January 6, 2022

Megillah 21

We are taught in today’s daf (Megillah 21a) that one must stand when reading the Torah for a congregation, and according to Rabbi Abahu, this requirement is based on the words of Devarim 5:28 where God tells Moshe: ‘And you, stand here with Me (וְאַתָּה פֹּה עֲמֹד עִמָּדִי) and I will tell you all the commandments, decrees and laws that you shall teach them’.
Interestingly, the Gemara then cites a Beraita which states that ‘from the days of Moshe until Rabban Gamliel, Torah was only studied while standing up’. However, ‘once Rabban Gamliel died, a form of sickness descended upon the world (ירד חולי לעולם) and, from then on, Torah was studied sitting down’. Still, while we now sit when studying Torah, Rabbi Abahu adds that the sentiment expressed in Devarim 5:28 (וְאַתָּה פֹּה עֲמֹד עִמָּדִי) nevertheless applies. Consequently, when Torah is studied, both teacher and student should be on the same level – as opposed to the teacher sitting on a chair, and the student on the floor.
On first glance, this discussion is all about the posture required for Torah study. However, inspired by a remarkable teaching of Rav Shimon Schwab (see Ma’ayan Beit HaShoevah on Devarim 4:10), I believe that there is much more to what is being said here than meets the eye, and to explain, we must return to Mount Sinai – otherwise known as מעמד הר סיני (literally ‘the standing at Sinai’). But why is the giving of the Torah afforded this title?
A simple answer is that it was at Sinai where the Jewish people received the Torah while standing. But beyond this is a deeper lesson that it was at Sinai where the people learnt about having a sense of pride of Torah laws and values, as well as the importance of standing up for those laws and values.
Over time, while some people remembered this fact, many forgot it, and it was just after the generation of Rabban Gamliel – when 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva died for failing to show respect to one another (see Yevamot 62b) – that the disconnect between the study of Torah and its fulfilment became particularly pronounced. In fact, I believe that the ‘sicknesses’ mentioned in the Beraita is not a physical sickness, but instead, is a malaise where Torah students fail to stand up for Torah laws and values. This is why ‘from then on, Torah was studied sitting down’.
But this is not how the story ends. After those students died, we are told that Rabbi Akiva found five new students (Rabbi Meir, Rabbi Yehuda, Rabbi Yossi, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai and Rabbi Elazar ben Shamua) who, as the Gemara explains (see Yevamot ibid.), were העמידו תורה (literally, ‘they made the Torah stand up again’).
To be clear, this does not mean that these new students necessarily stood while studying Torah. But what it does mean is that they restored a connection to Ma’amad Har Sinai by committing themselves to having a sense of pride of Torah laws and values and to standing up for those laws and values.
Having explained this, we can now understand the first Mishna in Pirkei Avot (1:1) which begins by referencing the Sinai experience and which then proceeds to instruct Torah teachers that they should raise many students.
Significantly, and as noted by the Tosfot Yom Tov, had the Mishna wished to state that Torah teachers should have many students, it should have said ולמדו תלמידים הרבה (‘and teach many students’). However, the Mishna uses the term העמידו תלמידים הרבה (‘and enable many students to stand’) – the same term used about the new generation of students of Rabbi Akiva – as if to teach us that a Torah teacher should have students who understand the concept of מעמד הר סיני, the idea of standing up to fulfil the Torah, and the responsibility to make Torah upstanding.
Having explained all this, we can now make sense of the law (as codified in the Shulchan Aruch Yoreh Deah 246:9) that when Torah is studied, both teacher and student must be on the same level, and this is because, while the teacher may know more Torah teachings than their students, the teacher and student should be equally demanding of each other in terms of the responsibility of standing up for Torah and of making Torah upstanding.
Sadly, there are those today who teach Torah texts who claim to speak for authentic Torah values, but who do not stand up for Torah laws and values, and do not promote an upstanding approach to Torah. In doing so, not only do they fail to maintain an authentic connection to Sinai, but they also miseducate their students of Torah and cause many to turn away from Torah. This is why today’s teaching is so crucial, because by teaching an upstanding approach to Torah, we are able to foster a sense of pride in living a Torah lifestyle and we then make sure that Torah laws and values are not merely read in books when sitting down, but also upheld in our communities by standing up for them.
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