ט״ז באייר ה׳תשע״ז (May 12, 2017)

Bava Batra 110a-b: Working For a Living

As we learned on yesterday’s daf, our Gemara identifies the pseudo-priest who served in the temple erected by Micha (see Sefer Shofetim chapter 17), as Yehonatan, the son of Gershom, the son of Moshe Rabbeinu. An obvious question that comes up is how the grandson of the preeminent leader of the Jewish people would find himself involved in idol worship.

According to our Gemara, this is the very question that the tribe of Dan asked him when they seduced him to abandon Micha’s house and join them together with the idol. The passage in Sefer Shofetim (18:3) that includes the phrases:

  • Who brought you here?
  • What are you doing in this place?
  • What do you have here?

are all understood in the context of asking how he could have become a priest in a temple of idol worship.

According to the Gemara, Yehonatan answers that he has a family tradition that a person should sooner hire himself out for idol worship (avoda zara) than accept charity from others. The Gemara comments that this maxim was misunderstood by Yehonatan, for its true intent was that a person should accept work that is not what he ordinarily does (avoda she-zara lo) rather than accept charity. To support this interpretation, the Gemara relates something that Rav once said to Rav Kahana – you should be willing to skin animals in the marketplace and get paid, and you should not say that it is below the dignity of an important person such as yourself.

The Rashbam explains that there is no embarrassment involved in working for a living, so there is no ḥillul HaShem for a scholar to work, even in tasks that appear to be demeaning.

While the Talmud Yerushalmi rules that a dayan – a religious court judge – who is serving the community, should have servants appointed so that he should not have to perform work in public, there is certainly nothing wrong with him taking on private work or choosing an occupation that is not degrading, and it is encouraged in order to keep from becoming a burden on the community. A parallel question to this one is whether a scholar is permitted to be supported by the community. The Rambam forbids this in strong language in his Commentary to the Mishna in Pirkei Avot, but it has become accepted practice in most Jewish communities.

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