Trajan and the destruction of the Jewish community of Alexandria
360 CE to 400 CE
Hebrew and Aramaic
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This passage from the Talmud is located within a sugya (talmudic unit) that discusses the destruction of the Alexandrian Jewish community during the reign of Trajan (for an analysis of the entire sugya, see Hacham, “From Splendor to Disgrace”). In 115-117 CE, the Jewish communities of Egypt, Libya (Cyrene), and Cyprus fought against the local populace, namely their indigenous and Greek neighbors, then against the Romans in what was later named “the Diaspora Revolt.” Non-Jewish sources portray this Jewish outburst as having been extremely violent (Pucci Ben Zeev, Diaspora Judaism, p. 123). In our passage, however, this historical background is not mentioned; rather, the Jews of Alexandria are engaged with the study of Torah and the observance of mitzvot (religious commandments). Trajan’s attack seems to stem from a tragic misreading of their actions.
Section A describes the roots of this misunderstanding. Even though neither the emperor nor the Jewish community are specified, the Talmud places this account within material that details the demise of the Jewish community of Alexandria; thus, in that setting, the narrative implicitly speaks of Trajan, who appears in the immediately preceding sentence of this sugya (not cited here; Noah Hacham, “From Splendor to Disgrace,” p. 481, note 77, suggests that this story may originally have been composed without a connection to Trajan, but was subsequently inserted in that context by the redactor of the Talmud). According to this tale, Trajan’s son was born on the Ninth of Av, when Jews fasted to commemorate the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, but it seemed that they were mourning the birth of this emperor’s successor. This child (the Talmud uses the term “daughter” but the verb “died” is in the male form) passed away during Hanukkah, when Jews lit candles; this ritual was misperceived as a celebration of this death in the imperial family. These practices prompted Trajan’s wife to send him a letter suggesting that, before journeying to conquer distant “barbarians” (probably an allusion to his Parthian campaign), he should subdue the Jews of his own realm whom she considered rebellious. However, the Talmud presents these Jews as simply having observed their annual festivals and days of mourning, which gave a false impression based on their dissonance with major imperial events and agenda.
Following his wife’s message, in Section B, Trajan travels this Jewish community. Just as the placement of this text implies Trajan as this unnamed emperor, so too Alexandria may be inferred as his destination (see the commentary on Jerusalem Talmud Sukkah 5:1, 55a-b). Whereas Trajan anticipated a ten-day journey, he arrived in five days, thus, he presumably surprised this community. The narrative explains that this misunderstanding of Jewish religious practice deepened when the emperor saw the biblical passage that these Jews were studying upon his arrival: “The Lord will bring a nation from far away, from the end of the earth, to swoop down on you like an eagle, a nation whose language you do not understand, a grim-faced nation showing no respect to the old or favor to the young” (Deuteronomy 28:49-50, NRSV). These verses are from descriptions of the suffering that Israel will incur if they fail to uphold God’s instructions, which open with the verse: “But if you will not obey the Lord your God by diligently observing all his commandments and decrees, which I am commanding you today, then all these curses shall come upon you and overtake you.” (Deuteronomy 28:15, NRSV). The specific verse being discussed when Trajan appeared (Deuteronomy 28:49) could be interpreted as a depiction of the Roman Empire, for it too comes from afar, speaks a different language, and is associated with an eagle. Moreover, Noah Hacham notes that this portrait of a speedy and surprising arrival in Deuteronomy 28:49 also fits Trajan’s unexpectedly quick journey, as described in the Talmud (“From Splendor to Disgrace,” p. 483). Trajan is therefore convinced that these Jews are indeed rebelling against him. While they continued to study Scripture, for the emperor, its content was reason enough to have them surrounded and killed by his legions, thereby fulfilling that very biblical warning. Daniel R. Schwartz refers to this “massive and fateful” misconception, stating that, according to this tale, “Jewish life in the Greco-Roman world … was affected from beginning to end by misunderstanding; theirs was a world in which they cried while others laughed, and laughed when other cried—and the one group wasn’t even aware enough of the other to be able to understand these differences. Jewish life in the Graeco-Roman world was—according to the rabbis who told this story—one big mistake” (“How at Home Were the Jews,” p. 349; cf. Hadas-Lebel, Jerusalem against Rome, p. 163).
However, the Talmud seems to view the Jews of Alexandria as sinners and, thus, Trajan as an instrument of God (Pucci Ben Zeev, “The Jewish Revolt,” p. 138). Indeed, the previous section of this sugya states that Israel had been cautioned against returning to Egypt. If so, although the Jews of Alexandria practiced mitzvot and studied Torah, ultimately they died for the sin of living in Egypt. While Schwartz posits that this story reflects “a diasporan point of view,” for “Jews are good subjects of the foreign power, they in fact did not and would not rebel, so any clashes that occurred must be due to misunderstanding” (“How at Home Were the Jews,” p. 349), attributing such a perspective to this tale is problematic, since the verse being studied here and the content of the previous Talmudic section, which warns against returning to Egypt, imply that the Jews of Alexandria had transgressed. This view that Jewish life in Alexandria was a sin does not sit well with Schwartz’s suggestion. Moreover, if the fact of Jews choosing to live in Egypt violates a divine mandate, then Trajan is executing God’s judgment.
In Section C, Trajan addresses the widows of the men who had been studying Torah, offering to let them live if they comply with his legions. They reply: “What you did to the lower ones, do to the upper ones.” Although this passage (C) is written in Hebrew, the wives’ collective response is in Aramaic. They indisputably favor death over obedience, but the expression that they use to articulate this message is enigmatic. The Talmud then depicts Trajan mixing the blood of these women and their husbands, which flowed into the Mediterranean up to Cyprus. This description illustrates the magnitude of this tragedy. The Talmud reiterates its gravity by stating that, at that moment, the horn of Israel was cut off, only to be restored when the son of David returns, namely the messianic king. The image of “the horn of Israel” appears numerous times in the Hebrew Bible; for example, in a verse that discusses God giving Egypt to King Nebuchadnezzar: “On that day I will cause a horn to sprout up for the house of Israel, and I will open your lips among them. Then they shall know that I am the Lord” (Ezekiel 29:21, NRSV; see also Lamentations 2:3). Here the fall of Egypt is linked to the salvation of Israel and the horn seems to symbolize Israel’s glory. The destruction of the Jewish community of Alexandria had a devastating impact on the entire Jewish people that would endure until its final deliverance. In that redemptive future, the son of David would replace the Roman emperor.
In this text, the Talmud provides an explanation for the tragic events that led to the destruction of the Alexandrian Jewish community. No Jewish acts of aggression are mentioned, only a Roman misunderstanding of Jews and their religious practices. By omitting any acknowledgment that this Jewish community initiated a violent rebellion, this source attributes brutality, cruelty, and bloodshed to Trajan alone.