23 June 2006

Who is a Wealthy Person?

The idea for this posting has been laying around for a few months now, so I figured I'd get it off of my head.
Many Jews are aware of Ben Zoma's famous statement (mAvos 4.1) that describes admirable traits of people, going through wisdom, strength, wealth, and honor and taking them out of their normal social context and putting them into a religious framework, citing Scriptural proofs for each of them. The one upon which I am focusing here is his on wealthiness:
איזהו עשיר? השמח בחלקו, שנאמר "יגיע כפיך כי תאכל אשריך וטוב לך." 'אשריך' בעולם הזה, 'וטוב לך' לעולם הבא
Who is it that is wealthy? One who rejoices in his portion, as it is said (Ps. 128.2), "When you will eat of the labor of your hands, you shall be happy and it will be good with you." 'you shall be happy' - in this world; 'and it will be good with you' - for the world to come.
One further interesting thing that Ben Zoma does is to notice the seeming redundancy with the latter part of the statement and bifurcate the timing of the goodness.
Anyways, that's fairly well known. But when I came across a beraisa on Shabbas 25b, I learned of other tannaitic perspectives:
איזה עשיר?
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."
To me the only one that sticks out in this text is Rabbi Akiva's statement, as the other three are all clearly indicative of wealth. Perhaps a woman of fine actions is found in the upper levels of society and one must be wealthy enough to be with the in-crowd. Otherwise, it sticks out, which probably is so.
In my estimation (no, I haven't done research on this topic, though I'm sure it's something about which people have written already - who knows? maybe Prof. Tirosh-Samuelson wrote about it in her book on Jewish happiness), Ben Zoma wasn't arguing with the other sages in going about estimating wealth, but rather showing a different angle to it. Yes, there are practical considerations to determining one who is wealthy, but there is also a more democratic and personal lesson to everybody: Even if someone isn't wise, strong, wealthy, or honored as society may have it, one may still be so in the light of Scripture. (Who knows? Maybe I will expand upon this one day in a derasha.)
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jdub said...

I think R. Meir's comment can be read similarly to R. Akiva's and Ben Zoma's. It's not a material measurement of wealth, but refers to one who is happy or comfortable -- without reference to a quantitative metric.

R. Tarfon's is understandable in light of his immense wealth (he's also the Tanna that said one can only light shabbos candles with olive oil -- the most expensive substance). You should check out Louis Finkelstein's book on R. Akiva, in which he posits a Marxist historical view of the Tannaim, essentially arguing that the Sanhedrin was always divided in a barely civil class war.

Drew_Kaplan said...

Thank you for the Finkelstein reference.
It's true that Rabbi Meir's statement can be read that way, though it could also be read saying one has amassed enough wealth where one is not always needing to work so much.

David said...

It's interesting to distinguish between objective (R. Meir, Ben Zoma) and relative (R. Tarfon, R. Yose, R. Akiva) descriptions of wealth. Having 100 vineyeards, fields, & servants is only wealth in a certain context. "Pleasant in actions" clearly depends on social norms. What is considered pleasant in one culture may be considered unrefined in another. While having a bathroom near your dining room is certainly convenient, I think indoor plumbing has rendered it no longer a sign of wealth.

However, being satisfied with your personal wealth and taking comfort in it transcends differences among culture, economy, and technology. Perhaps that's why Ben Zoma is quoted so often.

socialworker/frustrated mom said...

Thanks nice thought.

Tim Lieder said...

I'm assuming that R. Yose means indoor plumbing, because it's strange to think that getting a bad seat in a restaurant is a sign of wealth.