Ben Bag Bag would say: turn it and turn it again, for all is in it; see through it; grow old and worn in it; do not budge from it, for there is nothing that works better than it. – Avos 5, 22
While the actual words of the mishna are cryptic, it is clear that Ben Bag Bag is discussing the sublimity of the Torah. He seems to be advising us to delve in Torah study because everything is contained within the Torah. He is telling us us to use the Torah as a looking glass of sorts so as to give us a unique perspective, and that since the Torah is so marvelous we should never budge from it because it is the most effective device there is.
The Torah is certainly paramount. It is God-given and therefore unparalleled by anything contrived by Man. Nonetheless the Gemara is replete with references to other wisdoms, be it Greek philosophy of yore or any other sort. It therefore leaves us to wonder what Ben Bag Bag means. Does he mean that all other knowledge is contained within the Torah, or merely that Torah knowledge is far superior to any other knowledge, and therefore that there is no reason in the world to study anything else when one could study Torah instead? If he means that the Torah contains all available knowledge within it, then why would Chazal ever feel it necessary to quote any other source?
Rav Ovadia Mebartenura seems to allude to the later explanation. Rav Ovadia Mebartenura quotes a Tosefta in Avoda Zara that states: “They asked Rebbi Yehoshua: May one teach his son Greek? To which he replied: one may teach his son Greek at a time that is not day nor night as it is stated in scripture “And thou shall muse over it day and night.” Rav Ovadia Mebartenura explains this to mean not that one should never learn other studies. He explains it to mean that one shouldn’t learn other studies at a time when one could study Torah. He says that one should study other subjects only in instances that one cannot study Torah, like when someone is making use of a restroom.
There are differing opinions and approaches to various issues in many mishnayos and medrashim. Nonetheless, these various opinions and approaches are always presented in an objective scholarly fashion. Pirkei Avos is an exception to this rule. Throughout Pirkei Avos various Rabbis are mentioned as the preceptors of various axioms but we never bring conflicting opinions with regards to the ethos set out by the differing Torah giants. It would seem that this is because only the non-arguable precepts were chosen from each individual Rabbi to be taught in Pirkei Avos.
There are many gemaros and medrashim that discuss whether one should or shouldn’t learn secular studies. This has been an ongoing argument with various fundamental issues at its core to the present day.
Just like all other mishnayos in Pirkei Avos this mishna is tenable and is held as an objective truth of Torah Judaism. Ben Bag-Bag is telling us something that could be consonant with all approaches to secular studies,
If we analyze the mishna carefully we will notice that aside from providing us with a crucial piece of advice, Ben Bag-Bag is instructing us rhetorically. He tells us to review Torah constantly in the literal sense of viewing the Torah from all angles possible. He tells us that we should view the world through the looking glass of Torah and that we should grow old with it. Then he closes with explaining that there is nothing more productive then Torah.
There are many concepts that we are cognizant of in our daily lives that we take for granted. We consider them to be innate. However a young child is unaware of these notions until he experiences them. In life every experience and sensation is one of ontological value. We are constantly learning. These learning experiences are seemingly mundane. It is thus that passively we all attain some general knowledge.
Torah is Hashem’s Divine will. Hashem created the world and Hashem gave us the Torah as a manual to living in His world. It is thus that the Torah must inherently subsume all knowledge. This doesn’t mean that one who studies Torah will know how to operate on someone just from Torah study. Nor does it mean that someone can have a command of the sciences because they have studied Torah. What it does mean is that someone who has a command of Torah will have a different perspective on all knowledge that he acquires. Torah provides an accurate vantage point to everything in life. What Ben Bag-Bag is clearly saying is that one needs to excogitate over the Torah so as that one can transform one’s Torah study into a living Torah; to a Torah that can serve as a looking glass into everything else in life. Since one is supposed to live Torah it is incumbent upon us to grow old with and through the Torah.