This passage, which appears in tractates Sanhedrin and Shevi’it of the Jerusalem Talmud, addresses the subject of martyrdom in situations where non-Jews pressured Jews to violate a commandment from the Torah. This text aims to define the circumstances in which Jews should choose death over acting against religious requirements. In one example, this text mentions Pappus and his brother Lulianus, who, according to Sifra Emor, parashah 8, pereq 3 (99d), were killed by Trajan (albeit without providing the reason for their execution). Our text also speaks of a man who compels Jews to bake bread for him on Shabbat. Scholars identify him as Ursicinus, who served as a Roman general during the mid-fourth century. Therefore, it appears that Jews were sometimes pressured to transgress their religious observances due to the practical needs of the Roman government. Yet, for the Talmud, not all of these demands should be met with refusal, which would lead to martyrdom.
Section A discusses a case where the Roman empire forces Jews to pay taxes for the Sabbatical year, a period when, according to biblical instruction, neither agricultural activity nor tithing was performed. This decree takes effect during the lifetime of Rabbi Yannai, a prominent first-generation amora who was active in the first half of the third century. As Heinrich W. Guggenheimer writes: “One has to assume that under the Severan dynasty Jewish farmers did not have to deliver provisions (annona) to the army during the Sabbatical year.” He links this new requirement to “military anarchy in the third Century” (The Jerusalem Talmud, p. 429). While Josephus reports that Julius Caesar exempted Jews from taxation during that year (War 14.202-3; see also Udoh, To Caesar What Is Caesar’s, p. 31), we have little (if any) independent evidence of this exclusion. The Talmud clearly indicates that this requirement was unprecedented. In response, Rabbi Yannai permits ploughing to be conducted once during that year, probably to hasten the growth of crops after the Sabbatical year ends. Alternatively, that yield may have been needed for the Sabbatical year; thus, Jews would have been compelled to cultivate their land despite the biblical prohibition (on these possibilities and textual problems in this source, see Amit, “On the Contribution”). The Talmud then proceeds with an anecdote where an apostate (meshumad) sees Jews who are not only ploughing a field but also throwing the clods of earth. It is significant that this critique comes from an apostate. According to Aaron Amit, in this context, “apostate” refers to a Jew who converted to Christianity (“On the Contribution,” p. 152).
Section B addresses Rabbi Yannai’s authorization for limited agricultural activity during the Sabbatical year due to Roman economic demands. Here Rabbi Ya‘akov bar Zavdi, a fourth-generation amora who was active in the fourth century, challenges this lenient decision before Rabbi Abbahu, a third-generation amora who resided in Caesarea during the late third- and early fourth centuries. Rabbi Ya‘akov bar Zavdi refers to a decision by a rabbinic assembly in Lod (Lydda) which ruled that, in the case of a gentile who gives a Jew an ultimatum between breaching a commandment and death, a violation was permitted unless it entailed “idolatry, forbidden sexual acts and shedding blood.” However, in a public setting, Jews should respond to that same ultimatum by choosing death, probably because this would represent a declaration of faithfulness to the Torah, namely a commitment to every mitzvah, even seemingly minor ones. The Talmud exemplifies this point with the incident of Pappus and his brother Lulianus, who refused accept water in a cup made of colored glass. According to Saul Lieberman, the brothers were asked to drink from a red glass cup, which would give the impression that they partook from wine that was associated with idolatry. Although rabbinic law permitted them to drink water from this vessel, they opted for death (Tosefta Ki-Feshutah, Vol. 3, p. 263). Contrary to the other rabbinic texts that include Pappus and Lulianus, this one makes no mention of Trajan or the events of 115-117 CE, when Jewish communities in Egypt, Libya (Cyrene), and Cyprus fought against their Greek neighbors, then against the Romans, in what was later named “the Diaspora Revolt.” In our source, the Talmud situates these brothers in the context of martyrdom, without any historical references. We may conclude that Rabbi Ya‘akov bar Zavdi challenged Rabbi Yannai’s lenient position on ploughing during the Sabbatical year on the basis of its public nature, for the rabbinic decision from Lod (as presented in the Talmud) advocates martyrdom over public transgressions of mitzvot, as exemplified by Pappus and Lulianus.
It is noteworthy that Tosefta Shabbat 15:17 (17:14 in the print edition) does not distinguish between public and private settings, but between the shemad and other times. In rabbinic literature, shemad usually refers to the religious persecution that occurred in the aftermath of the Bar Kokhba revolt. Several rabbinic texts mention this persecution, which included banning the observance of various mitzvot, especially those that entailed public gatherings, such as reading from a Torah scroll, weddings, and circumcision ceremonies. The Tosefta teaches that, in a time of shemad, martyrdom is preferable to the violation of any mitzvah. Since this persecution mentioned in the Tosefta took place in the distant past, the Talmud introduces a distinction between breaking mitzvot in public versus private realms.
In Section C, Rabbi Abbahu responds to the objection from Rabbi Ya‘akov bar Zavdi regarding Rabbi Yannai’s permission to plough the land during the Sabbatical year. For Rabbi Abbahu, the decisive factor is the intention of the gentile whose order leads to this activity. In this case, the Roman authorities were not attempting to convert Jews or force them to reject their religion; these officials were interested in collecting annona – originally a form of taxation that supplied grain for the city of Rome but, starting in the late second- and early third centuries, it also referred to provisions for the army – an in-kind levy that was imposed on provincial populations. Thus, this violation of Jewish law was allowed for the sake of averting a confrontation with the Romans. This focus on the gentiles’ intention is significant, for it enabled Jews to avoid martyrdom even when demands by political authorities and halakhah were in conflict.
Section D presents another example, where Rabbi Yonah and Rabbi Yosi, two fourth-generation amoraim who were active in the fourth century, instructed fellow Jews to bake bread on Shabbat for a figure that most scholars identify as the Roman general Ursicinus, who served in the mid-fourth century and was sent in 351-352 CE to Palestine by Gallus, to address Jewish violence there. The magnitude of these events is debated. Scholars previously thought that a Jewish revolt took place during this period; however, there is little evidence for such a revolt. As Oded Irshai notes: “The outbursts of violence that were tied to the Jews of Palestine in 351 during the reign of the caesar Gallus (but which might have taken place only in 352) should not be seen as a genuine full-scale rebellion of any kind, and certainly not one that involved any coordination. It is probable that it was a chain of violent regional outbursts whose nature and scope are unclear” (“Jewish Violence,” p. 403, see pages 402-410 for a discussion of these incidents). This unrest – and the mention of Ursicinus – is also the latest historical event that is unambiguously referenced in the Jerusalem Talmud. This source does not indicate whether these two sages ordered bread to be baked on Shabbat for Ursicinus in response to his order or as a gesture that they initiated to appease him.
The Talmud presents two additional traditions about this general and these same sages:
הדא ארסקינס אוקיד אוריתא דצנבראי. אתון שאלון לר' יונה ולר' יוסה. מהו לקרות בספר ברבים. אמ' לון. אסיר. לא דאסיר אלא מן גו דנפשהון עגימה אינון זבנין להון אחורי.
This Ursicinus burned the Torah scroll of the people of Tzanbar. They came [before] Rabbi Yonah and Rabbi Yosi and asked: “Is it permissible to read the book (this Torah scroll) in public?” They told them: “It is prohibited.” Not that it is [actually] prohibited but, because they are (lit. their soul is) grieving, they would purchase for themselves another one. (Jerusalem Talmud, Megillah 3:1, 74a)
This account is located in a broader discussion on whether a damaged Torah scroll may be read in public liturgical setting. In this passage, we learn that this Roman general burned the Torah scroll of a certain town. The circumstances of this incident are not specified (more on this tradition and the other narratives that mention Ursicinus, in Lieberman, “Palestine in the Third and Fourth Centuries,” p. 336-337). The other report on Ursicinus and these sages in the Talmud reads as follows:
ר' יונה ור' יוסי עלון קומי ארסקינס באנטיוכיא. חמתין וקם מן קומיהון. אמרין ליה. מן קומוי אילין יהודאי את קאים לך. אמ' לון. אפיהון דהני אני חזא בקרבא ונצח.
Rabbi Yonah and Rabbi Yosi came before Ursicinus in Antioch. He saw them and stood before them. They (his men) told him: “Before these Jews you stand?” He told them: “Their faces appeared to me (lit. the faces of these [two] I saw) in battle and I was victorious” (or: “When I see their faces in a battle, I win”). (Jerusalem Talmud, Berakhot 5:1, 9a)
This text approves of this Roman general for honoring these Jewish sages by standing when they enter his presence (see a similar story about Alexander the Great and Shim‘on the Righteous in Leviticus Rabbah 13:5 [part two]). This interaction between Ursicinus, Rabbi Yonah and Rabbi Yosi lacks any hint of tension or conflict.
Viewed as a group, these three traditions about Ursicinus in the Jerusalem Talmud do not present him as a wicked Roman general: He does not initiate persecutions (with the possible exception of burning a Torah scroll, though the circumstances of this incident are unmentioned). Moreover, he honors the sages, and he neither seeks to convert Jews nor does he deliberately compel them to breach commandments from the Torah.
In Section E, Rabbi Mani (or Mana), a fifth-generation amora who was a son of Rabbi Yonah, challenges his father’s decision with reasoning that echoes Ya‘akov bar Zavdi’s words (in Section B). Here too (in Section F), Rabbi Yonah responds to this critique by focusing on intention. Since this Roman general did not seek to convert Jews but was simply interested in eating warm bread, adhering to his demand was permissible despite its transgression of the Shabbat laws.
These texts do not explicitly mention Jewish rebellions or violent actions, nor are Roman attempts to convert Jews cited. In the mid-fourth century, the Roman Empire had already become Christian (although one final challenge was instigated by the emperor Julian in 361-363 CE); yet the rabbis did not opt for martyrdom in response to every Roman demand that conflicted with Jewish commandments. Rather, the motivations of the non-Jews who exerted this pressure is taken into account. Martyrdom is only required if the gentiles in question are coercing Jews to convert, irrespective of whether this violation of mitzvot would take place in a public or private setting.
Keywords in the original language:
Thematic keywords in English:
- Gallus Revolt
- Jewish violence
- Rabbi Abbahu
- Rabbi Mani (Mana)
- Rabbi Ya'akov bar Zavdi
- Rabbi Yannai
- Rabbi Yonah
- Rabbi Yosi
- Roman authorities
- Roman tax
- Sabbatical Year
- shedding blood
- Torah scroll