The Poor and Their Relief in the Mishnah: An Economic Analysis
The Mishnah, it has long been argued, assumes an economy in “stasis”; the economy is eternal and never-changing. If this is indeed the case, then the Mishnah should neither acknowledge nor promote economic mobility, even among the poor. This paper, which views the Mishnaic portrayals of the poor and of poor-relief through from an economic perspective, largely confirms this conclusion. The Mishnah, I argue, acknowledges a binary class system, “the poor” and everyone else, and sets the poverty line quite high by modern standards and it is assumed that only the situationally poor (i.e., the formerly rich) will move between classes. While, following the Torah, the Mishnah prescribes relief for the poor, it minimizes the amount necessary to be left for the poor as well as changing the mechanism of poor relief in a way that reinforces social hierarchy.
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Jacob Neusner, The Economics of the Mishnah (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990), 56.
On the importance of the oikos and its ideology for Jews in antiquity, see Michael L. Satlow, Jewish Marriage in Antiquity (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001), 3–41.
Mishnah Shabbat 1:1 (all translations of rabbinic texts are mine). The object that the poor person gives to the householder is unstated. H. Albeck, The Mishnah (rpt. Tel-Aviv: Dvir, 1988), 2:17 (Hebrew) understands it as a pan or pot used to collect charity—presumably food.
Translations of biblical texts follow the New Jewish Publication Society, except where noted.
Throughout this paper I prefer to use the phrase “poor relief” rather than “charity” because of the theological overtones of the latter. The word “charity” already implies a notion of altruism that I will call into question later in the paper. For a discussion of the development of the notion of charity, see Gary A. Anderson, The Place of the Poor in the Biblical Tradition (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014).
There are now many excellent discussions of ancient Jewish poor relief, all of which have at least some reference to the Mishnah. See especially, Gregg Gardner, The Origins of Organized Charity in Rabbinic Judaism (New York and Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015); Yael Wilfand, Poverty, Charity, and the Image of the Poor in Rabbinic Texts from the Land of Israel (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2014); and Rivka Ulmer and Moshe Ulmer, Righteous Giving to the Poor: Tzedaka (“Charity”) in Classical Rabbinic Judaism; Including a Brief Introduction to Rabbinic Literature (Piscataway: Gorgias, 2014).
The “synoptic problem” in the study of rabbinic literature, with extensive critique of the “documentary approach” (at least as an exclusive methodology), is discussed in Shaye J. D. Cohen, ed., The Synoptic Problem in Rabbinic Literature (Providence: Brown Judaic Studies, 2000).
The classic statements on the difference between the ancient economy and our own are Moses Finley, The Ancient Economy (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973) and Karl Polyani, “Aristotle Discovers the Economy,” in Karl Polyani, Conrad M. Arensberg, and Harry W. Pearson, eds., Trade and Market in the Early Empires: Economies in History and Theory (Glencoe, IL: The Free Press, 1957), 64–96. For a recent survey of the state of the field, see Filippo Carlà-Uhink and Maja Gori, eds., Gift-Giving and the Embedded Economy in the Ancient World (Heidelberg: Heidelberger Akademie der Wissenschaften, 2014), 7–47. Neusner, The Economics of the Mishnah, 15–32 discusses some of applications of these insights to the Mishnah’s “economics.” See also Kenneth G. Elzinga, “Economics and Religion,” in James M. Dean and A. M. C. Waterman, eds., Religion and Economics: Normative Social Theory (Boston: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1999), 131–39.
It is unclear to me whether the framer of the Mishnah meant this also to apply to women. It would make sense that the framer envisions widowed and divorced women as having the right to glean, and thus having to pass a poverty test, but it is not certain. I use “he” in the translations for stylistic reasons.
Mishnah Pe’ah 8:8–9, follow MS. Kaufmann.
Angus Deaton, The Great Escape: Health, Wealth, and the Origins of Inequality (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013), 179–87.
The classic article on the economic boom in Byzantine Palestine is Michael Avi-Yonah, “The Economics of Byzantine Palestine,” Israel Exploration Journal 8 (1958): 39–51, modified and updated in Doron Barr, “Population, Settlement, and Economy in Late Roman and Byzantine Palestine (70-641 AD),” Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 67 (2004): 307–20. On the fluctuation in the value of money, see Babylonian Talmud, Ta’anit 19b.
On the ketubah, see Satlow, Jewish Marriage in Antiquity, 200–16.
Rabbi Michael Broyde and Rabbi Jonathan Reiss, “The Ketubah in America: Its Value in Dollars, Its Significance in Halachah and Its Enforceability in Secular Law,” http://www.jlaw.com/Articles/KETUBAH.pdf Accessed October 31, 2017. Sephardic rabbinic opinions decrease these values dramatically. On the issue of pricing and relative value in antiquity, see, Daniel Sperber, Roman Palestine
- 400: Money and Prices (Ramat-Gan: Bar Ilan University Press, 1974).
Sperber, Roman Palestine, 101–102.
For these tables, see https://www.census.gov/data/tables/time-series/demo/income-poverty/historical-poverty-thresholds.html.
For this view, see Broyde and Reiss, “The Ketubah in America,” notes 20–21. It does not seem well-founded in the text.
See Andrea Brandolini, Silvia Magri, and Timothy M. Smeeding, “Asset-Based Measurement of Poverty,” Journal of Policy Analysis and Management 29 (2010): 267–84.
Coin hoards found in the Land of Israel typically are limited to fewer than 100 coins with larger hoards most frequently found in communal buildings. The precise values of those hoards requires further investigation. See Mira Waner and Zeev Safrai, “Hoards and Revolts: The Chronological Distribution of Coin Hoards in Eretz Israel during the Roman and Byzantine Periods,” Cathedra 101 (2001): 71–90 (Hebrew); M. Waner and Z. Safrai, “A Catalogue of Coin Hoards and the Shelf Life of Coins in Palestine Hoards During the Roman and Byzantine Periods,” Liber Annuus 51 (2001): 305–36.
See Ze’ev Safrai, The Economy of Roman Palestine (London and New York: Routledge, 1994), 431–35; Sperber, Roman Palestine, 106.
See also Gregg E. Gardner, “Who is Rich?: The Poor in Early Judaism,” Jewish Quarterly Review 104 (2014): 515–36.
Mishnah Baba Batra 10:7.
Mishnah Pe’ah 5:4.
Tosefta. Pe’ah 4:10. Tosefta Pe’ah 4:10–13 address the particular case of how to treat the poor who were formerly rich. Gardner, Origins, 122–125; Alyssa M. Gray, “The Formerly Wealthy: From Empathy to Ambivalence in Rabbinic Literature of Late Antiquity,” AJS Review 33 (2009): 101–33.
Mishnah Ketubot 4:4.
Mishnah Sheviit 10:2.
Mishnah Sheviit 10:6. On the development of the prozbul and its imagined role in poor relief, see Elisha Ancselovits, “The Prosbul—A Legal Fiction?” Jewish Law Annual 19 (2011): 3–16.
Gerald Blidstein, “Yovel: Ideology and History in Rabbinic Law,” in Enrico Rambaldi, ed., Millenarismi nella cultura contemporanea: con un’ appendice su yovel ebraico e giubileo Cristiano (Milan: F. Angeli, 2000), 187–98.
Mishnah Shabbat 1:1.
Mishnah Pe’ah 8:9.
Mishnah Pe’ah 4:3.
Mishnah Pe’ah 4:4.
See especially Hayim Lapin, “Rabbis and Cities in Later Roman Palestine: The Literary Evidence,” Journal of Jewish Studies 50 (1999): 187–207; Jack N. Lightstone, “Urbanization in the Roman East and the Inter-Religious Struggle for Success,” in Richard S. Ascough, ed., Religious Rivalries and the Struggle for Success in Sardis and Smyrna (Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2005), 211–42. Ze’ev Safrai, “Urbanization and Industry in eds. Mishnaic Galilee,” in David I. Fiensy and James Riley Strange, Galilee in the Late Second Temple and Mishnaic Periods: Life, Culture, and Society (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014), 272–96 provides much data and an overview of the complex relationship between the city and the rabbis.
See Zeev Safrai, “Agriculture and Farming,” in Catherine Heszer, ed., The Oxford Handbook of Jewish Daily Life in Roman Palestine (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 247–63, esp. 250 on the fragmentation of estates.
Exodus 21:2–11; Deuteronomy 15:12–18.
Leviticus 19:9–10; Deuteronomy 24:19–21.
Neusner, Economics of the Mishnah, 114–35.
Jacob Neusner, Judaism: The Evidence of the Mishnah (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981), 250–56; Hayim Lapin, Early Rabbinic Civil Law and the Social History of Roman Galilee: A Study of Mishnah Tractate Baba’ Mesi‘a’ (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1996).
See Mishnah Qiddushin 1:2; Catherine Hezser, Jewish Slavery in Antiquity (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 308–11.
Cf. Ulmer and Ulmer, Righteous Giving to the Poor.
Meir Tamari, With All Your Possessions: Jewish Ethics and Economic Life (New Milford: Maggid, 2014 ), 270–73.
Mishnah Pe’ah 8:5.
Mishnah Pe’ah 4:3-5.
Mishnah Pe’ah 4:1.
Tzvi Novick, “Charity and Reciprocity: Structures of Benevolence in Rabbinic Literature.” Harvard Theological Review 105 (2012): 33–52, points toward a tendency for rabbinic literature to frame “acts of kind-ness” (gemilut chasidim) in ways that elide social distinctions. Perhaps tellingly, almost none of the sources that support this contention are from the Mishnah.
See, for example, Mishnah Pe’ah 6:5.
Mishnah Pe’ah 8:4. See also Yael Wilfand, “From the School of Shammai to Rabbi Yehuda the Patriarch’s Student: The Evolution of the Poor Man’s Tithe,” Jewish Studies Quarterly 22 (2015): 36–61.
One version of the minimum measures specifies not less than half a kab of wheat and a kab of barley (Mishnah Pe’ah 8:5). By comparison, an absentee husband was supposed to supply his wife with a minimum of two kabs of wheat or four kabs of barley each week (Mishnah Ketubot 5:8). A kab is about two liters.
Mishnah Pe’ah 1:1.
See, for some examples, Mishnah ’Ohalot 1:7; Baba Batra 6:7; Bikkurim 2:3; Sanhedrin 2:4.
Mishnah Pe’ah 1:2.
Mishnah Pe’ah 8:7; Peaschim 10:1; Nedarim 4:4.
See also, Gardner, Origins, 84–138.
The assumptions are drawn from Michael L. Satlow, “Markets and Tithes in Roman Palestine,” in Filippo Carlà-Uhink and Maja Gori, eds., Gift-Giving and the Embedded Economy in the Ancient World, 315–35.
The quantitative conclusions reached here dovetail with the qualitative ones found in Gregg E. Gardner, “Let Them Eat Fish: Food for the Poor in Early Rabbinic Judaism.” Journal for the Study of Judaism 45 (2014): 250–70. Gardner helpfully high-lights the fact that rabbinic sources do prescribe additional, higher-quality food on the Sabbath. See also Mishnah Pe’ah 5:5.
On such typologies, see René Bekkers and Pamala Wiepking, “A Literature Review of Empirical Studies of Philanthropy: Eight Mechanisms that Drive Charitable Giving,” Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly. 20 (2010): 1–50. Gift-giving in antiquity is a complex issue that has received significant recent scholarly attention. For the purposes of this paper, I am using the modern categories of economic analysis while recognizing that they do not exactly fit ancient lives. See also James Andreoni, “Impure Altruism and Donations to Public Goods: A Theory of Warm Glow Giving,” The Economic Journal 100 (1990): 464–77.
See, for example, Mishnah Berakot 5:1.
Calvin Goldscheider, “Inequality, Stratification, and Exclusion in the Mishnah: An Exploratory Social Science Analysis,” in Jeffrey Stackert, Barbara Nevling Porter, David P. Wright, eds., Gazing on the Deep: Ancient Near Eastern and Other Studies in Honor of Tzvi Abusch. (Bethesda: CDL, 2010), 565–83 at 571–72.
For a model of the impact of such a motivation, see Andreoni, “Impure Altruism.”
The Mishnah rarely acknowledges the possibility of economic mobility. See also Mishnah Qiddushin 2:2 that seems to elide the possibility that the poor can become rich.
See Peter Brown, Poverty and Leadership in the Later Roman Empire (Hanover and London: University Press of New England, 2002).
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