Torah of the Shuk: The Market as a Site for Ethical Learning in Midrash and Aggadah
The market (shuk) is a site that features in many tales in Midrash and Talmudic Aggadah. While the market typically conjures up a portrait of matters of the mundane (e.g., commerce, casual conversation), or even the profane (e.g., dishonesty), the authors of Midrash and Aggadah transform this site into one of ethical and moral learning. For example, the late Midrashic tale of Saliq the son of Rabbi Kahana whose encounter with a water carrier in the market forces him to reevaluate his education and upbringing. The market encounters (or the uses of the market as a site for ethical learning) differ in the types of lessons learned by its visitors.
Tale #1: Tavi's Two Tongues
On two occasions, Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel instructs his slave Tavi to purchase food (of different quality) from the market. Tavi twice returns with a cut of [cow's] tongue. Shimon ben Gamliel is upset and Tavi provides a moral lesson (see original text below).
Tavi is reccuring character in the Talmud. As a slave, he is man of very low social standing, living on the absolute margins of Jewish communal life. His master is one the most prominent Jewish leaders of the time and we may presume that living within close proximity to a great man would results in Tavi learning by osmosis. In this tale, Tavi unexpectedly demonstrates his ability to teach the great Shimon ben Gamliel. While Tavi was instructed to go to the market to purchase food, he uses this mundane experience to acquire and share wisdom.
אָמַר רַבִּי שִׁמְעוֹן בֶּן גַּמְלִיאֵל לְטָבִי עַבְדֵיהּ פּוּק זְבֵין לִי צֵדוּ טָבָא מִן שׁוּקָא, נָפַק זָבַן לֵיהּ לִשָּׁן, אָמַר לֵיהּ פּוּק זְבֵין לִי צֵדוּ בִּישָׁא מִן שׁוּקָא, נָפַק זָבַן לֵיהּ לִשָּׁן. אֲמַר לֵיהּ מַהוּ דֵּין דְּכַד אֲנָא אָמַר לָךְ צֵדוּ טָבָא אַתְּ זָבַן לִי לִשָּׁן, וְכַד אֲנָא אֲמַר לָךְ צֵדוּ בִּישָׁא אַתְּ זָבַן לִי לִשָּׁן. אֲמַר לֵיהּ מִינָּהּ טָבְתָּא וּמִינָהּ בִּישְׁתָּא, כַּד הֲוָה טַב לֵית טָבָה מִנֵּיהּ, וְכַד בִּישׁ לֵית בִּישׁ מִנֵּיהּ.
Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel said to Tavi his servant, "go purchase for me the best food from the market."
He went and bought for him a tongue.
He said to him "go purchase for me the worst food from the market."
He went out and bought him a tongue.
He said to him, "What is this? When I say to you to [to buy] the best food, you buy me a tongue, and when I say to you [to buy] the worst food, you [also] buy me tongue!"
[Tavi] said to him, this is the best and this is the worst! When it is good, there is none better than it, and when it is bad, there is no worse than it."
Tale #2: The Price of Fish in Rome
This tale involves another Jew on the margins of Jewish life, a craftsman in Rome, living in a Jewish community far away from the centres of learning in Israel and Babylon. The presumably simple Jew goes to the market on Yom Kippur eve to purchase fish for the pre-fast meal. He is forced to outbid a Roman for the last remaining fish. His actions impress the local governor and a heavenly orchestrated reward appears in the belly of the fish (see original text below).
This text praises the piety of the simple tailor who reveres his tradition and heritage to the point that others pay notice and respect him for his great commitment and sacrifice. Additionally, the entire tale hinges not on the observance of Yom Kippur itself but on the honour paid to the holy day in the form of a feast that precedes the holy day. By contrast, a more studious or sophisticated individual would be less inclined to start a bidding war over a single food item that is not directly essential to the fulfilment of a Jewish ritual.
אָמַר רַבִּי תַּנְחוּמָא, עוֹבָדָא הֲוָה בְּרוֹמִי בַּעֲרוֹבַת צוֹמָא רַבָּה, וַהֲוָה תַּמָּן חַד חַיָּט וַאֲזַל דְּיִזְדַּבַּן לֵיהּ חַד נוּן, אִשְׁתְּכַח הוּא וְטַלְיָא דְּאִיפַּרְכוֹס קָיְימִין עִילָוֵיהּ, הֲוָה הָדֵין מַסֵּיק לֵיהּ בְּטִימֵי וְהָדֵין מַסֵּיק לֵיהּ בְּטִימֵי, עַד דְּמָטְיָא לִשְׁנֵים עָשָׂר דִּינָרִין, וּנְסָבֵא הַהוּא חַיָּטָא. בְּעָנָתָא דַּאֲרִיסְטוֹן אֲמַר אִיפַּרְכוֹס לְטַלְיָה לָמָּה לָא אַיְתֵית לִי נוּן. אֲמַר לֵיהּ, מָרִי מָה לִכְפֹּר מִינָךְ, אֲזַלִּית וְלָא הֲוָה תַּמָּן אֶלָּא חַד נוּן, וְאִשְׁתְּכָחִית אֲנָא וְחַד יְהוּדָאי קָיְימִין עִילָוֵיהּ, וַהֲוָה הוּא מַסֵּיק לֵיהּ בְּטִימֵי וַאֲנָא מַסֵּיק לֵיהּ בְּטִימֵי, עַד דְּמָטְיָא לִשְׁנֵים עָשָׂר דִּנָּרִין, מָה הֲוַת בְּעָא דְּנַיְיתָא לָךְ נוּן בִּתְרֵי עֲשַׂר דִּנָּרִין, אֶתְמְהָא. אֲמַר לֵיהּ מָאן הוּא, אֲמַר לֵיהּ בַּר נָשׁ פְּלַן, שְׁלַח בַּתְרֵיהּ וַאֲתָא לְגַבֵּיהּ, אֲמַר לֵיהּ מָה חֲמֵית חַיָּט יְהוּדָאי דַּאֲכַלְתְּ נוּן בִּתְרֵי עֲשַׂר דִּנָּרִין. אֲמַר לֵיהּ מָרִי אִית לָן חַד יוֹם, בְּכָל חוֹבִין דַּאֲנַן עָבְדִין כָּל יוֹמֵי שַׁתָּא, הוּא מְכַפֵּר עֲלֵינַן. וְכַד הוּא אֲתָא לֵית אֲנַן צְרִיכִין לְיַקּוּרֵי יָתֵיהּ. אֲמַר כֵּיוָן שֶׁהֵבֵאתָ רְאָיָה לִדְבָרֶיךָ הֲרֵי אַתָּה פָּטוּר. מַה פָּרַע לוֹ הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא, הָלַךְ וְקָרַע אוֹתָהּ וְזִמֵּן לוֹ בְּתוֹכָהּ מַרְגָּלִיּוֹת טוֹבָה, וְהָיָה מִתְפַּרְנֵס הֵימֶנָּהּ כָּל יָמָיו.
R. Tanchuma taught: It once happened in Rome on Erev Yom Kippur that a Jewish tailor went to the market to buy fish. There was only one fish available, but there were two buyers: the tailor and the servant of the Roman governor. Each offered a progressively larger sum until the price reached twelve dinar, which the tailor paid.
During the governor's meal, he asked his servant: "Why did you not bring ash?" The servant replied: "I shall not hide the truth from my master. I went to buy fish, but there was only one available. A Jew and I haggled over it- each of us offering more than the other- until the price reached twelve dinar. Would you have wanted me to spend twelve dinar on a fish?" The governor asked: "Who is this Jew?"
He sent for him and he was brought before him. He asked him: "Why did you, a Jewish tailor, see fit to eat a fish that cost twelve dinar?" The tailor replied: "Sir! We have but one day during which all the sins that we commit throughout the year are atoned for. Shall we not honor that day when it comes?" The governor replied: "Since you have explained your behavior, you may go."
And how did G‑d repay the tailor? When he opened the fish, G‑d summoned a precious jewel [into the fish] and this provided him with sustenance for all his days.
Tale #3: Elazar and the Magic Wheatstalk
In another tale involving a pious individual who spends a great deal of money for a Jewish cause and receives a heavenly orchestrated reward, Elazar of Birta visits the market and pursues the communal charity collectors, insisting that they accept his donation. The charity collectors have a history with this Elazar, and are concerned that his actions will starve his family through his indiscriminate donation giving. In the end, a miracle occurs and his few remaining funds are transformed into great wealth. Even still, Elazar wished to give away this new fortune (see original text below).
As it seems to be the case with many tales in the Babylonian Talmud, there is a more reflexive turn in this tale of a pious Jew. He is a man who is unquestioningly committed to noble Jewish causes, even at the expense of his family's welfare. While the previous tales involve simple Jews acquiring wisdom or displaying piety in the market, this tale involves a contested sense of piety and indicates Elazar frequently performed this extravagant act of charity in the market site as evident by his game of hide-and-seek with the collectors.
אֶלְעָזָר אִישׁ בִּירְתָּא, כַּד הֲווֹ חָזוּ לֵיהּ גַּבָּאֵי צְדָקָה הֲווֹ טָשׁוּ מִינֵּיהּ, דְּכׇל מַאי דַּהֲוָה גַּבֵּיהּ יָהֵיב לְהוּ. יוֹמָא חַד הֲוָה סָלֵיק לְשׁוּקָא לְמִיזְבַּן נְדוּנְיָא לִבְרַתֵּיהּ, חַזְיוּהּ גַּבָּאֵי צְדָקָה, טְשׁוֹ מִינֵּיהּ. אֲזַל וּרְהַט בָּתְרַיְיהוּ, אֲמַר לְהוּ: אַשְׁבַּעְתִּיכוּ בְּמַאי עָסְקִיתוּ? אֲמַרוּ לֵיהּ: בְּיָתוֹם וִיתוֹמָה. אָמַר לָהֶן: הָעֲבוֹדָה שֶׁהֵן קוֹדְמִין לְבִתִּי. שְׁקַל כֹּל דַּהֲוָה בַּהֲדֵיהּ וִיהַב לְהוּ. פָּשׁ לֵיהּ חַד זוּזָא, זְבַן לֵיהּ חִיטֵּי, וְאַסֵּיק שַׁדְיֵיהּ בַּאֲכַלְבָּא. אֲתַאי דְּבֵיתְהוּ אֲמַרָה לַהּ לִבְרַתֵּיהּ: מַאי אַיְיתִי אֲבוּךְ? אֲמַרָה לָהּ: כׇּל מָה דְּאַיְיתִי, בַּאֲכַלְבָּא שְׁדִיתֵיהּ. אָתְיָא לְמִיפְתַּח בָּבָא דַאֲכַלְבָּא, חֲזָת אֲכַלְבָּא דְּמַלְיָא חִיטֵּי וְקָא נָפְקָא בְּצִינּוֹרָא דְּדַשָּׁא, וְלָא מִיפְּתַח בָּבָא מֵחִיטֵּי. אֲזַלָא בְּרַתֵּיה לְבֵי מִדְרְשָׁא, אֲמַרָה לֵיהּ: בֹּא וּרְאֵה מָה עָשָׂה לְךָ אוֹהַבְךָ! אֲמַר לַהּ: הָעֲבוֹדָה, הֲרֵי הֵן הֶקְדֵּשׁ עָלַיִךְ, וְאֵין לָךְ בָּהֶן אֶלָּא כְּאֶחָד מֵעֲנִיֵּי יִשְׂרָאֵל.
The Gemara cites more stories about miracles that occurred to righteous individuals. Whenever the charity collectors would see Elazar of the village of Birta, they would hide from him, as any money Elazar had with him he would give them, and they did not want to take all his property. One day, Elazar went to the market to purchase what he needed for his daughter’s dowry. The charity collectors saw him and hid from him. He went and ran after them, saying to them: I adjure you, tell me, in what mitzva are you engaged? They said to him: We are collecting money for the wedding of an orphan boy and an orphan girl. He said to them: I swear by the Temple service that they take precedence over my daughter. He took everything he had with him and gave it to them. He was left with one single dinar, with which he bought himself wheat, and he then ascended to his house and threw it into the granary. Elazar’s wife came and said to her daughter: What has your father brought? She said to her mother: Whatever he brought he threw into the granary. She went to open the door of the granary, and saw that the granary was full of wheat, so much so that it was coming out through the doorknob, and the door would not open due to the wheat. The granary had miraculously been completely filled. Elazar’s daughter went to the study hall and said to her father: Come and see what He Who loves You, the Almighty, has performed for you. He said to her: I swear by the Temple service, as far as you are concerned this wheat is consecrated property, and you have a share in it only as one of the poor Jews. He said this because he did not want to benefit from a miracle.