Leviticus Rabbah 13:5 (part two)

The pig as a symbol of Rome

5th CE
Syria Palaestina
Hebrew and Aramaic
Literary genre: 
Title of work: 
Leviticus Rabbah

Leviticus Rabbah 13:5 is an extended midrashic unit on the theme of the four kingdoms and especially, the fourth, final and harshest kingdom, Rome. For more detail on the content of this midrashic unit and on the dating and context of identifying Rome with the ḥazir (the Hebrew term for “boar” or “pig”), see the commentary on Leviticus Rabbah 13:5 (part one). Our section compares the conduct of these four kingdoms – Babylonia, Media, Greece, and Rome – toward the righteous, specifically pious Jews. According to our passage, whereas the first three kingdoms raised the righteous, Rome was killing them. The midrash bases this notion on its identification of these empires with the camel, the hare, the rock badger, and the pig, respectively, in relation to: “For it chews (ma‘ala) cud (gerah)” or “It does not chew (ma‘ala) cud (gera),” phrases that appear in Leviticus 11:

“(2) From among all the land animals, these are the creatures that you may eat. (3) Any animal that has divided hoofs and is cleft-footed and chews cud—such you may eat. (4) But among those that chew cud (ma‘alim gerah) or have divided hoofs, you shall not eat the following: the camel, for even though it chews cud (ma‘aleh gerah), it does not have divided hoofs; it is unclean for you. (5) The hare, for even though it chews cud, it does not have divided hoofs; it is unclean for you. (6) The rock badger, for even though it chews cud, it does not have divided hoofs; it is unclean for you. (7) The pig, for even though it has divided hoofs and is cleft-footed, it does not chew cud; it is unclean for you. (8) Of their flesh you shall not eat, and their carcasses you shall not touch; they are unclean for you” (Leviticus 11:2-8, based on NRSV).

According to Mordecai Margulies, since the Hebrew word gerim, which usually denotes converts in rabbinic literature, also refers to “the pious” in certain midrashim, our passage associates gerah (cud) with gerim, understood here as “the righteous” )Margulies, Midrash, p. 194; compare, Hadas-Lebel, Jerusalem against Rome, p. 520). The Hebrew word ma‘alah means: “she raises.” These readings lay the groundwork for expounding that three kingdoms honored and raised pious Jews, whereas Rome is symbolized by the pig, which “does not chew cud (ma‘aleh gerah)” (Leviticus 11:7, NRSV), beyond failing to honor the righteous, even murdered them.

In Section A, the closing phrase from Daniel 2:49 is cited to support the claim that Babylonia raised the righteous. Its full context reads as follows: “(46) Then King Nebuchadnezzar fell on his face, worshiped Daniel, and commanded that a grain offering and incense be offered to him. (47) The king said to Daniel, ‘Truly, your God is God of gods and Lord of kings and a revealer of mysteries, for you have been able to reveal this mystery!’ (48) Then the king promoted Daniel, gave him many great gifts, and made him ruler over the whole province of Babylon and chief prefect over all the wise men of Babylon. (49) Daniel made a request of the king, and he appointed Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego over the affairs of the province of Babylon. But Daniel remained at the king’s court (lit. gate)” (Daniel 2:46-49, NRSV)

Section B mentions Mordecai as an example of Media’s positive treatment of pious men. Here Esther 2:19 is cited, which describes Mordecai “sitting at the king’s gate” (NRSV) when Esther became “queen instead of Vashti” (v. 17).

In its comment on Greece, Section C is especially interesting for its remark that Alexander the Great honored Shim‘on the Righteous. Josephus reports that Alexander visited Jerusalem (Jewish Antiquity 11.321-347) and met with the high priest, known as Jaddus (for recent studies of this narrative, see Tropper, Simeon the Righteous, p. 113-136; Ben Shahar, “The High Priest”). Most scholars doubt the veracity of such a visit (see, for example, Momigliano, “Flavius Josephus and Alexander’s Visit” and compare Kasher, “The Journey of Alexander.” For a survey of scholarly treatment of this topic through 2013, see Tropper, Simeon the Righteous, p. 126-130). Tannaitic compositions speak neither of this event nor Alexander the Great. A brief mention of Alexander occurs in Seder Olam, Chapter 30 (see Milikowsky, Seder Olam, I, p. 322; II, p. 520-521); the date of this rabbinic work’s composition remains a matter of debate. An account of Alexander also appears in the scholion to Megillat Ta‘anit (see, for example, Noam, Megilat Ta‘anit, p. 70, 100-103, 198-205, 262-265). The tales about Alexander that appear in the scholion and in amoraic traditions demonstrate a strong affinity. Although the versions in the scholion are clearly late and show familiarity with amoraic midrashim and the Babylonian Talmud, Vered Noam claims that early material in the scholion can be discerned (Noam, Megilat Ta‘anit, p. 23). For example, in addition to her identification of similarities between the narrative on Alexander’s encounter with the high priest, Shim‘on the Righteous, in the scholion and various amoraic versions (including in the Babylonian Talmud) on the basis of a specific Aramaic expression, Noam argues that the remnant of an early, historical baraita in Aramaic may be embedded in the version of this tale from the scholion (Megillat Ta‘anit, p. 265). Amram Tropper similarly claims: “Seeing as the legend of Simeon and Alexander appears in both scholia to Megillat Ta‘anit and in a parallel baraita in Babylonian Talmud Yoma, it seems quite possible that the rabbinic account of this legend was already formulated in tannaitic times” (Simeon the Righteous, 2013, p. 115; see also Amitay, “Shim‘on ha-Ṣadiq,” p. 238). I would suggest, however, that we cannot determine whether the material about Alexander in the scholion is indeed tannaitic; therefore, Leviticus Rabbah 13:5 is the first firmly dated rabbinic source to mention this encounter.

The earliest rabbinic narratives about Alexander take the form of two tales in the Jerusalem Talmud (whose final redaction dates from the fourth century) and a few others in Genesis Rabbah (fifth century). Discussions of these texts can be found in the commentaries on Jerusalem Talmud Baba Metzi‘a 2:4, 8c; Genesis Rabbah 23:1; Genesis Rabbah 33:1; Jerusalem Talmud, Avodah Zarah 3:1, 42c (part one); and in Wilfand, “Alexander the Great”). These passages present a decidedly negative portrait of Alexander and they are often placed within critiques of Rome. While our passage from Leviticus Rabbah 13:5 also criticizes Rome, here Alexander represents the Greek world vis-à-vis the Roman Empire.

Leviticus Rabbah 13:5 presents two versions (both combine Hebrew and Aramaic) of this concise story about the meeting between Alexander Macedon and Shim‘on the Righteous: our passage and a parallel that appears several lines before:

 Greece blesses the God of Israel (its parallel; Margulies, edition, p. 193)

 Greece raises the righteous (our passage; Margulies, edition, p. 194)

"את הארנבת" זו יוון. "כי מעלת גרה היא". שמקלסת לקב'ה.

“The hare (arnevet)” (Leviticus 11:6) – This is Greece. “For it chews cud” (Leviticus 11:6, based on NRSV), for she praises the Holy One blessed be He.

"את הארנבת" זו יוון. "כי מעלת גרה היא" שמגדלת את הצדיקים.

“The hare (arnevet)” (Leviticus 11:6) – This is Greece. “For it chews cud” (Leviticus 11:6, based on NRSV), for she raises the righteous.

אלכסנדרוס כד הוה חמי לשמעון הצדיק היה יורד ממרכבתו ומשתחוה וא'. ברוך אלה'י של שמעון הצדיק.

Alexander, upon seeing Shim‘on the Righteous, would descend from his chariot, prostrate himself, and say: “Blessed be the God of Shim‘on the Righteous.”

אלכסנדרוס מקדון כד הוה חמי שמע' הצדיק הוה קאים על ריגליה. אמ' ליה. יהודאי. לית את יכיל למיחמי. מן קדם יהודיי את קאים. אמ' להן. בשעה שאני יוצא למלחמה כדמותו אני רואה ונוצח.

Alexander Macedon, upon seeing Shim‘on the Righteous, would rise to his feet. They told him: “[This is] a Jew, can you not see? Before a Jew you stand?” He told them: “When I go into a battle [lit. to war], I see the likeness of his image and I win.”


In the first narrative, Greece is characterized as a kingdom that praises the Jewish God. In that context, the midrash follows with an example about Alexander: according to this tale, when Alexander met Shim‘on the Righteous, he would bless God in words that echo Daniel 3:28, where Nebuchadnezzar proclaims: “Blessed be the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego” (NRSV). The motif of a gentile leader praising the God of the Jews appears in several other places, including Jerusalem Talmud Baba Metzi‘a 2:4, 8c, which describes Alexander’s visit to King Qatzyya but, in that example, it is not Alexander but other gentiles who bless God. Furthermore, in this version, prior to praising the God of the Jews, Alexander descends from his chariot and prostrates himself before Shim‘on the Righteous. This description shares certain details with a passage by Josephus:

“For when Alexander while still far off saw the multitude in white garments the priests at their head clothed in linen, and the high priest in a robe of hyacinth-blue and gold, wearing on his head the mitre with the golden plate on it on which was inscribed the name of God, he approached alone and prostrated himself before the Name and first greeted the high priest” (Jewish Antiquity 11.331-332, translation by Ralph Marcus, LCL, p. 475).

The second version, which appears in our section of this midrash, focuses on the behavior of the four empires toward righteous Jews. Here Alexander’s entourage are astonished to witness the honor that their king displays toward Shim‘on the Righteous. This scenario also echoes the following portion of Josephus’s descriptions:

“… but the kings of Syria and the others were struck with amazement at his action and supposed that the king’s mind was deranged. And Parmenion [the Macedonian general] alone went up to him and asked why indeed, when all men prostrated themselves before him, he had prostrated himself before the high priest of the Jews, whereupon he replied ‘It was not before him that I prostrated myself but the God of whom he has the honour to be high priest, for it was he whom I saw in my sleep dressed as he is now, when I was at Dium in Macedonia, and, as I was considering with myself how I might become master of Asia, he urged me not to hesitate but to cross over confidently for he himself would lead my army and give over to me the empire of the Persian. Since, therefore, I have beheld no one else in such robes, and on seeing him now I am reminded of the vision and the exhortation, I believe that I have made this expedition under divine guidance and that I shall defeat Darius and destroy the power of the Persians and succeed in carrying out all the things which I have in mind.’” (Jewish Antiquity 11.332-335, translation by Ralph Marcus, LCL, p. 475-477).

Even though this passage from Josephus is far more elaborate than the depiction in Leviticus Rabbah, their similarities are noteworthy: First, Alexander’s entourage expresses surprise at their leader’s response to the high priest. Second, Alexander identifies the Jewish high priest even though they have not previously met (he recognizes him from a dream or vision) and acknowledges that his image had a role in Alexander’s military victories. Thus, both Josephus and the midrash present the same order of events: 1) Alexander prostrates himself before the Jewish high priest; 2) Alexander’s men respond with surprise; 3) Alexander explains that he already knows this Jewish leader from a vision or dream; and, 4) Alexander associates the high priest with his conquests.

It is noteworthy that Leviticus Rabbah 13:5 does not include the struggle between Samaritans and Jews that frames the description of this encounter in Josephus (a context that is preserved in the Babylonian Talmud Yoma 69a and the scholion). Nonetheless, the affinity between the two narratives in Leviticus Rabbah 13:5 and Josephus raises the question whether the author(s) of this midrash were familiar with Josephus’s work. This query is central to a recent monograph: Josephus and the Rabbis by Tal Ilan, Vered Noam, et al. (for a summary of scholarly opinions on this possibility, see there, p. 24-28). Ilan and Noam argue for the existence of an ancient collection of Jewish traditions that was available to Josephus and the rabbis, but is not currently extant. They contend that the rabbis did not draw from Josephus but rather from that third source (Josephus and the Rabbis, p. 28). With respect to our passages from Leviticus Rabbah 13:5, they would posit that the rabbis did not learn of this meeting from Josephus but from the earlier Jewish narrative that he too accessed. Other scholars dispute this position, at least with respect to the version in the Babylonian Talmud. They contend that those talmudic authors were familiar with Josephus (see for example, Kalmin, Jewish Babylonia, p. 149-168; Migrating Tales, p. 173-174). However, most scholars who discuss this encounter between Alexander and the high priest focus primarily on the versions in the Babylonian Talmud and the scholion (for example, Amitay, “Shim‘on ha-Ṣadiq” p. 237-240; Tropper, Simeon the Righteous, only mentions Leviticus Rabbah 13:5 in a single footnote; Ben Shahar, “The High Priest”).

Regarding our version in Leviticus Rabbah, we might ask why this story first appears in a fifth-century midrash, without prior mention in tannaitic texts or the Jerusalem Talmud. In other words, why did a narrative that was initially recorded in a composition from the late first century CE (Jewish Antiquity) reemerge in the fifth century despite its absence in earlier rabbinic texts? As mentioned above, the earlier rabbinic traditions on Alexander, namely in the Jerusalem Talmud and Genesis Rabbah, are mostly negative and his figure is associated with Roman emperors (Wilfand, “Alexander the Great”). In Leviticus Rabbah, however, we find a positive description of Alexander, who is depicted as the epitome of the Greek ruler. Here too, Rome is the subject of rabbinic criticism: this midrash contrasts Greece with Rome, thus emphasizing the sins of the latter, which killed the righteous: Rabbi Akiba and his fellows. Other stories about Alexander in Leviticus Rabbah also reflect more knowledge of narratives that also appear in the Romance (see, for example, the tale of the Amazons in Leviticus Rabbah 27:1) but are not found in the Jerusalem Talmud or Genesis Rabbah. These narratives may indicate that the author(s) of Leviticus Rabbah had access to additional non-Jewish or non-rabbinic traditions about Alexander or, alternatively, greater willingness to use such traditions, at least with respect to this historical figure. One may consider the possibility that, rather than preserving material from an early Jewish source, this passage from Leviticus Rabbah (and its parallel in Pesiqta de Rav Kahana 4:9, Mandelbaum edition, p. 75) presents a narrative that reemerged at the time of this midrashic composition from Josephus, the Romance or another, yet unknown, indirect vein (it has been claimed that this account from Josephus became part of the Romance and Christian traditions, see Cohen, “Alexander,” p. 59; Klęczar, “The Kingship,” p. 339; in addition, as Kalmin, Jewish Babylonia, p. 149-168 and, specifically p. 190, note 11, writes: “Eusebius, the late third-early fourth-century Church historian” who lived in Roman Palestine “relies heavily on Josephus”). Regardless of its origins, this midrash seems to show scant interest in Alexander or the Hellenistic kingdoms per se, for they are primarily mentioned to offer a contrast to the wickedness of Rome. Alexander’s conduct is therefore subject to the rabbinic purpose of casting Rome in a negative light.

Indeed, our passage culminates with Rome, which is also known as Edom and identified with the pig (more on this in Leviticus Rabbah 13:5 [part one]). This midrash offers justification for Rome’s rise to power with Isaiah 47:6, a verse which is cited to demonstrate that Rome was granted dominion over Israel because of their own sins. However, according to the subsequent verses, Rome will be sternly punished for its ruthless rule:

“(6) I was angry with my people, I profaned my heritage; I gave them into your hand, you showed them no mercy; on the aged you made your yoke exceedingly heavy. (7) You said, ‘I shall be mistress forever’ […] (10) You felt secure in your wickedness; you said, ‘No one sees me.’ Your wisdom and your knowledge led you astray, and you said in your heart, ‘I am, and there is no one besides me.’ (11) But evil shall come upon you, which you cannot charm away;
disaster shall fall upon you, which you will not be able to ward off; and ruin shall come on you suddenly, of which you know nothing.” (Isaiah 47:6-7, 10-11, NRSV)

According to this midrash, Rabbi Akiba and his fellows were the pious victims of Roman violence in the second century, probably during or in the aftermath of the Bar Kokhba revolt. The inevitablefall of Rome, implied here through the context of the cited verse, is explicitly discussed in the next passage, which concludes Leviticus Rabbah 13:5 (part three). 

Bibliographical references: 

Jerusalem against Rome

Hadas-Lebel, MireillebookJerusalem against Rometranslated by Robyn FréchetLeuvenPeeters2006

Josephus VI: Jewish Antiquity, Books IX-XI

Marcus, Ralph (trans.)bookJosephus VI: Jewish Antiquity, Books IX-XIThe Loeb Classical LibraryLondon and Cambridge, Mass.William Heinemann and Harvard University Press1937
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