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And this same love of honest labor, the same spirit of manly independence, the same horror of trafficking with the law, and using it either "as a crown or as a spade," was certainly characteristic of the best Rabbis. Quite different in this respect also--far asunder as were the aims of their lives--were the feelings of Israel from those of the Gentiles around. The philosophers of Greece and Rome denounced manual labor as something degrading; indeed, as incompatible with the full exercise of the privileges of a citizen. Those Romans who allowed themselves not only to be bribed in their votes, but expected to be actually supported at the public expense, would not stoop to the defilement of work. The Jews had another aim in life, another pride and ambition. It is difficult to give an idea of the seeming contrasts united in them. Most aristocratic and exclusive, contemptuous of mere popular cries, yet at the same time most democratic and liberal; law-abiding, and with the profoundest reverence for authority and rank, and yet with this prevailing conviction at bottom, that all Israel were brethren, and as such stood on precisely the same level, the eventual differences arising only from this, that the mass failed to realise what Israel's real vocation was, and how it was to be attained, viz., by theoretical and practical engagement with the law, compared to which everything else was but secondary and unimportant.
But this combination of study with honest manual labor--the one to support the other--had not been always equally honored in Israel. We distinguish here three periods. The law of Moses evidently recognised the dignity of labor, and this spirit of the Old Testament appeared in the best times of the Jewish nation. The book of Proverbs, which contains so many sketches of what a happy, holy home in Israel had been, is full of the praises of domestic industry. But the Apocrypha, notably Ecclesiasticus (xxxviii. 24-31), strike a very different key-note. Analysing one by one every trade, the contemptuous question is put, how such "can get wisdom?" This "Wisdom of Jesus the Son of Sirach" dates from about two centuries before the present era. It would not have been possible at the time of Christ or afterwards, to have written in such terms of "the carpenter and workmaster," of them "that cut and grave seals," of "the smith," or "the potter"; nor to have said of them: "They shall not be sought for in public counsel, nor sit high in the congregation; they shall not sit on the judges' seat, nor understand the sentence of judgment; they cannot declare justice and judgment; and they shall not be found where parables are spoken" (Ecclus xxxviii. 33). For, in point of fact, with few exceptions, all the leading Rabbinical authorities were working at some trade, till at last it became quite an affectation to engage in hard bodily labor, so that one Rabbi would carry his own chair every day to college, while others would drag heavy rafters, or work in some such fashion. Without cumbering these pages with names, it is worth mentioning, perhaps as an extreme instance, that on one occasion a man was actually summoned from his trade of stone-cutter to the high-priestly office. To be sure, that was in revolutionary times. The high-priests under the Herodian dynasty were of only too different a class, and their history possesses a tragic interest, as bearing on the state and fate of the nation. Still, the great Hillel was a wood-cutter, his rival Shammai a carpenter,; and among the celebrated Rabbis of after times we find shoemakers, tailors, carpenters, sandalmakers, smiths, potters, builders, etc.--in short, every variety of trade. Nor were they ashamed of their manual labor. Thus it is recorded of one of them, that he was in the habit of discoursing to his students from the top of a cask of his own making, which he carried every day to the academy. We can scarcely wonder at this, since it was a Rabbinical principle, that "whoever does not teach his son a trade is as if he brought him up to be a robber" (Kidd. 4.14). The Midrash gives the following curious paraphrase of Ecclesiastes 9:9, "Behold, the life with the wife whom thou lovest" (so literally in the Hebrew): Look out for a trade along with the Divine study which thou lovest. "How highly does the Maker of the world value trades," is another saying. Here are some more: "There is none whose trade God does not adorn with beauty."Though there were seven years of famine, it will never come to the door of the tradesman." "There is not a trade to which both poverty and riches are not joined; for there is nothing more poor, and nothing more rich, than a trade."No trade shall ever disappear from the world. Happy he whom his teacher has brought up to a good trade; alas for him who has been put into a bad one." Perhaps these are comparatively later Rabbinical sayings. But let us turn to the Mishnah itself, and especially to that tractate which professedly embodies the wisdom and the sayings of the fathers (Aboth). Shemaajah, the teacher of Hillel, has this cynical saying (Ab. i. 10)--perhaps the outcome of his experience: "Love work, hate Rabbiship, and do not press on the notice of those in power." The views of the great Hillel himself have been quoted in a previous chapter. Rabbi Gamaliel, the son of Jehudah the Nasi, said (Ab. ii. 2): "Fair is the study of the law, if accompanied by worldly occupation: to engage in them both is to keep away sin; while study which is not combined with work must in the end be interrupted, and only brings sin with it." Rabbi Eleazar, the son of Asarjah, says, among other things: "Where there is no worldly support (literally, no meal, no flour), there is no study of the law; and where there is no study of the law, worldly support is of no value" (Ab. iii. 21). It is worth while to add what immediately follows in the Mishnah. Its resemblance to the simile about the rock, and the building upon it, as employed by our Lord (Matt 7:24; Luke 6:47), is so striking, that we quote it in illustration of previous remarks on this subject. We read as follows: "He whose knowledge exceeds his works, to whom is he like? He is like a tree, whose branches are many and its roots few, and the wind cometh, and uproots the tree and throws it upon its face, as it is said (Jer 17:6)...But he whose works exceed his knowledge, to whom is he like? To a tree whose branches are few, but its roots many; and if even all the winds that are in the world came and set upon such a tree, they would not move it from its place, as it is written (Jer 17:8)." We have given this saying in its earliest form. Even so, it should be remembered that it dates from after the destruction of Jerusalem. It occurs in a still later form in the Babylon Talmud (Sanh. 99 a). But what is most remarkable is, that it also appears in yet another work, and in a form almost identical with that in the New Testament, so far as the simile of the building is concerned. In this form it is attributed to a Rabbi who is stigmatised as an apostate, and as the type of apostasy, and who, as such, died under the ban. The inference seems to be, that if he did not profess some form of Christianity, he had at least derived this saying from his intercourse with Christians. *
* Elisha ben Abbuja, called Acher, "the other," on account of his apostasy. The history of that Rabbi is altogether deeply interesting. We can only put the question: Was he a Christian, or merely tainted with Gnosticism? The latter seems to us the most probable. His errors are traced by the Jews to his study of the Kabbalah.
But irrespective of this, two things are plain on comparison of the saying in its Rabbinical and in its Christian form. First, in the parable as employed by our Lord, everything is referred to Him; and the essential difference ultimately depends upon our relationship towards Him. The comparison here is not between much study and little work, or little Talmudical knowledge and much work; but between coming to Him and hearing these sayings of His, and then either doing or else not doing them. Secondly, such an alternative is never presented by Christianity as, on the one hand, much knowledge and few works, and on the other, little knowledge and many works. But in Christianity the vital difference lies between works and no works; between absolute life and absolute death; all depending upon this, whether a man has digged down to the right foundation, and built upon the rock which is Christ, or has tried to build up the walls of his life without such foundation. Thus the very similarity of the saying in its Rabbinical form brings out all the more clearly the essential difference and contrariety in spirit existing between Rabbinism, even in its purest form, and the teaching of our Lord.
The question of the relation between the best teaching of the Jewish sages and some of the sayings of our Lord is of such vital importance, that this digression will not seem out of place. A few further quotations bearing on the dignity of labor may be appropriate. The Talmud has a beautiful Haggadah, which tells how, when Adam heard this sentence of his Maker: "Thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee," he burst into tears, "What!" he exclaimed; "Lord of the world, am I then to eat out of the same manger with the ass?" But when he heard these additional words: "In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread," his heart was comforted. For herein lies (according to the Rabbis) the dignity of labor, that man is not forced to, nor unconscious in, his work; but that while becoming the servant of the soil, he wins from it the precious fruits of golden harvest. And so, albeit labor may be hard, and the result doubtful, as when Israel stood by the shores of the Red Sea, yet a miracle will cleave these waters also. And still the dignity of labor is great in itself: it reflects honor; it nourisheth and cherisheth him that engageth in it. For this reason also did the law punish with fivefold restitution the theft of an ox, but only with fourfold that of a sheep; because the former was that with which a man worked. Assuredly St. Paul spoke also as a Jew when he admonished the Ephesians (Eph 4:28): "Let him that stole steal no more: but rather let him labor, working with his hands the thing which is good, that he may have to give to him that needeth."Make a working day of the Sabbath: only be not dependent upon people," was the Rabbinical saying (Pes. 112). "Skin dead animals by the wayside," we read, "and take thy payment for it, but do not say, I am a priest; I am a man of distinction, and work is objectionable to me!" And to this day the common Jewish proverb has it: "Labor is no cherpah (disgrace)"; or again: "Melachah is berachah (Labor is blessing)." With such views, we can understand how universal industrious pursuits were in the days of our Lord. Although it is no doubt true, as the Rabbinical proverb puts it, that every man thinks most of his own trade, yet public opinion attached a very different value to different kinds of trade. Some were avoided on account of the unpleasantnesses connected with them, such as those of tanners, dyers, and miners. The Mishnah lays it down as a principle, that a man should not teach his son a trade which necessitates constant intercourse with the other sex (Kidd. iv. 14). Such would include, among others jewellers, makers of handmills, perfumers, and weavers. The latter trade seems to have exposed to as many troubles as if the weavers of those days had been obliged to serve a modern fashionable lady. The saying was: "A weaver must be humble, or his life will be shortened by excommunication"; that is, he must submit to anything for a living. Or, as the common proverb put it (Ab. S. 26 a): "If a weaver is not humble, his life is shortened by a year." This other saying, of a similar kind, reminds us of the Scotch estimate of, or rather disrespect for, weavers: "Even a weaver is master in his own house." And this not only in his own opinion, but in that of his wife also. For as the Rabbinical proverb has it: "Though a man were only a comber of wool, his wife would call him up to the house-door, and sit down beside him," so proud is she of him. Perhaps in the view of the Rabbis there was a little of female self-consciousness in this regard for her husband's credit, for they have it: "Though a man were only the size of an ant, his wife would try to sit down among the big ones."