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I recently came across a report of Ben Zoma being rich, and it made me wonder whether there's any relationship between that and his famous definition of "richness" in Avot.


A baraita quoted in the Talmud (Berachot 58a) tells us that Ben Zoma, contemplating a very large crowd of Jews in Jerusalem, blessed God for the fact that He "created all these to serve me."1 He went on to explain that unlike the original human (Adam), who had to produce all of his needs (e.g. food and clothing) entirely by himself, "I wake up and find all of these prepared for me. All nations diligently come to the entrance of my home, and I wake up and find all of these before me." In other words, he has access to a multitude of goods that he didn't produce himself.

Rashi explains "all nations diligently come to the entrance of my home" to mean "He was rich, so they all came to him for trade."2

I find this report that Ben Zoma was rich interesting both internally and with respect to another source. Internally, I wonder why it was necessary to say that Ben Zoma, personally, was rich, since one did not have to be personally rich, even 2000 years ago, to have much more access to trade goods than the original human did.3

But also, we know that Ben Zoma had his own definition for rich, as seen in the Mishna - Avot 4:1:

אֵיזֶהוּ עָשִׁיר, הַשָּׂמֵחַ בְּחֶלְקוֹ, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (תהלים קכח) יְגִיעַ כַּפֶּיךָ כִּי תֹאכֵל אַשְׁרֶיךָ וְטוֹב לָךְ. אַשְׁרֶיךָ, בָּעוֹלָם הַזֶּה. וְטוֹב לָךְ, לָעוֹלָם הַבָּא.‏

Who is the rich one? He who is happy with his lot, as it says, "When you eat [from] the work of your hands, you will be happy, and it will be well with you" (Psalms 128:2). "You will be happy" in this world, and "it will be well with you" in the world to come.4

This makes me wonder whether it's possible that when Rashi said that Ben Zoma was rich, he meant "rich" in Ben Zoma's sense - happy with his lot. Of course, it's not obvious how being "rich," by this definition, would result, as Rashi says, in access to trade. However, the context there is Ben Zoma expressing a particular kind of happiness with his lot.

Further complicating matters, the verse Ben Zoma quotes in Avot speaks of the virtue of consuming "the work of your hands," while in Berachot, Ben Zoma was expressing particular happiness at not having to depend on the work of his own hands, as the original human had.

As I've demonstrated, there seems to be a significant amount of conceptual overlap, and possibly conflict, between these two sources. Do any commentaries explore this interaction?


1. Talmud translations from the William Davidson Talmud, via Sefaria. I elided their inserted elucidations for this context.
2. My translation.
3. Hat-tip to Prof. Russell Roberts for instigating the discussion by citing Berachot, and then raising this question on Twitter.
4. Sefaria community translation.

  • Compare to Koheleth, where King Shlomo starts the Sefer by informing us that he tried everything before declaring "all is Hevel - void". Similarly, Shimon Ben Zoma could only be an authority on the subject if he knew what riches and Hard Word were. – Danny Schoemann May 6 '18 at 14:11
2
+100

R. Pesachya Menkin appears to link the two statements in his commentary to the mishnah in Avot.

He explains the statement in Berachot as commenting on the fact that so much work has to go into every thing you have and consume (e.g. plowing, planting, harvesting, etc. to make bread) and it is all done by others while you just get the final product. The statement in Avot is saying that when you have this awareness, you see how wealthy you really are.

Nachalat Avot 4:1

אבל באמת המתבונן היטב יראה שכל אדם באשר הוא הוא עשיר שכל מלאכתו נעשית על ידי אחרים הא לך חשבון צדק הפת שאדם אוכל כמה מלאכות דרושות לכך עד שיהיה מוכשר לאכלו חרישה זריעה קצירה דישה ברירה טחינה לישה ואפיה ורדיה וכן מלבוש האדם כמה מלאכות ראוי לזה עד שיהיה ראוי ללבישה גיזה טויה שזירה אריגה נתיחה תפירה ומכונת התפירה כמה מלאכות דרושות לה כמה גלגלים ואופנים וכלים מכלים שונים דרושות עד שתהיה ראויה לתפירה וכן הלאה כל מה שהאדם משתמש בו כמה מלאכות שונות דרושות עד שיהיה ראוי לאותו תשמיש שהוא משתמש בו והקב"ה ברא את כל אלה שכולם כאחד ימלאו את החיסרון אשר יחסר לכל אחד ואחד בהתבונן האדם אל כל אלה כמה ישמח לבו על עשירתו המופלגת את הרעיון הזה כבר אמר בן זומא כמה יגיעות יגע אדם הראשון עד שמצא פת לאכול חרש וזרע וקצר ועמר ודש וזרה ובירר וטחן ורקד ולש ואפה ואחר כך אכל ואני משכים ומוצא כל אלו כשהוא מתוקן לפני כמה יגיעות יגע אדם הראשון עד שמצא בגד ללבוש אני משכים ללבוש גזז ולבן ונפץ וטוה וארג ואחר כך מצא בגד ומוצא כל אלו לפני

זהו עומק כוונת דבריו כאן איזהו עשיר השמח בחלקו כי כל המלאכות ההכרחיות לצרכי חייו כבר נעשו על ידי אחרים ומוכנות ועומדות לפניו לתשמישיו ואם כן עשיר הוא

  • Thanks for finding this. It's a nice recognition of the connection on a pretty high level, but it doesn't seem to resolve any of the apparent conflicts I brought up. It seems that Nachalat Avot is a commentary on Avot by R' Abarbanel. Is there a work with the same title by R' Menkin? Is this text available online anywhere? – Isaac Moses May 10 '18 at 14:22
  • @Isaac Moses The only place online I was able to find it was Otzar Hachochma. If you have access you can see it there. – Alex May 10 '18 at 14:43

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