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Monday, 13 February 2017

Too many rabbis in this town?

Daf Yomi Bava Basra 22


The tribesmen of Yissachar and Zevulun had an amazing relationship.  The former devoted themselves to full-time Torah learning while the latter were businessmen.  How did Yissachar survive?  They were supported by Zevulun.  And they had a spiritual pact between them: In exchange for sustaining them materially, Yissachar went fifty-fifty with Zevulun on the spiritual reward for the Torah study.

Can you imagine?  An entire tribe dedicating a significant portion of their earnings to Torah scholars!  When it comes to charitable giving, most of us are careful not to ‘overdo’ it!  Not Zevulun.  They understood, says the Chofetz Chaim, that while tzedakah maxes out at twenty percent for general causes, for partnering with Torah, there is no limit!

You see, it wasn’t just about writing a check and kissing the money goodbye.  The partnership meant that every Zevulonite had a personal Torah teacher, a personal spiritual mentor.  Each morning before work, each evening after work, the Zevulonite would sit down with his Yissacharan chavrusa (study partner) and learn Torah!  The relationship was completely symbiotic: not only did they divide the spiritual reward, but there was no shortage of qualified individuals to ensure lifelong Torah learning for all!

Ezra the Scribe instituted a national ordinance that teachers may set up schoolhouses alongside one another.
The Gemara asks: Are we not concerned that the multitude of teachers will lead to a weakening of the education?
He answered: On the contrary, scholastic jealousy increases wisdom.

At rabbinic conferences, I sometimes hear colleagues express their concern regarding competition in their neighborhoods.  Their shul might have been around for fifty or a hundred years, and then one day a storefront competitor moves into town.  We’re talking about a rabbi whose sole purpose is to promote Torah and mitzvos.  In contrast with the existing shul, the competition doesn’t need to deal with all the big issues such as pastoral care, citywide kashrut supervision, conversions, etc.  And so the new organization is able to devote itself entirely to meeting, teaching, and recruitment. 

The establishment of a competing shul is halachically problematic.  According to the Mishnah Berurah, if you have two shuls in town, the prima facie preference is to daven in the bigger one, because Berov am hadras melech – the larger the crowd, the more we honor the King.  The more we pray together, the closer we come to deserving the ultimate communal prayer-space, the Beis Hamikdash (Holy Temple).

Nevertheless, when it comes to teaching Torah, Ezra the Scribe removed any limitations on competition.  The more Torah teachers, the better.  Increasing competition will only make for a better product!

Here in Edmonton, one of the things we are proudest of, is our ability to all get along.  Our shul has been in existence for over a century.  For many decades, we were the only game in town, and with that comes a certain contentment.  Baruch Hashem, in the last couple of decades, other organizations have arrived in our city with the goal of infusing our community with Torah and mitzvos. 

That’s not a bad thing.  It’s not something to be afraid of.  It just means that we need to up our game to stay competitive.  And sure enough, although our congregation was in decline for many years prior to the arrival of the other organizations, their appearance has kept us on our toes.  As a result, we have witnessed a physical and spiritual revival in our shul in recent years!  Part of that comes from our open-door policy: wherever possible, we encourage others to teach Torah in our building and maximize the opportunities for the spiritual growth of our congregation.

Sometimes I hear the concern that the other institutions are a drain on our communal resources.  Here’s the thing: Hakadosh Baruch Hu (G-d) has unlimited funds available!  There’s more than enough to go around.  If we feel that we’re not getting our fair share, it just means that we’re not trying hard enough.  That we’re not asking often enough.  On the contrary, I have found that these ‘storefront’ Torah teachers create a culture of giving that rubs off, and ultimately benefits, every organization!


We are the People of the Book.  The more Torah learning, the better.  Imagine if every one of us had a private Yissacharan Torah teacher, waiting for us to return from work and jump into the Beis Medrash (study hall).  May you be a partner in promoting, sustaining, and making Torah and mitzvos flourish for generations to come!