Rabbi Hershel Schachter
Last week Jews all over the world celebrated the siyum hashas of the daf yomi by demonstrating a great deal of kavod haTorah. Talmud Torah (to learn Torah) and kavod haTorah (to give honor to the Torah) are two of the six hundred and thirteen mitzvos. The celebration in New York took several hours, and some raised an issue - what does one choose when faced with a conflict between these two mitzvos? Which takes precedence? Instead of spending hours upon hours traveling to and from the location of the siyum, listening to the derashos and the nigunim, and participating in the dancing, perhaps one should have chosen to stay behind and spent those precious hours learning? (As Rabbi Besdin zt"l would have famously worded it, to study it rather than about it.)
When Moshe Rabbeinu was on Har Sinai for forty days and forty nights receiving the Torah, did he stand or did he sit? The Gemara (Megillah 21a) points out an apparent contradiction between two pesukim regarding this. The Gemara presents several suggestions to resolve the apparent contradiction. One of the answers given by the Gemara is that when Hakadosh Baruch Hu taught him the difficult and complicated dinim, he sat; but when he was learning the easier halachos he would stand. Rav Soloveitchik said in the name of Rav Chaim Volozhiner the following interpretation of this passage: out of kavod haTorah, we ought to always be required to stand while learning Torah. However, when one is learning a difficult and complicated halacha, and standing will take away from his understanding of that din [because when one is in an uncomfortable position it is much harder to concentrate], since in this situation there is a conflict between the mitzvos of talmud Torah and kavod haTorah, the mitzvah of talmud Torah takes precedence and he should sit.
Every so often a yeshvia student asks me such a shayla: he was placed in a shiur where he is not really learning well - for whatever reason - and wants to switch to a different shiur where he knows that he will learn much better, but this might cause a diminishing of kavod haTorah with respect to the first rebbe. Which of the miztvos takes precedence: kavod haTorah or talmud Torah? My attitude always is that chayecha kodmim l'chayey chavercha (see Bava Metziah 62a), that first I have the right to take care of my own needs, and only afterwards am I obligated to take care of the needs of others and consider them as if they too were my needs. Not only does this apply when one is in danger of losing his life (as is the case in Bava Metziah where this view of R' Akiva has been accepted over the view of ben Peturah), but even in a case of hashovas aveida, the Gemara (Bava Metziah 33a) tells us that aveidaso va'avaeidas rabbo, shelo kodemes. The Rema (Shulchan Aruch, end of Choshen Mishpat 388:2) states that if a flood is expected, I may build a wall around my field to protect it even though by doing so the flood waters will be redirected and fall onto a neighbor's field and cause damage. I have the right to protect my property, and my protecting my property by constructing the wall does not make me an adam hamazik.
In the case of the student in yeshiva, even though I myself am obligated to show kavod haTorah, my mitzvah of talmud Torah still takes precedence over my mitzvah of kavod haTorah. However, we still have a halacha that one must rise to show respect for his rebbe even when one is in the middle of learning and even though this will cause a certain degree of bitul Torah. When one is in the middle of working on a complicated Gemara or Tosafos and must interrupt his train of thought in order to stand up for one's rebbe, it will most probably require a few moments until he will be able to get back into the swing of what he was working on. The Gemara (Kiddushin 33b) at first quotes an opinion that a student of Torah in the middle of learning ought not to stand for his rebbe, presumably because when there is a conflict between talmud Torah and kavod haTorah the mitzvah of talmud Torah takes precedence. But the final conclusion of the discussion is not so. We sometimes apply a principle of bitulah ze'hu kiyuma (see Menachos 99b), that the bitul Torah involved in showing kavod haTorah by standing when the rebbe enters will bring with it a blessing from heaven to be more matzliach in learning than otherwise expected, so to engage in that bitul Torah would be a wise investment which will pay of later to cause more success in learning.
All those who participated in the big siyum hashas last week were certainly very inspired by the most impressive demonstration of kavod haTorah. [The non-Jewish police, guards, and workers were most inspired, despite the fact that they didn't really appreciate what it meant to complete the Talmud Bavli with a daily commitment, summer and winter, rain or shine, etc. kal vachomer the bnei Torah. The Gemara (Berachos 17b) comments that twice a year all the non-Jews in the city of Mechasia witnessed a tremendous degree of kavod haTorah at the time of the two yarchei kallah...] Our participating in this great ma'amad should turn out for all of us to be a most valuable investment of our time, and turn out to inspire us to learn much more than we would have otherwise learned! Bitulah ze'hu kiyuma!