The famous question posed in the Ethics of the Fathers is posed on today’s daf. Who is wealthy?
תנו רבנן: איזה עשיר? כל שיש לו נחת רוח בעשרו, דברי רבי מאיר…….. רבי טרפון אומר: כל שיש לו מאה כרמים ומאה שדות, ומאה עבדים שעובדין בהן. רבי עקיבא אומר: כל שיש לו אשה נאה במעשים. רבי יוסי אומר: כל שיש לו בית הכסא סמוך לשולחנו
“the Sages taught: Who is Wealthy? Anyone who gets pleasure from his wealth, [that is] the statement of Rabbi Meir…..Rabbi Tarfon says: [A wealthy person is] anyone who has a hundred vineyards, and one hundred fields, and one hundred slaves working in them. Rabbi Akiva says: Anyone who has a wife whose actions are pleasant. Rabbi Yosef says: Anyone who has a bathroom close to his table.”
R. Meir claims that a rich person is one who is satisfied with what he has (the more familiar format — “one who is satisfied with his lot”). Poverty is true suffering, but the desire for wealth has no limits. The only limit, according to R. Meir, is a private limit; wealth is the ability to place limits and to be happy with what exists. A rich person is one who knows how to be happy.
R. Tarfon, who was very rich (and, according to talmudic legend, craved money), is un- critical and humorless regarding money. He says: A rich person is rich. A rich person has a lot of money.
R. Akiva married the daughter of one of the richest men in Jerusalem, Kalba Savua. R. Akiva’s wife made an intriguing choice – she relinquished her father’s wealth and chose to devote her life to her husband’s success as a Torah scholar. R. Akiva tells us that there are things that cannot be purchased and that the highest level of happiness is devotion to the marital relationship. He just beat the Beatles! Money cannot buy love!
To me, R. Yosi is the wisest and funniest of the sages. In the period when these sages lived, most houses did not have toilets. A rich man, R. Yosi tells us, is someone with a bathroom in his house. I smile to think of this image of happiness: on the rich man’s table, an abundance of delicacies for people to eat, drink, and enjoy. R. Yosi reminds us that not long after the meal, one needs the bathroom. Wealth does not provide happiness, but it provides brief pleasures that very quickly wind up in the waste disposal. True happiness is not acquired with money but with ongoing effort.