In the third perek, we find two Mishnayot from which we can learn important ideas relating to the Beit Midrash, and perhaps to learning in general.
The eighth Mishnah states:
“Abba Sha’ul ben Batnit who would fill his measuring utensil on erev Yom Tov and give them to customers on Yom Tov. Abba Sha’ul adds that even during Chol Ha’moed he would [prepare the utensils the night before] to ‘exact the measurements’”
The Gemara explains that “[Abba Sha’ul would] do so even during [Chol] Ha’moed because of [the potential] waste of Beit Midrash [time].” The Gemara explains that he was a great scholar who was regularly consulted and during Chol Ha’moed as many more people were free to deal with Torah the demand on his time would intensify. Consequently he would fill his utensils at night, outside Beit Midrash times, in order that he should be free during the day. Therefore the phrase in the Mishnah ‘to exact the measurements’ is explained to mean: the extra time spent in the Beit Midrash during [Chol] Ha’moed meant he would not have time to properly check the measurements during the day, so he filled them at night (Rashi, Beitzah 29a).
The idea brought here is ‘the wasting of Beit Midrash time’ rather than the more familiar ‘waste of Torah’. There are times when someone will return home from work tired and it is hard to learn. Just entering into the Beit Midrash has an influence. Firstly – entering allows more learning just by being surrounded by other people learning. Moreover, the Beit Midrash is not only a place for explaining halachot but also a place representing a certain world perspective. A person whose house is a Beit Midrash expresses what his direction is in life and what is important to him. Entering into the Beit Midrash symbolises our relationship with Torah and how we are connected to it. The Beit Midrash is meant to be the centre of our lives. It is a place which gives us the strength and guidance when we leave its four walls. The wasting of Beit Midrash time is less time spent connecting to our “nerve centre”.
According to the first explanation brought down by Rashi, Abba Sha’ul’s concern was the wasting his own learning. In order that he should be free during the day to answer people’s questions, he would work at night for his living. Interestingly, he considered the conflict as a potential waste of personal learning time, even though it was answering other people’s questions that were at risk. It is possible to say that denying the clarification of Torah for others or wasting others’ Torah learning generates a sense of lacking on the part of the individual as one has a responsibility for the wider community.
There are those that do not feel good when their personal progress is hindered by answering other people’s questions. Yet - “To learn and to teach, to guard and to do” – passing Torah to the wider circles and leading others down the path of Torah is no less important. The wasting of Beit Midrash time is broader than the notion of wasting time for learning Torah. On Chagim when there is more time, people would go to the Beit Midrash. When their halachic questions were answered, be they practical, for the sake of learning, for a deeper understanding or maybe even on totally unrelated matters, this would create a connection between them and the Beit Midrash – the centre of our lives.
There is a story about a Chassid who came to his Rav and asked him a medical question about his cow’s foot. The Rav gave his answer and was later asked by others, “why didn’t you tell him that he should simply go ask a vet?” The Rav explained that sometimes the question is just an excuse. The Jew wanted to get close to the Rav and he tried to find a way to encounter the Torah so he searched for questions. When one enters the Beit Midrash he needs to feel as if it is his place. If he already enters he has the basic connection, and it is our responsibility to continue and strengthen that connection.
The “Beit Midrash” appears elsewhere in our chapter where R’ Tarfon entered the Beit Midrash to consult on a particular query. “And they entered the Beit Midrash” is a unique statement throughout Shas. We do not see elsewhere an apparently incidental comment like this one in our Mishnah.
It seems that it is possible to learn a few things from this story aside from the need to also be meticulous in our transmission of events. Firstly, even Rabbi Tarfon the great Tana was not embarrassed to ask and clarify a situation, just as we learn in Pirkei Avot “the embarrassed does not learn”. Furthermore in order to clarify questions one has to enter the Beit Midrash - the place in which we clarify reality and learn how to work within it.
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