Yoma 30 - 36
We are taught in a beraita: An impoverished person, a rich person and a wicked person came for judgment (in front of the Heavenly Tribunal). The impoverished one was asked, “Why did you not involve yourself with Torah study?” If he answers, “Because I was poor and was busy trying to make a living,” the Heavenly Tribunal will say to him: “Were you any poorer than Hillel (the great Sage)!?”
Poverty is no excuse for not sufficiently dedicating one’s time and energy to Torah study and mitzvah observance. As the Rambam writes, “Every Jewish man is obligated to study Torah, whether he is poor or rich, whether his body is healthy and whole or afflicted by difficulties, whether he is young or an old man whose strength has diminished. Even if he is a poor man who derives his livelihood from charity and begs from door to door, even if he is a husband and a father of children, he must establish a fixed time for Torah study during the day and at night, as the verse states, "You shall dwell on it (the Torah) day and night.” (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Talmud Torah 1:8. He addresses a woman’s reward for Torah study in 1:13.)
My revered teacher, Rav Moshe Shapiro, zatzal, pointed out that the Rambam says that “even one who is married with children” has this same obligation, implying that poverty is even less of an “excuse” than one’s obligations to a wife and children.
The gemara on our daf relates an event concerning Hillel Hazaken, which illustrates how even extreme poverty is not an excuse for not learning Torah. Hillel would work each weekday, and receive a certain coin as payment. He worked only enough for his needs for the day. From the one coin he earned, he would use half of it to support his family and use the other half to pay the guard at the entrance of the Beit Midrash to gain entrance to the Beit Midrash of the great Sages Shemaya and Avtalyon. It once happened that it was erev Shabbat, and he had not succeeded in earning enough money to pay the fee to the guard for admission to the Beit Midrash for Shabbat. He was denied entry. Nevertheless, Hillel was determined to learn Torah and prior to Shabbat’s start he ascended to the roof of the Beit Midrash. From his special vantage point on the skylight above, he was able to see and hear the transcendent words of Torah that emanated from the Sages inside.
However, it was in the middle of winter, an extremely cold night, and snow descended upon him throughout the night. When morning arrived, Shemaya and Avtalyon wondered why the Beit Midrash was darker than usual. They looked up and saw a human form covering the skylight. They dug the person out from under some six feet of snow, warmed him up and treated his frosty condition as required. Their actions involved desecrating the laws of Shabbat, but in this case it was a mitzvah to do so to save his life. When they saw who he was, they said, “Hillel is most certainly worthy that we should desecrate Shabbat for him!” Hillel’s unbridled dedication to Torah study despite his extreme poverty is taught by the Heavenly Tribunal as a refutation to anyone who is poor and thinks he can blame his sub-par Torah study habits on his poverty.
The commentaries wonder about a specific detail of this story: Why in the world was there a guard at the entrance of the Beit Midrash? Until recent years, due to modern security needs of Synagogues and Yeshivas, who recalls a guard at the entrances of places of prayer and Torah study?
The mystery of the guard’s presence is addressed by the Maharsha. One reason for the guard’s presence, he suggests, was indeed for security. It was the custom in those days to build a Beit Midrash out in the field, outside of the city, which reduced distractions. Therefore, a security detail was required at the entrance of the Beit Midrash to ensure safety and prevent break-ins.
Another need for a guard, writes the Maharsha, is based on a historical change in general yeshiva admission policy. In the time period of this story about Hillel, permission to learn in a yeshiva was restricted, in accordance with the rule established by Rabban Gamliel: “Only a student whose ‘interior’ was like his ‘exterior’ would be admitted.” This means that only a student who had been certified as sincere in his pursuit of Torah wisdom was deemed a fitting yeshiva candidate to be allowed entrance to the Beit Hamidrash. Therefore, it was necessary to hire a guard to deny entrance to people who were deemed as not passing this sincerity and integrity test. It was not until later, when Rabbi Alazar ben Azaria became the Rosh HaYeshiva, that this policy was amended to allow entrance to anyone who would come to learn Torah. This change in policy eliminated the need for posting a guard at the entrance to the Beit Hamidrash. (Mesechet Berachot 28a)
- Yoma 35b