Who is a rich man?

Rabbi Meir said: He who takes pleasure from his wealth.
Rabbi Tarfon said: He who has one hundred vineyards and one hundred fields,
and one hundred servants working on them.
Rabbi Akiva said: Anyone who has a wife who is pleasant in her ways.
Rabbi Yossi said: He has a toilet near his table. [1]

Throughout the Rabbinic teaching there is found advocated a wise moderation, and both extremes — of austerity and hedonism — are censured as harmful. No virtue was attached to poverty as such; rather the contrary. "Where there is no meal, there is no Torah,"[2] it was remarked, by which was intended that the lack of proper sustenance hinders the acquisition of that knowledge which is essential to the fulfillment of the Divine will. "Worse is poverty in a man's house than fifty plagues."[3] The Rabbis perceived value in such amenities as "a beautiful home, a beautiful wife, and beautiful furniture as means of putting a man into a cheerful frame of mind."[4] They even declared: "In the Hereafter a man will have to give judgment and reckoning for all that his eye saw but that he did not eat"[5] and their definition of a rich man is: "He who derives pleasure from his wealth."[6]

It is related that because of his criticism of the Roman administration, R. Simeon b. Yochai had to hide himself to save his life. He and his son concealed themselves in a cave for twelve years. On hearing that the king was dead and the decree rescinded, he came out of his hiding-place. He saw men ploughing and sowing, and exclaimed: "They forsake the life of eternity and busy themselves with the life that is transitory." Wherever he and his son turned their eyes, the land was at once consumed by fire. A bat kol issued forth and said to them: "Have you left your cave to destroy My world? Go back to it!"[7] The maintenance of the social order has God's approval; therefore man is entitled to enjoy the fruits of his labor.

But the other extreme has likewise to be avoided. To accumulate riches in order to indulge in luxury is not in accord with His will. "When Solomon erected the Temple, he said to the Holy One, blessed be He, in his prayer, 'Sovereign of the Universe! if a man prays to You to give him wealth and You know that he will abuse it, do not grant it to him; but if You see a man using his riches well, grant his request; as it is said, 'Render unto every man according to all his ways, whose heart You know.'"[8]

There is a wealth of meaning in the definition: "Who is rich? He who rejoices in his lot; as it is said, 'When you eat the labor of yours hands, you are happy and it shall be well with you.'"[9] "You are happy" in this world, "and it shall be well with you" in the World to Come."[10] This crystallizes the viewpoint of the Rabbis towards the material world.


[1] BT Shabbat 25b. The four rabbis mentioned in this passage were 2nd century tannaim, i.e., teachers mentioned in the Mishnah. [back]
[2] Pirkei Avot 3:21 [back]
[3] BT Baba Batra 116a [back]
[4] BT Berakhot 57b [back]
[5] Kiddushin 66 [back]
[6] BT Shabbat 25b [back]
[7] BT Shabbat 33b [back]
[8] II Chron. 6:30; Exod. Rabbah 31:5 [back]
[9] Psalm 127:2 [back]
[10] Pirkei Avot 4:1 [back]


From Abraham Cohen, Everyman's Talmud: The Major Teachings of the Rabbinic Sages, by 1949 by E.P. Dutton, reprinted by Schocken Books, 1995. Reprinted with the permission of the publisher.

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