This passage from the Talmud occurs four times in the Jerusalem Talmud: Shevi‘it 4:3, 35b and 5:9, 36a; Avodah Zarah 4:9, 44b; and, Gittin 5:9, 47c, a variant which reverses the views of the two sages being featured. It first appears in a discussion on Mishnah Shevi‘it 4:3; a mishnah that defines appropriate conduct toward Jews and non-Jews who cultivate their fields in the land of Israel during the Sabbatical year, despite the biblical prohibition of agricultural activity (see Exodus 23:10-11; Leviticus 25:1-7):
חוכרים נירים מן הגוים בשביעית אבל לא מישרא'. ומחזקים ידי גוים בשביעית אבל לא ידי ישרא'. ושואלין בשלומם מפני דרכי שלום.
They may [contract] during the Sabbatical year (lit. [the] seventh; shevi‘it) to lease plowed fields from gentiles (to sow them after the shevi‘it), but not from Israel. And they may strengthen the hands of gentiles [who labor in their fields] during the Sabbatical year (shevi‘it), but not the hands of Israel. And they may ask about their well-being (shlomam) for the sake of peace (lit. because of the ways of peace; shalom). (Mishnah Shevi‘it 4:3, following MS Kaufmann)
Our talmudic source extends the halakhic discussion on “may strengthen... the hands” of Israelites who plow their land during the Sabbatical year, laying the groundwork to teach that all blessings are given for the sake of Israel. This notion is also conveyed in a tannaitic text: Tosefta Ma‘aser Sheni 5:27. However, in the Talmud, the nations of the world are unaware of Israel’s indispensable role in their well-being. This text is a dialogue between Rabbi Ḥinana (or Ḥanina) bar Papa, a third-generation amora who was active in the late third and early fourth centuries, and Rabbi Shmuel bar Naḥman, a second- or third-generation amora who was active in the third century. Set a rural area during the Sabbatical year, these sages encounter an Israelite plowing a field, to whom Rabbi Shmuel bar Naḥman says: “Eyshar!”; commentators explain this expression as “May you be strengthened!” Although Yehuda Feliks reads the mishnaic clause “strengthen the hands of gentiles” to indicate literal participation in agrarian labor that Jews contributed to their gentile neighbors during the Sabbatical year, the Jerusalem Talmud interprets this to be offering words of encouragement (Feliks, Talmud Yerushalmi, p. 240).
At issue here is whether eyshar may be said to a Jew who is working his field during that year. Therefore, following this exchange, Rabbi Ḥinana bar Papa questions Rabbi Shmuel bar Naḥman, opening with ““Did the rabbi not teach us…” a formula which usually introduces a challenge that a student poses to his master, or a junior sage to his senior colleague (more on this Aramaic terminology in Moscovitz, The Terminology, p. 310-312). Rabbi Ḥinana bar Papa’s critique is based on an interpretation of Psalms 129:8. In its biblical context, Psalms 129:5-8 is typically translated as: “Let all those who hate Zion be put to shame and turned back. Let them be as the grass on the housetops, which withers before it grows up, with which the reaper does not fill his hand, nor he who binds sheaves, his arms. Neither let those who pass by them (ha-‘ovrim) say, ‘The blessing of the Lord be upon you; we bless you in the name of the Lord!’” (NKJV). However, according to Rabbi Ḥinana bar Papa, ha-‘ovrim should be understood as “those who transgress” rather than “those who pass by,” which yields this reading: “They may not say [to] those who transgress: ‘The blessing of the Lord be upon you; we bless you in the name of the Lord!”’ (Psalms 129:8, based NKJV). This rendering is derived from a secondary definition of the Hebrew root ‘-v-r, which can mean “to pass” and “to sin” (Jastrow, A Dictionary, p. 1038). Rabbi Ḥinana bar Papa reads ha-‘ovrim as transgressors; in this context, those who cultivate their land despite the prohibition in the Torah. Thus, the expression “Eyshar” may not be extended to Jews who plow their land during the Sabbatical year, for they are transgressing biblical law.
Rabbi Shmuel bar Naḥman responds by defending his position, rendering ha-‘ovrim as “those who passed” rather than “those who transgressed” and, therefore, offering a completely different interpretation of Psalms 129:8. He acknowledges this as a midrashic retort, for he opens by accusing Rabbi Ḥinanah bar Papa of knowing how to read Scripture but lacking the ability to create a midrash (in his analysis, Feliks states that Rabbi Shmuel bar Naḥman offers two midrashic readings, Talmud Yerushalmi, p. 243). Rabbi Shmuel creatively presents this verse as a dialogue between Israel and the nations of the world. First, he establishes that ha-‘ovrim denotes the other nations since “they pass (‘ovrim) from the world,” rendering the beginning of this verse as: “The nations of the world (ha-‘ovrim) did not say to Israel: ‘The blessing of the Lord be upon you’ (Psalms 129:8).” The remainder of this verse becomes the opening of Israel’s response.
Here, although the nations do not bless Israel, Israel blesses the nations in God’s name. Israel continues by telling the nations: not only do the blessings (“benefactions and consolations,” tovot ve-neḥamot, in Jerusalem Talmud Avodah Zarah 4:9) that you enjoy come to the world on our behalf, but you are limiting our ability to benefit from these blessings and, furthermore, you levy taxes upon us. In rabbinic literature, “the nations of the world” typically refers to gentiles; however, the taxes listed here were specifically collected by the Romans:
(1) taxes (pisim): the origin of this term is not entirely clear (for scholarly hypotheses, see Feliks, Talmud Yerushalmi, p. 243, note 102; Moshe Gil, And the Roman, p. 28);
(2) monetary fines or penalties (zimiyot; from the Greek zēmia);
(3) head tax: from the Aramaic golgalta (skull, head, or a type of tax), probably referring to “the capitation, a per capita tax in cash” (Christ, The Romans, p. 182);
(4) annona: originally the grain supply for the city of Rome, partially financed by provincial taxes; toward the late second and early third centuries, this term also applied to provisions for the army, funded by a tax that was imposed on local populations according to need. This in-kind tax was levied according to one’s land holding.
(This same list of taxes also appears in Leviticus Rabbah 33:6; more on these taxes in Gil, And the Roman, p. 18-28).
The nations of the world, and particularly the Roman Empire that collects these taxes, are therefore unaware of this claim that all blessings to humanity depend on Israel. For the editors of the Jerusalem Talmud, this message was so important that they incorporated this passage in four distinct locations.
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