• Should Yeshiva Bochurim Be Given Incentives?

    From the desk of Rabbi Gershon Avtzon, Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivas Lubavitch Cincinnati: I am a principal of a Mesivta high school. Besides the regular curriculum on learning, there are many incentive-based extra curricular learning programs that take place. In most cases, these programs are run by the Talmidim Hashluchim. My question: Does the Rebbe agree with incentive-based programs, and if yes, are there specific guidelines that he put in place? • Click to Read


    I am a principal of a Mesivta high school. Besides the regular curriculum on learning, there are many incentive-based extra curricular learning programs that take place. In most cases, these programs are run by the Talmidim Hashluchim. My question: Does the Rebbe agree with incentive-based programs, and if yes, are there specific guidelines that he put in place?


    I would like to give some background for our discussion: The question of learning for a reward, as opposed for the sake of learning itself, is not a new question. Our Chazal have discussed it a great length and have come to the conclusion that “A person should always engage in Torah study and performance of mitzvos, even if he does so not for their own sake (“lishma”), as through the performance of mitzvos not for their own sake, one gains understanding and comes to perform them for their own sake.” (Pesachim 50b)

    In regards to young children, the Rambam famously rules (Hilchos Teshuva 10:5): “When one teaches children, women, and most of the common people, one should teach them to serve out of fear and in order to receive a reward. As their knowledge grows and their wisdom increases, this secret should be revealed to them [slowly,] bit by bit. They should become accustomed to this concept gradually until they grasp it and know it and begin serving out of love.”

    Yeshiva Bochurim:

    Our discussion is primarily about bochurim in Yeshiva, which should be learning for a more altruistic reason other than rewards etc. As mentioned, in regards to children, the Rebbe wrote: “It is a very good idea that you arrange a contest and rewards program, as our Chazal tell us that “Jealousy amongst sages brings more wisdom”. (Igros, Vol. 18 p. 225; #6726).

    The following are letters that the Rebbe wrote about rewards for Talmidim in Yeshiva:

    (1) It is important to point out that we are discussing rewards for extra curricular learning and activities. In regards to rewarding required activity (those that come to davening, learn during the seder etc) the Rebbe writes:

    “It is important to know the standard that is set in other (non-chassidishe) Yeshivos. As it is important that it is recognizable that this is a Chassidishe Yeshiva—with higher expectations—and people coming from other Yeshivos should not feel that they went down in spiritual expectations and standards”. (Igros, Vol. 11 p. 276; #3663).

    (2) To a woman who wanted to create a rewards program for Yeshiva bochurim, the Rebbe responded:

    “I did not write to you about this idea, because historically, this idea (of giving out rewards) was not a regular thing in Jewish circles. While I am not against the idea, I was not advocating for it because the idea of a Yeshiva is that the students are focused on growing spiritually and not focused on physical rewards. However, recently, many Yeshivos have started giving out rewards in the form of sefarim, but not money.” (Igros, Vol. 12 p. 376; #4193).

    [Some fascinating historical context of this letter: The letter was written to Mrs. Miri Vilensky from Cincinnati, who was married to the HUC librarian Dr. Michoel Vilensky. Dr. Vilesnky personally learned in Lubavitch and was the son of the famous Chassid R’ Chaim Ber Vilensky from Kremenchuk. The Rebbe was very close with him, as they spent time together in Berlin.]

    (3) “I mentioned many times—and the reason is easily comprehensible—that the prizes should be sifrei kodesh.” (Shaarei Chinuch p. 238).

    The Moshiach Connection: 

    Notwithstanding all the above, it is very important to point out that the Rebbe—especially in later years—advocated for a completely different chinuch system, even for children:

    We all know the story (Hayom Yom for 9 Cheshvan), that “When my father the Rebbe Rashab was four or five years old he went to his grandfather, the Tzemach Tzedek and began to cry as he asked, “Why did Hashem show Himself to our father Avraham but not to us?” The Tzemach Tzedek answered him: “When a tzadik decides at the age of ninety-nine years that he should be circumcised, he deserves that Hashem appear to him.”

    The Rebbe (Likkutei Sichos, Vol 15 p. 133) learns the following lesson from the revelation of this story in our generation: Our holy Rabbeim have opened a new channel of chinuch in our generation. Namely, that through proper education, we can break the natural tendency of Jewish children and we can train a child to not need the incentives of physical prizes, rather to truly want to see G-dliness.

    The Rebbe adds: “If you see a child that does not seem receptive to such a spiritual approach, it is not that the child is not capable of being receptive, it is a problem with the educator. The educator must not be speaking words that are coming from his heart.”



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