Sunday 13 November 2022

405) The ‘middle to upper-class’ Mishnaic rabbis.

הֶעָנִי עוֹמֵד בַּחוּץ The poor man stands outside


This article, based extensively on the research by Professor Gregg Gardner,[1] explores issues of status, wealth and poverty in Mishnaic writing and thought. During Mishnaic times (10-210 CE), detailed discussions are developed around biblical principles concerning tithing and how sections of a field are set aside for the poor. So we know that a poor class certainly existed - but what was the socioeconomic standing of the rabbis who formulated those laws?  Were they rich or poor, or somewhere in between, and were their laws concerning the poor, perhaps informed by their own economic reality?

Rabbis as part of the middle to upper-class

Gardner immediately points to diverse opinions on the economic status of the early rabbis, as follows:

“On the tannaim [as the rabbis of the Mishna were known][2] as wealthy, see Shaye J. D. Cohen, ‘‘The Rabbi in Second Century Jewish Society,’’ in The Cambridge History of Judaism, vol. 3, The Early Roman Period, ed. W. Horbury et al. (Cambridge, 1999), 931–32; and Gray, ‘‘Formerly Wealthy Poor,’’ 122.

On the tannaim as poor, see Adolf Buchler, The Political and the Social Leaders of the Jewish Community of Sepphoris in the Second and Third Centuries (London, 1909), 66–78. (Gardner 2014:517, note 3.)

Gardner, however, concludes that the reality was somewhere in the middle, leaning towards the upper middle class:

“I find that the early rabbinic movement included those who were wealthy as well as individuals who belonged to the middle strata of society” (Gardner 2014:517).

According to Gardner, the rabbis of the Mishnaic period were certainly not poor, and in fact, they speak of the poorer class as the ‘other.’

The landowners and the workers

Many of the laws promulgated during this period relate to the land and in some instances, we see the Mishnaic rabbis:

“prioritizing the interests of a landowner over those of a lessee” (Gardner 2014:518).

There also appears to be an underlying presupposition that many rabbis were owners and managers of the land. The following Mishna supports this notion:

הַשּׂוֹכֵר אֶת הַפּוֹעֲלִים וְאָמַר לָהֶם לְהַשְׁכִּים וּלְהַעֲרִיב, מְקוֹם שֶׁנָּהֲגוּ שֶׁלֹּא לְהַשְׁכִּים וְשֶׁלֹּא לְהַעֲרִיב, אֵינוֹ רַשַּׁאי לְכוֹפָן. מְקוֹם שֶׁנָּהֲגוּ לָזוּן, יָזוּן. לְסַפֵּק בִּמְתִיקָה, יְסַפֵּק. הַכֹּל כְּמִנְהַג הַמְּדִינָה. מַעֲשֶׂה בְּרַבִּי יוֹחָנָן בֶּן מַתְיָא שֶׁאָמַר לִבְנוֹ, צֵא שְׂכֹר לָנוּ פוֹעֲלִים. הָלַךְ וּפָסַק לָהֶם מְזוֹנוֹת. וּכְשֶׁבָּא אֵצֶל אָבִיו, אָמַר לוֹ, בְּנִי, אֲפִלּוּ אִם אַתָּה עוֹשֶׂה לָהֶם כִּסְעֻדַּת שְׁלֹמֹה בִשְׁעָתוֹ, לֹא יָצָאתָ יְדֵי חוֹבָתְךָ עִמָּהֶן, שֶׁהֵן בְּנֵי אַבְרָהָם יִצְחָק וְיַעֲקֹב. אֶלָּא עַד שֶׁלֹּא יַתְחִילוּ בַמְּלָאכָה צֵא וֶאֱמֹר לָהֶם, עַל מְנָת שֶׁאֵין לָכֶם עָלַי אֶלָּא פַת וְקִטְנִית בִּלְבַד. רַבָּן שִׁמְעוֹן בֶּן גַּמְלִיאֵל אוֹמֵר, לֹא הָיָה צָרִיךְ לוֹמַר, הַכֹּל כְּמִנְהַג הַמְּדִינָה[3]:

My paraphrase follows:

One should not coerce one’s labourers to begin work very early and continue to work until very late – unless it is the local custom to do so.

If the local custom is to feed one’s workers, one should do so.

If the local custom is to provide them with sweet foods, one should also do so.

R. Yochanan ben Matya impressed upon his son to be careful to stipulate exactly what food he was to provide his hired labourers, and not just to say in general terms that he would provide food.

Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel argues that such detailed stipulation is unnecessary as the assumption is that all would have been familiar with local customs of food provision for workers.

From this example, we see that workers are regarded as a distinct class and that it was not unusual for rabbis like R. Yochanan ben Matya to own land. In other cases, we see that R. Eliezer owned a vineyard, R. Yishmael owned land in Kefar Aziz, and R. Simeon Shazuri came from a rich family who owned much land. The same may be said of R. Eleazar ben Diglai who refers to the goats on his father’s property, and Rabban Gamaliel II’s references to workers farming cattle and cultivating produce on his land.[4]

Crafts and commerce

Interestingly, Gardner shows that while work on the land was perfectly acceptable, other forms of menial tasks were often regarded with condescension. This is why Abba Guryan of Tzadyan considers animal drivers, barbers, sailors, and shopkeepers as those who engage in a ‘‘craft of robbers.’’[5]

R. Yochanan ben Zakkai worked as a merchant for forty years and then became a scholar for another forty years. The sharp literary juxtaposition of these diverse activities shows a degree of disdain for the former.[6]

It must be pointed out, however, that these negative views of menial work are occasionally countered, by a fascination of sorts, for some of these ‘lowly’ activities. R. Yehuda, for example, poignantly stands up and defends the working class. Challenging Abba Guryan of Tzadyan (mentioned above, who called camel drivers “a craft of robbers”), R. Yehuda instead commends camel drivers and sailors as good and even saintly people (ruban chassidim). He tells Abba Guryan that integrity is found in the individual and not in the type of work they do:

‘‘For there is no trade in which there is not poverty and wealth, for poverty does not come from a trade and wealth does not come from a trade, but everything is according to his merit.’’ [7]

Many Tannain (rabbis of the Mishna period) are even portrayed as menial workers. R. Yohanan is known as the “sandlar” because he made sandals. R. Yitzchak Napcha was a blacksmith. R. Eleazar ben Azariah traded in wine and oil, R. Yehuda was a baker, and R. Eleazar ben Tzadok, known to have been very wealthy, had a shop in Jerusalem.

Gardner shows that recent scholarship[8] has changed the older view that the Roman world at this time was inhabited by a few extremely rich surrounded by the impoverished masses. This new research reveals that a significant percentage of the population lived:

“at middle levels and an overall socioeconomic structure characterized by a gradual continuum from rich to poor” (Gardner 2014:522).

This confirmation of a relatively stable middle class seems to be reflected within the Roman rabbinic world as well.

Not one poor rabbi

Gardner then makes an astounding observation concerning the economic status of the rabbis of the Mishnaic period:

“Among the tannaim were the wealthy and individuals of modest means— not one tanna, however, is depicted in tannaitic compilations as poor” (Gardner 2014:526).

This, of course, does not mean that there were no poor rabbis in Mishnaic times. There may have been, but none of them is conceptualised or depicted as being poor. The Mishnaic image of a scholar is intentionally portrayed as being somewhere between the middle to upper classes.

It is interesting, though, that according to Gardner, Buchler (mentioned earlier as being of the view that Mishnaic rabbis indeed were largely poor), based himself upon later, post-Mishnaic sources, from the Gemara period. These later sources reflected back onto the Mishnaic period, an image of Mishnaic rabbis as being poor (Gardner 2014:526, note 49).

Gardner continues that while other Jewish and Roman writers of that same Mishnaic period were wont to sometimes depict themselves as being poor – the rabbis of the Mishna do not do so!

The poverty line

It is also interesting that the rabbis of the Mishna actually define a tangible “poverty line,” and that is an annual income of 200 zuz. That is the minimum amount deemed necessary to sustain an individual for one year. In other words, one enters the ‘respectable’ part of the economic spectrum only if one earns above 200 zuz per anum:

מִי שֶׁיֶּשׁ לוֹ מָאתַיִם זוּז, לֹא יִטֹּל לֶקֶט שִׁכְחָה וּפֵאָה וּמַעְשַׂר עָנִי

“He who has two hundred zuz [= denar] may not take gleanings, forgotten things, or pe’ah or the poor man’s tithe” (Peah 8:8).

This tangible monetary boundary between the poor and middle class in the Jewish world also reflects the general move towards the:

“monetization of the Greco-Roman world in which they lived” (Gardner 2014:529).

Maintaining a middle to upper-class rabbinic strata

The Mishna in Avot (4.1) is concerned with a delineation of social strata when it famously asks “Who is rich?” But the Mishna never asks “Who is poor?” Gardner wonders whether one could read into the Mishna’s answer: “One who is happy with his lot,” a tacit endorsement of maintaining this social status quo. After all the Sifre   suggests that while obviously, one must help the poor, ‘‘you are not commanded to make him rich.’’ [9]

Most of the laws of charity pertain in their details to the giver, not the receiver. The poor, in Mishnaic times, really do seem to be described as a ‘legal category’ and as an ’other,’ or perhaps more precisely an ‘internal other.’ 

It does seem that Mishnaic rabbis were, for some reason, consciously and continuously framing themselves almost exclusively as donors within the middle class. This does not mean that the rabbis expressed contempt for the poor, but the poor were still lovingly and compassionately differentiated from the scholarly middle class:

“Poverty presumes dependency, which is anathema to the self-image of a tanna [Mishnaic rabbi][10] as an economically independent householder who provides for and supports the members of his household…In this binary structure, when the authors take the perspective of the benefactor, the beneficiaries are others by necessity” (Gardner 2014:532).

Gardner does not bring this example but I am reminded of the Mishna that discusses the laws of carrying from one domain to another and chooses the imagery of:

הֶעָנִי עוֹמֵד בַּחוּץ וּבַעַל הַבַּיִת בִּפְנִים

 "The poor man stand outside and the homeowner stands inside" (Shabbat 1:1).

Again, the poor seem to be depicted as the 'other' who are dependent upon, and 'outside' of, the inner middle-class camp.

The elite intellectual class

Perhaps the reason for this apparent distinction in social class is to intentionally portray the early Mishnaic rabbis as an intellectual elite. And since literacy, education, and wealth are often intertwined, the scholarly are depicted as those with means as well.

It is significant that the Mishna, as opposed to the later Gemara:

“does not discuss material support for rabbis and their students. Only in later, post-tannaitic texts do we begin to find discussions of financial support for rabbis and their disciples” (Gardner 2014:532).


The widespread image we have of some rabbis like R. Akiva, the early Mishnaic rabbi, as being poor in his youth, is, according to Gardner “recrafted in later rabbinic texts” (2014:520). It is not something the Mishnaic rabbis would have publicised or promoted.   

This depiction of Mishnaic rabbis as part of the middle to upper class, must be seen within the context of some earlier Jewish texts dating from Second Temple times, where the framing is often the inverse of that of the Mishnaic texts. In earlier times, it seems that the writers did not have such a pressing need to distance themselves from the image of poverty.  

This earlier position is reverted to again in “later rabbinic texts” from the Gemara period, where the more prestigious social structures which were so important to Mishnaic rabbis – where “not one tanna…is depicted…as poor” seem to have dissipated. Thus, the elite intellectual stratum of the authoritative Tannain or Mishnaic rabbis is sandwiched, as it were, between a previous (Second Temple) and later (Gemara) period where these social markers were not deemed so necessary.

[1] Gardner, G., 2014, ‘Who is Rich? The Poor in Early Rabbinic Judaism’, JQR 104.4.

[2] Parenthesis is mine.

[3] Bava Metzia, 7:1.

[4] Peah 2.4, Demai 3.1, Bava Metzia 5.8, Shabbat 15.2.

[5] Kidushin 4.14.

[6] Sifre Devarim 357.

[7] Kidushin 4.14. 

[8] Scheidel, W., and Friesen, S,J., 2009, ’The Size of the Economy and the Distribution of Income in the Roman Empire’, Journal of Roman Studies 99, 61–91.

[9] Sifre, Devarim 116.

[10] Parenthesis is mine.

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