Kiddushin 82

Butchers, bakers and candlestick makers.

On this last page of Tractate Kiddushin, the final mishnah opens with a statement that men who deal professionally with women should not be secluded with them. This is because, as we learned on yesterday’s daf, men are not good at controlling themselves sexually. In fact, to protect against this weakness, a father should not teach his son a trade that will require him to deal privately with women. It is therefore inadvisable, says the Gemara, to raise a son to be a smith, carder, jeweler, weaver, barber, launderer, bloodletter or bath house attendant. 

The mishnah then pivots to undesirable trades more generally:

Abba Guryan of Tzadyan says in the name of Abba Gurya: A person may not teach his son to be a donkey driver, a camel driver, a pot maker, a sailor, a shepherd or a storekeeper, as their trades are the trades of robbers.

In my childhood, it was used car salesmen and lawyers who were accused of proverbial highway robbery. For Abba Guryan, it’s donkey drivers and sailors, though Rabbi Yehuda sees it a little differently:

Most donkey drivers are wicked, but most camel drivers are decent. Most sailors are pious, but the best of doctors is for Gehenna, and even the fittest of butchers is a partner of Amalek.

That’s a lot of professions the rabbis advise against. It seems that Jewish parents have had high professional expectations for their kids for thousands of years. I’d be remiss in not noting, however, that the Gemara does approve of some professions. Embroidery, for example, is named as a decent option for young men.

As the list of undesirable professions lengthens, the rabbis are compelled to contemplate a larger, more philosophical problem: All these professions — donkey driver, sailor, shepherd, storekeeper, doctor, butcher, weaver, launderer and all the rest — may be undesirable, but we also cannot function as a society without them. Realistically, as long as people want to eat meat, someone will need to slaughter it. As Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi observes:

There is no trade that disappears from the world, but fortunate is he who sees his parents in an elevated trade; woe is he who sees his parents in a lowly trade.

In the end, we cannot expect or even wish for these professions to disappear. Not everyone will have a desirable job. Not everyone will be wealthy. Not everyone will be equal. That’s just the way of the world. 

The rabbis are not ready to throw in the towel, though. Why should some have to settle for lesser professions? After all, Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar points out

I never saw a deer work as one who dries figs, nor a lion work as a porter, nor a fox work as a storekeeper. And yet they earn their livelihood without anguish. All these were created only to serve me, and I was created to serve the One Who formed me. If these, who were created only to serve me, earn their livelihood without anguish, then is it not right that I, who was created to serve the One Who formed me, should earn my livelihood without anguish? 

Animals don’t have to toil for their living as people do. They are blithely untroubled by inequality of status or pay. How ironic, says Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar, that creatures who occupy a lower rung on the ladder of creation are precisely the creatures who are wholly unplagued by inequality. This glaring problem demands an answer, and you might have already guessed how Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar will explain it:

I (i.e., humanity) have committed evil actions and have lost my livelihood, as it is stated: “Your iniquities have turned away these things, and your sins have held back good from you.” (Jeremiah 5:25)

Human sinfulness, says Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar, is at the root of the painful inequality described on today’s daf. God’s ideal for us was to live in the Garden of Eden with no professions and no social hierarchy. But human sin made that impossible.

It may be hard for some to read this and not wish the rabbis had further extended this line of thought to consider other kinds of inequality. At least on this daf, they didn’t. But the rabbis also did not think of the Talmud as offering a final answer to most questions, but rather as a series of legal conversations that would both illuminate God’s desires for us and also give us tools to keep discerning divine will. That’s why each generation needs to learn Torah — so they can continue this sacred work. Indeed, you’ll not be surprised to learn, this is the ideal profession for a child:

Rabbi Nehorai says: I set aside all the trades in the world and I teach my son only Torah.

May we too continue to pass on that torch.

Read all of Kiddushin 82 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on November 3rd, 2023. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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