It is widely known that a substantial number of men from the yeshiva community in Israel study Torah full-time, relying on broad support from the state to supplement their wives’ income in order to sustain their families. Perhaps less well known is that this phenomenon is not a traditional way of Jewish life, but one that is unique to the modern state of Israel. In this 2001 article from Azure, Joel Rebibo looks at the history of modern haredi yeshivot, the encompassing way of life it has promulgated, the roots of the current political arrangement in Israel, and the dilemmas posed by a community of scholars consciously set apart.
The phenomenon of so many learning in yeshiva for so long is unprecedented in Jewish history. In the past, the vast majority of religious Jews, including many of the greatest Tora scholars, worked to support themselves. R. Yehoshua, a mishnaic sage who lived in Jerusalem in the first century and was a candidate for the presidency of the Sanhedrin, eked out the barest of livings as a coal-maker. Rashi, who lived in France in the eleventh century and whose commentaries on the Bible and Talmud are considered indispensable in yeshiva circles, was a vintner. Maimonides made his living in the twelfth century as a doctor in the Sultan’s court in Egypt. R. Joseph Karo, author of the Shulhan Aruch, earned his living in sixteenth-century Safed through the fabric trade. And this pattern continued well into the modern era: R. Yisrael Meir Kagan (better known as the Hafetz Haim), who lived in Radin, Poland, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, supported himself for many years as a grocery store owner; R. Baruch Halevi Epstein, the twentieth-century Russian Talmudic scholar who wrote the Tora Temima, worked in a bank.
The reason for this was not solely economics. For centuries it was accepted that a Tora scholar should prefer to support himself rather than take a stipend for his studies. For some, such as R. Yohanan, the third-century sage who lived in Tiberias, the motivation came from an ethic of self-sufficiency: “Even make your Sabbath profane,” the Talmud quotes him as saying, “but do not become dependent on other people.” For others, labor was not only fundamental to one’s material well-being, but also an integral part of one’s spiritual development: In the opinion of the Mishna, “All study of Tora that is not combined with labor ultimately comes to nothing, and causes sin.” It was such a belief that led Maimonides to declare that “whoever decides to study Tora and not to work, but instead to live on charity, desecrates the name of God and brings the Tora into contempt, extinguishes the light of religion, brings evil upon himself, and deprives himself of life in the world to come.”