The rabbinic ban on teaching Greek to sons
360 CE to 400 CE
Hebrew and Aramaic
Title of work:
9:14, 24c (= Pe’ah 1:1, 15c)
This passage appears in two settings in the Jerusalem Talmud: in tractate Pe’ah, it is placed in reference to a mishnah that states the importance of Torah study; in tractate Sotah, it discusses the ban on teaching Greek to one’s son:
In the war (polemos) of Qitem (Quietus or Titus), they decreed [against] bridal crowns (lit: crowns for the bride) and [they decreed] that a man should not teach his son Greek (Mishnah Sotah 9:14).
Scholars often discuss this source in the context of Jewish attitudes toward Greek culture and Hellenization. They predominantly consider the broad issue of studying Greek wisdom rather than focus on the subject of language per se (see, for example, Lieberman, “The Alleged Ban on Greek Wisdom”; see also Hallewy, “Concerning the Ban on Greek Wisdom,” p. 272 who claims that Jews in the land of Israel did not distinguish between Greek wisdom and Greek language; Stern, Jewish Identity, p. 176-181; Werblowsky, “Greek Wisdom”). However, it seems that the Jerusalem Talmud not only limits its discussion of this prohibition to language (Hirshman, Torah for the Entire World, p. 145), but it also reads this ban in association with the Roman authorities, not with regard to Jewish attitudes toward Greek culture.
The Talmud first (A) cites a question that was applied to Rabbi Yehoshua regarding teaching Greek to one’s son. Rabbi Yehoshua’s answer is based on a verse from Joshua:
This book of the law shall not depart out of your mouth; you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to act in accordance with all that is written in it. For then you shall make your way prosperous, and then you shall be successful (Joshua 1:8, NRSV).
He claims that, since one is obliged to study day and night, no time remains for such instruction. The Talmud challenges this view by pointing to the obligation of teaching one’s son a trade. According to the Jerusalem Talmud Qiddushin 1:7, 61a, a father has a prescribed set of obligations toward his son: he must circumcise him, redeem him from captivity (if such a circumstance arises), teach him Torah and a trade, and ensure that he marries. The proof text cited in Qiddushin for the requirement to teach one’s son a profession is similar to the wording of our sugya: “It is stated in a tannaitic tradition from Rabbi Ishmael: ‘Choose life’ (Deuteronomy 30:19, NRSV) refers to a trade.” By looking at this entire verse, we see the importance of having a trade for Rabbi Ishmael: “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live” (NRSV). For the Jerusalem Talmud, instruction in Torah and a trade are not mutually exclusive since both are paternal responsibilities toward a son. Saul Lieberman even states that learning Greek is included as a legitimate trade (probably as a tutor or a scribe): “If a man, it argues, wants his son to take up Greek as a possible profession he should be allowed to teach him, just as he is permitted to teach his son any trade” (“The Alleged Ban,” p. 101). Clearly the Talmud rejects Rabbi Yehoshua’s reasoning as a justification for prohibiting Greek education for sons.
A parallel to Rabbi Yehoshua’s teaching appears in Tosefta Avodah Zarah 1:20:
שאלו את ר' יהושע מהו שילמד אדם את בנו ספר יוני אמ' להן ילמד בשעה שאינה לא יום ולא לילה שנ' והגית בו יומם ולילה
They asked Rabbi Yehoshua: “Is it [permitted] for a man to teach his son a Greek book?” He told them: “He may teach [it] at an hour which is neither day nor night, as it is written [in Scripture]: ‘You shall recite it (Torah) day and night’ (Joshua 1:8).”
Whereas the Jerusalem Talmud uses this teaching to discuss instruction in Greek as a language, its parallel in the Tosefta specifies “a Greek book” (for more on this source, see Hirshman, Torah for the Entire World, p. 138-139). This difference highlights the Talmud’s focus on language per se. The notion that the ban on Greek would be associated with a negative effect on Torah study is therefore rejected in the Talmud.
In Section B, the Talmud brings in an alternate explanation which is attributed to the prominent sage Rabbi Yoḥanan, a second-generation amora who was active in the third century (died c. 280 CE). His explanation is cited by Rabbi [A]bba son of Rabbi Ḥiyyah bar [A]bba (or Rabbi [A]bba son of Rabbi Ḥiyyah bar Vv’a, according to the version in Pe’ah), a third-generation amora who was active toward the late third- and early fourth century. Rabbi Yoḥanan states that this exclusion from teaching one's sons Greek is intended to avert the possibility that they become informants (masorot) who might betray fellow Jews to Roman authorities. In the eastern region of the empire, Greek was typically the language of Roman officials. Thus, for the Jerusalem Talmud, Jewish collaboration with Rome is at the crux of this prohibition against teaching boys Greek. Roman rule is at issue here, not Hellenization.
While the Tosefta broadly speaks of informants (masorot) in negative terms (for example, Bava Metzi’a 2:33 and Sanhedrin 13:5), the Jerusalem Talmud elaborates on them as a potential danger and explicitly locates this scenario in a Roman context (see, for example, Jerusalem Talmud Pe’ah 1:1, 16a-b). For the Jerusalem Talmud, knowledge of Greek could ease communication with Roman officials. In a few places, the Talmud discusses how permission was granted for the patriarchal family to teach their sons Greek, as in Tosefta Sotah 15:8:
“In the war (polemos) of Titus [… they decreed that] a man should not teach his son Greek; [however,] they permitted the household of Rabban Gamliel to teach their sons Greek because they are close to the government (malkhut).”
The Jerusalem Talmud (Shabbat 6:1, 7d) mentions the patriarchal family’s need to communicate with Roman officials on behalf of the Jewish community, thereby distinguishing this family from informants whose words could endanger fellow Jews (compare to Catherine Hezser’s assessment of this contrast in Jewish Literacy, p. 94). In both cases, Greek is presented as a necessary tool for interactions with the Roman government; thus, it is perceived as the language of power.
After discussing the ban on teaching Greek to sons, in Section C, the Talmud mentions the issue of teaching Greek to daughters, thus moving from addressing Greek as the language of power (B) to Greek as a social and cultural indicator (C). First, the Talmud cites a teaching attributed to Rabbi Yoḥanan by one of his disciples, Rabbi Abbahu, a third-generation amora who resided in Caesarea toward the end of the third century. According to this passage, a father is permitted to teach his daughter Greek since it is like providing an ornament or jewel for her. At least in Caesarea, Greek was considered an asset for young women. However, at that point, the Talmud cites another disciple of Rabbi Yoḥanan, Shimon bar [A]bba, a third-generation amora from Babylonia who was also active in the land of Israel in the late third century. In response to Rabbi Abbahu’s citation from Rabbi Yoḥanan that encouraged teaching Greek to daughters, Shimon bar [A]bba claims that Rabbi Abbahu wanted to teach his daughter (or “daughters,” according to the version in Pe’ah) and, therefore, attributed that saying to his prestigious teacher. There are two versions of the next sentence. In tractate Pe’ah, we read: “May [a curse] befall upon me if I heard it from Rabbi Yoḥanan,” presented as Shimon bar [A]bba’s reaction to Rabbi Abbahu’s citation from Rabbi Yoḥanan. The parallel sentence in tractate Sotah reads: “May [a curse] befall upon me if I did not hear it from Rabbi Yoḥanan,” as Rabbi Abbahu’s response to Shimon bar [A]bba’s accusation that his attribution to Rabbi Yoḥanan was invented to justify his desire to teach Greek to his daughter. In the Jerusalem Talmud Shabbat 6:1, 7d, which includes a parallel to Section C, the version is:
Shimon bar [A]bba heard [this] and said: “Since Rabbi Abbahu wanted to teach his daughter he attributed it to (lit. hung it on) Rabbi Yoḥanan.” Rabbi Abbahu heard [this] and said: “May [a curse] befall upon me if I did not hear it from Rabbi Yoḥanan.”
Thus the Greek language itself was not considered a cultural problem, as attested by its wide-ranging usage: Greek translations of the Torah were part of synagogue ritual, including in certain cities in the land of Israel; many Jews spoke Greek; and, rabbinic texts convey a generally positive attitude toward this language (Hirshman, Torah for the Entire World, p. 141). Therefore, when the Jerusalem Talmud aims to explain the ban on teaching Greek to sons in the Mishnah, it associates this tongue with Roman rule. The conflict with Rome provides the context for this prohibition in the Mishnah and Tosefta. This Roman framework is retained in this section of the Jerusalem Talmud although, rather than a violent revolt, the focus has shifted to informants that divulge Jewish activities to Roman authorities.
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