Ben Zoma The Skeptic

Perhaps Ben Zoma’s words in Chapter 4 of Pirkei Avot are not as simple as they appear.

The sage seems to be explaining why we should not seek wealth, wisdom, and strength in the traditional senses. You can make all the money in the world, but until you’re satisfied, you’re not rich. You can lift and bench daily, but until you conquer you own heart, you’re not strong. And your twelve PhDs won’t make you wise until you have the humility to learn from everyone.

This ethical direction is rendered as a redefinition of terms, as indicated by the “what is x” form of the Mishna. You may assume wealth means the accumulation of assets, and Ben Zoma tells you that the word really refers to a state of mind. This is in accordance with the general theme of the Ethics, that is, lifnim mishurat hadin, correct behavior beyond the letter of the law.

According to the letter of the law, a Jew is required to earn his or her wealth honestly. Beyond the letter of the law, one must change one’s entire perspective on wealth and adopt ben Zoma’s definition. Property and money are inherently unable to achieve wealth; only the soul can do that. The same is true of the wise man, who goes beyond the requirements of learning; the truly wise know that wisdom is a constant journey. Strength, similarly, has its limits; true strength is the strength to direct strength to an end.

Why does the law deal with traditional notions of wealth, wisdom, and strength, but Pirkei Avot redefine them? It has something to do with the inner meaning of “beyond the letter of the law”. It is not that the Rabbis gathered in one tractate all that a Jew may do extra. It is not a collection of non-obligatory Rabbinic suggestions about proper conduct, but rather the path toward truly transcending the law, to viewing the laws of the Torah in their proper context and proper place, that is, as the commandments of the divine Lawgiver.

We are told by Ben Zoma, on these matters often envied by others, that a Jew seeking a G-dly perspective sees, as the Creator does, the limits of all things. Wealth is only wealth until it meets dissatisfaction; wisdom is only wisdom until it meets stultifying and myopic elitism; strength is only strength until we lose control of it. They are therefore not ends unto themselves, but only part of G-d’s greater plan, and the ethical Jew will work to view them in this context.

However, straight redefinitions of these terms need not be understood pragmatically. Ben Zoma is not telling us to treat satisfaction as the true wealth. He’s saying that satisfaction is true wealth. If we cannot see it, we are looking at it the wrong way.

But what is this vantage point that lets us redefine these worldly qualities?  Certainly the vantage point is closer to G-d than people who worship money, power, or smarts – but what makes the new definitions better than the old ones? After all, G-d could declare that wealth is simply money, if He wished. G-d can do anything. He can even love the quantities that so torment the descendants of Adam.


We are led by the Mishna to a place of equanimity from which wealth, etc. cease to be objects of pursuit and become truths that simply are. We draw close to G-dliness known as Truth, that place of consistency independent of technicality, the arbitrary, and time/space.

Time and space are the height of arbitrary, of course. In their domain, things gain identity by where and when; you and I differ because you’re in Israel and I’m in America, or I’m in the past and you’re in the future. We are different based on what happens to be true about us, rather than our essential natures. In time and space, factories produce objects that are virtually identical but technically separate. We judge them not by their truth but by their circumstance. This one happens to be here and that one happens to be there.

The world of time of space is really a world of falsehood. An individual can possess much wealth by dint of numbers on a bank account, strength by the size of their muscles or their armories, wisdom by knowledge accumulated. But these are circumstantial rather than inherent, the way a can of coke is Nebraskan or Floridian based on where it’s shipped. Two men may be fundamentally identical, and yet their bank accounts vary by millions, and in this world, it is not a contradiction. On the contrary, by the standards of time and space, it must at least be possible.

Ben Zoma brings us beyond the letter of the law and close to the Creator in the sense that the Creator prevails over space and time. G-d is beyond arbitrary. He is true because of what He is, and all other things exist by the truth of His being.

Ben Zoma has found the definitions of wealth, wisdom, and strength that do not change on technicality; one may possess Ben Zoma’s wealth with no money and with vast riches alike. It depends entirely on who the person is, rather than what they happen to have; their spiritual accomplishment and their ability to see beyond physical happenstance is what matters. The Mishna enjoins us to raise ourselves beyond time and space and close to the Truth.

And that is when we are most lost.


Now, the man of time and space has no problem assessing whether or not he is wealthy; far from causing a crisis of doubt, it is a fact of which he is all-too-certain. Then he learns Pirkei Avot and realizes he can be more than arbitrary; his wealth is not wealth, his strength is not strength.

But then, having achieved character and quality, he finds himself struggling to situate himself. What is the meaning of things without his earlier perspective? Without quantitative way markers in time and space, is there anything toward which he can orient himself? Perhaps we are self-defined souls floating lonely in a void of things less real than we are. Perhaps all those things defined in time and space are not real at all.

Answers Ben Zoma: Be healthy, wise, and strong! Do not think that the destruction of your worldly perspective has destroyed your mission on earth. Goals still exist, as do achievements. They are merely qualitative; the soul’s investment in these qualitative things matter.

This same dynamic exists regarding the wealth of others. The man of time and space envies others’ qualities. The man of character and soul is in danger of envying nothing – indeed, of skepticism whether anything deserving of envy can exist at all. Ben Zoma assures us that others may indeed be wealthy or strong, truly. These terms still have meaning. They are just not the arbitrary meanings of his prior assumption.

Therefore, the redefinition of terms is also an epistemic teaching. It is not just providing information or advice, but telling us what we are able to know. For to move beyond time and space is to move beyond the observable. Far from an ethical teaching, Ben Zoma could just as easily be rescuing the authentic man of Truth from wracking doubt.


The Torah speaks to the man from whom nothing is true as surely as it does the coarse one obsessed with his jealousies. It tells us, in its terse words, that how we ought to act and what actually exists are not opposites. On the contrary: what is serves what must be done, and what must be done is a glance into the nature of the truth.

Ben Zoma sits on a mountaintop and calls to the man in the valley. “You do not see the whole picture!” he cries. The man in the valley trusts the sage, and climbs the mountain. Now he can no longer see his house or his neighbor. Unsure he will ever find them again, he resigns himself to life alone on the peak…until Ben Zoma directs his attention back to the valley from which he came, spread out before him like a dappled quilt, a new point of view.

“What is wealth?” asks the spiritual Jew, who will not condescend to answer. Wealth is a false disparity, a façade covering over true worth. One day there will be no wealth, no striving; we will exist beyond space/time in paradise, and all our definitions will inhere in our very selves.

“What is wealth?” asks Ben Zoma. It is not what the world thinks it is, granted. But it is not a lie. The yearnings of the human heart are not a false mask to be torn off the underlying truth of the world. Wealth is true. Wealth is real.

Ben Zoma gives no simple advice. His definitions are a path in the service of G-d. Raise yourself up until you understand me; realize, from your new position, that what I was saying makes even less sense than before. Read my definitions with fresh eyes, now, when you most need them. See that the definition awakens you to your lack of definitions, and then, when you stand in a position of skepticism denying all words, gives a way forward. Behold the things that to be believed must be preceded by a belief in nothing.