The g'mara on Eiruvin 55a, expounding "it is not in heaven...nor across the sea" (D'varim 30:12-13), says (Soncinco translation):

Raba expounded, It is not in heaven, it is not to be found with him who, because he possesses some knowledge of it, towers in his pride as high as the heavens [neither is it beyond the sea] it is not found with him who, because of some knowledge of it, is as expansive in his self-esteem as the sea.

R. Johanan expounded: It is not in heaven, it is not to be found among the arrogant; neither is it beyond the sea, it is not to be found among merchants or dealers.

Three of these cases address personal qualities -- pride, excessive self-esteem, and arrogance -- and then there are the "merchants or dealers". (A footnote explains that this is a reference to maritime trade.) What's wrong with them?

I wondered if seafarers didn't have time/ability to learn torah. Someone else at minyan this morning thought this was a reference to people who teach torah only for pay. But we're just guessing.


Rabbi Avraham Danczig -- best-known for his work Chayei Adam (c. 1800), describes his own life's struggle as a businessman trying to find time for Torah in the introduction to his work Chochmas Adam. He discusses it there.

It's not that merchants are arrogant, the point was a warning "if you let yourself get too caught up in your work, you'll never have time or attention to learn Torah." The merchants the Talmud was describing had their jobs consume their lives 24/6. Rabbi Danczig writes:

Now I know that some will cast aspersions upon me, saying " 'What, and Saul's a prophet too now?!' -- we know this fellow, he's a merchant who's been traveling to Frankfurt and Leipzig more than 15 years -- when could he have studied Torah? The Torah says 'it's not across the ocean', that you won't find scholars who are merchants!" Please understand, my brother, that my travels to far-reaching places was not to assemble riches, G-d be my witness! Only to feed my family; it's something I inherited from my holy ancestors ... Rabbi Shmuel Danzig was a holy man ... and his approach was never to profit from Torah. He had ten children, all of whom he was able to feed with dignity because of his hard work. He gave public lectures on mussar, but never took a cent for it. So I have attempted to follow in his footsteps ...

Rabbi Danczig says that despite all his hard work in trade, he never lost hope for studying Torah and kept at it.

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The ben yehoyodo asks the question differently. Why just choose merchants meaning those who cross the sea, and dealers or brokers who stay in the city and not labourers or workers. Rashi says, to learn one has to be seen and not seen. Meaning not being seen all the time in the streets which dealers are. He says that a dealer has to be available at any time so can never fix a time for learning. Also he can never tell how long a deal will take so again can never fix a time.

He adds on, a worker's mind is not so busy all the time. He can relax over a gemoro. A dealer can never relax he is always thinking of his clients.

Today with cell phones one sees this all the time. This is the biggest stumbling block to limmud hatorah. One's mind is never free.

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  • Oh, interesting -- I had assumed that the barrier for seafarers wouldn't just be time but proximity, being away from home, the yeshiva, sources, etc. An in-town merchant, on the other hand, can in principle study before or after doing his job each day. (Whether he actually does so is a different matter.) – Monica Cellio May 2 '13 at 17:54
  • The gemoro gives two examples only one the merchant is the seafarer. The other one is a dealer or broker who stays home. – user2709 May 2 '13 at 20:18
  • I wasn't sure if the "dealer" was somebody who automatically stayed home, versus a traveling salesman (for example). – Monica Cellio May 2 '13 at 20:21

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