Titus in the Temple, in the sea and in Rome
This tale about Titus emphasizes that even a mosquito can be an agent of God: “Our rabbis said: ‘Even things that you see them [sic] as superfluous to the creation of the world, like mosquitos and fleas and flies are included in the creation of the world and through all the Holy One blessed be He who carries out his mission, even by snake, scorpion, mosquito and frog’” (Genesis Rabbah 10:7, Theodor-Albeck edition, p. 79-80). The chapter of Genesis Rabbah where this citation appears therefore includes illustrations of each of these seemingly insignificant creatures carrying out God’s will. The narrative studied here, which features the role of a mosquito, has three sections: (A) Titus’s acts of sacrilege in the Temple; (B) his journey to Rome; and, (C) his arrival in Rome and subsequent punishment. As Galit Hasan-Rokem explains, each scene takes place in a distinct location: Jerusalem – voyage at sea – Rome, a format that heightens the contrast between these two cultures (“Within Limits, p. 7; See also Levinson, “Tragedies Naturally Performed,” p. 360).
Section A describes Titus entering the sanctum of the Holy of Holies, the most sacred area of the Temple. In this passage, divine punishment against Titus is not associated with his role in the destruction of the Temple (following the Great Jewish revolt in 66-70 CE), but rather for the sin of entering the site that could only be accessed by one man on one day each year – the Jewish high priest on the Day of Atonement – and for committing blasphemy by tearing the Temple’s curtains, which separated the area that was called “holy” and accessed only by priests from the sanctum of the Holy of Holies: “…and the curtain shall separate for you the holy place from the most holy” (Exodus 26:33, NRSV; see also Mishnah Yoma 5:1). This section (A) is brief relative to (B) and (C) in this source, and when compared with the two earlier tannaitic parallels that describe Titus’s behavior in the sanctum of the Holy of Holies (Mekhilta Deuteronomy 32:37-38; Sifre Deuteronomy 327-328) and the one later amoraic version (Leviticus Rabbah 22:3) that discusses this incident. If Section A originally included another passage, as the format of B+C may suggest, it has not been preserved in manuscripts from the Vatican (Biblioteca Apostolica ebr. 60) and British Library (ref info 340).
Section B describes Titus’s journey to Rome. First, he fashions a wicker basket of sorts from the fabric the two curtains and stows it in his ship. The midrash does not specify whether he used the curtains to transport plunder from his victory or, perhaps, the vessels from the Temple described in Leviticus Rabbah 22:3. As he descends into the ship, a wave almost drowns him. At that point, Titus claims that the Jewish God is a sea god whose power is limited to water. He supports this claim by mentioning biblical examples where God uses water to punish sinners. According to Galit Hasan-Rokem, Titus understands the Jewish God as “the Hebrew counterpart of the Roman god Neptune.” However, “From the Jewish perspective of the narrator, Titus is also a radical heretic, who limits God’s omnipotence to only one element, water” (Galit Hasan-Rokem, “Narratives in Dialogue,” p. 115). In response, God quiets the sea and vows to punish Titus via “the most insignificant of [his] creatures.” A threat that will be fulfilled in Rome.
Section C describes the adventus ceremony during which Romans welcomed the emperor (here, his son) upon his return from a successful campaign. Titus is acclaimed as the “Conqueror of the Barbarians” (nikota barbarim). He then goes to the baths. Like the sea, the bath is also comprised of water, but this water the defining component of a Roman institution and a symbol of Roman civilization. After his bath, Titus receives a container with a glass of wine. As Titus drinks it, a mosquito enters his nose, burrows into his brain, and eventually causes his death. Galit Hasan-Rokem points out a “phonetic association between the name Titus and the Hebrew yatush (mosquito), which possibly alludes to the association between Vespasian (Titus’s father) and the Latin vespa (wasp)” (Galit Hasan-Rokem, “Narratives in Dialogue,” p. 116). Titus is fully aware that his affliction is a form of punishment from the “God of the Jews.” This lethal attack on Titus in Rome indicates that the God of Israel is neither a local god nor the sea god, but rather a universal deity whose power extends over the entire world, including Rome. Thus, even this seeming defeat of the God of Israel becomes an opportunity to further demonstrate God’s power. Interestingly, this narrative ends with testimony from Rabbi Elazar son of Rabbi Yosi, stating that he personally visited Rome – several generations later – and saw the item that had been removed from Titus’s skull.
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