Jerusalem Talmud Avodah Zarah 3:1, 42b-c

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When may Jews look at icons and their inscriptions?

360 CE to 400 CE
Syria Palaestina
Hebrew and Aramaic
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Jerusalem Talmud
Avodah Zarah 3:1, 42b-c

This passage from the Jerusalem Talmud opens with a discussion of Mishnah Avodah Zarah 3:1, a text that presents an argument between Rabbi Meir and the sages over which images are prohibited (the commentary on Mishnah Avodah Zarah 3:1 provides background for the material that follows).

In Section A, the Talmud seeks to define the problem posed by these icons (’yiqoniyot). First, the Talmud cites ’Ashiyy’an the carpenter in the name of Rabbi Yoḥanan – sages that were both active during the second half of the third century – who claims that idolaters “offer incense before them” when the icons ascend. This portrayal is compatible with S. R. F. Price’s description that, starting in the third century, “When the imperial images were brought into the city the magistrates and people would go out to greet them with acclamations, carrying candles and incense” (Rituals and Power, p. 176). The Talmud then cites Rabbi Yoḥanan, who taught that it was permissible to look at icons “when they descend,” as supported by a biblical verse: “You will look on the destruction of the wicked” (Psalm 37:34, NRSV). Interestingly, it is unclear whether these two teachings that are attributed to Rabbi Yoḥanan address the same issue: the first prohibits icons without specifying whether this exclusion applies to looking at them or deriving benefits from them; the second mentions looking at images and emphasizes that Jews are allowed to look at them when they are being brought down. This second tradition likely refers to removing renderings of the prior emperor from the high places where they had been positioned during his reign, which were replaced when a new emperor ascended to the throne. In Rabbi Yoḥanan’s time (if this talmudic attribution is accurate), such transitions were far from rare. However, the substitution of such icons was not unique to the political instability that characterized the third century, as Clifford Ando describes the fate of certain imperial images: “At the death of Gaius, on the other hand, the people of Rome arose and spontaneously tore down his statues and images. Some time later, the Senate considered formally condemning his memory. Although Claudius did not allow the measure to come to a vote, he voluntarily and quietly removed portraits of Caligula from public view and did not mention Gaius in the Senate’s annual oath to uphold the acts of the previous emperors. The Senate’s reaction to the death of Domitian was no less symbolic: according to Suetonius, the senators formally passed a motion to condemn the memory of Domitian only after they had torn down all statues of that emperor in the Curia” (Imperial Ideology, p. 240; see also Price, Rituals and Power, p. 193-194; Rachel Neis, The Sense of Sight, p. 183). Nonetheless, it is significant that the Jerusalem Talmud would attribute condemnation of any emperor to Rabbi Yoḥanan, who classifies them all as wicked.

Building on Rabbi Yoḥanan’s ruling that images may be looked at when they go down, the next passages (B to D) also focus on looking at idols, their accompanying inscriptions, and related subjects. Section B cites a tradition (that has a parallel in Tosefta Shabbat 17:1) which discusses the writing that appears below figures (tzurot; likely sculptures, carvings, paintings or illustrations) and icons (yoqna’ot; from the Greek, eikōn). S. R. F. Price describes icons as “honorific images placed in the square or in other public places.” He adds that: “An eikon, whose semantic motivation was a ‘likeness,’ had a denotation as wide as the English term implies; out of context it is impossible to determine whether it refers to a statue, a bust, a tondo or a painting,” (Rituals and Power, p. 176-177). Like its parallel in Tosefta Shabbat, this passage initially states that looking at any inscriptions that explain, identify or praise these images is prohibited on Shabbat. However, whereas the Tosefta also rules against looking at such writings on regular days since they are idolatrous, the Jerusalem Talmud continues with two opinions: First, an anonymous voice, citing Leviticus 19:4: “Do not turn to idols [or make cast images for yourselves: I am the Lord your God]” (NRSV), teaches that it is prohibited to worship these or any images; however, the second teaching, attributed to Rabbi Yehudah – who was active in the second century, before and after the Bar Kokhba revolt – prohibits even looking at idols and their inscriptions. Assuming that idols, images, and related writings were ubiquitous in Roman cities, the instruction against looking at them would be difficult to follow. While Tosefta Shabbat 17:1 seems to convey a general rule, in the Jerusalem Talmud, much like its parallel in the tanaitic midrash Sifra Qedoshim 1 (Weiss edition, 87a), this opinion is ascribed to Rabbi Yehudah:

Jerusalem Talmud



כתב המהלך תחת הצורות או תחת האיקוניות אין מסתכלין בהן בשבת. ולא עוד אלא אף בחול אין מסתכלין באיקוניות. ומה טע'. "אל תפנו אל האלילים". אל תפנה לעובדן. ר' יהודה או. אל תפנה לראותן ממש.

כתב המהלך תחת הצורות ותחת היוקנאות אין מסתכלין בו ולא עוד אלא אף בחול אין מסתכלין ביוקנאות משם שנ' אל תפנו אל האלילים וגו'

"אל תפנו אל האלילים". אל תפנה לעובדן. ר' יהודה או'. אל תפנה לראותן ודיי.

Writing that is (lit. goes) under figures (tzurot) or icons (’yqoniyot) – It is not permitted to look at them on Shabbat; and not only [on Shabbat], but also on a regular day (ḥol), it is not permitted to look at icons. On what [biblical] grounds? “Do not turn to idols [or make cast images for yourselves: I am the Lord your God]” (Leviticus 19:4, NRSV). Do not turn to worship them. Rabbi Yehudah says: “Do not turn to look at them – literally (mamash).”

Writing that is (lit. goes) beneath figures (tzurot) or icons (yoqna’ot) – It is not [permitted] to look at it (this writing) [on Shabbat]; not only [on Shabbat], but also on regular days (ḥol), it is not permitted to look at icons, for it is stated [in Scripture]: “Do not turn to idols [or make cast images for yourselves: I am the Lord your God]” (Leviticus 19:4, NRSV).



“Do not turn to idols [or make cast images for yourselves: I am the Lord your God]” (Leviticus 19:4, NRSV). Do not turn to worship them. Rabbi Yehudah says: “Do not turn to look at them – literally (va-dayy).”


Section C transmits a narrative about Rabbi Naḥum bar Sim’ay, stating that, when he died, “they covered the icons with mats. They said: ‘Just as he did not look at them during his life, he will not look at them in his death.’” This anecdote assumes that the deceased can see after death, while it also implies how hard it can be to refrain from looking at these images. The next passage, which is not included here, continues this discussion of the sensory capacities of the deceased, specifically hearing and sight.

Section D returns to Rabbi Naḥum bar Sim’ay, asking why he was known as “Naḥum, the man of the Holy of Holies”? The anonymous voice of the Talmud answers that he never looked at an image on a coin. Given that Roman coinage typically featured gods and emperors, the Talmud asserts that an exceptional level of piety was required to avoid looking at them. At that point, the Talmud recounts that Rabbi Yehudah the Patriarch never looked at his circumcision and, therefore, was known as “our holy rabbi.” The Talmud then enumerates the miraculous events that followed the deaths of certain rabbis. Two relate to our topic: “When Rabbi Ḥanan died, the statues (’andarty’a) were overturned. When Rabbi Yoḥanan died, the icons (’yiqony’a) were overturned. They say that no icons (’yiqonyn) were comparable to him.” As S. R. F. Price explains, “andrias and an eikon were honorific images placed in … public places,” and both terms referred to “imperial images” (Rituals and Power, p. 176- 177). When Rabbi Naḥum bar Sim’ay died, they – his peers or the community – covered the images in his city; but, when Rabbi Ḥanan and Rabbi Yoḥanan died, statues and icons were respectively overturned. Regarding Rabbi Yoḥanan, this text emphasizes his physical beauty by noting that there was no icon like him. The Babylonian Talmud (Bava Metzia 84a) further expounds on this uniquely handsome sage, but only in the Jerusalem Talmud is he likened to an icon. The overturning (without human intervention) of these icons, which were symbols of Roman power, affirms that true power rests in the Torah.

In sum, the rabbis lived within a Greco-Roman milieu that abounded with idols and images. This reality challenged the biblical command to avoid idolatry and even to destroy its manifestations. In this context, the rabbis developed strategies that enabled Jewish life in those circumstances while also upholding biblical law. However, these sections from the Jerusalem Talmud seem to indicate that, while it was expected that Jews would not worship idols, refrain from looking at them posed a challenge that only the most pious could overcome.

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Jerusalem Talmud Avodah Zarah 3:1, 42b-c
Author(s) of this publication: Yael Wilfand
Publishing date: Sat, 09/07/2019 - 20:42
Visited: Fri, 02/23/2024 - 21:08

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