Palm Fronds and Pedagogical Prohibitions: Teaching Torah to Gentiles by Ned Krasnopolsky


Based on a Shiur given by Rabbi Uri Orlian, entitled “Teaching Torah to Gentiles.” 

From an outsider’s perspective, Sukkot probably comes across as a bit confusing. The hut in your backyard is hard to understand, and if you are walking to shul with your lulav in one hand and etrog in the other, you will most likely receive a few odd glances from any drivers passing by. This situation is not only limited to Sukkot, and the question is raised as to what the appropriate response is if a non-Jew asks you to explain to him something from the Torah. The discussion of Talmud Torah Le’akum, teaching Torah to non-Jews, begins with a Gemara discussing a prohibition placed upon non-Jews themselves: the prohibition of learning Torah (Sanhedrin 59a). R’ Yochanan states that a non-Jew who engages in Torah study is liable to receive the death penalty (the Rambam will later explain that this does not actually mean execution), since the Torah states “Torah tzivah lanu Moshe, morasha kehilat Yaakov,” “Moshe charged us with the Teaching as a heritage of the congregation of Yaakov (Devarim 33:4).” R’ Yochanan understands that since the Torah states “us,” and not “them,” the inheritance is ours, and not any other nation’s. 

The question is raised as to why this prohibition is not included in the list of Mitzvot Bnei Noach, the Noahide Laws. One explanation is that the prohibition of a non-Jew learning Torah falls under the category of Gezel, stealing. The Torah is Bnei Yisrael’s inheritance, and any unauthorized study is considered to be theft. As Gezel is already one of the Sheva Mitzvot Bnei Noach, there is no need to classify it as its own separate commandment. Another explanation is based on a slight change in the actual text of the passuk itself. Instead of reading the passuk as “morasha,” inheritance, one can read the passuk as “me’orasa,” betrothed. The Torah is “betrothed” to Bnei Yisrael, and if a non-Jew studies it, it is considered to be Gilui Arayot, illicit relations. As Gilui Arayot is also one of the Sheva Mitzvot Bnei Noach, no separate commandment is necessary. 

However, the Gemara does not want to accept either of these reasons behind the prohibition of Talmud Torah for nonJews. Instead, the Gemara raises an objection from a beraita. The beraita states that “even a non-Jew who studies Torah is considered like a Kohen Gadol.” The beraita gains support from a passuk found in Vayikra: “and you shall keep My laws and My rules, by the pursuit of which man shall live, I am Hashem (Vayikra 18:5).” The passuk talks about the significance of Torah, yet it does not specifically state that only Bnei Yisrael shall gain from it; instead it states that “man shall live.” The author of the beraita interprets this to mean that even a non-Jew may gain from the Torah, implying that a non-Jew may learn Torah. 

The Gemara goes on to explain that this allowance only applies to the halachot surrounding the Sheva Mitzvot Bnei Noach. But why would it be forbidden for a non-Jew to learn Torah in general? The Meiri understands that the prohibition acts as a safeguard. If a non-Jew studies the Torah, and a Jew sees him performing some mitzvot, and then the non-Jew performs Avodah Zarah, the Jew may come to mistakenly perform the Avodah Zarah under the false impression that the non-Jew was a Jew. As the whole prohibition exists only to prevent a Jew from misidentifying a non-Jew as a Jew, any Torah learning which does not mask the true identity of a nonJew would be permitted. Therefore, since the Sheva Mitzvot Bnei Noach are not considered exclusively the features of a Jew, a non-Jew may learn the parts of the Torah which involve them. The Rambam, on the other hand, in Hilchot Melachim 11:9, takes a different, more practical approach. The reason why nonJews may only learn the halachot surrounding the Sheva Mitzvot Bnei Noach is actually quite simple: you have to know how to do something before you do it! In fact, the Rambam places all of the responsibility to learn about the Sheva Mitzvot Bnei Noach upon the non-Jew. If a non-Jew breaks one of the Sheva Mitzvot Bnei Noach without knowing that what he did was forbidden, he is unable to claim that he should be exempt because he was not aware of the prohibition; he should have learned the halachot. But how exactly does the Rambam explain the prohibition of learning Torah in general? In an attempt to synthesize, the Rambam clumps together the prohibition of a non-Jew learning Torah under a single umbrella prohibition with the prohibition of a non-Jew keeping Shabbat. The common denominator is as follows: a non-Jew is unable to create a new religious practice for himself based on his own judgement. The Rambam views the learning of any Torah not pertaining to the Sheva Mitzvot Bnei Noach as a violation of this general rule. It is at this point that the Rambam explains what the Gemara meant when it said to “execute” any non-Jew who learns Torah—we punish him with malkot, and we tell him that what he did was deserving of death. 

Up until now, we have been discussing the prohibition placed upon the non-Jew. However, how do the prohibitions placed upon the non-Jew’s independent study relate to a Jew who teaches a non-Jew Torah? It is at this point where the vantage point flips, and the question of teaching comes into play. The Gemara in Chagiga 13a provides some insight on this very issue. Rav Ami states “Ein mosrin divrei torah le’nachri,” “one may not teach Torah to a non-Jew.” Rav Ami draws his support from Tehillim 147:20, which says “[G-d] did not do so for any other nation; of such rules they know nothing.” Tosafot (Chagiga 13a s.v Ein Mosrin) raise a question on Rav Ami’s statement of “Ein mosrin divrei torah le’nachri”: What is the purpose of creating a new prohibition of teaching a non-Jew when this prohibition is a natural extension of the prohibition for a non-Jew to learn Torah? After all, wouldn’t teaching Torah to a non-Jew be a violation of “lifnei iveir lo titein michshol,” the prohibition of causing another person to sin (literally “placing a stumbling block before a blind person [Vayikra 19:14]”)? You’re setting him up to fail! There is precedent for Lifnei Iveir applying when a non-Jew is on the receiving end; one of the prime examples of Lifnei Iveir is giving a non-Jew meat taken from an animal that was still alive, Eiver Min Hachai (which is one of the Sheva Mitzvot Bnei Noach)! Tosafot explain the necessity of a second prohibition as follows: Lifnei Iveir only applies in a case where the person gains access to something forbidden that was previously inaccessible to him. As a non-Jew may be able to access Torah without the help of a Jew, it is therefore necessary to establish the independent prohibition of teaching Torah to a non-Jew.    

Additionally, the Maharsha (ibid.) points out the unique language of the Gemara. He wonders why the Gemara chose to use the language of “ein mosrin,” “we may not pass on,” instead of the more straightforward “ein melamdin,” “we may not teach.” The Maharsha uses this as a proof to show that you are able to teach non-Jews the halachot surrounding Sheva Mitzvot Bnei Noach, including the majority of mishpatim, judicial cases, in general. This creates a difficulty with the aforementioned passuk found in Tehillim. How can it be that “ Mishpatim bal yeda’um” if in fact the only thing non-Jews are allowed to learn are mishpatim, and nothing else? The Maharsha develops an incredible approach based on the language of the passuk. He derives that there is another aspect of mishpatim which one is unable to teach—the reasoning behind the Mitzvot. On Bava Kama 38a, there is a case in which non-Jews were impressed with the scholarly nature of the Torah, but they found what they deemed to be an “inconsistency.” When presented with the “inconsistency,” the Chachamim attempted to correct the non-Jews’ misinterpretation by teaching them the correct interpretation multiple times. Tosafot (ibid.) try to explain how the Chachamim were able to teach the non-Jews. Tosafot explain that either they were forced to teach them, or that the non-Jews came to them while pretending to be future converts. 

Based on the Gemara’s phrasing, the Netziv reinterprets Tosafot’s question. The question, according to the Netziv, is not how the Chachamim could teach the non-Jews the correct interpretation, but how they could teach it over multiple times. The Netziv understands that there is only a prohibition to teach Torah to non-Jews if they will become proficient enough to generate their own chiddushim, novelties. This proficiency is developed through repetition. In addition, the Netziv brings back the reasoning of Gilui Arayot to prove his point. The prohibition of teaching, and consequently learning, only exists if the information is taught in great depth. It is only considered to be  Gilui Arayot if the non-Jew becomes greatly involved with the Torah. 

Overall, it is important to know what one can or cannot teach to non-Jews who are intrigued by Torah U’mitzvot. Throughout our lives, as highlighted by the Meiri, it is important to maintain certain boundaries. However, there are definitely a few opinions upon which one can rely when put in a difficult situation. As we sing “Torah tzivah lanu Moshe” on Simchat Torah, try to keep in mind the incredibly unique opportunity of Limud Hatorah and Talmud Torah granted to us by Hakadosh Baruch Hu. 

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