R. Yosei b. Kisma said: Once, I was walking along the road and encountered a person. He greeted me and I greeted him in return. He said to me, “Rabbi, where are you from?" I said to him, “I am from a great city of sages and scribes." He said to me, "Rabbi, would you like to live with us in our place? [If you do,] I will give you one million gold dinarim and precious gems and pearls.” I said to him, "My son, were you to give me all the silver and gold and precious gems and pearls in the universe, I would live only in a place of Torah because when a person dies, they are not accompanied by silver and gold, nor by precious stones and pearls, but only by Torah and good deeds, as it is said, When you walk, it will lead you; when you lie down, it will watch over you; and when you are awake, it will converse with you (Proverbs 6:22). ‘When you walk, it will lead you’ — in this world. ‘When you lie down, it will watch over you’ — in the grave. ‘And when you are awake, it will converse with you’ — in the world-to-come. And thus it is written in the Book of Psalms by David, king of Israel, I prefer the teaching You proclaimed to thousands of pieces of gold and silver (Psalm 119:72); and it says, Silver is Mine and gold is Mine, says Adonai of Hosts (Haggai 2:8).” (Pirkei Avot 6:9)
Why do you live where you do? Jobs or family determine where some of us live; others choose their location based on climate, religious, or social factors. Some of us have choice; some do not. But geography is not the “where” R. Yosei b. Kisma has in mind. R. Yosei b. Kisma was a second century tanna, who lived in Tiberias on the western shore of Lake Kinneret (the Sea of Galilee). Tiberias was built in approximately 20 C.E. by King Antipas, son of Herod the Great, and named for the Roman Emperor Tiberias. Its seminal attribute was a spa that took advantage of numerous nearby natural mineral hot springs. What began as a pagan city came to be populated largely by Jews after the Second Temple was destroyed in 70 C.E. By the time R. Yosei lived there, and especially after 135 C.E., Tiberias, along with nearby Tzippori (Sepphoris), was a center of Jewish learning, featuring a respected academy and thirteen synagogues. R. Yosei b. Kisma is clearly pleased to live there, but we do not know if his residence in Tiberias was a matter of choice or good fortune. What was a matter of choice was his commitment to Jewish learning.
Pirkei Avot (and Mishnah, in general) includes few stories, but R. Yosei b. Kisma’s story is more like a didactic teaching than the biographical anecdote it purports to be. Consider that we do not to where or why he was traveling, the name or any identifying features of the person he met along the way, where that person hailed from, or how he had the means to offer R. Yosei a sizable fortune to move to the unnamed town. We have here a fable about the criteria one should consider in choosing where to live, but far more we have a teaching concerning how to live.
R. Yosei articulates clear and succinct criteria for where he prefers to live: he prefers a city blessed with a thriving culture Jewish learning, which he describes as a “great city of sages and scribes” — in short, in a “place of Torah.” This, he asserts, is worth far more than the precious metals and gems of this world because, as he learns from Proverbs 6:22, Torah accompanies us in every phase of existence. Torah teaches us how to live properly in this world, how to die honorably, and assures us life in the world-to-come. We might be surprised that R. Yosei does not also quote Proverbs 8:10-11: Accept my discipline rather than silver, knowledge rather than choice gold. For wisdom is better than rubies; no good can equal her. Instead, R. Yosei quotes two other verses, perhaps because Psalm 119:72 says, “I prefer Your Torah” or “Your Torah is better for me,” and in Haggai 2:8, God proclaims, “Silver is Mine and gold is Mine,” suggests that the riches of Torah learning far exceed the value of those of worldly riches. Worldly wealth gives us comfort, but Torah learning teaches us to live righteous and worthy lives. For R. Yosei, worldly wealth is valuable only in this world; Torah learning insures life in the world-to-come.
R. Yosei’s teaching can be understood as encouragement to situate our lives in a geographical location that fosters and nurtures vibrant Jewish learning. However, we might also read it metaphorically: we should live our lives steeped in Jewish learning that fosters and nurtures in us the best we have to offer our families, communities, and the world. In an interconnected electronic world, Jewish learning is more accessible than at any point in history. Jews living far from urban centers can hop online and learn from great scholars. Jews living in small and isolated locales can find teachers, classes, and others with whom to study. Today one can access an extraordinary Jewish library merely by clicking on sefaria.org.
QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER AND DISCUSS
- Why do you live where you do? Are you satisfied with the Jewish learning accessible in your local community? If not, what can you do to improve the situation?
- How does the wisdom of Torah — Jewish learning writ large, including Tana”kh, Talmud, midrash, Kabbalah, Musar — improve your life and help you become the best version of yourself you can be?
- As Shavuot approaches, tradition bids us re-commit to Jewish learning. How does the passage from Proverbs 3 speak to you? What would you like to learn, but have not yet studied?
Happy is the one who finds wisdom, the one who attains understanding. Its value exceeds silver, its yield than gold. It is more precious than rubies; all your possessions cannot equal it. In its right hand are length of days; in its left, riches and honor. Its ways are ways of pleasantness; all its paths are peace. It is a tree of life to those who hold fast to it; all its supporters are happy. (Proverbs 3:13-18)