, meaning it must be possible, but in my opinion, the question remains as to whether or not that’s the ideal situation. Should the people in charge of passing the Torah on not spend most of their time making sure to do so in the best way possible?

Another possibility is that it’s the difference between Am Yisrael living as an autonomic united group, as opposed to being dispersed in the diaspora. When we have our own leadership and are living under halakhic law we can designate people in our community to dedicate themselves to being the spiritual leaders of our community. Those people also have a specific God-given role in our day to day lives. In the diaspora, there is no need for a spiritual leader with an all encompassing job. Many of the jobs of the Leviim are not relevant with no Beit Mikdash, and the other spiritual needs that arise in the absence of the Beit Mikdash are dealt with in a more individual fashion. This answer also doesn’t fully satisfy me, because we see in our own communities the roles that rabbis working in communities or as teachers in yeshivot take on and they usually require high levels of dedication and a lot of time.

One final response I’ve heard was that Chaza”l didn’t want the people teaching (and deciding) Torah and halacha to be paid, out of a fear that they wouldn’t be connected to the community. It is impossible to correctly teach halacha if you’re unaware of what’s going on in your community. If you don’t have a job like everyone else, and don’t need to be out in the streets talking to people, you won’t know their struggles and won’t be able to teach Torah in the most relevant way for your disciples. The question that remains is why don’t we require the same of the Leviim. I don’t have a perfect answer, but maybe this is the reason that the Leviim have no nachala in Eretz Yisrael. They are dispersed among the different shvatim so that they won’t be able to create a closed off community and will be forced to be connected with the people and their struggles and desires.

Of course I don’t mean to say that today’s spiritual leaders should not accept pay for the very important work they do, but I do think that having the Torah community constantly remind itself to be connected to the world around it can only elevate us and our Torah learning to higher levels.

Shabbat Shalom

Rivital Singer (Midreshet Avigayil 2015) lives on Kibbutz Maale Gilboa and is currently finishing shana bet at Lindenbaum before drafting into the IDF education force this summer.

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