Mishnah Avodah Zarah 4:6

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Altars of kings
Date: 
3d CE
Place: 
Syria Palaestina
Language: 
Hebrew
Category: 
Jewish
Literary genre: 
Legal text
Title of work: 
Mishnah
Reference: 

Avodah Zarah 4:6

Commentary: 

The adjacent passages that provide a context for this mishnah convey the idea that if idolaters nullify their idols, Jews are permitted to derive benefit from them (whether by using them for some purpose or selling them) since they have lost their status as objects of idolatry. The previous passage, Mishnah Avodah Zarah 4:4-5, explains how idolaters may nullify an idol by certain acts, such as cutting a small portion of the idol’s ear, nose, or finger, or spitting or urinating in front of it (more about this practice in Furstenberg, “The Rabbinic View of Idolatry”). In our source, the Mishnah addresses idols, and other idolatry related items that have been abandoned. If read in light of the previous passage, such idols may be considered as nullified even if the acts mentioned above were not practiced. Our mishnah, however, does not mention the issue of nullifying idols, but rather uses the terms “permitted” and “prohibited,” thus, originally this unit did not deal with the “nullifying” of idolatry, and it is only its proximity to other sections of the Mishnah that suggests this reading. The last part of this passage (B) is especially interesting, since it discusses altars which were set to honor the kings (i.e. emperors) who pass by.

Section A deals with idols that have been abandoned by their worshipers, ruling that if an idol was left in a peaceful time Jews are permitted to derive benefit from it, because in such a time, if its worshipers abandoned it, they probably do not intend to return and use it, nor were the idolaters forced to leave it because of the war.

In a case where an idol was abandoned during a war Jews are prohibited to derive benefit from it, since the idolaters may wish to return to this idol, and it is not defined as an abandoned idol.

Section B addresses the “bomasyot of kings.” The word bomasyot probably refers to altars set to honor kings, probably emperors. In Greek, bōmos refers to an altar with a base, but sometimes it denotes the base of a statue. Thus, commentators are divided about the understanding of this passage. Some commentators have understood it as referring to altars that were set when an emperor passed by, but were not used after that, and therefore are considered as abandoned idolatrous objects that Jews are permitted to derive benefit from (see, for example, Maimonides in his commentary on the Mishnah; Albeck, The Mishnah, vol. 4, p. 338). Others explain that this mishnah refers to a pedestal on which an idol was set when the king passed by, but after the visit, the idols were removed (Ovadiah ben Abraham of Bartenura; Pinhas Kehati). William A. L. Elmslie also accepts this second meaning, writing that “The idol is temporarily erected on the pedestal, either to honour the royal procession, or perhaps for the king to bow to it.” However, he also comments that “[he] can cite no passage illustrating the temporary erection of statues on permanent pedestals by the road-side” (The Mishna on Idolatry, p. 67). Examining the function of this word in other tannaitic texts indicates that most of the occurrences (if not all) refer to altars (see Samuel Krauss, Persia and Rome, p. 55-56). Simon R. F. Price’s description of the arrival of an emperor to a provincial city may support the reading of the word “bomasyot” as altars: “The emperor might be greeted by the citizens carrying the images of the gods and sacrifices were made to the gods themselves. Indeed, the emperor himself is shown sacrificing in front of the chief civic temple on coins that were issued in celebration of an imperial visit” (Rituals and Power, p. 213). According to Fritz Graf, this mishnah refers to small altars cut from one stone on which incense was burnt in front of houses when kings visited. When the kings had passed, these altars “were sold and reused for non-ritual purposes” (“Roman Festivals,” p. 447, note 70; about altars outside houses see Price, Rituals and Power, p. 112; for a similar understanding of this text, see Furstenberg, “The Rabbinic View of Idolatry,” p. 348, note 26).

It seems most likely that the word bomasyot in this mishnah denotes altars rather than idol bases. Clearly, in this source the altars are not permanent, but rather they are set when emperors pass by, and, therefore, it is permitted for Jews to derive benefit from them after the visit. In Tosefta Avodah Zarah 6:6 (5:6 in some editions), the “bomasyot” are discussed in relation to another scenario:

במסיות שהעמידו מלכין בשעת השמד אע'פ שעבר השמד הרי אילו אסורות

“Altars (bomasyot) that the kings set in a time of shmad – although the shmad had passed– behold, they are prohibited.”

The word shmad usually denotes the Roman persecution that followed the Bar Kokhba revolt. Several rabbinic texts mention this persecution, which included, according to this literature, a ban on the observance of several Jewish mitzvot (commandments), especially those that entailed public gatherings, such as reading from a Torah scroll, weddings, and circumcision ceremonies. The Tosefta describes bamasyot,which are altars that emperors set during this time. Here, the emperors themselves are responsible for the setting of these cultic objects. Yair Furstenberg links this tradition to the reality of Hadrian’s time: “Hadrian developed the imperial cult to the extent that it became identical with the cultic ritual of Zeus, with the intention of uniting the Greek world under this cult. As a result, many altars were built in his honor” (“The Rabbinic View of Idolatry,” p. 348, note 26). However, this teaching does not specify which altars were set by the emperor (are they part of the imperial cult or not?). Moreover, the link between persecution and setting of altars echoes the persecution of Antiochus IV Epiphanes that included the setting of altars for idolatry and forcing Jews to sacrifice (at least according to the descriptions of 1 and 2 Maccabees). Anyway, for the Tosefta, after the persecution was over these altars were still prohibited even though they were not in use anymore.

The “altars of kings” in the Mishnah, and perhaps also the altars that were set by kings in the Tosefta, reflect the reality of the Roman world in which altars were set to honor emperors as part of the imperial cult. 

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Mishnah Avodah Zarah 4:6
Author(s) of this publication: Yael Wilfand
Publishing date: Fri, 04/20/2018 - 16:48
URL: http://www.judaism-and-rome.org/mishnah-avodah-zarah-46
Visited: Tue, 07/16/2019 - 09:09

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