Finding one’s calling (Daf Yomi Pesachim 50)

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“I saw an inverted world.”

I have been thinking a lot about work and how it defines us. Studs Terkel said in his seminal analysis of working that “most of us are looking for a calling, not a job.” He added that most of us “have jobs that are too small for our spirit. Jobs are not big enough for people.”  I do not know this to be true and I am not defending actions that left me literally weeping with sorrow, but I wonder how much of the anger that was unleashed in Washington last week was by people who felt left behind and as if there is no place in the world for them because they lack a calling.

One job that is not too small for the human spirit is that of a scholar who may be underpaid (although some of the Rabbis in the Talmud were very well off) but provides for the privilege of learning. Today’s Daf Yomi reading discusses different working styles and jobs, and places the Torah scholar at the top of Maslow’s pyramid of actualization. And if you read between the lines, there is support for women owning their own business and a rare acknowledgement of their financial contribution.

We know from past readings that Rav Yosef suffered some unnamed serious illness where he was on the verge of death. Today we discover that he had a near-death-experience where he was able to reach out and glimpse the World-to-Come. He had a vision of the order of the next life. Those who are on top in this world such as the powerful and wealthy were considered insignificant in the afterworld, while those who live lowly existences in this world and toil away without notice are on top in the next one. He says that he saw “an inverted world.”

When Rav Yosef was asked about the placement of Torah scholars, he says “we are regarded here, so are we regarded there.” I read this passage as safeguarding for Torah scholars a place of significance in the World-to-Come and honoring them through eternity as we do through reading the Talmud. This can be seen as another attempt following on yesterday’s reading to justify the special position of the Rabbis in their “otherness,” but also as my more generous self tells me today after catching up on some sleep, a demonstration of the immense respect of learning that is part of the Jewish tradition.

We are provided with advice on how to get along in the world when one travels and to follow local customs which is important to consider when traveling for work. The advice is given in the context of working on Passover eve, but is relevant to respecting local traditions today. Working in the hours leading up to Passover eve is not prohibited by Torah law, and we are told that if one travels on that day, they should follow whatever the local townspeople do, although there is some debate on the matter and back-peddling by a group of unnamed sages who say the most stringent rule applies and accordingly, one should never work on the day. But still, there is the important guidance to respect the culture you find yourself in when you travel.

We are presented with a litany of work styles. There are some who are diligent and garner their identity from work and presumably have a calling. They are also rewarded because as industrious as they are, they observe the Sabbath. There are some who are so dedicated to their work that they cannot step down on the Sabbath from their duties (with the assumption that healthcare and other essential workers are granted exceptions) and are penalized. And there are the lazy workers who just show up for work and do the minimal during the week. They lack a calling but obey the Sabbath and are rewarded for their piety. And then there are those who break all the rules: they neglect their duties during the week but work on the Sabbath in order to try to make up for what they did not do earlier.

We have been on a journey with the discussion of intent from the first Tractate, and intent matters, except when it does not. There is a more generous attitude towards intent in today’s reading. We are told that if someone performs a mitzva as a by-product of their salaried work, because they are employed in an occupation that results in the performance of a religious duty, such as a scribe of scrolls that are placed inside a mezuzah, they are still fulfilling a mitzva even though they are paid to do the work. We are told that “even a mitzva performed with ulterior motives garners reward.”

The text acknowledges today that women contributed to the family income. It is possible that they made substantial contributions through their hard work, while their husbands studied in the Yeshiva. This is one of the first mentions I have seen of women’s work in the Talmud. We are told that the profit is small if a woman “spins thread for others and charges weight on scale.” In fact, the profits are so small, that “it is demeaning to walk in public to solicit customers.” On the other hand, if a woman sells the product of her labor for herself, she is rewarded with higher earnings and the blessing of being able to support her family.

Ten years ago, I attended a lecture by an economist who said there was a class of mostly older working-class men who might never work again as their jobs moved overseas. Interesting enough, this economist predicted that these men’s wives would become the primary breadwinners of their families, because they were more able to retool their skillsets and willing to take whatever job they could find. What he said resonated with me today in the passage concerning women who run their own threads business while their husbands presumably spend their days studying in the yeshivas. This economist implied that the working world would become inverted, with women in many cases becoming the primary earners.

The role of women in the Talmud is minimized, but there are grains in today’s text that suggest that not only were they the center of the home but wage earners as well. It was a hard life they led, and I wonder how much opportunity they had to find their passion. The men had more opportunity to find their true calling and the spirit within them. We should remember the hard-working women who allowed them to do so.

About the Author
Penny Cagan was born in New Jersey and has lived in New York City since 1980. She has published two books of poems called “City Poems “ and “And Today I am Happy." She is employed as a risk manager and continues to write poetry. More information on Penny can be found at
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