This passage addresses the circumstance of a Jew who finds vessels decorated with potentially idolatrous imagery. The primary concern here is economic usage, since this discussion tries to determine whether these items are defined as instruments of idolatry: if so, they must be destroyed (for biblical material on this subject which extend beyond this discussion, see the commentary on Mishnah Avodah Zarah 3:1-2); but if not, Jews may derive benefit from them (for personal use or through their sale).
The Mishnah first prescribes that a person who finds vessels that are adorned with the sun, the moon or a dragon should bring them to the Dead Sea to be destroyed. The Mishnah assumes that these images indicate a certain idolatry. The sun may refer to Helios (the Greek sun god), his Roman counterpart Sol, or Apollo. Their images typically depicted as a man with a radiate crown (with rays emanating in a geometric pattern) and riding a chariot drawn by four horses, or only his head with a crown of rays. Such depictions may not have been limited to gods, since Nero, for example, had his image portrayed on coins “with the radiate crown of the Sun” (Ferguson, The Religions of the Roman Empire, I, p. 46). Duncan Fishwick writes that under Octavian, “Apollo was identified with the sun, so further analogy could now be drawn between the sun, portrayed … as the ruler of the celestial bodies, and the earthly ruler, the monarch” (Fishwick, The Imperial Cult, I. p. 80). For that reason, sun-gods continued to be associated with emperors and the imperial cult. In the Greco-Roman world, the moon was also worshiped; this celestial body was primarily identified with specific goddesses, including Selene, Diana, and Luna. Gentile worship of the sun, moon, and stars is mentioned in several rabbinic texts, such as Mishnah, Avodah Zarah 4:7, and Sifre Deuteronomy 318.
The dragon, which was a type of legendary serpent, is also presented here as an indicator of idolatry. As Daniel Ogden explains, “At the fantastical extreme the term was applied to snakes of supernatural size and nature, often compounded with human or other animal forms, and often credited with fire-breathing or other varieties of fieriness” (Drakōn, p. 2). He further states: “Some gods and heroes are repeatedly associated with drakontes and may be considered ‘drakōn-masters’ or ‘drakōn-mistresses’” (Drakōn, p. 192). In ancient religions, snakes and dragons were often closely related, and, at times, it is difficult to distinguish between them. Serpents accompanied several gods, among them Asclepius. In Greek religion, “Python, the oracle god who had preceded Apollo at Delphi was a serpent,” and Apollo, the father of Asclepius, sometimes disguised himself as a serpent (Gilhus, Animals, Gods and Humans, p. 105). Snakes of enormous proportions were often linked to the gods of healing (Ogden, Drakōn, p. 310-346). Moreover, Ingvild Sӕlid Gilhus writes: “Snakes were guardians of private houses, tombs and sacred places, appeared as symbols of the souls of the dead, were connected to earth and water, were displayed on carved stones and magical papyri, symbolized transformation, and had healing as well as prophetic power. … In line with the positive use of the serpent is its function as an apotropaic symbol with protective and curative properties. Its positive use is seen, for instance, in jewelry…” (Animals, Gods and Humans, p. 108). One type of Roman military standard also took the form of a dragon: “The draco was a dragon-shaped battle-ensign, constructed like a wind sock from fabric attached to a metal head with open jaws, designed to catch the wind, making it billow out and writhe like a live serpent” (Nickel, “Of Dragons,” p. 24).” Thus, this symbol may also represent Roman power. We may conclude that at least some depictions of the sun, moon and dragons not only represented idolatry, but were specifically associated with Roman emperors and Roman rule.
In contrast to the initial instruction to destroy all vessels that match this description, Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel (active in the second century, 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 inexpensive. Tosefta Avodah Zarah 6:1 provides examples of items in these categories, placing jewelry in the first group and cooking vessels in the second. Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel seems to suggest that purpose and worth indicate the status of a vessel for idolatrous worship, and, therefore, its implications for a Jew who finds this object. James B. Rives comments that “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 this distinction originates with 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).
Our mishnah, then, concludes by citing Rabbi Yose (also active in the second century, especially after the Bar Kokhba Revolt), who offers other methods for destroying objects used for idolatry: grinding them and throwing the remnants into the wind or throwing them into the sea (not necessarily specifically the Dead Sea). However, the other sages reject his suggestion, since these remains may decompose and be used as fertilizer, and eventually one may use them. To support their position, namely that this material should not be repurposed in any way, they quote Deuteronomy 13:18 (“Let nothing that has been doomed stick to your hand,” JPS). Although the Mishnah does not present a response from Rabbi Yose, a parallel in the Tosefta (Avodah Zarah 4:4) elaborates on this subject, providing a full dialogue. In both sources, it is clear that Rabbi Yose and his interlocutors agree that any Jew who finds objects related to idolatry is obligated to destroy them.
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