We encounter today a story which may take some of us back to our childhood:
Joseph-who-honours-Shabbat had in his vicinity a certain gentile who owned much property. Soothsayers warned the gentile: ’Joseph-who-honours-Shabbat will consume all your property.’
So he went, sold all his property, and bought a precious stone with the proceeds, which he set in his turban. As he was crossing a bridge the wind blew it off and cast it into the water. A fish then swallowed it.
The fish was subsequently hauled up and brought to market on the Shabbat eve towards sunset.
‘Who will buy this fish just now?’ cried the fish sellers.
‘Go and take them to Joseph-who-honours-Shabbat,’ they were told, ‘as he is accustomed to buy in order to honour the Shabbat.’
So they took it to him. He bought it, opened it and found the jewel therein. He sold the jewel for thirteen roomfuls of gold coins.
A certain old man met him and said, ‘He who lends to Shabbat, Shabbat repays him.’
It certainly works as a nice story for the children, but I think there’s actually a whole lot more going on here.
In the character of the gentile , (I’m not sure why it’s a gentile, and I don’t really attribute much significance to it, surely there have been many Jews who would fit this mould!), we meet a man who is deeply anxious about his property, about his money.
This manifests itself in a variety of ways. It is significant that he consults soothsayers in order to learn the fate of his fortune – he is caught up in the future, worried about the fate of his wealth.
He does not seem to be able to enjoy the benefits and luxuries that his wealth might proffer upon him in the present, his peace of mind does not seem to have increased in proportion to the size of his bank account. Rather, he seems to be enacting that other dictum of the sages:
‘More possessions leads to more worry.’ (Pirkei Avot 2:8)
So he engages soothsayers and, more than this, he responds to their warning with credulity. I want to say that this is characteristic of a mind that is ill at ease, that it responds to the most unfounded and paranoid of suggestions and treats them as hard fact. Something about its lack of centring, about its lack of rootedness, means that it lacks contact and connection with the plain realities in front of it, with the starting point of hard evidence which the simplest of minds would readily grasp. No, it is fragile, hallucinatory, and all too susceptible to the crazy doomsday whisperings of the unsound, to the tale of his undoing which arrests him.
Perhaps he is indeed haunted by such a sensation, he may in some sense be feeling that he is coming undone, unstuck, and that this proclamation of such by the other is only a confirmation of what he has known for a long time, of the worm-like secret which has been eating away at him over the years. He is perhaps unable to bear the burden of plenty, to live with the inequality that his wealth creates. Something about it separates him from his fellows, and this alienation, this exile, has become for him a torment of soul shredding proportions.
Let us now turn to his response to the soothsayer’s warnings. He decides that the best strategy is to sell all of his property and concentrate his wealth into one precious jewel.
On one level, this would seem to only be taking him further from any capacity to enjoy his wealth, to derive actual and material benefit from it. In his determination to prevent someone else from stealing or obtaining his property, he has in a sense stolen it from himself; he has removed from himself any advantage of his affluence.
The concentration of the wealth into the jewel seems to symbolise a process of fetishization. The jewel is of virtually no use, but it instead embodies a magical quality for its owner. It is his superstitious response to the otherworldly prophecies he receives; he responds to the witchcraft with some sorcery of his own.
His money is in transit: the more he tightens his grip on it, the further it slips away from him.
And yet, with all of this paranoia surrounding his money, he exposes it in its totality to the slightest act of nature, to a gust of wind which removes his turban and blows it into the water. One almost has to read an unconsciously wilful act of neglect here; he almost couldn’t bear the tension and was somehow desiring its end. The death drive, with its magnetic force of dissolution, seems to have overwhelmed him.
In the character of Joseph-who-honours-Shabbat we seem to encounter someone of precisely the opposite nature. The name by which he is known, Yosef Mokir Shabbei, might also be translated as Joseph-whose-wealth-was-Shabbat. He holds Shabbat dear, he cherishes and values something which has a powerful impact on his soul and spirit, something which is very much tangible in the here and now. He is not distracted by the future, he is not imprisoned by worry and a sense of impending doom. He is bound to the moment, living in intimate proximity to the source of his joy.
The jewel comes to Joseph not because he is looking to get rich, not because he has bought a lottery ticket or invested in a spirit of speculation. His wealth arrives because he has a reputation for sparing no expense, for using every last penny he has, in order to honour Shabbat, in order to enrich the day one with every possible delight.
He comes to wealth because he has no interest in looking after his money, in worrying about its future life. He has a healthy relationship with his property, he understands that if it is not used, if it is not put to work in enhancing the finer and more sacred aspects of life, then it becomes empty, it becomes a tormenting and divisive fetish.
We notice that the first thing he does on obtaining the jewel, presumably once Shabbat was finished, was to undo its fetishization, to release its value into an abundance of gold coins which could then be spent, which could be used to bring better things, things of real value, into the world.
The soothsayers’ wording is particularly prescient, they use the term ‘akhil’, literally ‘eat’, to describe what Joseph will do to the gentile’s wealth. He will re-translate it into something tangible, something nourishing, something which can actually enhance a person’s health and wellbeing.
The story ends with the observation of the wise old man that one who lends to Shabbat will be repaid by Shabbat.
On one level, this speaks of the difficulty in keeping Shabbat at a basic level, in the financial and career sacrifice that it seems to demand of us. It is a non-trivial challenge to prioritise Shabbat when other demands are in the foreground, demands which whisper to us of the security and future benefit they will bring to us and our families. Trust in Shabbat, he promises, and you will be repaid.
On another level however, he is speaking of the shift in perspective that Shabbat might offer us. ‘Suspend your concern for the future, release yourself from the anxious worship of financial accumulation and embrace the life of the spirit, the immediacy of your desire. Use this pause to connect and re-root, and all manner of surprising benefits will follow in its wake.’
As we said recently, Shabbat offers us a loosening of the soul, a release from the ordinary anxieties that separate us from our truer selves. Money, and our complicated and tortuous relationship with it, can play a big part in this alienation, in the ways in which we fail to live in the present, we fail to be present, on account of the future.
It is the perfect seducer, it begins with the promise of answering real and palpable needs, then at some point it takes on magical qualities, promising us everything the future has to offer, provided we make a Faustian pact against the present.
Eventually we might fetishize it, we forget why we wanted it, but we only know that we must have it, that it is all that matters.
It has perhaps never been harder to untangle ourselves from this web of confusion, never has there been an age where genuine value and monetary value have been so messily interlinked and amalgamated. The theology of the market, whose collapse we are still struggling to really understand, has profoundly and disturbingly warped our thinking.
We can only hope that the experience of Shabbat, the joy in real and present experience that it offers, can help us to re-calibrate our inner scales somewhat, and that we can return to our lives a little more attentive to the right things, a little less haunted by what the soothsayers might threaten.