This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Dreams of Fields*

Though I cannot claim any particular expertise in matters of high finance, I can recognize the soundness of the advice contained in the words of the third-century Rabbi Isaac Nappaha when he declared: "A person's assets should be divided up into three parts: One third should be invested in land, one third in trade, and the remaining third should remain available for immediate use." The result would be a diversified portfolio of the kind that is encouraged by contemporary financial advisors.

The ancient rabbis held a variety of views about which kinds of investments should be most recommended. Rabbi Isaac's statement seems to be typical of the opinions prevalent in Israel and other Mediterranean lands, where commerce was hailed as the key to economic security. This perception was inspired by the sad state of agriculture under the Roman administration, when more and more lands were expropriated from their original owners, whose status was transformed thereby into that of hereditary serfs enslaved to the absentee landlords. When their situation was ameliorated later under Arab rule, Jews indeed became full partners in a trading enterprise that extended from Spain to India.

A different attitude prevailed among the Jewish sages of Babylonia, as reflected in many teachings and anecdotes in the Talmud. For them, the purchase of real estate was unquestionably the most desirable of investments. The folios of the Babylonian Talmud are filled with accounts of the aggressive measures taken by individuals to acquire available real estate, with the demand far exceeding the supply. In several of these episodes, the courts were called to adjudicate between competing claims by squatters and purchasers to the ownership of available properties. In some of these cases, individuals who already possessed estates of their own would elbow aside less fortunate persons who were trying to get their first foothold in land ownership. Symptomatic of the frenzy for land acquisition was an occasion on which a rabbi, who had been given money with which to purchase property on behalf of a colleague, went and bought the land for himself.

There was a widespread perception that reliable credit could be established only by land holdings, rather than by possession of cash or movables. It was assumed that nobody would sell their fields voluntarily; such a move could only be a result of financial distress in the face of creditors or the tax-collector.

Unlike our own times, the land that was attracting so many aspiring buyers was not situated in cities, nor was its value related to its potential for mineral or energy resources. What people were so eager to possess was agricultural land.

This attraction seems somewhat anomalous when we consider that the Talmudic sources had a very realistic awareness of the arduous character of rustic life, noting on occasion that in order to succeed, farmers must became enslaved to their fields.

Notwithstanding that the livelihood of the merchant was likely to come more quickly and with less exertions, the Babylonian Jews shared with their Persian neighbours a conservative outlook (as reflected in Zoroastrian religious texts) that equated moral virtue with traditional ideals of agricultural industry. Several rabbinic texts speak pityingly of those unfortunate souls who must rely for their sustenance upon the vagaries of the marketplace, as compared with the favoured persons who could eke out an independent subsistence from the soil. Indeed, throughout history social prestige has been commonly equated with the possession of real estate; all the more so in antiquity, when "landed" and "aristocracy" were inseparable concepts.

From my perspective as an academic, I should note that, according to the Talmud, land ownership is particularly crucial for us scholars. Thus, a story is related about a rabbi who questioned his students about the progress they were making in their studies. When they responded that they had indeed mastered the assigned material, they added that their success was directly related to their recent acquisition of a small field.

This episode must be contrasted with several others in which scholars whose academic performance was impaired by their financial straits. As Rabbi Johanan once summarized his own distress, "all the limbs depend on the heart, but the heart depends on the purse."

If only my employers would pay careful heed to those words of wisdom!

This article and many others are now included in the book

Why Didn's I Learn This in Hebrew School?Why Didn't I Learn This in Hebrew School

by Jason Aronson Publishers

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  • First Publication:
    • Jewish Free Press, January 29, 1998, pp. 11-12.

  • Bibliography:
    • Beer, Moshe, The Babylonian Amoraim: Aspects of Economic Life, Ramat-Gan: Bar-Ilan University Press, 1974.
    • Daniel Sperber, Roman Palestine: 200-400--The Land, Ramat-Gan: Bar-Ilan University Press, 1978.