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Rambam in Hilchos Yesodei Hatorah 2(2) says

But how may one discover the way to love and fear Him? When man will reflect concerning His works, and His great and wonderful creatures, and will behold through them His wonderful, matchless and infinite wisdom, he will spontaneously be filled with love, praise and exaltation and become possessed of a great longing to know the Great Name,

which suggests that it is good to see creation and think about its beauty.

But in Pirkei Avos 3 (7)

Rabbi Jacob says: if one is studying while walking on the road and interrupts his study and says, “how fine is this tree!” [or] “how fine is this newly ploughed field!” scripture accounts it to him as if he was mortally guilty.

Which suggests that important as it is to reflect on creation, interrupting learning to do this is a cause of mortal guilt. Why is this so bad?

  • Maybe it negates קבעת עתים לתורה? – Double AA Jun 4 at 12:51
  • If you look at what precedes your quote from Avot, @ the statement of Rabbi Elazar of Bartota, it clarifies intent. Namely that everything is from HaShem, including all of creation like Rambam states, "behold through them His wisdom". What Rabbi Jacob is emphasizing is that when one "interrupts" that study & forgets that connection, it is like a denial of G-d's oneness. And this is what follows in the next Mishna from Rabbi Dosta'i Bar Yanai in the name of Rabbi Meir about not forgetting what you saw at Sinai, namely the one G-d giving the one Torah. There is no conflict in these 2 views. – Yaacov Deane Jun 4 at 17:54
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So perhaps a starting point is to first look at the opening clause of the Mishna.

It begins: "Rabbi Jacob says: if one is studying while walking on the road and interrupts his study"

The first issue that is being criticised is the fact that a person is learning in a non-ideal scenario. Whilst on face value nowadays walking along the road doesn't seem so bad, Tosafos Yom Tov points to the fact that (at least at those times),the roads were places where danger lurked. So to be learning Torah in such a scenario is highlighted as a particular error. The idea being that one who forfeits the protective power of Torah, one leaves oneself vulnerable to potential danger. He additionally adds that while there are those who would say it is not dangerous, the fact that he is out and about in nature means he is a lot more likely to be distracted by the scenery.

So with that as a starting point - why then is such a person called out for 'mortal guilt'?

Rashi concurs with Tosafos Yom Tov that being out on the road is a dangerous exercise and as such, having relinquished the protection afforded to one who is engaged in Torah study he bears responsibility for whatever adversity he suffers on this danger-laden road. Rabbeinu Yonah similarly adds that by interrupting his learning by "שיחת חולין" - "mundane talk" he is thereby indicting himself.

The reasoning behind this strong condemnation of כְּאִלּוּ מִתְחַיֵּב בְּנַפְשׁוֹ is underlined by the Meiri who writes that since man by his nature is drawn to the mundane and meaningless, one seemingly minor interruption can lead to a series of distractions ultimately leading to the complete rejection of the yoke of Torah:

והטעם שטבעו של אדם נמשך אחר ההבלים והשיחות בטילות, וימשך ממנו בזה עד שיפרוק עול תורה לגמרי

Finally, it is written in Magen Avos how the Gemorah likens men to fish (refer to Chavakuk 1:14), and just as fish die when they come on to dry land, so too men die in a spiritual sense when they withdraw from Torah (he draws this from the gemorah in Avodah Zara 3b). As such one who who cuts his link to Torah (albeit fleetingly in this case) has severed his spiritual life support.

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While it is true that you have to recognize the beauty of nature, it shouldn't be done at the expense of Torah study.
The רע"ב on that mishnah in Pirkei Avos (3:7) says

מַעֲלִין עָלָיו כְּאִלּוּ מִתְחַיֵּב בְּנַפְשׁוֹ, מִפְּנֵי שֶׁהִפְסִיק מִמִּשְׁנָתוֹ
Scripture considers it as if he was liable for his life, because he interrupted his study

Since he stopped learning recognize nature, he is considered mortally guilty.
Being מבטל תורה is not something you want to do.

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  • So the Rambam's encouragement of studying nature is only for people who don't know how to study Torah? Seems counterintuitive as the Rambam himself seems to have studied nature and Torah. – Double AA Jun 4 at 13:47
  • What does the Bartenura add here that you quote him? – Double AA Jun 4 at 13:47
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    Why do you describe not learning Torah to deal with a different mitzva of ahavat and yirat hashem as bittul torah? Is it bittul torah to shake a lulav? – Double AA Jun 4 at 13:49
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    The reason he is considered mortally guilty is because he stopped learning. If he wasn't learning previously, he would be fine. – Dani Jun 4 at 13:51
  • I tend to agree, and that was apparent in the story. It doesn't support what you wrote though. – Double AA Jun 4 at 13:52
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not a contradiction. in the context of pirke avos learning Torah is how one develops love and fear of Gd. In this context interrupting one's learning by using a noble intention as an excuse is a distraction and not actually praising Gd. Everything has a time and place which gives context to the value of the action at that time it takes place

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Rav Avigdor Miller explained

When a person is learning gemara in the yeshiva, and it comes 1:30, and now the mashgiach gives a knock on the table and says, “Now it’s time for mussar,” so you close your gemara and you open a Chovos Halevavos, and you start talking about a tree. In שער הבחינה you learn about the trees! Will you say that he’s מתחייב בנפשו because he stopped learning and started talking about a tree?! No! It depends why you’re talking about a tree. If you’re a man who is an environmentalist, and you’re talking about conservation, like a good liberal; or even if stam you become enthusiastic about nature by itself, then Hakodosh Boruch Hu says, “Look, you’re in the middle of doing something more important. You’re talking in דברי תורה. And you feel that Torah is so unimportant that you can interrupt it to talk about something else?!”

And addressed the same question here

The Mishna says “ha’mafsik mi’mishnaso” (a person who stops his learning) and says “mah na’eh ilan zeh” (how beautiful is this tree). You have to understand: it’s talking about someone who is ‘mafsik’ – he is stopping his learning. However, suppose a person is learning by saying “mah na’eh ilan zeh” – how beautiful is this tree, how beautiful are the creations of Hashem, I’m thanking Hakodosh Boruch Hu. And he’s learning it. He’s learning about the Chochmas Hashem. He’s learning about the Chesed Hashem. Learning from the tree?!! Oh, that’s something different!

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  • If this were so, then why would interrupting learning to say a blessing שככה לו בעולמו on a pretty tree be a problem? Bartenura explains that is the case of the Mishna – Double AA Jun 5 at 13:53
  • @DoubleAA Good point - it seems Rav Avigdor Miller doesn't follow that understanding of the Bartenura. The OP was asking for the apparent conflict between Avos and the Rambam, which Rav Avigdor Miller seems to address. – NJM Jun 5 at 15:43

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