This article was first published in 2001, when cell phones were not as common as today. But it presents very careful arguments explaining how cell phones in the beis medrash are harmful to growth in learning.
"Omar Abaye . . . Omar Rovo . . . says the gemora . .
The time: 7:00 p.m., 8:00 p.m. — perhaps 10:00 p.m.
The place: Bnei Brak, Yerushalayim, Tiveria, Haifa, London,
Antwerp, Montreal, Boro Park, Skokie, North Hollywood —
anywhere Jews are gathered.
The occasion: A Daf Hayomi shiur.
Ah, that fabulous idea first proclaimed before the gathered
masses by HaRav Meir Shapira of Lublin, before thousands of
Jewish leaders of the generation, that dream he described in
his speech: "The same daf, at the same time,
everywhere around the world . . . Two Jews who speak a
common language and meet on an ocean liner, one from Eretz
Yisroel and the other from chutz la'aretz, both have
something in common to talk about: the daf from Daf
And indeed, this lofty vision has been realized.
Ashreinu. Everywhere around the world tens of
thousands of Jews gather together at a set time every
evening, day in and day out without exception — erev
Pesach, chol hamoed, Yom Kippur, nights when there are
weddings to attend and nights when anxieties weigh heavily —
always, at the same time, and at the same place.
True, this is a fantastic sight to behold. "Omar Abaye .
. . Omar Rovo . . . " the voice echoes in the beis
The maggid shiur is already ready. Finally everyone is
seated, leaning over their gemoras, listening
carefully to every word that comes from his mouth as they
try to hear, comprehend and assimilate the words of the
Talmud with love.
It's now fifteen minutes into the shiur.
This is the high point. The milsa debedichusa has
already been said. The routine disruptions involved in
finding the seforim, opening to the right daf
and the right place on the omud, finding a chair and
sitting down, are finally behind them.
It's still too early for any of the weary participants to
begin to drift off. This is the great hour.
The maggid shiur devotes all of his energy to the task
at hand. Asking kashas, presenting maskonos. One
participant asks a question and another suggests a solution
to a problem. One builds, and another takes apart. Everyone
is immersed in the waters of Torah as if dipping in a
mikva — not a single inch of flesh remains out of the
Everyone is stooped over in absorbed concentration. The
trebled pleasure of HaKodosh Boruch Hu, His Torah and
Yisroel is palpable. To feel it requires almost no effort
whatsoever . . .
But then it happens. In one cruel instant it all dissipates.
Cut off in one fell swoop! Everyone starts to squirm and
glance around. Eyes come up off the page and begin wandering
around the room in search of the melody. The tune sounds
idiotic at best, perhaps even wicked. The pants pocket of
one of the participants begins to trill — or even worse,
the sound may be coming from the pocket of one of the
jackets on the other side of the room.
Not in the Beis Medrash!
And this tune — taken from a vast selection of options
offered by the malefactor, which was sitting off on its own
the whole time, seething with anger — this tune now
attracts 20, 30, 40 pairs of eyes . . . meanwhile the same
number of hands start tapping, wandering, exploring the
cracks and contours of the table.
Now no one is devoting his complete attention to the
maggid shiur and concentrating solely on the
sugya at hand. Everyone — without exception — is
distracted to some extent.
The unfortunate agent of this great evil quickly rises from
mishtei hayayin and leaves ginas bisan haMelech.
He is truly to be pitied, for he has unwittingly cut down
this moment of ateres tiferes Yisroel with his bare
If some of our readers have yet to identify the culprit, it
is a very small idol, a miniaturized pesel updated to
suit the needs of our modern generation. Although only one
of a great number of advances, it is of great importance in
our age. Peh lohem velo yedabeiru, yet this idol talks
anytime and all the time!
It seems the time has come to speak candidly: cell phones in
the beis medrash and during shiurim are a plague
and a pestilence, bal yeiro'eh ubal yimotzei! Today
there is no question that this is one of the great successes
the Evil One can inscribe on his list of recent
achievements, for Rabbi Cell-phone has become one of the
leading advocates in our generation for bitul Torah.
Perhaps it would be best not to discuss such matters
publicly, for it could cause us to avert our gaze in shame
at the sight of these people and their precious accessories,
those pocket-size devices of disgrace, and if we must speak
openly, perhaps what has been said thus far will suffice.
But since clearly this insufferable use of cell phones has
not intentionally become a sweeping heter within this
esteemed tzibbur, whose members set aside a portion of
their limited free time, leaving their homes and their
personal affairs in order to come to the beis medrash
to edify themselves through concentrated study, we must at
least say a few words to clarify the severity of this
stumbling block, iboy'is eimo kro, iboy'is eimo
Besides the tremendous disruption directly caused by the
strident sound of this demon in disguise — both for the
gadget owners and for the other participants who stop
learning and whose thoughts are scattered until they are
left groping in the dark, and the maggid shiur has to
herd the flock together once again, to gather together the
lost and wandering, remove all of the obstacles, repeat what
was said before the phone was whisked out of the suit pocket
and caused its rude interruption, to reestablish the
connection between what was said before and what remained to
be said during the rest of the shiur — besides all of
these factors, most of the distraction is the result of the
damage done by this seemingly innocent disruption:
detracting from kevi'us itim leTorah.
This pressing question that drives him to the Daf Hayomi
shiur to begin with, this question that pierces to the
heart of every Jew of faith — "Kovato itim leTorah?"
— this question cannot be answered positively, for this is
certainly not a viable form of kevi'us eis leTorah.
It would be more accurate to say that this is a set time for
incoming calls (for then, at least, outgoing calls are not
made during shiurim). Conversations are carried out in
resounding voices, mouths aimed into the peh-lohem-velo-
yedabeiru devices. The hour of the shiur has become
a time set for all of the crucial matters discussed during
the course of the phone call, as well as kevi'us eis
leTorah perhaps, but certainly this time has not been set
aside for Torah alone.
In fact, this phenomenon contradicts the words of the Chazon
Ish zt'l in his famous letter, where he writes, " . .
. to learn for an hour and to stop for an hour is a means of
maintaining nothingness. One [who learns uninterruptedly]
sows seeds and waters them to make them grow . . . whereas
one who engages in Torah for short intervals gathers wind .
. . "
What would he say about someone who learns for only one
hour, during which he stops for five minutes, returns to the
gemora, and then stops again?
One may ask, "What is the great loss in a short break to
take a phone call? After all, I was engaged in Torah for the
entire hour, half of it before the call, and half of it
after the call. And anyway, I was not very focused on the
conversation, as if it hardly ever took place . . . I stayed
after the shiur to make up the time, so why make such
a fuss over a few short minutes?"
It seems quite unlikely that when someone stands up and
leaves the group, that in an instant the impression left by
the conversation flits from his memory as if it never
existed. Let's not fool ourselves. If indeed we were in the
company of men of such mental fortitude, perhaps there would
be no need to find fault. But greater men from past
generations pointed out the error in such thinking, which
they explain through the following parable:
It takes ten minutes to boil a kettle of water on a
stovetop. But if the kettle is removed from the burner five
minutes after the stove is lit, and is placed back on the
fire fifteen minutes later for another five minutes, the
water will not reach the boiling point. Why? After all, the
kettle was on the fire for ten minutes. The Chazon Ish would
say that although the water was heated for ten minutes, it
was not left on the fire for ten consecutive minutes!
Rabbi Akiva! Rabbi Akiva the great tanna who left home
for twelve years with his wife's consent, finally returned
home and, standing at the threshold of his home after twelve
years of total separation, just a turn of the knob away,
fully aware of his wife Rochel's mesirus nefesh, hears
his wife's conversation with a rosho who taunts her
about her husband's conduct toward her, and she says, "If he
came home I would send him for another twelve years."
Standing there on the other side of the door Rabbi Akiva
says, "If she has given me permission, then I'll go back
again" (Nedorim 50a) and indeed he turned on his heels
without stepping inside for a moment and returned for
another twelve years.
"Why didn't he go inside for a moment," asked HaRav Chaim
Shmuelevitz, his voice resounding. "for just a brief moment
to say hello? If he was already standing at the door, why
didn't he go in for just one moment?"
"Because," declares the Sha'arei Chaim, "twelve years
and another twelve years is not twenty-four years!"
If this is said about twelve consecutive years and another
twelve consecutive years, certainly half an hour and another
half an hour can never equal one hour. The voices of Chazal
can be heard through the pen of the Chazon Ish in the above
letter when he writes, "Real learning is continuous and
uninterrupted. Continuous learning is the secret of
kedushoh." We must drive this message into our
consciousness and fully comprehend it: real learning is
continuous and uninterrupted!
Furthermore, the Vilna Gaon, in his commentary on the verse,
"Yekoroh hi mipeninim," asks how Torah, which
HaKodosh Boruch Hu delights in every day, can be
compared to pearls, which are relatively ephemeral. (This is
also probably why in maseches Horios Chazal learn that
Torah is valued more highly than the Cohen Godol, who enters
the Holy of Holies, but nevertheless ein mikro yotzei
mipeshuto.) It is well known, writes the Gaon, that
almost everything in the world doubles in value when it
doubles in quantity. If a pound of a certain kind of fruit
is sold for $2, two pounds will cost $4, and the same
principle applies in most cases.
Not in Shiurim and the Beis Medrash
Pearls, however, are an exception to the rule. If a small
pearl worth $100 is doubled in size, its price can jump up
to $400 or more. Shlomo Hamelech o'h said the same is
true of Torah. One minute of study brings a large reward,
but two minutes of study is more than one minute multiplied
by two, and does not even increase four or five times like
pearls, rather "yekoroh hi mipeninim." Doubling the
quantity increases the value tremendously.
Certainly everyone would like to know how to achieve this
darga of Torah study without interruptions of any
kind. Within the confines of this article it would be
impossible to provide a full explanation on how to achieve
this level, but perhaps it would be illuminating to quote
Rabboseinu z'l, who showed us the way, saying, "He who
wants to live should obliterate himself."
HaRav Soloveitchik zt'l explained that Chazal meant to
say that the way to acquire Torah is only by removing
oneself entirely from the distractions of the world around
us, and according to the Chazon Ish in his well-known
letter, the verse "Zos haTorah, odom ki yomus bo'ohel"
refers to the death of the common life on the way to
reaching a more profound life, a life of greater truth.
The Chofetz Chaim zt'l illustrated this concept
through a heartwarming incident recorded in his sefer,
Shemiras Haloshon (Part III, Chapter 4): "I heard a story
about an entrepreneur, a man of means who abandoned the
vanities of this world to study Torah night and day. His
wife and children and his extended family banded together to
persuade him to return to his previous existence, but he
remained completely indifferent to their efforts and
eventually they gave up. People who knew him since he had
been an important businessman asked him how he managed to
ignore the pleas of his close family.
"He replied: `I contemplated Chazal's dictum that Torah only
takes root in "mi shemeimis atzmo olehoh," meaning as
if he were already dead and gone. One should see himself as
if all of his affairs were taken care of, his days were
spent and he was brought before the King, the King of Kings,
HaKodosh Boruch Hu, to weigh all of the matters that
took up his time and accomplished nothing, and was found
chayov bedino shel ma'aloh. He then would cry out,
"Woe is me for my evil deeds!" If at that point he were
given a chance to return to earth and do teshuva,
certainly he would not hesitate for a single moment, and
would not take any interest in domestic affairs. If one were
to think in these terms and realize that according to his
avonos he should have died long ago, and if after his
death HaKodosh Boruch Hu did a great kindness by
giving him permission to return and do teshuva,
certainly he would not hesitate for even a brief moment. If
HaKodosh Boruch Hu prolongs his days on earth to
afford him the opportunity to do teshuva during his
lifetime, certainly he should make every effort to urge
himself on to do teshuva for his avonos, and to
learn Torah constantly, and at the very least, to have a
fixed time for Torah, and not to pay any attention to those
who try to disrupt his study.'"
No matter how well known these ideas may be, and no matter
how many times we were taught them and raised on them, and
no matter how great our battles against our yetzer
hora, everyone according to his own madreigoh, here
is where the big question steps in: Who gave anyone
permission to import more nisyonos? Who is willing to
take responsibility for bitul Torah on a daily basis —
which, as we explained above, actually detracts from the
essence of Torah learning — for dozens of other people
trying to learn, in addition to his own bitul Torah?
Can this be called "chomed Torah?" Is someone like
this considered to be striving to learn Torah when he
arrives with a mini-idol clipped to his belt or stashed in
his pocket, as if announcing, "Rabbosai, an uninterrupted
shiur tonight is highly unlikely!"
And would it come as any surprise if his learning is
burdensome to the point of being disliked?
Every day we say in our tefilloh: ve'al tevi'einu lidei
nisoyon, and we truly do hope not to have to face any
nisyonos that might disturb us and prevent us from
studying Torah. Yet any bar da'as will readily admit
that his arrival at the beis medrash to attend the
shiur with this nefarious gadget in his pocket is
placing a nisoyon before himself that is really more
than a nisoyon, for experience shows that on a regular
basis, when the cheery melody begins to play, he immediately
thrusts his hand into the pocket to retrieve his cherished
telephone device, and begins a personal conversation either
inside or outside of the beis medrash. How can he not
be ashamed to daven every morning to be spared from
nisyonos when he hands himself a nisoyon on that
The Or Yisroel from Salant demonstrated that the
individual's main avodoh is to increase his yiras
Shomayim and to decrease his nisyonos, i.e., to
increase yiras Shomayim by picturing Who he will one
day have to stand before to account for himself and for lost
mitzvos and deeds punishable by Gehennom, and to
reduce nisyonos by fleeing from them and by winning
the great battle with yetzer hora.
Everyone in our generation — in which darkness covers the
earth — who has the privilege of participating in regular
shiurei Torah and fixing daily times for Torah study,
must reduce the nisoyon he must face, particularly
this formidable nisoyon, which disturbs everyone in
the beis medrash, and prevents continuous learning and
removes the element of kevi'us itim leTorah, by
leaving the cell phone at home or in the car as many of his
peers already do. Furthermore he should resolve to devote
this time exclusively to the gemora lying before him,
as if the outside world were dead during this hour.
It should also be clear that neither are those who really
are busy taking care of various mitzvos exempt from setting
fixed times for Torah. And if these people do set a time to
learn, it should be reserved for Torah and nothing else.
Leaving the cell phone on during the shiur and relying
on the pretense that someone may need to call urgently right
at that time is definitely the counsel of the yetzer
hora. Rav Chaim of Volozhin zt'l warned against
such faulty reasoning, writing, "This is Satan, the
yetzer hora, who is the Angel of Death. It blinds the
eyes of Yisroel, showing them what it chooses and hiding
from them what it chooses." This is not the place to expand
on the subject, but insightful readers will always be wary
of similar situations.
Perhaps it would be best to conclude with the comforting
words of the Chofetz Chaim zt'l in his sefer,
Ahavas Chesed: "I heard that a certain gaon said
that one should imagine three things: That he has only one
day to live; That he has only one chapter of mishnayos
or one daf of gemora, whatever he is studying at
the time; And that Yisroel is one, and that HaKodosh
Boruch Hu commands us to keep the Torah, on which the
world depends . . .
"In my opinion, all three of these concepts are hinted at in
the Torah in parshas Krias Shema: `Ve'ohavto es
Hashem Elokecho bechol levovecho, uvechol nafshecho uvechol
me'odecho,' but what can you do until you reach that
point? `Vehoyu hadevorim ho'eileh' refers to the small
amount you are learning at present. `Asher Onochi
metzavecho' means you should think to yourself that
nothing exists beside HaKodosh Boruch Hu and yourself.
`Hayom' means there is only today. `Al
levovecho' means that these three concepts should remain
in a man's heart at all times."
Anyone who seriously contemplates all of the above will take
these essential truths to heart as halochoh lema'aseh,
and will have the merit to establish a true kevi'us itim
leTorah with all of its ramifications, based on the true
meaning contained in this sublime concept, and will enjoy
all of the blessings promised to those who engage in and
support Torah study: "ayin lo ro'aso Elokim zulosecho,
ya'aseh lemechakei lo," Omen.