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In his recent book, Seth Schwartz explores "[t]he tension between egalitarian solidarity and competitive reciprocity" in the late Second Temple period and in rabbinic Judaism. (1) As Schwartz's characterization of reciprocity implies, it stands at odds with egalitarianism because exchange, outside the boundaries of the market, is ordinarily structured by asymmetry, and thus by the hierarchical relationships of patronage and dependence. (2) For Schwartz, Judaism's "natural" proclivity, at least as enshrined in the Torah, is toward egalitarian solidarity. To obviate the
need for the "dependence-generating gift," the Torah mandates wealth transfer to the poor through charitable donation (leaving unharvested the corner of one's field, etc.). Charity, unlike the gift, does not generate the obligation to reciprocate: "[t]he pauper, like the priest, is meant to feel no gratitude--at least not toward the donor." (3) Given this innate preference for solidarity, the problem for late antique Judaism in a patronage-dominated Mediterranean society lay specifically in "how to come to terms, Jewishly, with the practical inevitability of social institutions founded on reciprocal exchange." (4)
Taking a cue from Schwartz, this essay identifies and analyzes two oppositions in rabbinic discourse that rest upon and complicate the relationship between reciprocal exchange and charity. The first, to which the first part of the essay is devoted, has roots in Esth 9:22, which characterizes the festival of Purim as "an occasion for sending gifts to one another (([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) and presents to the poor ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII])" (NJPS). The opposition between these two kinds of conveyance on Purim plays a vanishingly small role in the rabbinic imaginaire, but provides a useful entry point into our topic precisely because of its small scale, and because it so clearly distinguishes reciprocal exchange and charity. This first part of the essay draws on sources from the Babylonian Tahnud.
The second and longer part of the essay focuses on Palestinian, chiefly Tannaitic sources. It centers on the opposition, native to rabbinic literature itself, between [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (charity) and [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (literally "reciprocation of kindness," but henceforth, due to the absence of a precise, idiomatic translation equivalent, GH). The thesis of this part is that the category of GH rhetorically draws standard Mediterranean modes of reciprocal exchange into the orbit of charity, and thus blunts their tendency to produce and consolidate social distinctions. The rhetoric of GH thus counts among the strategies that rabbinic Judaism employed to, in Schwartz's words, "come to terms, Jewishly," with the institutions of reciprocal exchange with which it was, as part of a Mediterranean society, inextricably entwined.
* Purim Transfers
Esther 9:22, partially reproduced above, distinguishes between two transfers in connection with the feast of Purim. Individuals send [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] to one another, and [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] to the poor. The words [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] and [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] appear to be carefully chosen. In other biblical books, the [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] is shared with one's family (1 Sam 1:4-5: sons, daughters, wives) or with an honored guest (1 Sam 9:23), while the [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] is not so much shared as relinquished, whether to descendants (e.g., Gen 25:6), or, more commonly, to God or to God's priestly representative (e.g., Exod 28:38). (5)
The description of the Purim feast in Esth 9:22 may be compared to Deut 16:11, according to which the celebrant at a pilgrimage festival should rejoice with "your son and daughter, your male and female slave, the Levite in your communities, and the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow in your midst" (NJPS). The list in Deut 16:11 incorporates the celebrant's household and the needy into a single, undifferentiated list. By contrast, Esth 9:22 categorically demarcates the household or social circle from the poor. Whether the difference between Deut 16:11 and Esth 9:22 speaks to a social or theological change from the Deuteronomic to the Persian context is unimportant here. What matters for our analysis is that Esth 9:22 bequeathed to rabbinic interpreters a transparent distinction between reciprocal exchange and charity. (6)
The category of [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] is mentioned only in one context in the Palestinian Talmud, and in a related discussion in the Babylonian Talmud, both to be analyzed below. The Bavli's discussion includes only one statement with any legal content, and the Yerushalmi's, none, By contrast, laws governing the collection and distribution of funds to the poor occur in the Mishnah (m. Meg. 1:3-4) and in the Tosefta (t. Meg. 1:4-5), as well as in the talmudic commentary thereon. The rabbis' relative lack of interest in [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] likely reflects its reciprocal character. Compared to charity, it belongs more to the social than to the legal realm.
The following is the one case in the Palestinian Talmud where [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] occurs:
[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] R. Yudan the patriarch sent one thigh and one bottle of wine to R. Hoshaya the great. He sent to him, saying: You have fulfilled through us, "and presents to the poor" (Esth 9:22). He then sent him one calf and one jar of wine. He sent to him, saying: You have fulfilled through us, "and sending gifts to one another" (ibid.). (7)
R. Yudan at first sends R. Hoshaya a meager Purim meal. R. Hoshaya needles him by characterizing it as "presents to the poor." R. Yudan then sends a far more substantial meal, and R. Hoshaya credits him as having genuinely fulfilled the commandment of [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]. This interchange should possibly be grouped with sources wherein rabbis and preachers critique R. Yudan's eagerness to accept or exact gifts from Jews. (8) Here, too, he seems to come across as overly attached to lucre.
Whatever the socio-political subtext, R. Hoshaya's remarks manipulate the boundary between [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]. The two categories are in any case close. Both describe transfers in connection with the Purim feast. A baraita reported by R. Yosef in the Bavti (b. Meg. 7a) defines [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] as '"two gifts to one person" and [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] as "two presents to two people," but there is no evidence that this baraita was known in Palestine, and the baraita itself, while preserving the distinction between [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] , ignores (at least rhetorically) that between [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], and instead takes "people" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) as the recipients of both transfers. (9) One source on the collection and distribution of funds for the poor on Purim (t. Meg. 1:5) suggests that, at least in some circles, the poor were provided directly with food.
[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] The Purim collection is (exclusively) for Purim.... They are not particular about the Purim collection. Rather they take calves and they slaughter them and they eat them, and let there be no surplus that falls to the charity box. (10) R. Eliezer says: The poor man should not make of the Purim collection a lace for his sandal.
The pericope envisions the poor receiving their charity in the form of calf flesh (and its hide, from which, as R. Eliezer foresees, a poor recipient might wish to make a lace), precisely the fare that R. Yudan conveys to R. Hoshaya. R. Hoshaya fashions a rhetorical barb out of the thin line separating [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]. A meager gift is no gift at all, but charity, and, insofar as it constructs the recipient as poor, an insult. While the conferral of gifts in any context reflects and constructs status differentiation, Purim multiplies the semiotic permutations by juxtaposing reciprocal exchange and charity.
In the Bavli, the story of R. Yudan and R. Hoshaya occurs immediately after R. Yosef's baraita (b. Meg. 7a-b). (11) This story is followed by another that varies the setting--it occurs in Babylonia rather than Palestine--but likewise features a Purim exchange marred by accusations of impropriety. (12)
[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] Rabba sent to Marl bar Mar through Abbaye a basketful of qashba dates and a cupful of flour of roasted ears of grain. Said Abbaye: Now [Marl] will say, if a field worker should become a king, the basket is not lowered from his neck. Then that one sent a basketful of ginger and a cupful of long pepper. Said Abbaye: Now the master will say, I sent him sweet food and he sent me pungent food.
Rabba has by now become "king" (i.e., has ascended to the leadership of the Pumbedita yeshivah [b. Ber. 64a]). But he remains poor; b. Mo'ed Qat 28a reports that the bread in his home was of coarse flour, and even that was in short supply. Mari bar Mar, in contrast, is wealthy. (13) While this story does not rely, at least explicitly, on the proximity of [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], it does portray the exchange of food on Purim as a site for the display and negotiation of status. What is particularly striking about the story is Abbaye's role. The barbs by Rabba and Marl do not in fact issue directly from them, but from the go-between, Abbaye, Rabba's disciple. His socialization into Babylonian rabbinic culture is reflected in his ability to "author" this status struggle.
On Seth Schwartz's account, Judaism in the Mediterranean world favored charity over reciprocity insofar as the latter, but not the former, occasions indebtedness of a kind that strains bonds of solidarity. The above discussion allows us to nuance this account of the relationship between charity and reciprocity, for it suggests that the very presence of charity (here, [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) as an alternative to reciprocity ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) can magnify the social tension implicit in reciprocal exchange. To give what the receiver perceives as too little is to treat the receiver like a pauper. It is difficult to say whether this effect is an important one in the rabbinic context, and whether the status conflict in the above exchange (constructed by Abbaye) between Rabba and Mari owes something to the implicit presence of charity as the alternative to reciprocal exchange on Purim. In any case, the Purim context sharply distinguishes charity and reciprocity as categories. In the next section, we turn to a very different, indeed almost an inverse permutation of the relationship between these two modes of …