22 Feb WHAT CAN YOU LEARN ON SHABBOS?
The question of what you can learn on Shabbos often revolves around the permissibility of reading secular material. However, it also applies to the proper Torah material for Shabbos. What and how are you allowed to learn Torah on Shabbos?
I. Take It Easy
On the one hand, Rav Yeshayahu Horowitz (17th cen., Germany; Shelah, Maseches Shabbos, s.v. be-machashavah) says that you are obligated to learn intensely and arrive at original Torah thoughts on Shabbos. Your learning must be so intense that you break new ground. In contrast, Rav Yitzchak Or Zaru’a (14th cen., Austria; Or Zaru’a, vol. 2, no. 89) says that you should only study on Shabbos light Torah and not anything that you find difficult. Rav Ya’akov Emden (18th cen., Germany; Siddur Beis Ya’akov, Mosach Ha-Shabbos, Hilchos Shabbos, sec. 1, par. 8) says that your learning on Shabbos should be different from your learning during the week. You should not exert yourself in learning because that constitutes a desecration of Shabbos.
In a similar sentiment to that of Or Zaru’a and Rav Emden, Rav Moshe Sofer (18th cen., Hungary; Chiddushei Chasam Sofer Al Ha-Torah, Vayakhel, s.v. Ve-Chazal) points out that the first letters of “(Don’t) kindle flames in all your homes, (Lo) seva’aru eish be-chol moshvoseichem” (Ex. 35:3) contain the letters of “be-emes, in truth.” The last letters of those word contain the letters of “shalom, peace.” Rav Sofer explains that this hints to the idea that on Shabbos your Torah (truth, emes) should be peaceful (shalom). You should not engage in intense argumentation about the Torah, as in normal partner learning, but should instead study in a less intense way. Similarly, his son, Rav Avraham Shmuel Binyamin Sofer (19th cen., Hungary; Responsa Kesav Sofer, Orach Chaim, no. 78, s.v. u-mei’az) says that someone who learns intensely all week, if he does so on Shabbos then he lacks pleasure (oneg). Rav Chiya Pontremoli (19th cen., Turkey; Tzapichis Bi-Dvash, no. 23) writes at length about this subject and concludes that it is forbidden to learn Torah in-depth on Shabbos because it requires great effort.
Let us examine the relevant prooftexts to see why contemporary authorities generally disagree with the above strict ruling.
The Gemara (Shabbos 119a-b) says that R. Zeira would looks for pairs of students learning together and tell them to stop desecrating Shabbos. Rashi (ad loc., s.v. mehader) explains that by learning together, they were failing to engage in the pleasure of Shabbos (oneg Shabbos), which is an obligation. Rav Ya’akov Emden (ibid.) quotes this as a source to forbid intense Torah study on Shabbos.
Rav Chaim Yosef David Azulai (Chida, 18th cen., Israel; Machazik Berachah, Orach Chaim 290:6) rejects this proof. R. Zeira was merely ensuring that the students ate something on Shabbos. They were busy learning Torah and neglecting to eat lunch. Once you eat lunch on Shabbos, learn as intensely as you want.
The Talmud Yerushalmi (Shabbos 15:3) quote one opinion that Shabbos was only given for eating and drinking. Another opinion says that Shabbos was only given for learning Torah. Rav Yosef Karo (Beis Yosef, Orach Chaim 288) quotes a Midrash Tanchuma that explains that these two views do not disagree. Rather, Torah scholars and students who study Torah during the week should eat and rest on Shabbos while workers should study Torah on Shabbos. Rav Menachem Meiri (13th cen., France; Shabbos 118b) quotes this Yerushalmi and explains that Torah scholars and students exhaust themselves in Torah study and need to rest their minds on Shabbos. Workers, who do not learn in an exhausting way, should learn Torah lightly and pleasantly on Shabbos.
Chida (Pesach Einayim, Chullin 124b s.v. ani) offers a counterproof. The Gemara says that Rabbah Bar Rav Huna once responded to an extremely complex question by distracting the questioner. Rashi (ad loc., s.v. samechuni) explains that he had just given a long lecture on a holiday Shabbos and was completely exhausted. Chida says that if not for the unusual circumstance, it would have been fine for them to discuss a complex Torah issue on Shabbos.
Rav Chaim Elazar Shapiro (20th cen., Ukraine; Minchas Elazar 4:45) disputes at length the view of Rav Emden and Rav Pontremoli. Rav Shapiro quotes the Gemara (Eruvin 43b) about R. Nechemiah Bar Rav Chanilai who was so engrossed in his Torah thoughts while walking that he accidentally walked out of the Shabbos boundaries (techum). Clearly, you can become engrossed in deep Torah learning on Shabbos.
III. In Practice
In practice, Chida (Machazik Berachah, ibid.) believes that it is permissible to study in-depth on Shabbos but adds that the common practice that he has witnessed among Torah scholars is to study light material on Shabbos. Rav Moshe Isserles (Rema, 16th cen., Poland; Gloss to Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 290:2) says that workers and laymen should spend more time learning on Shabbos than Torah scholars. In contrast, scholars who study Torah all week should spend a little more time on Shabbos enjoying food and drink. However, commentaries (e.g. Mishnah Berurah 290:3) explain that a Torah scholar still needs to learn Torah on Shabbos. He should just spend more time enjoying his meal than laymen. Mishnah Berurah also quotes the idea mentioned above that you should arrive at original Torah thoughts on your Shabbos learning.
Rav Yechezkel Kachli (who might be a pen name for Rav Yosef Chaim of Baghdad; Responsa Torah Li-Shmah, no. 110) was asked whether it is permissible to study Torah in-depth on Shabbos. Someone had come to town and criticized those he found engaging in complex Torah give-and-take. Rav Kachli offered a proof for the permissibility from the Gemara (Zevachim 2b). Ravina said to Rav Pappa that the latter had missed the Shabbos night discussion in which Rava raised a contradiction between two Mishnayos and then resolved them. Clearly they were engaged in complex Torah study on Shabbos.
Rav Shmuel Kamenetsky (Kovetz Halachos, Shabbos, vol. 1, ch. 15 n. 10) says that we do not follow Rav Ya’akov Emden on this subject.