As we reach the end of Masechet Kiddushin,we suddenly veer from issues of marriage, family and lineage to questions about careers. The long final Mishnah begins with concerns about modesty and what jobs might lead to inappropriate behavior. But it continues and exhorts fathers not to teach their children professions that will bring them into contact with women or will encourage them to steal. Finally, the masechet ends by emphasizing that Torah is ultimately the best livelihood.
Tractates often end with a bit of sermonizing, but what is the connection of this Mishnah to the subject of Kiddushin and particularly of its fourth chapter? The immediate context is situations that are immodest; the advice here is meant to protect someone from being led astray by circumstances. But Professor Zeev Safrai suggests another reason. The first part of this chapter has been all about lineage – who is allowed into the congregation and who is disqualified or disqualifies others. Here we get a more humanistic approach – it is not the family that makes the man but his deeds and his job. Who ever your parents might be, you have the right and the responsibility to choose a vocation that will honor you and help others.
How did the rabbis feel about working for a living? Professor Safrai brings many statements that essentially come down to three approaches: positive, neutral and negative. On the positive side we have Shemaiah’s statement in the Ethics of the Fathers
“Shemaiah used to say: love labor,” (Pirkei Avot 1:10)
Other statements also extol work, one of the very interesting ones is similar to our Mishnah but draws an opposite conclusion. The rabbis explain that all the prophets worked and then Rabbi Meir notes that animals do not work for a living, why should we? But unlike Rabbi Shimon in our Mishnah, who sees that as a punishment, Rabbi Meir sees it as a sign of man’s greatness: we work not because we are lesser than animals but because work is beloved by God (Midrash Tannaim Devarim 5:14).
Peasants harvesting crops, by Flemish artist Pieter Brueghel, 17th century
I, Sailko, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
A second approach sees work as necessary in order that people won’t steal and also won’t be idle (since boredom leads to sin) but does not find work positive in and of itself. And a minority finds work to be either a punishment (Rabbi Shimon in our Mishnah) or even a transgression. In the famous debate between Rabbi Yishmael and Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai (Berachot 35b), Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai asks how can we leave aside learning Torah in order to work – you have to study all day and God will provide for you! This extreme approach is not condoned by most of the rabbis (as the Gemara says, many tried Rabbi Yishmael’s approach of working and learning and succeeded, while those who tried Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai’s approach failed) but there were always groups who did adopt this idea and chose a life of asceticism rather than working for material comfort. Perhaps an echo of Rabbi Shimon in our Mishnah, who says that animals do not have to work and are divinely provided for, can be found in the radical words of Jesus:
“Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?” (Matthew 6:26)
The proof that most of the rabbis supported work can be seen in the long list of professions that are mentioned in the Mishnah and Gemara. We have rabbis who are scribes (Rabbi Meir), shoemakers (Rabbi Yochanan haSandlar, Rabbi Oshiya), needlemakers (Rabbi Yehoshua), doctors (Shmuel), ditch diggers (Rabbi Nehunia) leather sellers (Rabbi Yossi) and many farmers and landowners. The interesting question of whether a scholar can be paid to teach and /or study Torah will not be addressed here but the rabbis were well aware of it, and held varying opinions on the issue.
We can also learn about professions in the time of the Mishnah and Gemara from other sources. A wonderful one is burial inscriptions. The necropolis in Bet Shearim has sarcophagi that came from all over the Jewish Diaspora and their inscriptions included many personal details of the deceased. The professions listed in the inscriptions range from leaders of towns to money changers, doctors, merchants and sailors.
Are there certain professions that are more laudable than others? Our Gemara acknowledges that it takes all kinds to make the world but wouldn’t you rather have a pleasant job?
“it is impossible for the world to continue without a perfumer and without a tanner. Fortunate is he whose trade is as a perfumer, and woe is he whose trade is as a tanner,” (Kiddushin 82b)
Tanners in Morocco
anonymous; permission given, CC BY-SA 3.0 <http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/>, via Wikimedia Commons
Another concern of the rabbis is to avoid occupations that could lead to sin. The Gemara (Kiddushin 82a) lists ten jobs that require regular contact with women, sometimes in isolated areas. They can be divided into those that are service oriented (barbers, bloodletters, launderers, bathhouse attendants), those that deal with “women’s work”: clothing (carders, weavers, tanners) and grinding wheat (millstone fixers); and those that sell goods primarily to women (jewelers and peddlers). These jobs were also considered “low-class,” not so different from today where professions that have a high percentage of women (teachers, nurses, social workers) are not as valued or as well compensated as more “male” occupations like lawyers and surgeons.
Yemenite silversmiths in the Bezalel school
Davidbena, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
Other careers are denigrated because they may lead to thieving, although it is unclear why: sailors, donkey drivers, shepherds and more. Safrai suggests that some of this may just be folklore or stereotypes as opposed to facts.
Are there occupations that help you become a better person or conversely lead you to bad behavior? Undoubtedly. However, we will leave the last word to Rabbi Yehuda, who taught us that any work, done well, can elevate the laborer:
When Rabbi Yehuda would go to the study hall he would carry a pitcher [gulefa] on his shoulder, saying: Labor is great, as it brings honor to the laborer. (Nedarim 49b)
Hadran alach Masechet Kiddushin!
GotCredit, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons