אמר רבי חמא ברבי חנינא: מימיהן של אבותינו לא פרשה ישיבה מהם. היו במצרים ישיבה עמהם, שנאמר "לך ואספת את זקני ישראל." היו במדבר ישיבה עמהם, שנאמר "אספה לי שבעים איש מזקני ישראל." אברהם אבינו זקן ויושב בישיבה היה, שנאמר "ואברהם זקן בא בימים." יצחק אבינו זקן ויושב בישיבה היה, שנאמר "ויהי כי זקן יצחק." יעקב אבינו זקן ויושב בישיבה היה, שנאמר "ועיני ישראל כבדו מזקן."
Rebbe Chama b'Rebbe Chanina taught that from the days of our Forefathers, yeshivos have never ceased from among us. When we were in Egypt, we had yeshivos… When we were in the desert, we had yeshivos… Avraham was an elder who sat at the head of a yeshiva… Yitzchak was an elder who sat at the head of a yeshiva… and Yaakov was an elder who sat at the head of a yeshiva.
The yeshivos that now exist in Klal Yisrael are not modern institutions, but the continuation of an unbroken chain of Torah scholarship and religious devotion that stretches back through the ages all the way to the times of Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov.
Shem and Ever also had yeshivos, where our Forefathers studied. (Presumably these yeshivos taught the seven mitzvos incumbent on the gentiles, since gentiles are forbidden to learn other areas of Torah.) However, the tradition of our Torah scholarship is not considered to have originated with them, but with the yeshivos founded by our Forefathers themselves, as evident from the above-cited Gemara.
What was unique about the manner or content of their study, for which it is looked upon as the dawn of a new era of Torah that has lasted even until our own times? What was it about their yeshivos that we are meant to implement and build upon in founding our own new yeshivos in every generation?
The Gemara states that the six thousand years for which this world will last are divided into three epochs: two thousand years of confusion, two thousand years of Torah and two thousand years of Moshiach's times. The two thousand years of Torah began not with Kabbalas HaTorah on Har Sinai, but with הַנֶּפֶשׁ אֲשֶׁר עָשׂוּ בְחָרָן "the souls that they (Avraham and Sarah) made in Charan." Unkelos interprets this verse to mean, "the souls that they committed to the Torah," a reference to the converts they attracted. These converts formed the core of Avraham's Yeshiva, which was the prototype for all future yeshivos throughout the history of our nation.
The unique quality that Avraham then originated was the element of commitment to Torah study, with body, heart and mind. It is not enough for a person to pursue Torah study in a casual off-handed way, like any other intellectual pursuit that draws one's interest. For a person to succeed in Torah study, he must devote his entire life to it.
This point can be illustrated by the following story from the Gemara:
רבי חנניה בן חכינאי הוה קאזיל לבי רב בשילהי הלוליה דרבי שמעון בן יוחאי. אמר ליה "איעכב לי עד דאתי בהדך." לא איעכבא ליה. אזל יתיב תרי סרי שני בבי רב. עד דאתי אישתנו שבילי דמתא ולא ידע למיזל לביתיה. אזל יתיב אגודא דנהרא. שמע לההיא רביתא דהוו קרו לה "בת חכינאי, בת חכינאי, מלי קולתך ותא ניזיל." אמר "שמע מינה, האי רביתא דידן." אזל בתרה. הוה יתיבא דביתהו קא נהלה קמחא, דל עינה חזיתיה, סוי לבה פרח רוחה. אמר לפניו "רבונו של עולם, ענייה זו זה שכרה? בעא רחמי עלה וחייה."
Rebbe Chananya ben Chakinai planned to leave for yeshiva towards the end of the Sheva Berachos week of Rebbe Shimon bar Yochai. "Wait for me until I can come with you," R' Shimon asked him, but R' Chaninah refused to wait.
He went to study for twelve years in the yeshiva. By the time he returned, the streets of his city had been rerouted and he could not find his way home. He went to sit by the banks of the river. There he heard someone saying to a girl, "Daughter of Chakinai! Daughter of Chakinai! Fill your bucket and let us go."
"This must be my daughter," he said and followed her home. When they arrived, he found his wife sitting and sifting flour. She raised her eyes, saw him and died of shock.
"Master of the Universe!" he said. "Is this the reward for this poor woman?" He prayed for mercy for her and she was revived.
There are many interesting points to bring out from this story. We see here the great dedication for Torah study that the Tannaim and their families had. We see the power of prayer, which can even revive the dead. Yet there is another interesting point here which is not so clear. Why did the Gemara begin this story by telling us that R' Chananya refused to wait for R' Shimon? What are we meant to learn from this? The Maharam Shif, in his commentary to the Gemara, asks this question.
Perhaps we can explain based on R' Chananya's own teaching in Pirkei Avos:
רבי חנינא בן חכינאי אומר הנעור בלילה והמהלך בדרך יחידי והמפנה לבו לבטלה הרי זה מתחייב בנפשו.
Rebbe Chananya ben Chakinai said: One who stays awake at night or walks alone on the road and turns his hearts to empty matters (rather than learning Torah) is guilty for his own blood.
The commentaries explain that nighttime and journeys both present a certain element of danger, from which a person needs the merit of Torah to protect him. However, when a person travels he cannot concentrate too deeply on Torah matters, since he must watch out for obstacles on his path and make sure he is going the right way. Therefore, it is always best to travel with a companion, so that one person can study Torah while the other leads. Thereby, they have the spiritual merit of Torah and also the practical benefit of watchfulness to their advantage.
Despite this consideration, R' Chananya refused to wait for R' Shimon to accompany him to the yeshiva. R' Chananya could have learned Torah at home while he waited for R' Shimon, but the advantage of even one day of Torah study in yeshiva is so great that it was worth it for him to risk his life for it.
R' Chananya trusted in the merit of Torah study in the yeshiva to protect him. There, Torah is studied with liveliness, with fiery enthusiasm, amidst profound debate among scholars young and old who toil together to reveal the inner depths of the Torah. Of such study it may truly be said that the Torah is a "tree of life for all who grasp hold of it."
Life of Torah
A person who commits murder by accident is exiled to a refuge city (ir miklat). The Gemara infers from the verse, הוּא יָנוּס אֶל אַחַת הֶעָרִים הָאֵלֶּה וָחָי "He shall flee to one of those cities and live" that his Torah teacher must follow him into exile, since he must be provided there with what he needs to live. "For the wise, and for those who pursue wisdom, life without Torah study is like death," the Rambam explains.
If the Torah student feels that life without Torah study is like death, let him study by himself in the refuge city. Why must his teacher follow him into exile? From here we see that the life-giving joy of Torah can only be felt when it is in the framework of a yeshiva, in which Torah is transmitted from one generation to the next, and young flocks of disciples drink from the waters that the elders draw from the eternal wellsprings of wisdom.
The Talmud Yerushalmi states:
"כי היא חייכם" אימתי היא חייכם בשעה שאתם יגיעין בו.
"For it is your life." When does the Torah become our life? When we toil in it.
True, Torah study in any amount fulfills an important mitzvah, bringing purity and holiness to those who study it. However, for a person to feel the full vitality of the Torah, he must devote his life to it as a yeshiva student does.
In a similar vein, the Gemara states:
דברי תורה יש בם להמית ולהחיות. היינו דאמר רבא, למיימינים בה סמא דחיי, למשמאילים בה סמא דמותא.
Words of Torah have the power to grant life and to kill, as Rava said, "To those who lean towards the right side of the Torah it is a potion of life, but to those who lean towards its left side it is a deadly poison."
Rashi explains "leaning towards the right side of Torah" to mean: "Toiling in it with all one's might, and concentrating to understand its deepest secrets." This involves the physical effort of devoting every waking moment to Torah, and the mental effort of focusing all one's attention on one's studies. Only in this way can a scholar find success in his studies. This is how all the famous Torah scholars in our nation's history ascended to greatness – through constant, unflagging effort and the utilization of every precious moment for Torah.
Someone once asked the Chazon Ish if the rumor about him was true, that he once learned forty pages of Gemara with Tosefos in one day. "Several times I did so," he answered. The giants of Torah could learn forty pages in one day, and could also spend forty days straight trying to unravel the secrets of one page.
How can a person find the inner strength to devote himself to Torah study day and night with unflagging energy? Rabbeinu Yonah reveals the secret to this in his commentary on Pirkei Avos:
וכשאתה מיגע את עצמך בתורה תשתעשע בה שמצינו שאמרה תורה "ה' קנני ראשית דרכו קדם מפעליו מאז." וכתיב בתריה "ואהיה אצלו אמון ואהיה שעשועים יום יום." הנה לך כי הקב"ה היה משתעשע בה. ויש לך לעשות כן והוא שנאמר "משחקת בתבל ארצו ושעשעי את בני אדם." רצונו לומר כאשר היה התורה שעשועים להקב"ה קודם יצירת עולם כך תהיה משחקת בתבל אחר שנברא העולם ושעשועים לבני אדם.
When you toil in Torah, enjoy it. The Torah says of itself, "Hashem acquired me at the beginning of His path, before the first of His creations." A later verse continues, "He raised me, and I was his enjoyment each day." From here we see that [even before the world was created] Hashem took pleasure from the Torah. [Now that the world has been created and the Torah given to us] we too should take pleasure from it, as the verse continues, "An enjoyment for the world, and a pleasure for mankind."
People generally make a sharp contrast between work and play. They work for five days a week, and then relax and enjoy themselves for two days over the weekend. They work for eleven months a year, and then take a month off for vacation. They neither enjoy their work nor labor during their vacations.
In the path of Torah, work and pleasure must go hand in hand. A person can devote his full energies to Torah day and night, day after day, year after year, only if he loves his studies. Something one loves never grows tiring.
Many years ago, the Klausenberger Rav zt"l pointed out to me a curious distinction between two verses. One verse states, אֶרֶץ זָבַת חָלָב וּדְבָשׁ "the land of milk and honey," placing milk before honey. Another verse states, דְּבַשׁ וְחָלָב תַּחַת לְשׁוֹנֵךְ "honey and milk are beneath your tongue," placing honey before milk.
I thought perhaps to explain that the first verse refers to the literal milk and honey of Eretz Yisrael. There, milk is more important than honey, since milk is healthy while honey should be eaten only sparingly as a treat.
The second verse refers to the proverbial honey and milk of Torah study. Honey, which symbolizes the sweet pleasure of Torah, must come first. Then can come milk, which refers to the difficult labors of Torah, as the Gemara states: "The richness of Torah can only be found among those who vomit their mother's milk over it" (a colorful metaphor for churning one's guts in the constant labor of Torah study).
The order of this verse teaches an important principle of education. Only after we have succeeded in imparting the sweet joy of Torah to our students, can we expect them to toil in Torah study with all their strength. If the Creator Himself takes pleasure in the Torah, clearly this is the greatest source of pleasure available in creation.
On the Festival of Shavuos, we relive both aspects of Kabbalas HaTorah: the joy that our forefathers experienced when they willingly declared, "na'aseh v'nishmah – we shall do and we shall listen," and the stern commitment in which Hashem threatened to bury us beneath Har Sinai should we flag in the responsibilities we undertook.
May we all be blessed with the joy and enthusiasm necessary to devote our lives to the Torah, and so merit all of its spiritual and material blessings.
 Yoma 28b
 See Sanhedrin 59a; Rambam, Hilchos Melachim ch. 10; Bava Kama 38a.
 Avodah Zarah 9a
 Bereishis 12:5
 Kesubos 62b
 Avos 3:4
 Devarim 19:5
 Hilchos Rotzei'ach 7:1
 Yerushalmi Shvi'is 1:33
 Shabbos 88b
 Mishlei 8:22
 Mishlei 8:30
 Rabbeinu Yonah on Avos, 2:14
 Berachos 63b