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Parshas Acharei Mos (5776)

Kollel: What is it and why is everybody doing it?

A kollel (Hebrew: כולל‎, pl. כוללים, kollelim, lit. a "group" or "collection" [of scholars]) is an institute for full-time, advanced study of the Talmud and rabbinic literature. Like a yeshiva, a kollel features shiurim (Talmudic lectures) and sedarim (independent learning sessions); unlike a yeshiva, the student body of a kollel are virtually all married men. Also, unlike a yeshiva, where the students (or their parents) pay tuition to the school, kollels generally pay a regular monthly stipend to their married members.

The concept of the kollel, in which married men devote themselves to full-time Torah study and are supported by the Jewish community (or sometimes their wives work full or part-time jobs to support them), is not new to the Jewish people. In fact, the roots of the modern-day kollel can be traced all the way back to Egypt, where our ancestors were enslaved for over 200 years.

The Torah tells us that Moses and Aaron prevailed upon Pharaoh to send the Jews out of Egypt, but to no avail. “The king of Egypt said to them, ‘Moses and Aaron, why would you disturb the nation from its work? Go to your burdens’” (see Exodus 5:4).

Rashi comments that Pharaoh told Moses and Aaron only to go back to their ‘burdens’, meaning the work that they had to do in their homes. However, the work of the enslavement of Israel by Egypt was not imposed upon the tribe of Levi, of which Moses and Aaron were members.

Rashi brings proof for this from the fact that Moses and Aaron were allowed to come and go as they pleased without ever having to ask permission from the Egyptians.

Many explanations are offered by the Bible commentators as to why Pharaoh would allow an entire tribe of Jews to be exempt from the Egyptian enslavement.

Nachmanides writes that it is the way of all nations to have wise men whose job it is to teach the people about their religion. It is for this reason that Pharaoh allowed the entire tribe of Levi – who were the designated teachers of Torah to the Jewish nation – to be exempt from the servitude, thus allowing them the freedom to study and to share their knowledge with their brethren.

So I guess we can say that the tribe of Levi in Egypt - who learned Torah all day long while the rest of the Jewish people worked for a living – were members of the first kollel in Jewish history.

This kollel tradition continued for the Jewish people even after they entered the Land of Israel. So that it was the Levites’ job to study Torah all day long and to teach it to their fellow Jews, and they were supported by the tithes that were given to them by the Israelites who worked the land for a living.

What’s more, the option to devote one’s married life to full-time Torah study was not limited to those who were born into the tribe of Levi.

As Maimonides writes in his Mishneh Torah, The Laws of Shemittah and Yovel, Chapter 13 (translation courtesy of Chabad.org):

Halachah 12
Why did the Levites not receive a portion in the inheritance of Eretz Yisrael (the Land of Israel) and in the spoils of war like their brethren? Because they were set aside to serve G-d and minister unto Him and to instruct people at large in His just paths and righteous judgments, as [Deuteronomy 33:10] states: "They will teach Your judgments to Jacob and Your Torah to Israel." Therefore, they were set apart from the ways of the world. They do not wage war like the remainder of the Jewish people, nor do they receive an inheritance, nor do they acquire for themselves through their physical power. Instead, they are G-d's legion, as [ibid.:11]: states: "G-d has blessed His legion" and He provides for them, as [Numbers 18:20] states: "I am your portion and your inheritance."

Halachah 13
Not only the tribe of Levi, but any one of the inhabitants of the world whose spirit generously motivates him and he understands with his wisdom to set himself aside and stand before G-d to serve Him and minister to Him and to know G-d, proceeding justly as G-d made him, removing from his neck the yoke of the many reckonings which people seek, he is sanctified as holy of holies. G-d will be His portion and heritage forever and will provide what is sufficient for him in this world like He provides for the priests and the Levites. And thus David declared [Psalms 16:5]: "G-d is the lot of my portion; You are my cup, You support my lot."

So we see that anyone can ‘join the ranks’ of the tribe of Levi, so to speak, and to devote himself to full-time learning in kollel.

Indeed, throughout the centuries and millennia, there have always been dedicated individuals or groups of married men who study Torah all day long while being supported by the community or by their families, and from whose ranks the next generation of Torah scholars and teachers of the Jewish people emerge.

Although the concept of kollel is definitely not new to the Jewish people, as we have shown, the “community kollel” is a relatively recent innovation that was introduced in the late 20th century as a response to the rapid assimilation and general lack of Torah knowledge and inspiration in Jewish communities across North America.

In the past years, about 30 community kollels in North America have been opened by yeshiva-trained scholars to serve, in addition to the full-time study by the members of the kollel, as centers for adult education and outreach to the Jewish communities in which they located themselves. Topics taught include everything from basic Hebrew to advanced Talmud. In addition to imparting Torah knowledge, such kollels function to impart technical skills required for self-study.

Examples of successful community kollels that have made a great impact and have changed countless lives include kollels in Dallas, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, Atlanta, Seattle, Pittsburgh, Toronto, Denver, Chicago, Philadelphia, etc.

Truth be told, these days many young men are opting to start off their married lives studying in kollel (with the full backing and support of their wives, families and communities, of course) even though they have no intention of becoming rabbis or teachers of Torah to the next generation.

In places such as Beth Medrash Govoha in Lakewood, New Jersey and Yeshivas Mir in Jerusalem, one can find thousands of young married men studying Torah all day long, not all of whom are planning to learn there forever or to become rabbis.

Many of these kollel men know that after a few years of full-time Torah study they will likely go to work in a profession or in business, but they have opted to learn for a few years in kollel first in order to begin their married lives on a solid foundation of Torah values.

Kollel. It seems like everyone is doing it these days. Who knows, maybe one day you (or your son or grandson) will too ...

[Editors Note: The Kollel of Houston Torah Center, originally founded as the Beis Medrash Program by TORCH in November 2006. The goal of this division is to have a constant study of Torah in our city. This group of young talented rabbi's learn Torah all day. In early 2011 this division became an independently run and operated organization, under the auspices of Young Israel of Houston, and led by Rosh Kollel, Rabbi Shlomo Littman of Lakewood, NJ.]

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