The Culture of Leisure

[Be-Ahavah U-Be-Emunah – Yom Kippur 5772 – translated by R. Blumberg]

Question: Does there exist a concept of “free time” or “leisure time”? And if so, how should one fill up that time, as for example, during “Bein Hazmanim,” vacation time from yeshiva?
Answer: According to one approach among the early and late sages (such as the Vilna Gaon and Rabbi Schneur Zalmen of Liadi, and the Mishna Berura), there is no true “free time”. A person has to devote every second to Torah learning. Otherwise, he violates the sin of neglecting Torah study. He is allowed to cease Torah learning only to fulfill another Mitzvah or for the sake of actions essential to life, such as eating, sleeping or work.
According to the second approach of the early sages, a man is not required to study every free second. He should be trying to study Torah as much as he can, but he is also allowed to do other things. Such is the view of Rabbi Meir Simcha of Dvinsk in his Or Sameach at the beginning of Rambam’s Hilchot Talmud Torah, and so holds Rabbi Issur Zalmen Meltzer regarding Rambam’s ruling in Hilchot Melachim that a king [of Israel] must learn Torah every free moment. Rav Meltzer explains that the king’s heart is the heart of all Israel. He therefore derives that any other Jew is not obligated in this manner. Ha-Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook likewise leans in this direction in his article “Al Geder Chiyuv Limud Torah,” in the book “Ma’amarei HaRe’iyah”,
To summarize, according to the first approach, there is no such concept of “free time”, while according to the second approach, the concept does exist, but a person must strive to fill up that time with positive activities, first and foremost learning Torah. If not Torah learning, he should occupy himself with Mitzvot and positive activities.
Therefore, it is clear that the concept of “Bein Hazmanim” – “vacation from yeshiva” – has no real place. This term [literally “between the times”], as mentioned in the Talmud (Berachot 35b), refers to taking off time to work, in other words, to engage in compulsory activities. As for “Bein Hazmanim” as practiced nowadays, it was long ago decried by Maharal and Shela. Maharal [Rabbi Yehuda Loew of Prague] wrote, “The worst slight against the pillar of Torah is neglect of Torah learning, for their study is irregular and not permanent, but only lasts the year. And then they ‘proclaim liberty throughout the Land’, establishing a period which they label ‘between the times’, during which everyone follows his own willful heart… thinking he doesn’t have to learn Torah at all, as though the break is called ‘between the times’ because it is not a time for Torah. And if the early sages practiced the inclusion of such a break, they most certainly had several good, Torah-compatible reasons, as we know. Now, however, the break is only being used to minimize Torah… And through this neglect, they habituate themselves to frivolity, lewdness and other unsavory activities.” (Drush Al HaTorah 26a).
The Shela [Shnei Luchot HaBrit – Rabbi Yeshayahu HaLevi Horowitz] writes, “During the ‘Bein Hazmanim’ break [when a person is neglecting Torah], he is not remembered or mentioned in Heaven, and he is uprooted from the world” (Sefer Ha-Shela 181).
If someone who learns in yeshiva decides that his chief occupation, at least for several years, will be Torah study, he should learn Torah as much as he can, and not engage in other activities.
Yet if, for various reasons, he cannot learn Torah (cf., he has a headache or some other constraint,) he should fill his time with positive activities, i.e., Mitzvot or essential activities.
What is meant by Mitzvot? Acts of kindness – for his family, for his neighbors, for the poor, for the ill, for little children… There is no shortage of channels for one’s kindness.
Essential activities include: tidying or cleaning one’s home, making repairs, and learning secular studies f(or someone who needs it for his future. Obviously one can go on excursions as well – assuming they are reputable excursions to sexually modest places where visitors do not get involved with nonsense.
Rambam, in the fifth chapter of Shemoneh Perakim, writes that there is also room for having fun, to the extent that a person needs it to air himself out. Obviously one should not exaggerate with this. Two-and-a-half months of vacation from yeshiva is certainly too much. When people work, they receive one day of vacation per month. In other words, twelve days of vacation per year – not seventy! No one needs so much time to rest.
One should therefore study Torah or do Mitzvot, or engage in essential activities. This is proper use of what is popularly known a "free time".