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Shiur 5: The aggada of the son of Yosef b. Yo'ezer

  • Rav Dr. Yonatan Feintuch

I. Introduction


The eighth chapter of tractate Bava Batra (Yesh Nochalin) cites a story about the son of the Tanna Yosef (Yose) ben Yo'ezer. This Tanna lived during the period of the Hasmonean revolt, and one of the related sources (from Bereishit Rabba) that we will bring below will draw us into the spirit of the approaching holiday, Chanuka.


The story is recorded in a passage connected to the fifth Mishna in the chapter, which deals with a father who decides not to leave his property to his sons:


If a person gives his estate, in writing, to strangers, and leaves out his children, his arrangements are legally binding, but the spirit of the Sages finds no delight in him. R. Shimon b. Gamliel says: If his children did not conduct themselves in a proper manner, he will be remembered for good.


II. The Story


1. Come and hear, Yosef b. Yo'ezer had a son who did not conduct himself in a proper manner.

2. He [Yose b. Yo’ezer] had a loft [full] of denarii and he consecrated it [for the Temple].

3. He [the son] went away and married the daughter of King Yannai's wreath-maker.

4. [On the occasion when] his wife gave birth to a son he bought a fish for her.

5. Opening it he found therein a jewel.

6. She said to him: Do not take it to the king, for they will take it away from you for a small sum of money.

7. Go take it rather to the Treasurers [of the Temple],

8. but do not you suggest its price, since the making of an offer to the Most High is [as binding] as [actual] delivery in ordinary transactions. But let them fix the price.

9. On being brought [to the Temple] it was valued at thirteen lofts of denarii.

10. They said to him: Seven [of them] are available, [but the remaining] six are not available.

11. He said to them: Give me the seven; and the six are [hereby] consecrated to the Temple.

12. Thereupon it was recorded: Yosef b. Yo'ezer brought in one, but his son brought in six. (Bava Batra 133b)

13. Others say, [the record read as follows]: Yosef b. Yo'ezer brought in one, but his son took away seven (Bava Batra, 133b).


III. The story's literary design


The structure of the Story and its meaning


The story can be divided into three parts, according to the characters that appear and act in each part:


Part 1, lines 1-2: Yosef b. Yo'ezer and his son.

Part II, lines 3-8: Yosef's son and his wife.

Part III, lines 9-13: Yosef's son and the Temple treasurers.


In the first part, Yosef b. Yo'ezer and his son appear. However, only Yosef is active in this part, while his son, described as one who "does not conduct himself in the proper manner," appears only as a pretext for the acts of his father. The story does not explain the nature of the son's actions, and the narrator may not even know it. Yosef b. Yo'ezer does not want to leave his estate to a son who does not conduct himself in the proper manner. He therefore decides to give his money to the Temple treasury before he dies, because according to Torah law a father's money passes to his son in inheritance.[1] In this way he both circumvents the problem created by the law of inheritance, and gives positive meaning to his actions.


In the second part of the story, the narrative shifts to detailing what happens to the son. The son marries the daughter of the king's wreath-maker.[2] This detail is apparently meant to serve as background for what follows; when the son finds the jewel, the natural and expected step would be to sell it to his father-in-law in order to integrate it into the king' crown.[3] When the son's wife has a baby, he buys her a fish, cuts it open, and finds a jewel inside. His wife persuades him not to assess it (and presumably to sell it) through one of the king's men (her father or the like), and instead sends him to the Temple treasury. She adds a warning that he should not assess it himself, for if he does so the jewel's value will be fixed, and he will never be able to demand more for it.[4]


The way that the sudden wealth of the son is related  ("He bought a fish for her. Opening it he found therein a jewel… It was valued at thirteen lofts of denarii") is reminiscent of another, more well-known story in the Babylonian Talmud, concerning Yosef Mokir Shabbat (Yosef-Who-Honors-Shabbat):


Yosef Mokir Shabbat had in his vicinity a certain gentile who owned much property. Soothsayers told him: Yosef Moker Shabbat will consume all your property. [So] he went, sold all his property, and bought a precious stone with the proceeds, which he set in his turban. As he was crossing a bridge the wind blew it off and cast it into the water, [and] a fish swallowed it. [Subsequently] it [the fish] was hauled up and brought [to market] on Shabbat eve towards sunset. They said: Who will buy now? They were told: Go and take it to Yosef Mokir Shabbat as he is accustomed to buy. So they took it to him. He bought it, opened it, found the jewel therein, and sold it for thirteen roomfuls of gold denarii. A certain old man met him [and] said: He who lends to Shabbat, Shabbat repays him (Shabbat 119a).


There is another similarity, substantive though not verbal, between the stories. At the beginning of the story in Shabbat, the gentile sells all of his property, and at the beginning of the story in Bava Batra, Yosef b. Yo'ezer consecrates his assets to the Temple. We cannot know with certainty whether the narrator in Bava Batra was familiar with the story in Shabbat, which is found in the Babylonian Talmud but has no earlier parallels. However, the striking affinities between the stories suggest that the creators of the story in Bava Batra made use of the story in Shabbat.[5] The allusion to the story of Yosef Mokir Shabbat suggests that the narrator in Bava Batra hints at Divine intervention; the son not only "conducts himself in proper manner," but also must be a righteous man, like Yosef Mokir Shabbat. The discovery of the jewel and the comparison to Yosef Mokir Shabbat raise questions in light of the first part of the story, where the narrator establishes that the son "did not conduct himself in proper manner."


The third part of the story takes place between the son and the Temple treasurers, to whom the son turns following his wife's advice. The treasurers assess the jewel at a high price, and there is not enough money in the Temple treasury to pay for it. At this point the son can turn elsewhere, where he might receive a higher sum; in the wake of his wife's second piece of advice, he himself has not assessed the jewel, but rather the treasurers have done so, and so the price of the jewel is not finalized. However, the son decides to accept the sum found in the treasury, and the rest he leaves as a present to the Temple treasury.


The son's decision in the last part of the story to leave about half of the jewel's value in the hands of the Temple treasury is a crucial point in the story. With this decision the son closes two circles. First of all, he dedicates a large sum to the Temple treasury, six times what his father the Tanna had dedicated. Through this act he proves his righteousness, for which he has received Divine "credit" when he found the jewel. Thus, the third part of the story illuminates the second part. Second, the son receives from the Temple treasury all of the denarii in its current possession. The meaning of this detail in the story is that he receives, among the rest, the denarii that were consecrated by his father, at least from a literary-symbolic perspective. Thus the circle with the first part of the story is closed. Receiving the denarii for the jewel specifically from the Temple treasury and receiving all of the denarii in the treasury give another meaning to the discovery of the jewel in the second part of the story. It turns out that finding the jewel is meant not only to enrich the son, but also to turn things around so that he indirectly inherits that which his father has tried to withhold from him.


Drawing Close and distancing in the story


One of the main issues dealt with in the story is drawing close and distancing between parents and children. The story opens with a distancing movement between father and son, and ends with them drawing closer together; the son to a certain extent follows in his father's footsteps when he consecrates the money, and even merits receiving his father's money. Another detail that contributes to this theme is the birth of a son: the transformation of the son (of Yosef b. Yo'ezer) into a father leads to his enrichment, as a result of buying the fish. Finding the jewel at this stage is what leads to drawing closer to his father. The story seems to offer an interesting insight regarding father-child relations. The son's good deeds take place after he has a son of his own. It is possible that with the decision to tell about the birth and the good deeds that came in its wake, the narrator alludes to the fact that becoming a father brought the son, who has previously conducted himself in an improper manner, to change his conduct or to want to come close again to his father. This leads to a renewed father-son connection.


The son's wife, who is a secondary character, represents the distancing tendency, on the same axis of parent-child relationships. She advises her husband not to bring the jewel to the king or to his circle, which includes her father. The design of the story emphasizes this point by using a play on words: the father is a gadil kelili, a wreath-maker, and the daughter argues that the king's men will offer demei kelili, a small sum of money. The woman's symbolic distancing from her father serves as a contrasting background and thus emphasizes that the son, the main character, is drawing closer to his own father.


The primary role of the wife in the story


However, it seems that the primary role of the wife lies not in the symbolic distancing from her father, but rather in the way that she illuminates, by way of contrast, the actions of the other characters. In the story there is a certain similarity between the failure of two characters, the father and the wife, to direct events. The wife tries to direct the son far away from the king, in the direction of the Temple treasury, in order to earn a greater profit. This attempt fails when the son collects only half the worth of the jewel from the Temple treasury; it is possible that he would have received more from the king's men. The goal of the request that the son himself not assess the jewel is to increase the amount that he could profit, while in the end the son donates almost half of the sum to the treasury. Similarly, the father's attempt to prevent his son from inheriting him appears to have failed. However, the similarity between the father and the wife is not complete. It is reasonable to assume that in the eyes of the narrator the father's wishes were not really violated; he consecrates his property assuming that his son was not conducting himself in proper manner. When it becomes clear that the son is acting properly, it is reasonable to assume that the father would have desired his son to inherit him.


The difference between the results of the father’s actions and the results of the wife’s actions is not by chance. The father's distancing of his son stems from ethical or educational motives, as a response to the son's "improper" conduct, while the wife's attempts to direct the events stem from selfish economic considerations The father's goal, which is well-intentioned, is disrupted, but on the deeper level his desire is fulfilled. The wife's goal, in contrast, which is motivated by a desire for money, leads, ironically, to an opposite result.


In a similar fashion, the character of the wife stands in contrast to the character of the son, and illuminates his positive aspects. The wife views the discovery of the jewel on a purely mundane level, as a matter of luck, and as an economic opportunity that must be exploited to the utmost. The wife's attitude and conduct emphasize the fact that the son views the discovery of the jewel differently. He sees it as a gift from heaven that must be justified, and thus he is guided by considerations other than maximum economic profit.


The irony of the story


Notwithstanding what was stated above regarding the good intentions of Yosef b. Yo'ezer, it seems that the story calls his judgment into question. The change in the son's conduct and the ironic manner by which he finally receives his inheritance raise the question whether the father is overly rash when he disinherits his son. The connection to the story of Yosef Mokir Shabbat, beyond enhancing the character of the son, also contributes to this question. The story of Yosef Mokir Shabbat is a very ironic story: it is precisely the gentile's actions (buying the jewel and sewing it into his turban) that are meant to prevent the fall of his money into Yosef's hands that in the end bring the money to Yosef. The allusion to the story of Yosef Mokir Shabbat highlights the irony of the father's decision to consecrate his money, a decision that in the end brings the money into his son's hands.[6]


The story about Yakim Ish Tzerorot and its connection to our story


In this context, it is interesting to consider another story found in Midrash Bereishit Rabba, which precedes the Babylonian Talmud, about Yakim Ish Tzerorot, Yose ben Yo'ezer's nephew: [7]


Yakim Ish Tzerorot was the nephew of R. Yose ben Yo'ezer Ish Tzereida. Once he [Yakim ish Tzerorot] was riding on his horse while [Yossi ben Yo'ezer] was being led to his execution [for the crime of teaching Torah]. [Yakim ish Tzerorot] said to him [with scorn]: Look at the horse that my [Greek] master has given me to ride, and look at the horse which your Master has given to you! He answered him: If this [your honorable station] is what God does for those who anger Him, how much greater must His reward be to those who carry out His will! His nephew asked: Is there anyone who has done His will more than you yourself? [How, then, does He permit you to suffer such a punishment?] He answered: If this is what God permits [to happen] to those who perform His will, how much more [punishment] awaits those who anger Him!… He [Yakim Ish Tzerorot] went and fulfilled in himself the four modes of judicial execution: Stoning, burning, sword, and strangling. What did he do? He brought a post and stuck it into the ground, and built a fence around it and tied a line to it, [and he lit a fire in front of it, and stuck the sword in the middle. He hung himself on the post, and the line snapped] and he strangled. He was met by the sword, and the fence turned over on him and he was burned. Yose ben Yo'ezer was sleepy and saw his [Yakim's] bier floating in the air. He said: In a short time, this one arrived in the Garden of Eden before me. (Bereishit Rabba 65, 22.)


It is possible that there is no connection between the stories. The plots in the two stories are different, and there is no absolute identity between the characters. Nevertheless, the similarities between the stories suggest the possibility that the tradition appearing in Bereishit Rabba served as the inspiration or historical or literary kernel for those who created the story recorded in Bava Batra.


Both stories tell about a family member of Yose ben Yo'ezer of the next generation – his son or his nephew – who at first “does not conduct himself in the proper manner," but in the end changes himself and "conducts himself in proper manner." Both stories end with an action on the part of the son/nephew that reconnects him to his father/uncle from whom he has become detached, and with a doubled intensity. In Bereishit Rabba, Yose ben Yo'ezer is taken out for execution by hanging; his nephew then takes himself out for execution with the four modes of judicial execution, the first being similar to that suffered by his uncle ("he hung himself on the post"). In Bava Batra, the son dedicates a sum of money to the Temple, as did his father, but six times the amount. The two stories both end with a declaration of the final outcome of the actions of the son/nephew, which is measured in relation to the father/uncle. In Bereishit Rabba, Yose ben Yo'ezer proclaims: "In a short time, this one arrived in the Garden of Eden before me." And in Bava Batra: "Thereupon it was recorded: Yosef b. Yo'ezer brought in one, but his son brought in six" or: "Yosef b. Yo'ezer brought in one, but his son took away seven."


If, indeed the creators of the story in Bava Batra based the story on the earlier story in Bereishit Rabba, the comparison between the two stories reinforces the message in Bava Batra that even a son who veers radically from the proper path, as does Yakim Ish Tzerorot, might eventually return to the proper way. The doubt about Yose Ben Yoezer’s judgment is thus further reinforced.[8]


IV. The context of the story in the Talmudic passage


As mentioned above, the story about Yosef b. Yo'ezer is brought in a talmudic passage on the Mishna that deals with a father who decides not to leave his property to his sons. R. Shimon b. Gamliel asserts that if the father does so because his children do not conduct themselves in a proper manner, the father will be remembered positively for his action. The Gemara tries to clarify whether the Sages dispute R. Shimon b. Gamliel's assertion, since the Sages did not relate directly to the case of children who do not conduct themselves in a proper manner. To this end, the Gemara cites the story of Yosef b. Yo'ezer ("The question was raised whether the Sages were in disagreement with [the view of] R. Shimon b. Gamliel or not. Come and hear: Yosef b. Yo'ezer…") – as proof that disinheriting children who did not conduct themselves in proper manner is not viewed favorably.


In the end, the proof adduced from this story is rejected, because the Gemara understands that the second version of the story’s end ("Others say: [The record read as follows]: 'Yosef b. Yo'ezer brought in one, but his son took away seven'") is critical of the son, and thus there is insufficient proof that the father's decision was mistaken. Ultimately, the Gemara decides against R. Shimon b. Gamliel based on a statement of Shmuel ("Come and hear: Shmuel said to Rav Yehuda: Long-toothed one! Keep away from transfers of inheritance even [if they be] from a bad son to a good son, and all the more so [when they are] from a son to a daughter").[9][10]


Despite the fact that the Gemara rejects the story as a proof, the design of the story raises a significant question regarding the decision to disinherit the son who does not conduct himself in a proper manner; the story demonstrates how the disinherited son turns out in the end to have conducted himself in proper manner. The comparison that we made to the story of Yakim Ish Tzerorot, Yosef b. Yo'ezer's relative, who veered radically from the proper path and in the end repents, reinforces this line of thinking. Reading the story in the context of the talmudic passage only further contributes to the questionable nature of disinheritance.


It should be emphasized that the challenge to the disinheritance raised in the story is not necessarily a fundamental challenge to the justification of disinheriting children who conduct themselves and will conduct themselves in an improper manner. Rather, the challenge may be practical: even if it is fundamentally right to disinherit children who do not conduct themselves in proper manner, one cannot know that a child who at a particular time is not behaving properly will continue to do so, and therefore it is preferable to refrain from making a decision based on the state of the child at the time of the bequest.


V. Material Inheritance and spiritual inheritance


We will conclude with an examination of the end of the talmudic passage, where the Gemara brings a Baraita about the students of Hillel, which is also part of the broader context of our story:[11]


The Sages taught: Hillel the Elder had eighty disciples. Thirty of them deserved that the Shekhina should rest upon them as upon Moshe our teacher. Thirty of them deserved that the sun should stand still for them as for Yehoshua the son of Nun. Twenty were of an average character. The greatest of them was Yonatan b. Uziel; the least of them was R. Yochanan b. Zakkai. It was said of R. Yochanan b. Zakkai that his studies included the Scriptures, the Mishna, the Gemara, the Halakhot, the Aggadot; the subtle points of the Torah and the minutiae of the Scribes; the inferences from minor to major and the [verbal] analogies; astronomy and geometry; washer's proverbs and fox fables; the language of the demons, the whisper of the palms, the language of the ministering angels and the great matter and the small matter. The "great matter" is the manifestation of the [Divine] chariot and the small matter is the arguments of Abaye and Rava. Thereby is fulfilled the Scriptural text: "That I may cause those that love me to inherit substance and that I may fill their treasuries" (Mishlei 8:21). Now, if the least among them [was] so, how great must have been the greatest among them! It was related of Yonatan b. Uziel [that] when he sat and studied the Torah, every bird that flew over him was burned.


The Baraita cites in connection with the students of Hillel the verse from Mishlei: "That I may cause those that love Me to inherit substance and that I may fill their treasuries." In the context of the chapter, which deals with the laws of inheritance, this "spiritual inheritance" fits in among the other inheritances dealt with in the chapter. This reading gives the Baraita two roles – a structural role and a thematic role. The structural role is to end the talmudic passage with a discussion of a type of inheritance. The thematic role is connected to the questions dealt with earlier in the passage: the story at the beginning of the discussion objects to the disinheritance of children who do not conduct themselves in the proper manner, and in fact suggests that every son, regardless of his conduct, should receive material inheritance from his father. The Baraita dealing with the students of Hillel, on the other hand, speaks of a different type of inheritance, a spiritual inheritance, treasures of Torah, which are inherited only by "those that love Me." It is possible that closing the passage with this Baraita expresses the message that even if in practice unworthy sons receive their material inheritance, spiritual inheritance is meant only for those who are fit to receive it - like the students described in the Baraita, i.e., "those that love Me."


(Translated by David Strauss)


[1] See Mishna, Bava Batra 8:1-2.

[2] Though the story mentions King Yannai, Yosef b. Yo'ezer lived in an earlier period. In any event, this detail bears no importance on the story.

[3] So explains Rashbam, ad loc.

[4] So explains Rashbam, ad loc.

[5] It stands to reason that if there was influence with respect to these stories, it was the story in Bava Batra that made use of the story in Shabbat, and not the other way around. Finding the jewel in the fish is a natural continuation of the story told in Shabbat, where the gentile exchanges all of his wealth for the jewel, which is then swallowed up by the fish. In Bava Batra, in contrast, there is no direct connection between the father's consecration of his property and discovering the jewel in the fish. Similarly, both the purchase of the fish and the sudden wealth fit with the passage in Shabbat much more naturally than with the passage in Bava Batra. Preparing fish is mentioned as part of the preparations made in honor of Shabbat,  in the lines preceding the story in Shabbat The lines following the Shabbat story similaraly mention wealth in reward for honoring Shabbat.

[6] However, there does not appear to have been any intention to liken Yosef b. Yo'ezer to the gentile. Indeed, there is an important difference between them: whereas the gentile is motivated by materialism and tries to keep his money, Yosef b. Yo'ezer acts out of a moral motive. With his action, he does not try to benefit in any way from his money, but rather contributes it to a worthy cause. This difference leads to the fact that when the inheritance in the end falls to the son, it does not really run counter to the true wish of the father.

[7] For a literary analysis of the story see: A. Cohen, "Iyyun be-Sippuram shel Yose ben Yo'ezer Ish Tzerara ve-Yakim Ish Tzerurot (Bereisht Rabba 65, 22)," Netu'im 5 (5759), pp. 59-67.

[8] It is interesting to note that the verse in connection with which the story is brought in Bereishit Rabba is found in the story of Ya'akov, who takes the blessing intended for Esav from Yitzchak. The Midrash expounds: "And he smelled the smell of the garments [begadav]" (Bereishit 27:27) in the sense of bogdav, "his traitors," and cites two stories about sons who "acted treacherously" and later repented – Yose of Shitta and Yakim Ish Tzerorot. The biblical account is a story about a son who inherits his father's estate, which the father had intended to leave not to him, but to someone else (Esav). This is another connection, albeit indirect, between the two Aggadot.

[9] The Baraita is apparently brought in the context of a story relating to Yonatan b. Uziel that appears in the continuation of the passage. We cannot deal with this story in this framework. We note only that it, too, sends a clear message against disinheriting children, even those who conduct themselves in an improper manner.

[10] It is possible that in addition to the Gemara's reading of the second version of the story, it preferred to disprove R. Shimon b. Gamliel from the words of the important Babylonian Amora, Shmuel.

[11] Bava Batra, 134a