Jerusalem Talmud Avodah Zarah 3:3, 42d

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Which vessels with images and images on floor mosaics and walls are permitted to be used (or sold) by Jews? 

360 CE to 400 CE
Syria Palaestina
Hebrew and Aramaic
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Jerusalem Talmud
Avodah Zarah 3:3, 42d

This section from the Jerusalem Talmud elaborates on a portion of Mishnah Avodah Zarah 3:3, which discusses vessels with images of the sun, moon, or a dragon (draqon, from the Greek drakōn) upon them that are found by Jews. The Mishnah first prescribes that the one who finds vessels that have one of these figures upon them should carry them to the Dead Sea in order to destroy them, assuming that these images indicate a certain type of idolatry (for more information about these images, see the commentary for Mishnah Avodah Zarah 3:3). In contrast to the instruction for utter destruction, Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel, who was active in the second century CE after the Bar Kokhba Revolt, distinguishes between images that were found on vessels that were honored and were probably expensive, and vessels which were despised and probably cheap. Tosefta Avodah Zarah 6:1 provides examples for the two groups, suggesting that jewelry is part of the first group, while several cooking vessels are in the despised group. Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel claims, therefore, that the purpose of the vessel, its worth, and its usage indicate whether it was worshiped and therefore prohibited, or whether it was not worshiped, and, thus, one could derive benefit from it and was not obliged to destroy it. As James B. Rives points out, “In addition to works that had no function beyond that of representing the gods, divine images occur on an incredibly wide range of utilitarian objects: signet rings, hairpins, mirrors, tableware, lamps, and coins … The depiction of gods in what appear to be such secular contexts has led many people to distinguish images that had genuine religious significance from those that were merely decorative” (Rives, Religion in the Roman Empire, p. 35). Here, Rives argues that the origin of this distinction is the Mishnah, and he continues: “This careful distinction between cultic and decorative images of the gods allowed the rabbis to function in a world where images of the gods were everywhere” (Rives, Religion in the Roman Empire, p. 35).

The Jerusalem Talmud’s discussion starts (A) with a clarification that only the sun and the moon are prohibited, while constellations are allowed, and, therefore, one is not obliged to destroy vessels that depict them. A similar limiting interpretation is applied to the dragon because other snakes are allowed. The next passage (which I skipped in that commentary) further restricts the types of dragons which are prohibited. It seems, therefore, that the Talmud’s inclination is to limit the number of vessels which are forbidden.

Section B presents the opinions of two Babylonian amoraim from the third century: Shmuel and Rav. Shmuel bans a cup when it serves as a stand for a dragon, but a dragon which serves as a stand for a cup is allowed. Rav permits fragments of a dragon, but prohibits pieces that came from a whole dragon (perhaps if it was found whole and then broken). The Talmud challenges the logic of Rav’s teaching, since fragments of a dragon must have originated from a whole dragon. The Talmud then suggests a corrected citation of Rav: “He saw them (the idolaters) prostrate themselves before the dragon and [then] it broke down – [the fragments are] prohibited.” In that case the Israelite saw that the dragon was worshiped and knew that they were banned, while in the situation where he finds pieces it is not clear whether they were worshiped and therefore may be allowed. Here again, it seems that the Talmud allows more than the Mishnah, which states that: “The one who finds vessels and upon them is the image of the sun, the image of the moon, [or] the image of a dragon (draqon, from the Greek drakōn) should carry them to the Dead Sea (lit. the Sea of Salt).”

In section C the Talmud discusses the teaching of Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel: “Those (figures of the sun, the moon or of a dragon) which are [found on vessels which are] honored are prohibited and those which are [found on vessels which are] despised are allowed” (Mishnah Avodah Zarah 3:3). While it seems that in the Mishnah Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel limits the Mishnah’s statement that any vessel with these images should be taken to the Dead Sea, the Talmud goes further and suggests that Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel’s rule only applies when one is not sure whether a vessel with one of those images was worshiped before. At that point, the Talmud cites Rabbi Qrispa, who was active in the second half of the third century. His saying may refer to Shmuel’s ban of “a cup when it serves as a stand for a dragon” (B) and challenge it. Rabbi Qrispa claims that “cups are despised objects,” and, therefore, according to Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel’s rule, they are not prohibited (regardless of if they serve as a base for the dragon or vice versa). Rabbi Qrispa also provides proof for defining the cup as a despised object taken from a question that Rabbi Ḥiyyh bar Abba asked Rabbi Yoḥanan (both are third generation amoraim active in the third century, up to c. 280 CE): “Rabbi Ḥiyyh bar Abba had a cup (from the Greek kaukos) which the Fortuna (from the Greek tuchē) of Rome depicted within it (the cup). He came and asked Rabbi Yoḥanan [whether it is permitted]. He told him: “Since the water floats over it (the Fortuna) – it is a despised object.” After the Talmud permits cups based on this categorization by Rabbi Yoḥanan, it also allows use of another type of cup: “And those drinking cups (from the Greek kōthōn) since you immerse them in water – it is a despised object.” Also in this section, it seems that the Talmud aims to permit the use of vessels with images adopting the categorization of honored and despised vessels, allowing the use of a cup even when it has an image of the Fortuna (tuchē) of Rome that may be worshiped by gentiles in other settings.

Section D deals with images that were depicted on walls and mosaic floors, stating that “During the days of Rabbi Yoḥanan they began to depict on the walls and he did not protest against their doing. During the days of Rabbi Abun they began to depict on the mosaic floor and he did not protest against their doing.” Both sages were prominent rabbis in third century Tiberias. The Talmud presents a situation in which people started to use art of this type as decoration and the rabbis did not protest. The Talmud thus implies that these sages had power within the community at least to protest, but they refrained from doing so. Some scholars particularly understand these depictions of images in the context of synagogues, suggesting that at that time the Jews, who during the Second Temple period rejected the use of images as part of their interpretation of the second commandment (Exodus 20:4-5, NRSV), started to depict human figures in their own sanctuaries. These trends were probably not limited to synagogues but were also used to decorate other public and private settings. This section from the Jerusalem Talmud (D) was considered central for the understanding of the rabbinic attitude towards art and iconography, especially since archaeological remains indicate that human figures, including representations of the zodiac with Helios in its center as well as other “idolatrous” representations, were found in Roman Palestine, including in synagogues. Lee I. Levine is one of the scholars who uses this text to discuss rabbinic attitudes towards this issue:

“These two sages were obviously far from enthusiastic about the phenomenon of figural representation on either walls or floors, and they certainly would never have lent their support to such initiatives. Nevertheless, Jews were beginning to decorate their buildings, presumably both public and private in such a fashion, and this process could not easily, if at all, be reversed. These two rabbis, therefore, took the middle ground, neither supportive nor actively opposing … They decided simply to ignore the phenomenon; although they did not like what they saw, they could live with it. Thus, most rabbinic sources display an attitude toward figural art which ranges from passive tolerance to hostile opposition. None embrace this phenomenon.” (Levine, The Ancient Synagogue, p. 456; see also Baumgarten, “Art in the Synagogue,” p. 199; Fine, Art and Judaism, p. 98).

While Levine focuses on the issue of figurative art, it is worth asking whether the images that are discussed here are merely human representations or whether we are dealing with the introduction of Roman and Greek mythological images into the Jewish milieu, including synagogues. While the Talmud does not explicitly state this, in the context of the other passages (especially C), it is possible that the issue here is the integration into Jewish settings of Greco-Roman symbols that were worshipped by gentiles in certain contexts. In any case, these sections from the Jerusalem Talmud indicate a tendency to limit the prohibitions mentioned in the Mishnah, presenting a reality in which even a sage used a cup on which the Fortuna of Rome was depicted. 

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Jerusalem Talmud Avodah Zarah 3:3, 42d
Author(s) of this publication: Yael Wilfand
Publishing date: Sat, 03/10/2018 - 20:17
Visited: Fri, 03/23/2018 - 19:53

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