Ethical Will

Jacob Horowitz

ca. 1622

It is known that our teacher and rabbi, the gaon, exemplar of his generation, the rabbi and teacher Judah bar Bezalel, who is known as R. Loew of Prague, of blessed memory, in several places in his books challenged the pedagogy of learning practiced in our time; notably, that there is no place for the Mishnah. It is worthy to take note of his words, which were spoken in truth and justice, in his book, Gur aryeh on the Torah portion of Va-’etḥanan and in his book, Derekh ḥayim. [ . . . ]

And even for someone whose profession is Torah study, it is impossible for any study in the world to set aside completely the study of Bible, that is to say the Torah, the Prophets, and the Writings, from beginning to end, and he should be expert in them. Therefore, no argument or excuse in the world exists from which a man can exempt himself. Moreover, when you deal with intensive study and stand outside the King’s palace, certainly it is better to replace the matter [with biblical texts] and enter the very interior of the palace of the King, the Lord of hosts, and busy oneself with His words, which are the innermost and the essence of sanctity, and we will profit doubly by this, which is easy to understand.

And if it is said that they base themselves on sayings of the sages of blessed memory, who said that dealing with scripture is a good thing but not entirely good [b. Bava Mez.i‘a 33a], and they also said, keep your son away from logic [b. Berakhot 28b], which Rashi of blessed memory interpreted as the study of Bible, and also what the rabbis wrote in the name of Rabbenu Tam of blessed memory, that the Babylonian Talmud incorporates Bible in the Mishnah and Talmud, so that thereby a person satisfies the obligation of studying Bible, Mishnah, and Talmud and they also stipulated the recitation of the [biblical] passage about the regular sacrifice and some passages from the Mishnah and the passage beginning “What is the place” and the beraita of R. Ishmael [“the Torah is interpreted by thirteen hermeneutic principles”] in place of Bible, Mishnah, and Talmud. But certainly if anybody wishes to depend on these sayings to exempt himself from the study of scripture, he errs because we have found other rulings than these, that the sages pronounced in other places, that a man must divide his studies in three: a third of the day in Bible, a third in Mishnah, and a third in Talmud. And it was on this matter that they stated and interpreted the verse: when he had made an end1 of speaking with him (Exodus 31:18)—just as a bride is decorated with twenty-four ornaments, so too, a Torah scholar must be expert in the twenty-four books [of the Bible]. And Rashi of blessed memory presents this in his commentary on the portion Ki Tisa’ (Exodus 30:12). And behold, this great luminary himself, in his honor, and also the other great luminaries, his colleagues, the geonim among the sages of the Talmud, of blessed memory, why did they take the trouble to spend their time writing commentaries on all twenty-four books of the Bible? Clearly, they understood that it is the essence of truth, that the quotations mentioned above applied to a person who wants to spend all his days, or even most of them, studying primarily the Bible, and regarding that, they turn him away with the aforementioned sayings. And indeed the words of Rabbenu Tam of blessed memory are erected on the foundation of the saying of the sages of blessed memory, who said that a man must divide his studies in three: a third of the day for the Bible, a third for the Mishnah, and a third for the Talmud. Regarding that, Rabbenu Tam of blessed memory said that someone who has filled his belly with the delicacies of the Bible and is expert in all twenty-four of the holy books, like a bride with her twenty-four ornaments, does not need to spend a third of every day with the Bible, because everything is mingled together in the Babylonian Talmud. But not to pay attention at all to the books of the Bible and not to be expert in the twenty-four ornaments of the bride, the greatest of all? Perish the very thought of that and throwing off the yoke of Torah!

And now, sons, may the Rock preserve you, heed my voice, which I command you, and let your soul delight itself in fatness (Isaiah 55:2). Behold I warn you and command you with an absolute testament, now and for all your generations, an eternal law, that you do everything I mentioned above, and in addition to all those things, I have come to warn you and command you that in addition to the rest of the Talmud that you will learn, study chapters of the Mishnah every single day, until you finish the six lauded orders of the Mishnah, and that all the days of your life, always, every day, you will busy yourself with the Bible and the Mishnah and repeat them, so that you shall not forget any matter or word. Happy is the man who has all those things, because he possesses the Written Torah and the whole Oral Torah. And this is great devotion, of which there is none higher: to become so familiar with it that you own this knowledge. And they will say of you, fortunate is he who comes here, for he manages such beautiful, elevated learning. And you can be seen before the King, the Lord of hosts, and come before Him without shame.

And how much abundant goodness will be yours if you accustom yourselves so that you are fluent in the orders of the Mishnah, expertly reciting from your mouth, for that is why it is called the Oral Torah.

Translated by
Jeffrey M.


[Ke-khalato—homonym in Hebrew of “like his bride.”—Trans.]


Jacob Horowitz, “Ethical Will” (manuscript, Prague, ca. 1622). Published in: Mekorot le-toldot ha-ḥinukh be-Yisra’el, ed. Simha Assaf and Shmuel Glick (New York: Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 2002), pp. 54–55.

Published in: The Posen Library of Jewish Culture and Civilization, vol. 5.

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