I have met some torah scholars who appear to be learning quite a bit, yet their character traits appear to be in the lacking.

Is torah study supposed to refine one's character? If so, how can we explain this.

(disclaimer: I don't mean to say this is widespread, just that it happens sometimes)

(source for torah study refining character: The gemara Shabbos 88a discusses whether Torah study or the observance of Torah commandments is greater. It concludes that Torah study is greater, for it leads to action. It seems here that our Sages are instructing us that instilling Jewish values in character as well as Torah observance is most effectively achieved through studying Torah.)

  • 3
    Can you provide a source for the idea that Torah study refines one's character?
    – Isaac Moses
    May 19, 2013 at 13:08
  • 2
    Maybe their character was even worse before? May 19, 2013 at 15:56
  • @MonicaCellio sometimes yes. not always
    – ray
    May 19, 2013 at 17:39
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    maybe they're doing it wrong.
    – Menachem
    May 19, 2013 at 18:07
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    Are you asking if Torah study refines character, or assuming it does and asking for exceptions?
    – Double AA
    May 19, 2013 at 19:06

2 Answers 2


Torah is studied properly if the goal is to observe that which is learned (Avos 4:5). If someone studies the many halachos that have bearing on one's character (e.g. those related to kindness, honesty, alacrity, discipline, etc.) without meaning to fulfill what he learns, that is not proper Torah study, and cannot be expected to improve his character.

The Y'rushalmi (Shabbos 7a,b) quotes R' Yochanan that someone who studies Torah without meaning to fulfull it would be better off if he was never brought into the world. The gemara (Ta'anis 7a) writes תניא היה ר' בנאה אומר... וכל העוסק בתורה שלא לשמה נעשית לו סם המות, meaning that Torah study actually has a negative impact on those who study it with foul intentions (which is what lo lishmah means in this context).

  • ok. but the torah is inherently holy and should help one even if he does not have proper intentions as the ramchal says in derech Hashem in the section on torah.
    – ray
    May 20, 2013 at 5:07
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    @R.S. There are different categories of lo lishmah - some are acceptable and even appropriate stepping stones that can ultimately lead to lishmah (P'sachim 50b). Studying in hopes of receiving a reward (which is acceptable, if not per-se ideal) is not the same as studying with no intention of fulfilling the Torah (which is improper) or studying with the intent to misuse Torah knowledge (which is considered poisonous to the soul).
    – Fred
    May 20, 2013 at 6:08
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    yes but in my question i'm referring to average people who certainly dont have intent to misuse
    – ray
    May 20, 2013 at 6:17
  • @R.S. It's hard to know that for certain, but anyway that's not my main point. My main point is that if someone learns Torah without planning to apply it, how can you expect him to absorb Torah values into his behavior? The Yerushalmi quoted in my answer is relevant to this type of Torah learning.
    – Fred
    May 20, 2013 at 6:50
  • "Halevai oti azavu v’torati shamaru" - "If only they would abandon ME but keep my torah" (Eicha Rabba, Petichta 2). Rabbi Nissan Kaplan explains this to mean - "if they abandoned mitzvot but kept learning, they would be brought back to the good". so it seems torah does have this power.
    – ray
    May 27, 2013 at 10:23

It is worthwhile to quote Rambam's words in Laws of Talmud Torah (4: 1):

הָרַב שֶׁאֵינוֹ הוֹלֵךְ בְּדֶרֶךְ טוֹבָה אַף עַל פִּי שֶׁחָכָם גָּדוֹל הוּא וְכָל הָעָם צְרִיכִין לוֹ אֵין מִתְלַמְּדִין מִמֶּנּוּ עַד שׁוּבוֹ לַמּוּטָב. שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (מלאכי ב-ז) 'כִּי שִׂפְתֵי כֹהֵן יִשְׁמְרוּ דַעַת וְתוֹרָה יְבַקְשׁוּ מִפִּיהוּ כִּי מַלְאַךְ ה' צְבָאוֹת הוּא'. אָמְרוּ חֲכָמִים אִם הָרַב דּוֹמֶה לְמַלְאַךְ ה' צְבָאוֹת תּוֹרָה יְבַקְּשׁוּ מִפִּיהוּ אִם לָאו אַל יְבַקְּשׁוּ תּוֹרָה מִפִּיהוּ

That is: a rabbi who behaves improperly, even if he is a great sage whom the entire nation depends upon; we do not learn from him until he returns to proper conduct.

This certainly implies that one can gain Torah knowledge without improving ones character.

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