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Thursday, September 1, 2016

Go Shopping! — BT Shabbat 119a — #51

There was a very wealthy gentile in the neighborhood of Joseph Who Honors Shabbat. Astrologers said to him, “Joseph Who Honors Shabbat will come to possess all [your] property.” He went and sold all his property and purchased a precious jewel. He placed it in his turban. As he was crossing a river [on a ferry], a gust of wind blew [his turban] into the water. A fish swallowed the jewel. [Fishermen] caught [the fish] and brought it [to market] late on Friday. They said, “Who will buy it now?” They said to them, “Go, bring it to Joseph Who Honors Shabbat. He always buys.” They brought it to him and he bought it. He cut it open and found the jewel inside. He sold it for thirteen trunks of gold dinarim. An old man met him and said, “One who expends money for Shabbat, Shabbat repays.”

The Sages struggled with the idea of divine determination and astrological predestination. The former accords to God control over the course of our lives, while the latter solves the  inconsistencies lying behind the question: Why would a just God permit the righteous to suffer and the evil to prosper?

The Sages often espouse the belief that, as we say today, “what goes around, comes around.” This philosophy is termed middah k’neged middah (“measure for measure”): goodness and generosity are repaid in kind, but so are cruelty and greed. This claim of retributive justice buttresses the rabbinic belief in God’s justice, which may be delayed—sometimes even postponed until olam ha-ba (the world-to-come)—but ultimately God is just. In their enthusiasm to commend observance of mitzvot to us, the Sages promise that practice will be rewarded with wealth. The story told above is an illustration. Joseph honored shabbat and, as a result, became wealthy through a complex series of unlikely events. Immediately following the story above, the Gemara asserts that in addition to those who honor shabbat, those in Eretz Yisrael who tithe, and those in Babylonia who honor Torah, are rewarded by heaven with wealth.

Our protagonist is known as Yosef Mokir Shabbat (Joseph Who Honors Shabbat). He lives in the neighborhood of a wealthy man who is accustomed to visiting astrologers (Gemara calls them “Chaldeans”) to forecast the future and advise him. While Talmud gives a nod to astrology (T Kiddushin 5:17, BT Avodah Zarah 5a), we also find Talmud averring that Jews may not rely on astrology (BT Shabbat 156a, Pesachim 113b). Most famously, BT Shabbat 156a states ain mazal l’Yisrael—the stars and constellations do not, nor should not be understood to, influence the destiny of the Jewish people. In the story of Yosef Mokir Shabbat, mention of the gentile neighbor’s reliance on astrologers and the message they deliver serves two purposes: (1) It confirms that he is an idolater; and (2) that he is consumed by the desire for wealth. 

When the astrologers tell Joseph’s neighbor that some day all his wealth will pass into Joseph’s hands, he goes to great lengths to prevent this from happening. He sells all his property and purchases a priceless gem with the proceeds, thereby concentrating all his wealth into one, small item. He tucks the gem into his turban so that he can wear it at all times on his person. Or so he  thinks. A strong wind blows his turban into the water, the gem falls out, and a fish swallows it. The fisherman catches the fish and brings it to market late on Friday afternoon, a time when it will be difficult to sell because almost everyone has already made their purchases for shabbat. The fisherman worries that he will be unable to sell the fish, but he needn’t worry, people tell him, because Joseph Who Honors Shabbat can always be counted on to spend lavishly on his shabbat preparations. Indeed, Joseph purchases the fish and takes it home. When he cuts it open, he discovers the gem, whose value, we are told, is equivalent to thirteen trunks of gold coins—an extraordinary (and hyperbolic) sum, by any measure. The neighbor’s wealth is now Joseph’s.

An anonymous old man enters the tale to articulate the moral of the story: Those who expend their resources to celebrate shabbat will be repaid handsomely.


  1. The ostensible purpose of the story, it seems, is to illustrate how expending one’s resources to observe shabbat is repaid by heaven. But we may well wonder: Did Joseph become wealthy because it was predestined by the stars (as the astrologers predicted), or because he punctiliously honored shabbat? Does mention of the astrologers enhance the story, or confuse the message? Can you envision an interpretation of the story’s moral (“One who expends money for Shabbat, Shabbat repays”) that does not become ensnarled in a conversation about predestination, either divine or astrological?
  2. If Joseph knew the fisherman or that the jewel had belonged to his neighbor, should he have returned the gem? (See TMT #46-Return Receipt Requested?)
  3. What are your thoughts concerning Rava’s claim, as reported in Mo’ed Katan 28a that the length of one’s life, the birth and survival of one’s children, and one’s financial success in life do not depend upon merit, but rather upon mazal (influence of, or destiny as ordained in, the stars; “mazal” means constellation). Rava compares two righteous sages: R. Chisda lived to be 92, but Rabbah died at 40. R. Chisda’s family enjoyed wealth and celebrated sixty marriages in the time Rabbah’s family  struggled to subsist and suffered sixty bereavements. Could “mazal” be a way of ameliorating the problematic assumption of divine providence in such matters?
The story of Yosef Mokir Shabbat is beautifully retold and embellished by Marilyn Hirsch and richly illustrated by Devis Grebu in Joseph Who Loved Shabbat (Puffin Press, 1988). Sadly, it is out of print. Happily, used copies are available from web vendors.

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