Academic journal article The Jewish Quarterly Review

Who Is Rich? the Poor in Early Rabbinic Judaism

Academic journal article The Jewish Quarterly Review

Who Is Rich? the Poor in Early Rabbinic Judaism

Article excerpt


POVERTY AND SUPPORT for the poor have long been central concerns of rabbinic Judaism.1 The earliest works of rabbinic law, the Mishnah and Tosefta, which took shape in Roman Palestine in the early third century C.E., devote entire tractates to instructions on how one ought to assist the needy. Mishnah Pe'ah and Tosefta Pe'ah discuss allocations of produce for the poor at the time of the harvest, such as pe'ah (the produce in the "comer" of a field) and "gleanings" (produce that fell during the reaping), as well as the tithe for the poor, and charity.2 To illuminate rabbinic Judaism's foundational discourses on this topic, it is crucial to examine the socioeconomic position of the tannaim who authored and redacted these texts and how this may have influenced their teachings.3

In this essay, I explore the relationship between the economic situations of the tannaim themselves and their halakhot concerning the indigent by focusing on compilations from the tannaitic corpus within the context of third-centuiy C.E. Roman Palestine.4 I find that the early rabbinic movement included those who were wealthy as well as individuals who belonged to the middle strata of society. Moreover, the tannaim view the poor as "others," a term I use (following Hayes) to indicate those perceived as the "mirror opposites" of the self, who demarcated the socioeconomic boundaries of the early rabbinic movement.5 The poor, moreover, were objectified as instruments needed for the rabbis and their audience to properly fulfill certain religious obligations.

ECONOMIC ASPECTS OF THE RABBINIC SELF The early rabbinic movement exhibited a great deal of economic diver-/ sity, in both the sources and extent of its members' income and accumu. lated wealth. Most prominent were livelihoods directly related to the land. Many texts address the concerns and perspectives of those who own land and manage its cultivation. These include discussions on the acquisition and ownership of land, the rights of its buyers and sellers, and teachings that privilege land above other media of exchange in marriage settlements and compensation for damages.6 The laws for leasing land in mBava Metoi'a reflect an interest in maintaining a plot's long-term productivity-prioritizing the interests of a landowner over those of a lessee.7 Many topics of discussion, such as when one party owns a cistern that is surrounded by the land of another, are relevant only to those who own land.8 In short, tannaitic discourse often prioritizes the concerns of landowners-reflecting the interests of the authors, the intended audience, or both.9

The authors and redactors of tannaitic compilations also choose to depict the members of their movement as owners and managers of land. R. Yohanan b. Matthiah and his family are said to have owned and operated a farm that was profitable enough to hire labor.10 R. Eliezer owned a vineyard, R. Ishmael owned land in Kefar Aziz, and R. Simeon Shazuri was from a family of wealthy landowners.* 11 Landownership is presupposed when R. Eleazar b. Diglai refers to the goats kept by his father's household.12 Rabban Gamaliel II's tenants and hired laborers raised cattle and cultivated crops on his land.13

Activities not directly related to the land and its cultivation-primarily crafts and commerce-tended to be viewed with disdain by ancient tauthors. "Wage labor," Cicero writes, "is sordid and unworthy of a fine man," and Seneca writes, "There was no beauty or honor in the arts of the workman."14 Many examples of mimical attitudes toward these professions can likewise be found in early rabbinic texts. Typical are the words attributed to Abba Gorion of Zaidan, who identifies animal drivers, barbers, sailors, and shopkeepers as those who engage in a "craft of robbers."15 Likewise, such "practical" or "worldly" professions are placed on the lowest rung of vocational hierarchies. Sifre Deuteronomy, for example, claims that R. Yohanan b. Zakkai worked as a merchant for forty years before ascending to greater heights. …

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