Who is Wealthy? [איזה הוא עשיר] (or Who is a Rich Person?) [Talmud Tuesday]
איזה הוא עשיר?
השמח בחלקו, שנאמר יגיע כפיך, כי תאכל; אשריך, וטוב לך
Who is a rich man?
One who is happy with his portion, as it is said, “You shall enjoy the fruit of your labors; you shall be happy and it will be good for you.”
For many people who come across this text perceive it to be the definitive rabbinic Jewish perspective on this issue; after all, this is the only time this question is asked and answered in rabbinic literature, right?
There is another tannaitic (early rabbinic) text which asks this question and not only provides an answer, but provides the answers of several rabbis (bShabbat 25b):
כל שיש לו נחת רוח בעשרו, דברי רבי מאיר
רבי טרפון אומר: כל שיש לו ק’ כרמים ומאה שדות וק’ עבדים שעובדין בהן
רבי עקיבא אומר: כל שיש לו אשה נאה במעשים
רבי יוסי אומר: כל שיש לו בית הכסא סמוך לשולחנו
Who is a wealthy person?
“Anybody who has pleasure (or comfort) in his wealth,” the words of Rabbi Meir.
Rabbi Tarfon says, “Anybody who has 100 vineyards, 100 fields, and 100 servants who are working in them.”
Rabbi Akiva says, “Anybody who has a wife pleasant in actions.”
Rabbi Yose says, “Anybody who has a bathroom (or a privy) close to his [eating] table.”
With these four tannaim, there are now four more opinions on this question. Rabbi Tarfon’s opinion is certainly not like that of Ben Zoma’s, which is not surprising for Rabbi Tarfon.1 While it could be argued that Rabbi Meir’s opinion and Ben Zoma’s opinions are really the same,2 Rabbi Samuel Eidels argues that it seems more likely that Rabbi Meir is discussing someone who has a lot of riches.3 So, Ben Zoma clearly is staking out a unique position amongst the tannaim on this question.
Here, we see real considerations of wealth in the quantitative sense, whereas Shimon ben Zoma’s answer to this question is actually paradoxical. Indeed, the style of question and answer contrary to what the typical answer would have been is a Stoic paradox, a form of Greek rhetoric that Shimon ben Zoma is using,4 while the rabbis in the beraita try to figure out how to quantitatively define it. Shimon Ben Zoma’s rhetorical format is similar to “the famed Socratic approach of stimulating people to think by asking them to define some basic, seemingly simple, concepts, and then, by questioning such definitions, compelling people to reflect on the issue and not merely to repeat current opinions.”5
I think that when discussing this question, it is important to mention the other rabbis’ perspectives not only for the sake of completeness, but also because some people may simply roll their eyes at the idea that the Jewish view of someone who is wealthy is merely the one who is happy what they have and that material wealth is insignificant. This is especially so for those who seek it – why not quantitatively define it?
Yes, our definitions will be different than those of the tannaim (who speaks of vineyards, fields and servants these days?), but why not seriously consider what it means to be wealthy? After all, the sages of our tradition sought to define it.
1. “The association of Tarfon with material goods, particularly slaves and fields, is a motif in several of the traditions about him (b. Ned. 49b, b. Ned. 62, Lev. R. 34:16).” (Joel Gereboff, Rabbi Tarfon: The Tradition, the Man, and Early Rabbinic Judaism (Missoula, MT: Scholars Press, 1979), 252.)↩
2. Rashi, Shabbat 25b, s.v. נחת רוח בעשרו.↩
3. Maharsha, Shabbat 25b, s.v. כל שיש לו נחת.↩
4. Henry A. Fischel, Rabbinic Literature and Greco-Roman Philosophy, 70-73. See also Armand Kaminka, “Les Rapports Entre le Rabbinisme et La Philosophie Stoicienne” Revue des Études Juives 89 (1926), 240.↩
5. Mordecai Roshwald, “The Teaching of Ben Zoma,” Judaism 42, 1 (Winter 1993), 25.↩