This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Beasts of Burden and One-Armed Clockmakers*

I think that it is fair to say that most of my university colleagues would be much happier if we were left to pursue our scholarly research and our teaching in peace, without the burdens of administrative responsibility that are constantly being heaped upon us. How much more productive we could be if we were not always being diverted by those eternal committees and bureaucratic paperwork!

Because Jewish tradition has usually seen learnedness as a prerequisite for communal leadership, conflicts between the opposing demands of scholarship and administration have a long history in Judaism,

Some talmudic rabbis were very uncomfortable with this paradigm. Rabbi Akiva went so far as to admonish his son Joshua not to dwell in a town that was administered by scholars. Rabbi Shimeon ben Yohai was particularly adamant about not mixing Torah study with worldly pursuits, and took pride in the fact that he avoided serving as a judge. Rabbi Joshua ben Levi lamented that his communal responsibilities caused him to forget much of his teachings.

Nevertheless, the prevalent approach through most of Jewish history has been that erudition and study should go hand in hand with the exercise of leadership.

Some of the rabbis who chafed at their communal duties did so because of the daunting responsibilities that were involved. In many cases, however, the sages simply resented their inability to allocate sufficient time to their studies.

To tell the truth, when I survey the daily schedules of our most celebrated leaders through history, I am put to shame by the vastness of their scholarly output in spite of all the obstacles.

Take for example the great Maimonides, who composed masterpieces in Jewish law, exegesis, philosophy, logic, science, medicine and more.

In a letter to his student Joseph ben Judah, he complains that his reputation as a physician makes him a favourite of the Egyptian aristocracy, forcing him to waste his days attending patients in Cairo. Upon returning home to Fustat , he must spend the available moments of the day and night futilely trying to keep au courant with the recent medical literature. The upshot of this is that Maimonides finds no time to study the Bible except on Saturday; and has despaired of keeping up-to-date on the latest scientific studies.

A more formidable outline of Maimonides' daily schedule was included in a letter that he wrote to his translator Rabbi Samuel Ibn Tibbon of Marseilles when the latter expressed a desire to visit Egypt to consult with the author about the Hebrew translation of the Guide of the Perplexed.

Maimonides, after pointing out how he had to sneak away for a private moment even to write this letter, informed his correspondent about the obstacles that stood in the way of a meeting.

He proceeded to describe his tedious daily early-morning commute from Fustat to the Sultan's residence in Cairo, where his medical duties to the households of the Sultan and other royal officers kept him occupied for the greater part of the day. Upon returning to Fustat in the late afternoon, starved and exhausted, Maimonides would find his antechamber swarming with people, Jews and gentiles, all with urgent claims on his time. He would partake of a hurried snack (his first nourishment of the day) and proceed immediately to care for his patients until late into the night.

Because his weekdays were entirely taken up with medical duties, he was available to the Jewish community only on Shabbat. Immediately after the Saturday morning services, he was visited by the majority of the congregation, to whom he gave practical instruction, and then offered a sequence of classes for the remainder of the day.

The upshot of all this, Maimonides assures Rabbi Samuel, is that it would be a waste of time and energy to undertake the arduous voyage from France to Egypt, since there would not be enough time for any constructive consultation.

Similar griping reappears in the writings of prominent Jewish sages in later eras.


After spending more than a decade as the rabbi of Oldenberg, a community that made few administrative demands on its spiritual leader, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch moved in 1841 to a new post as the District Rabbi of Emden. The apathy of his earlier pulpit had left him the time to compose several of his greatest masterpieces of Torah learning, including The Nineteen Letters of Ben Uzziel and Choreb. In stark contrast, his communal duties in Emden were so vast that they left him little time for study, and he published almost nothing during his term there.

In a letter to a colleague in Amsterdam, Rabbi Hirsch wrote. "I am overwhelmed with work from morning until evening and, more often than not, I do not put my pen down until after midnight. I am a beast of burden bearing the load of the quarrels and affairs of the holy flock whose shepherd I am."


In a similar vein, Rabbi Arieh Yellin, the nineteenth-century Polish scholar whose Yefeh Einayim commentary is an indispensable tool for anyone who wants to compare the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmuds, speaks bitterly of the difference between his own situation as a rabbi, and the idealized past when rabbis were permitted to devote all their time to scholarly pursuits. Like Maimonides, he describes the need to steal rare moments to jot down his original insights or interpretations.

With reference to his own celebrated publications, Rabbi Yellin compares his achievement with that of a one-armed artisan who fashioned a clock to give to the king.

His clock was not particularly superior when compared to equivalent products produced by able-bodied craftsmen. What made the gift appear so remarkable was the fact that it had been manufactured in spite of its creator's handicap.

So too, concluded Rabbi Yellin, what is remarkable about my work is not its inherent superiority, but merely the fact that I was able to produce it at all in the face of my time-consuming communal responsibilities.


This historical survey of scholarly frustrations helps to set my own aggravation into perspective.

I suppose that I will feel more justified in lamenting my overworked lot after I have produced the equivalent of a Yefeh Einayim, a Choreb or a Guide of the Perplexed.

This article and many others are now included in the book

A Meeting-Place for the Wise
A Meeting-Place for the Wise

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