Mar ‘Ukba Had a Poor Man (B. Ketubbot 67b):i A Talmudic Patriarchal Narrative with a Metadialogue Commentaryii

Dov Kahane

[Notes on the title and subtitle]

two rabbis_w_b_contur-web
Illustration by Rafael Matigulin.


Mar ‘Ukba had a poor man in his neighborhood

- “Had,” did he? I wonder if the poor man felt he “had” a rich man in Mar ‘Ukba, too?

- I doubt it. He did not know who his benefactor was. Read on, you’ll see.

into whose door-socket

- A “pivotal” place.

- LOL. “Liminal” is the word I would use—not quite in nor out.

he used to throw four zuz every day.

- Throw—as in “throw away” or “throw from a distance.” Seems like Mar ‘Ukba really did not want to get too close.

- No, he wanted to keep his distance. Preserve anonymity. Anonymous charity is the highest form of giving. It preserves a person’s dignity.iii

- Whose anonymity?

- What do you think?

- Well, the anonymous poor man of course.

- But Mar ‘Ukba knows to whom he is giving charity!

- Then to preserve his own anonymity. So the poor man won’t feel shamed or indebted every time he sees Mar ‘Ukba in the street.

- But if he does not know who his benefactor is then won’t he feel shame in front of every person he meets, as everyone is potentially his benefactor?

- You have a point there.

Once, the poor man said: “I will go and see who does me this kindness.”

- “Charity wounds” said Marcel Mauss, and even anonymously given charity wounds.

- What do you mean?

-Well maybe the poor man is thinking: “Who does me this kindness every day? How can I express my gratitude if I don’t know who bestows this gift on me?”

- Or maybe he is thinking: “Can I rely on the gift tomorrow? Next week? Next month?”

- No, the poor man does not “have” Mar ‘Ukba the way Mar ‘Ukba “has” a poor man. This asymmetry of the anonymous gifting creates an unrequitable debt and an intolerable hierarchy.iv

- No wonder he wanted to expose his benefactor.

On that day Mar ‘Ukba was late at the house of study

- So he was a scholar.

- Yes. And he was the Exilarch. v

-What’s that?

-Like a Patriarch of the Jews of Babylonia in the third century.

and his wife

- Oh, so he was married.

- Yes.

- But what is her name?

- Not sure.

- So she is also anonymous! was coming home with him.

- And where was she coming from?

- Not the study hall, I am sure.

- Perhaps the market?

- Where she took her homemade wares to sell.

- Yeah ... so that her learned, community-minded husband could continue learning with his buds in the study house.

- And throwing his coins into the door-sockets of the poor.

As soon as he saw them bending down at his door

- That liminal space again.

- But notice that they are not throwing the money,

- Now that she is there, they are bending down to place it carefully.

He went out after them, but they fled from him

- They really did not want the poor man to see them, did they?

- No, they were bent on preserving that semianonymous, disconnected relationship ... well at least Mar ‘Ukba was.

- I get it, “bent” ... but please elaborate.

- Let’s read on.

and ran into an oven

- A Babylonian mega-oven. Think: Daniel and Nebuchadnezzar or Abraham and Nimrod.

from which the fire had just been swept.

- You would sweep out the glowing coals to cook your food.

Mar ‘Ukba’s feet were burning

- Surely the rest of him was pretty hot, too.

- But it’s those fleeing feet that are getting singed.

- I am beginning to get a sense that the story is critical of his practice of fleeing.

- Indeed.

and his wife said to him: “Raise your feet and put them on mine.”

- It seems like she was not feeling the heat like he was.

- Again she supports him—quite literally now.

He became upset.

- Why was he upset? He should have been grateful to his miraculous wife.

- Maybe he was upset by her “undoing” his masculinity with her preternatural abilities to withstand the heat?

- Or did he just not like to admit that he relied on her support constantly.

She said to him: “I am usually at home and my benefactions are direct.”

- Is she saying that she can stand the heat because she is used to it, being at home in the hot kitchen all day?

- No, it’s because her benefactions are direct. She gives food directly to the poor.

- So what?

- So, maybe she is saying that she can stand the emotional heat while he cannot. Maybe she is telling him: “My charitable giving is direct and immediate. I am at home in the kitchen preparing food for the poor folk. They come in to my domain—past the liminal door-socket—and I know them by name and they know me. I know their troubles, their darkness, their desperate hopes and their unfulfilled dreams. I feel their pain directly and do no stay cool and detached from my beneficiaries.”

- Whoa!

- And note that the place of their temporary “refuge” is the oven, the central locus of the kitchen activity, the hearth, a place of warmth, of nurturing and—as she points out—sometimes a hot spot of real but difficult interpersonal connections.

- I am not sure if that is what Mar ‘Ukba wanted to hear.

- No, it might not resolve his emotional conflict, but it does throw into sharp contrast his anonymous charity with the personal, direct help that his wife practiced.

- Tying the end of the story back to the beginning.

- Right, that’s called chiastic closure.

- Good storytelling! Anything else?

- Yeah. Did you notice who were the silent actors and who had the speaking parts?

- Yes, I see: only the poor man and Mar ‘Ukba’s wife have spoken lines.

- Yes, the “anonymous” ones.

- Yes, so even though the story seems to be about him, Mar ‘Ukba is silent throughout.

- Much like his charity, which is without interpersonal connection.

- Cool!

- Exactly.


- Now what?

- Now comes the Stammaitic (anonymous) redactional intervention.

And what was all that about?

- All what?

- All of Mar ‘Ukba’s fleeing and hiding.

As Mar Zutra bar Tobiah said in the name of Rav. Others state it was Rabbi Huna bar Bizna who said in the namof Rabbi Shimon Ḥasida; while others state it was Rabbi Yoḥanan who said in the name of Rabbi Shimon bar Yoḥai:

- Wow, that’s a lot of names.

- Yes, now there are a whole lot of voices heard.

- But I thought you called it a Stammaitic (anonymous) intervention? It seems like it is very much attributed.

-Well, yes, it’s the narrators who are anonymous here. But they are bringing in a lot of “firepower” with these multiple attributions.

Better that a person throw himself into a fiery furnace than publicly put another person to shame.

-I see where you got the idea of not shaming. It’s expressed here as a norm.

-Yes, but who in this story is being protected from shame?

-The poor man?

-I don’t think so. He wants to know the identity of his benefactor.

-Mar ‘Ukba?

-Exactly. And who might be shaming him?

-The poor man?

-Or maybe his wife is putting him to shame by forcing him out of his patriarchal “comfort zone.”. Out of the liminal space of non interaction. Out of the exclusively male, hierarchical society of the study hall. Into the hot hearth—the scalding and frightening (for him) domain of the female.

-Wait! That’s a whole lot of gendered assumptions that you are making.

-You may be right.

-And furthermore, the anonymous intervention is critical of that read. It valorizes Mar ‘Ukba’s hiding with its norm.

-Yes. I agree. It is an attempt to reappropriate a rather subversive story. And look how it ends:

Whence do we derive this? From Tamar; for it is written, “When she was brought forth” (Genesis 38:25).

-What does that mean?

-When she was about to be executed for suspected adultery, Tamar sent a message to her father-in-law,Judah, who was actually the father of her unborn child. She did this discreetly, says a midrash, so as not to embarrass him.

-So she was going to “take the bullet” for him.

-Actually, she was ready to allow herself to be burned at the stake rather than embarrass Judah.

-But in the end he ‘fesses up.

i The text is my translation of the Vilna edition using Michael Sokoloff’s Dictionary of Jewish Babylonian Aramaic (Ramat Gan: Bar Ilan University Press, 2002). Manuscripts were consulted for variants.

ii The term metadialogue implies a discussion about a discussion. If we think of Talmud essentially as conversations—real or fictionalized—that take place around a particular tradition, any commentary on the Talmud becomes a metaconversation. Here, I conjure a fictional metadialogue on this talmudic text both to elucidate some of its contours and depths as well as to interrogate the underlying methodology of unpacking a text, a central problem in the study of rabbinic literature that interests me. The bolded words are the translated text of the Talmud. The other material is the dialogue between two anonymous readers of the text. And, by extension, my footnotes constitute a meta-metadiscourse.

iii “When you give alms do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing” (Matthew 6:1–4); “Rabbi Elazar said: One who performs acts of charity in secret is greater than Moses, our teacher” (B. Bava Batra 9b); and see Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Laws of Giving to the Poor 10:8–10. The idea of anonymous charity has also been viewed as an attempt to insure that charity never becomes the “dependency-generating” gift that characterizes both the modern and premodern world. See Seth Schwartz’s Were the Jews a Mediterranean Society? (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010).

iv The concept of charity as the unrequited free gift that acts, on some level, to “wound” its recipient has been articulated by many since Mauss first wrote about it in Essai sur le Don (1925). See Barry Schwartz’s “The Social Psychology of the Gift,” American Journal of Sociology 73 (1967): 2. Perhaps this is the crux of the issue at stake in this narrative as well.

v Mordecai Margalioth, Encyclopedia of Talmudic and Geonic Literature (Tel Aviv: Yavneh, 1976).