This passage from the Jerusalem Talmud discusses proper protocol in the presence of non-Jewish kings, including an account of a sage who was eager to see Diocletian. Therefore, it contributes to our understanding of rabbinic attitudes toward Rome, particularly its emperors.
Section A presents a halakhic teaching from Rabbi Yannai, a prominent first-generation amora who was active in the first half of the third century, who permits priests to become ritually impure in order to see a king. In its talmudic context in Tractate Berakhot, our passage is located within a sugya (talmudic unit) that discusses Mishnah Berakhot 3:1, which addresses prayer during a time of mourning. This sugya considers the circumstances under which a person may defile himself by proximity to the dead or a burial site. According to the Torah, contact with a corpse brings about impurity. For example, in Numbers 19: “Those who touch the dead body of any human being shall be unclean seven days” (verse 11, NRSV). Graves are also a source of defilement: “This is the law when someone dies in a tent: everyone who comes into the tent, and everyone who is in the tent, shall be unclean seven days. […] Whoever in the open field touches one who has been killed by a sword, or who has died naturally, or a human bone, or a grave, shall be unclean seven days” (verses 14 and 16, NRSV). According to rabbinic halakhah as well, graves are a source of impurity. In Scripture, priests are directly instructed to avoid ritual impurity, although there are specific exceptions: “The Lord said to Moses: Speak to the priests, the sons of Aaron, and say to them: No one shall defile himself for a dead person among his relatives, except for his nearest kin: his mother, his father, his son, his daughter, his brother; likewise, for a virgin sister, close to him because she has had no husband, he may defile himself for her. But he shall not defile himself as a husband among his people and so profane himself” (Leviticus 21:1-4, NRSV). Tannaitic texts do not permit priests to defile themselves to see a non-Jewish king; however, Rabbi Yannai, one of the earliest amoraim, states that a priest may become ritually impure for this purpose, without specifying whether he is speaking of Jewish or non-Jewish kings. By contrast, the next sections of our text explicitly discuss non-Jewish kings, specifically Roman emperors.
In Section B, the Talmud presents an anecdote which supports the position that one may defile himself for the sake of seeing a king. Rabbi Ḥiyyah bar Abba, a third-generation amora who was active in the late third and early fourth centuries, stepped on graves in Tyre so he could see Diocletian, here referred to as “the king.” Later commentators disagreed about various elements of this text: First, was Rabbi Ḥiyyah bar Abba a priest? If so, this tradition corroborates Rabbi Yannai’s ruling (A). If not, perhaps the subject at hand is walking on graves and, thus, disrespect for the dead; in that case, according to the Talmud, seeing a king takes precedence over honoring the deceased. According to Jerusalem Talmud 3:1, 6a, Rabbi Ḥiyyah bar Abba was a priest; therefore, this tradition affirms the position attributed to Rabbi Yannai (see also Guggenheimer, Berakhot, p. 277). Second, who was buried in these graves, Jews or non-Jews? If non-Jews, would that affect the potential for defilement or the implications for showing disrespect for their graves? Heinrich W. Guggenheimer writes that, based on other passages, “the Yerushalmi does not seem to exclude Gentile graves from the defilement … hence, it is not proven that Rebbi Ḥiyyah bar Abba stepped over Jewish graves at Tyre” (Berakhot, p. 277). These queries notwithstanding, the Talmud unambiguously states that this sage defiled himself and walked on graves in his effort get a glimpse of Diocletian. It is unclear whether the sages were in fact interested in Diocletian or enthusiastic to see any Roman emperor. According to Saul Lieberman, rabbinic texts tend to honor Diocletian and their use of the title “king” indicates that Jews had positive regard for this emperor (Studies, p. 378-379). However, since seeing a king is the primary issue in this passage, perhaps the Talmud mentions Diocletian merely as an example of this category.
The association between Diocletian and Tyre also appears in Jerusalem Talmud Avodah Zarah 1:4, 39d. In our teaching, the incident in Tyre occurs “when Diocletian the king came here.” As a geographic term, “here” usually refers to the land of Israel in the Jerusalem Talmud. Diocletian visited Palestine at least twice (for more details, see the commentary on Jerusalem Talmud Avodah Zarah 5:3, 44d). Those journeys may have included an appearance in Tyre. According to Eyal Ben-Eliyahu, this city was not considered part of the land of Israel in rabbinic texts (Between Borders, p. 194-195); thus, when the Talmud uses the word “here,” it does not refer to this city.
Section C cites a halakhic teaching from Rabbi Yoḥanan, a second-generation amora who was active in the third century (died ca. 280), transmitted by Rabbi Yirmiyah, a third and fourth generation amora who was active from the mid-third century to early fourth century, and Rabbi Ḥizqiya, a fourth-generation amora who was active in the first half of the fourth century. This teaching asserts that seeing the great people of a kingdom is a mitzvah. This term means “a good deed,” “a command” or “a religious obligation.” Here, mitzvah denotes a religious obligation, specifically one that will train Jews to differentiate between the anticipated kingdom of the House of David and the current non-Jewish kingdom. This section goes beyond granting permission for a priest to defile himself to behold a king by articulating a general rule that requires Jews to look at Roman emperors, and perhaps other leading members of this empire. Although this action is justified as a form of preparation for a future Jewish realm, we have not identified earlier rabbinic texts that characterize seeing Roman emperors as a mitzvah.
During an imperial visit, the local populace typically gathered to welcome the emperor to their city or region. Simon R. F. Price describes the arrival of an emperor in a provincial city: “The emperor might be greeted by the citizens carrying the images of the gods and sacrifices were made to the gods themselves” (Rituals and Power, p. 213). While rabbinic texts do not permit Jewish participation in such cultic activities, here the Jerusalem Talmud encourages and even requires coming to see the emperor, which meant joining the crowds that would have assembled for this event. Roger Rees describes such a visit during Diocletian’s time: “Every imperial journey through towns and cities would provide several opportunities for the ceremonial of adventus. It seems that good notice was given of an imperial visit… On the day itself, a delegation would meet the emperor outside the city walls to offer welcome; this would be followed by a procession into the city, the streets lined with crowds to celebrate the emperor’s arrival, not doubt cheering and clapping” (Diocletian, p. 48). Thus, by the reign of Diocletian, the sages seem to have participated in the adventus for the opportunity of seeing the emperor; yet, the Talmud justifies this involvement by describing it as preparation for a future Jewish kingdom rather than as a way to honor the emperor.
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