Let us first make a list of some of the most important rules:
1. An eminent Torah scholar should be exempted from most kinds of communal taxes (SA YD 243:2);
2. If there are several Jewish merchants with the same merchandise, a Torah scholar is given priority in selling (SA YD 243:4);
3. Every person should strive to do business with a Torah scholar (Rambam De’ot 6:2).
Each rule has a different rationale. The exemption from taxes is not meant to lighten the scholar's burden, to enable him to learn; we know this because the exemption applies even to a wealthy Torah scholar. Rather, this exemption is a way of showing our respect for the unique standing of a talmid chacham.
The priority given a Torah scholar in selling does seem to be intended to enable him to take as little time as possible from his studies. One piece of evidence for this is that this law is recorded with the law which seeks to minimize the time a talmid chacham has to wait for a hearing in court.
The rule urging all of us to do business with a Torah scholar could also be understood in the same vein: if every- one gives him precedence, his business will thrive and he will have more time to spend learning. Yet this is not the rationale understood by the Rambam! Unlike the previous two laws, which the Rambam included in the laws of Torah study (6:10), this law is included in the laws of deot or perception. Interestingly, the intended beneficiary here is not the Torah scholar, but rather the person who does business with him. Here is the language of the Rambam:
"It is a positive commandment to cleave to scholars and their students in order to learn from their ways, as it is said, 'And cleave to Him'. Is it possible for a human to cleave to the Divine presence? Rather, our sages said in the explanation of this commandment, cleave to scholars and their students. Therefore, a person needs to strive to marry the daughter of a Torah scholar, to marry his daughter to a Torah scholar, to eat and drink with Torah scholars, and to do business with a Torah scholar, and to associate with them in every way."
In other words, we do want to minimize the amount of business a Torah scholar needs to engage in but not too much! If Torah scholars are completely estranged from the world of business, then we "commoners" are unable to fulfill the Torah mitzvah of learning from their ways in this most important area of life.
Perhaps even the second law can be understood in this light. By giving the Torah scholar an advantage in business, through priority in selling, we give him an incentive to engage in business, since he is able to be successful without taking excessive time from his studies. This incentive may not be important for the Torah scholar, but it is important for us; it provides us with the irreplaceable opportunity to observe the talmid chacham's conduct in business from close up, so that we have a model to emulate. Only in this way can we ensure that our own business conduct lives up to Torah ideals.
Appropriately, I am indebted to the businessman and Torah scholar Yossi Tzuria of NDS for the main insight of this shiur.
Rabbi Meir's book Meaning in Mitzvot is now available as an e-book through Amazon, ibooks, Google Play and B&N.