Q. Since Pirkei Avot warns, “Do not make the Torah a spade to dig with”, does this not mean that rabbis should work without a salary?
A. The passage you have quoted (Avot 4:7) has two halves. The first says, “Do not make the Torah a crown to aggrandise yourself”. This means, do not study the Torah for the purpose of status, office or advantage, but for the sake of God.
The second half speaks of not making the Torah a spade to dig with. This means not seeking material benefit from one’s Torah study. Ideally, a scholar would earn a livelihood from some other source. This is why Talmudic sages were woodchoppers, water-carriers, cobblers and even gladiators. Tractate N’darim (37a) quotes the verse, “Behold, I have taught you statutes and ordinances, even as the Lord my God commanded me” (Deut. 4:5), and adds, “even as I have taught you without charge, so should you teach others without charge”.
However, if a rabbi who has to make a living from some other occupation would thereby neglect the study of Torah, so that the Torah would eventually be forgotten, the community is obligated to support him so that he will be free to study. This is not regarded as exploiting the Torah for personal advantage. The rabbi is not putting the Torah to his own service: he is serving and honouring the Torah.
The principle utilised by halachah in fixing a level of financial support for a rabbi is that he is receiving compensation for being unable to follow another profession. Hence it is for the sake of the Torah that the rabbi is released from the need to engage in another occupation. Whether that means that a rabbi who might otherwise, for example, have been a well-paid barrister or surgeon is entitled to be paid a salary at barrister’s or surgeon’s rates is a moot point.