Jerusalem Talmud Megillah 3:2, 74a

Antoninus and Rabbi Yehudah the Patriarch
360 CE to 400 CE
Syria Palaestina
Hebrew and Aramaic
Literary genre: 

This passage from the Jerusalem Talmud describes the donation of a menorah (candelabrum) to a synagogue by a certain Antolinus, whom most scholars identify as a Roman emperor named Antoninus, who reigned during the lifetime of Rabbi Yehudah the Patriarch (often called Rabbi). The identification of Antolinus with the emperor Antoninus seems to originate with the Talmud itself, since it places a discussion of the conversion of Antoninus immediately after the mention of his donation. Moreover, the next passages (which I do not discuss here) continue the debate regarding the conversion of this donor, but refer to him as Antoninus. On that basis, I use the name Antoninus throughout this commentary. Indeed, the relationship between this emperor and Rabbi, as evidenced by their dialogues, are a popular theme in rabbinic literature (for a list of such traditions, see Wallach, “The Colloquy,” p. 263-264). Scholars have extensively examined and debated the identity of the emperor Antoninus mentioned in these narratives as well as the status of Rabbi and the patriarchate (these issues are detailed in the commentary on Mekhilta de Rabbi Ishmael, Shirah [Be-Shalaḥ], parashah 6). As in Jerusalem Talmud Megillah 1:10, 72b and Sanhedrin 10:3, 29c, our text questions whether Antoninus actually converted to Judaism. This text concludes that Antoninus did not convert. However, immediately following this passage, the Talmud cites an almost exact parallel to Jerusalem Talmud Megillah 1:10, 72b, Sections C to E, whose view is less decisive. Since that material is detailed in the commentary on Megillah 1:10, 72b, here I focus specifically on donations to the synagogue and the conclusions that the Talmud deduces from it.

Section A presents a text that resembles Tosefta Megillah 2:14:

העושה מנורה ונר לבית הכנסת עד שלא נשתקע שם הבעלים מהן [אין] רשיי לשנותן לדבר אחר משנשתקע שם הבעלים מהן (אין) רשיי לשנותן לדבר אחר

“[Regarding] one who donates (lit. makes) a menorah (candelabrum) and a lamp for the synagogue – until the name of the donor (lit. owner) disappears – you are not permitted to change them (these objects) for something else. When the name of the donor (lit. owner) disappears from them – you are permitted to change them (these objects) for something else.”

Both of these texts consider whether it is permissible to alter the usage of items donated to the synagogue, in this case a menorah (candelabrum) and a lamp (further discussion of these objects in synagogues in Lee I. Levine, The Ancient Synagogue, p. 332-336). This tosefta describes a scenario in which the name of a donor has been written or inscribed on these items, determining that a change may be made only when that name is no longer visible. In the Talmud, Section A mentions the ability to move these objects to another location without reference to the appearance of the donor’s name; rather, its status is contingent on whether the donor is still remembered, probably by the community. The issue of the benefactor’s name having been written on the donated object appears in Section B. Here the Talmud cites a teaching that is attributed to Rabbi Yoḥanan, a second-generation amora who was active during the third century (died c. 280), that was transmitted by Rabbi Ḥiyyah (probably Rabbi Ḥiyyah bar Abba), a third-generation amora who was active in the late third- and early fourth centuries, who was a disciple of Rabbi Yoḥanan. According to this ruling, as long as the name of the donor is engraved on the contributed object, the donor cannot be deemed forgotten, so this object cannot be transferred to another location.

In relation to these instructions, the Talmud offers an anecdote about Antoninus, who donated a menorah (candelabrum) for the synagogue (C). In response to this gift, Rabbi Yehudah the Patriarch praises God who inspired Antoninus to make this donation. Rabbi’s words echo Ezra’s words about the Persian king: “Blessed be the Lord, the God of our ancestors, who put such a thing as this into the heart of the king to glorify the house of the Lord in Jerusalem” (Ezra 7:27, NRSV; Meir, Rabbi Judah, p. 267). By the time of the Talmud, the menorah had become a central Jewish symbol; thus, such a gift reflects the Roman emperor’s recognition of the synagogue and, by extension, his esteem for Judaism (for more on the evolution of this symbol, see Fine, The Menorah). Moreover, the menorah was one of the objects that the Romans presumably took after the destruction of the Temple. A depiction of Roman soldiers carrying the Temple menorah appears on the Arch of Titus in Rome. In that context, by donating a menorah to a Jewish holy place, Antoninus signals a transformation in the relationship between Jews and Romans. Therefore, while the original menorah was looted by Titus (known with the epithet “the wicked” in rabbinic sources), Antoninus, the emperor given highest praise in this literature, donated a menorah to a synagogue.

Section D builds on this anecdote to consider whether Antoninus converted to Judaism. The first mention of a Roman emperor named Antoninus who may have converted to Judaism appears in the Jerusalem Talmud (see Cohen, “The Conversion,” p. 168-171, for one suggestion on the development of rabbinic traditions on the conversion of Antoninus). For Rabbi Shmuel bar Rav Yitzhak, a third generation amora who was active circa the late third century, the fact that Rabbi Yehudah the Patriarch said: “Blessed is God” rather than “Blessed is our God” signals that Antoninus had not converted (however, there are textual problems in this section of this source; see Cohen, “The Conversion,” p. 163-164). As mentioned above, the Talmud also inserts a discussion on the possible conversion of Antoninus in Jerusalem Talmud Megillah 1:10, 72b (see that commentary for a discussion on that section).

Our passage of the Talmud presents a Roman emperor who honors Judaism, its holy sanctuary – the synagogue, and its holy symbol – the menorah. Moreover, Antoninus’s gift of a menorah to a synagogue provides a contrast to the theft of the Temple’s menorah from Jerusalem to Rome by Titus. On a modest scale, Antoninus’s gesture symbolizes the rehabilitation of the relationship between Rome and Jews. 

Bibliographical references: 

“The Conversion of Antoninus”

Cohen, Shaye J. D.article-in-a-bookThe Talmud Yerushalmi and the Graeco-Roman Culture, IPeter Schäfer141-171“The Conversion of Antoninus” Texte und Studien zum Antiken Judentum, 71TübingenMohr Siebeck1998
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