To Become a Litvishe Chasid — Huh?

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What R’ Nachman Actually Taught About Limud Torah

As long-time readers of The Shoemaker Report should know by now, the predominant השקפה [hashkafah, outlook, perspective] followed in its pages comes from Breslov chasidut. However, let’s face it, Breslov chasidut doesn’t have the greatest reputation in the world, at least not among some people. Although it has been growing in influence among ba’alei teshuvah and geirim, it is typically ignored or even held in disdain among those who have been ‘frum from birth’ and, in particular, among the Litvaks. Why is this?

There are many reasons for this phenomenon, and we won’t take the time here to delve into all of them. However, one of the main reasons for its poor reputation is due to the perception that Breslov Hasidim just aren’t that serious about limud Torah. The argument goes something like this: ‘Sure, they’re great at singing and dancing, but when it comes to the real serious stuff like learning Gemara, they just can’t hold a candle to the Litvishe crowd. It is important to make people happy and it’s important to sing and dance, but it’s more important to shteig away at Gemara.’

In this study, we’re going to look at what R’ Nachman of Breslov actually taught about limud Torah, but before we do so, we’d like give a shout out to all of those beautiful people who spend their energies making other people happy. It is told in the Gemara (Ta’anit 22a) of R’ Beroka who often spent time in the marketplace of Bei Lefet. To give us an idea just how exalted an individual he was, Eliyahu ha-Navi often appeared to him there. One day, two brothers came to the shuk and Eliyahu ha-Navi said to R’ Beroka that they both had a share in Olam ha-Ba. Perhaps they didn’t look like talmidei chachamim or perhaps R’ Beroka just wanted to learn more about them, but either way, he went over to the two brothers and asked: מַאי עוֹבָדַיְיכוּ (What is your occupation?). They told him: אִינָשֵׁי בָּדוֹחֵי אֲנַן מְבַדְּחִינַן עֲצִיבֵי (We’re comedians and we cheer up people who are depressed). And for that, Eliyahu ha-Navi said that they have a share in Olam ha-Ba.

Likutei Moharan, R’ Nachman’s magnum opus and one of the most important works of chasidut ever written (and certainly the most important work in Breslov chasidut), opens with the following words (L.M. 1:1): דַּע כִּי עַל יְדֵי הַתּוֹרָה נִתְקַבְּלִים כָּל הַתְּפִלּוֹת וְכָל הַבַּקָּשׁוֹת שֶׁאָנוּ מְבַקְּשִׁים וּמִתְפַּלְּלִים (You should know that through the Torah, all the prayers and all the requests that we request and pray are accepted). That’s the first thing out of R’ Nachman’s mouth. If we want our prayers to be accepted in Heaven and given fair consideration, then we need to be learning Torah. Prayers without Torah go nowhere; rather, they just float around in our rooms and do not ascend upwards. Now, who doesn’t want his prayers for parnasah, for shalom bayit, for holy, righteous children, or for good health and healing to be accepted? Some of us invest a lot of time in prayer, and we pour out our hearts to Hashem. Chas v’shalom we should be found wasting our time! Yet, sometimes it seems like that may, in fact, be the case. We pray, and pray, and pray, and nothing seems to change, like our prayers are being ignored. How come? Maybe we ought to take R’ Nachman’s advice to heart and make it our habit to learn at least a little Torah after praying.

But what does R’ Nachman mean by the generic word ‘Torah’? What is the Torah that he says is important to learn for prayers to be accepted? Is it sufficient to read the Chumash or perhaps something from Tehillim? No, rather he says that the Torah that we must learn is the Gemara (L.M. 3): שֶׁיִּלְמַד בַּלַּיְלָה תּוֹרָה שֶׁבְּעַל־פֶּה הַיְנוּ גְּמָרָא (one should learn, at night, the Oral Torah, i.e. Gemara). In another place there, commenting on the meaning of the words קוּמִי רֹנִי בַלַּיְלָה (Rise, sing in the night) from Eichah 2:19, he states again the importance of learning the Oral Torah at night: שֶׁתִּהְיֶה תְּקוּמָה לְהָרִנָּה הַיְנוּ עַל־יְדֵי הַלַּיְלָה שֶׁהִיא גְּמָרָא שַׁ”ס (song is raised up, i.e. by means of ‘night’, which is Gemara, Shas). The idea that ‘night’ corresponds to learning Gemara is known from Sanhedrin 24a and also from a Midrash. You can look up the reference from Sanhedrin 24a on your own, but here we’ll bring down the Midrash (Midrash Tehillim 19): ומנין היה יודע משה מתי יום ומתי לילה שהוא אומר ארבעים יום וארבעים לילה. אלא בשעה שהקב”ה מלמדו תורה יודע שהוא יום ובשעה שהוא מלמדו משנה יודע שהוא לילה (How did Moshe know when it was day and when it was night that he was able to say ‘forty days and forty nights’? When Ha-Kadosh baruch Hu taught him [the Written] Torah he knew it was day, and when He taught him Mishnah [i.e. the Oral Torah], he knew it was night).

But we must be careful not to learn Gemara with inferior motives, for he continues to explain there (L.M. 3): אַךְ כְּשֶׁלּוֹמֵד שֶׁלֹּא לִשְׁמָהּ, הַיְנוּ בִּשְׁבִיל שֶׁיִּתְקָרֵא רַבִּי הַלִּמּוּד אֵינוֹ בַּחֲשִׁיבוּת כָּל כָּךְ וּכְשֶׁלּוֹמֵד בַּלַּיְלָה חוּט שֶׁל חֶסֶד נִמְשָׁךְ עָלָיו וּמֵגֵן עָלָיו שֶׁלֹּא יַזִּיק לוֹ הַמַּחֲשָׁבָה (However, when one learns not for its own sake, i.e. for the sake of being called ‘rabbi’, the learning isn’t so important, but when he learns at night [when no one can see him to give him any respect or honor], a thread of loving kindness is drawn down to him and protects him so that he won’t be harmed [even by this inferior] thought).

So how much of the Gemara must one learn? All of it; all sixty tractates. Again, quoting from R’ Nachman there on his explanation of the ‘sixty houses’ that are needed for our rectification (see Rabbah bar bar Channah’s story in Baba Batra 73b about the frog that was as large as the fort of Hagronia that had 60 houses in it), he brings down the explanation of the Rashbam that this is a reference to the sixty tractates of the Oral Torah (L.M. 3): שִׁתִּין מַסֶכְתּוֹת…שֶׁיִּלְמַד תַּלְמוּד (sixty tractates…that one must learn Talmud). But someone may say, ‘There are 63 tractates to the Mishnah, not 60. So this interpretation is not correct.’ Yes, today there are 63, but Baba Kamma, Baba Metzia and Baba Batra used to be a single tractate, which would reduce the number to 61, and Makkot was originally part of Sanhedrin, bringing down the number to 60 in total. This is also the 60 warriors referred to in Shir ha-Shirim 3:7-8: הִנֵּה מִטָּתוֹ שֶׁלִּשְׁלֹמֹה שִׁשִּׁים גִּבֹּרִים סָבִיב לָהּ מִגִּבֹּרֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל׃ כֻּלָּם אֲחֻזֵי חֶרֶב מְלֻמְּדֵי מִלְחָמָה אִישׁ חַרְבּוֹ עַל־יְרֵכוֹ מִפַּחַד בַּלֵּילוֹת (Behold, Shlomo’s couch, sixty warriors surround it, of the warriors of Yisrael, all of them grasping a sword, learned in warfare, each man with his sword at his thigh because of the fear in the night).

However, R’ Nachman’s teachings are even more serious than that. It’s not just that our prayers are not accepted when we don’t learn Gemara, it’s that our prayers become an abomination to Hashem! These are his words (L.M. 9:3): אַךְ אִי אֶפְשָׁר לְהִתְפַּלֵּל רַק כְּשֶׁלּוֹמֵד תּוֹרָה כִּי לֹא עַם־הָאָרֶץ חָסִיד וּכְתִיב: מֵסִיר אָזְנוֹ מִשְּׁמֹעַ תּוֹרָה גַּם תְּפִלָּתוֹ תוֹעֵבָה (However, it is only possible to pray when one learns Torah, for an ignoramus [am ha-aretz] can’t be pious [chasid] – see Pirkei Avot 2:5 – and it is written [Mishlei 28:9]: ‘One who turns his ear from hearing Torah, also his prayer is an abomination’). So what is someone supposed to do if he doesn’t learn? Should he stop praying? Maybe it would be better for such an individual not to pray than to offer up prayers that Hashem considers abominable. No, two wrongs don’t make a right. The correct solution is to do teshuvah and start learning!

So we’re beginning to see R’ Nachman’s own teachings on the importance of learning Gemara. But he doesn’t stop there. Sichot ha-Ran 76 provides us with a lengthy passage describing how he learned and how he advised others to learn. We highly recommend reading the entire sichah on your own, but here’s a section that is directly related to our topic. Talking about how much we should learn every day, he said: לִגְמֹר בְּכָל שָׁנָה שַׁ”ס עִם הָרִי”ף וְהָרֹא”שׁ וְאַרְבָּעָה שֻׁלְחָן־עָרוּךְ הַגְּדוֹלִים וְכָל הַמִּדְרָשִׁים כֻּלָּם וְכָל סִפְרֵי הַזֹּהַר וְתִקּוּנִים וְזֹהַר חָדָשׁ וְכָל סִפְרֵי קַבָּלָה מֵהָאֲרִ”י ז”ל (to complete each year Shas with the Rif and the Rosh, and the four sections of the Shulchan Aruch, and all the Midrashim, all the books of the Zohar along with the Tikkunei Zohar and the Zohar Chadash, and all the Kabbalistic writings of the Arizal). Just to give us some idea of what he’s talking, that would entail approximately 30,000 pages each year! But that’s still not all that he taught. He went on to say that besides all that, one must spend some of his time learning in depth [בעיון, b’iyun], reading Tehillim, and so on. (For those who want to look it up, he specifically praises the importance of learning Gemara b’iyun in Likutei Moharan 101.)

Lest we’re feeling completely overwhelmed at this point, he finishes his teaching there in Sichot ha-Ran 76 with the following words of encouragement: וְגַם כְּבָר סִפֵּר מִזֶּה שֶׁיְּכוֹלִין לִהְיוֹת אִישׁ כָּשֵׁר אֲפִילוּ אִם אֵינוֹ יָכוֹל לִלְמֹד כְּלָל וַאֲפִלּוּ צַדִּיק יְכוֹלִין לִהְיוֹת אַף־עַל־פִּי שֶׁאֵינוֹ לַמְדָן כְּלָל רַק בַּעַל הַשָּׂגָה אֵין יְכוֹלִין לִהְיוֹת כִּי־אִם כְּשֶׁהוּא לַמְדָן בִּגְמָרָא פֵּרוּשׁ רַשִׁ”י וְתוֹסָפוֹת אֲבָל אִישׁ כָּשֵׁר וְצַדִּיק גָּמוּר יְכוֹלִין לִזְכּוֹת אֲפִלּוּ מִי שֶׁהוּא אִישׁ פָּשׁוּט לְגַמְרֵי (Also, he already said that someone can be an ish kasher [a proper, observant Jew] even if he’s not able to learn at all, and he can even become a tzaddik even though he’s not a lamdan [someone who knows how to study Talmud in depth]. However, he won’t be able to become a ba’al hasagah [person with deep insight] unless he’s a lamdan in Gemara with Rashi and Tosafot, but even if he’s a completely simple man, he can merit becoming an ish kasher and a complete tzaddik).

We’ll finish off with two more teachings directly from R’ Nachman, both recorded in Siach Sarfei Kodesh. The first can be found in in S.S.K. III:201 where it is recorded that R’ Nachman taught the following: שֶׁאדָם שֶׁאֵינוֹ לוֹמֵד וּמְסַיֵּם אֶת כָּל הַשַּׁ”ס אֵין מֵאִיר עָלָיו צֶלֶם אֱלֹקִים (A person who doesn’t learn and finish all of Shas, the light of the image of G-d [tselem Elokim] does not illuminate him). He may be walking on two legs, but he’s not really someone made in the tselem Elokim. Ouch. And the second can be found in S.S.K. II:257: אָמַר רָצִיתִי שֶׁהָעִנְיָן שֶׁלִּי יִתְפַּשֵּׁט בְּלִבּוֹת אֲנָשִׁים הַמַּתְמִידִים בַּעֲבוֹדָתָם כִּיהוּדֵי לִיטָא. אִיךְ הָאבּ גִיוָואלְט מַיין זַאךְ זָאל זַאךְ לֵייגְן אוֹיף לִיטְבִישֶׁע הֶערְצֶער (He said, I wished that my approach would spread into the hearts of people who are constantly working on their avodah, like a Litvak).

So there you have it. That’s what R’ Nachman actually taught and that’s the real foundation underlying Breslov chasidut.

That being the case, why do we even need Breslov chasidut? Let’s just be good Litvaks instead. The answer to that question lies in our hearts. The prophet prophesied that there will come a time when Hashem will step in and give us all a much needed heart transplant (Yechezkel 36:26): וְנָתַתִּי לָכֶם לֵב חָדָשׁ וְרוּחַ חֲדָשָׁה אֶתֵּן בְּקִרְבְּכֶם וַהֲסִרֹתִי אֶת־לֵב הָאֶבֶן מִבְּשַׂרְכֶם וְנָתַתִּי לָכֶם לֵב בָּשָׂר (I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will place within you, and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and will give you a heart of flesh). We need our hearts of stone replaced with hearts of flesh. But how will He do that? What does it even mean, to replace a heart of stone with a heart of flesh?

Commenting on this verse, R’ Nachman is quoted as saying the following (Chayei Moharan 339): אָמַר שֶׁלֶּעָתִיד יִהְיֶה כָּל הָעוֹלָם אַנְשֵׁי בְּרֶסְלֶב….דְּאִיתָא בַּמִּדְרָשׁ עַל פָּסוּק וְנָתַתִּי לָכֶם לֵב בָּשָׂר אַל תִּקְרֵי בָּשָׂר אֶלָּא בֹּסֵר שֶׁיִּהְיֶה כָּל אֶחָד בּוֹסֵר בְּחֵלֶק שֶׁל חֲבֵרוֹ. לֵב בֹּסֵר אוֹתִיּוֹת בְּרֶסְלֶב (He said that in the future the whole world will be Breslov…And there is a Midrash (Bereshit Rabbah 34:15) on the pasuk ‘I will give you a heart of flesh’: don’t read בָּשָׂר [flesh, basar] rather בֹּסֵר [give up on, abandon, boser], i.e. everyone will forego [בֹּסֵר] the portion of his colleague. Lev boser [לֵב בֹּסֵר] are the letters of Breslov [בְּרֶסְלֶב]). No jealously, no looking over the shoulder at what the other one has; rather, just simplicity, contentment, happiness, emunah, and true love for each other and for Hashem without any ulterior motives. This is the heart of Breslov and the heart of flesh that Hashem has promised He will give to each of us.

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