In Pirkei Avot, a talmudic sage by the name of Ben Heh Heh taught: “According to the labor is the reward.” (5:23) You might think of this as the Jewish version of the well-known adage, “No pain, no gain.”
But is Ben Heh Heh’s version of the teaching true? If there is pain, will there necessarily be gain? Put another way, does hard work guarantee success? Does success imply that one is worthy of it?
These are the questions that lurk beneath a passage on today’s daf. Rabbi Yitzhak offers us what at first seems to be a simple answer to our question:
Rabbi Yitzhak said: If a person says to you: I have labored and not found (success), don’t believe him. (Similarly, if he says to you:) I have not labored but I have found success, do not believe him. (If, however, he says to you:) I have labored and I have found (success), believe him.
This passage seems at first glance to offer us a rags-to-riches message: Work hard, pull yourself up by your bootstraps, and you can succeed in life. It sounds like the kind of advice you’d give a lethargic teenager. And yet, the Talmud immediately backs away from that conclusion and interprets Rabbi Yitzhak’s teaching narrowly:
This applies to matters of Torah. But with regard to (success in) business, it (all depends upon) assistance from Heaven.
So what at first might have seemed to be a simple motivational saying one could imagine hearing from an athletic coach or a boss has been sharply confined. When it comes to learning, yes, effort is essential — and it will be rewarded. But when it comes to business, maybe not.
One important implication of the assertion that success in business depends on heavenly assistance is that we shouldn’t blame the poor for being poor. They may have worked hard their entire life but haven’t received the requisite assistance from Heaven to succeed economically.
But declaring that success in business requires assistance from Heaven is a two-edged sword: On the one hand, it can suggest that we should be understanding of those in financial distress. After all, they didn’t get the assistance they needed. But we could also understand it to mean that financial distress is a sign that heavenly assistance was withheld from a person because they weren’t worthy of it. This could lead one to conclude that it’s only the economically successful who are worthy.
Our daf doesn’t state explicitly where it stands on that issue. But we can get a hint about it from the way the discussion continues:
Rabbi Yitzhak also said: If you see a wicked man whom the hour is smiling upon, do not provoke him, as it is stated: “Contend not with evildoers.” (Psalms 37:1)
Why would Rabbi Yitzhak teach this? It must be that he was aware that sometimes wicked people are successful, that the hour is smiling on them — even though, we must assume, they don’t deserve it.
It would seem from this that the rabbis — or Rabbi Yitzhak at least — would not have supported prosperity theology, the idea that financial success is the will of God. Rather, they recognized that sometimes the hour can smile upon people, however unworthy they may be. And sometimes it can frown upon worthy people, too.
As important as it clearly was to him to stress the importance of effort in achieving success, Rabbi Yitzhak would probably have urged us not to view poverty as a sign of lethargy, immorality or worthlessness — but rather as an opportunity to “smile upon” and reach out to those in need.
Read all of Megillah 6 on Sefaria.
This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on December 18th, 2021. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.