Mishnah Avodah Zarah 1:1-3

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Restrictions regarding festivals of idolaters, including celebrations of the Roman Empire’s rise to power and major moments in the emperors’ lives.

3d CE
Syria Palaestina
Literary genre: 
Legal text
Title of work: 
Avodah Zarah 1:1-3

These passages on commerce with non-Jews on their holy days introduce the mishnaic tractate entitled Avodah Zarah, which means “idolatry” or, more literally, “foreign worship.” It is noteworthy that festivals are the first subject discussed in relation to idolatry. Some of them are specifically associated with Roman Empire’s rise to power and important moments in the lives of the emperors. Sections 1 and 2 speak of business negotiations and transactions between Jews and non-Jews, primarily before these festivals; Section 3 lists the public and individual celebrations regulated in Sections 1 and 2.

According to Section 1, business transactions with non-Jews may not be conducted during the three days that precede their festivals. This mishnah then delineates which activities are forbidden: borrowing and lending, whether objects or money; and, settling loans as a payer or recipient of funds. These restrictions were probably intended to prevent Jews from helping non-Jews to prepare their celebrations, which involved idolatry, usually in the form of blood sacrifices or other offerings as well as prayers, banquets, performances or games. As Jon W. Iddeng emphasizes, “[C]ult activity was an essential feature of a Graeco-Roman festival.” Moreover, “[T]he Graeco-Roman festival was a religious celebration, and there seems to be no disagreement that its purpose was (like all pagan cult acts) to show veneration for and appease the gods and divine powers, thus fulfilling man’s part of a comprehended pact of exchanging favors and deeds” (Iddeng, “What is a Graeco-Roman Festival?” p. 22-28). In that context, Jews who did business with non-Jews could directly or indirectly furnish goods that would be used for these observances. According to the Jerusalem Talmud, Avodah Zarah 1:1, 39a, idolaters devoted three days to preparing for their festivals. The Babylonian Talmud Avodah Zarah 6a provides two explanations for this prohibition: first, idolaters would thank their gods for successful economic transactions; and, second, Jews could inadvertently provide animals for sacrifice. William A. L. Elmslie explains that, “Not only must the Jew keep absolutely clear from idolatry himself, but he must do nothing which in any way is likely to lead another man into performing acts of idolatrous worship. Thus business dealings with heathen [sic], shortly before a great heathen festival, are forbidden because the idolater is tempted if he makes a profit to devote part of his gains as a thankoffering [sic] to the idol” (Elmslie, The Mishna on Idolatry, p. 4-5). Analogously, Hanoch Albeck comments that expressions of gratitude to their gods for financial gain was a normative component of non-Jewish festivals (The Mishnah, vol. 4, p. 325).

After stating this general rule, this mishnah offers an argument regarding one detail of that law. Whereas Rabbi Yehudah, who was active in the second century CE, permits Jews to be paid by non-Jews before polytheistic festivals since repaying a loan can induce stress, the sages contend that, irrespective of such difficulties, joy results after a debt has been repaid. Here direct support of idolatry is not at issue (by contrast with the potential provision of sacrificial animals discussed previously) but rather, the emotional effect of this transaction and its influence on the idolater’s mindset during his festival for perhaps, as Albeck explains, he may be motivated to thank his gods for the ability to repay that loan (The Mishnah, vol. p. 325).

Section 2 presents another aspect of this prohibition in the form competing opinions between Rabbi Ishmael, who was active during the second century CE, and the sages. According to Rabbi Ishmael, business negotiations between Jews and non-Jews are not only prohibited for three days before a festival, as stated in Section 1 and affirmed by the sages, but also for three days after the festival. The Mishnah does not explain Rabbi Ishmael’s reasoning for this prohibition. Perhaps, business transactions following festivals could involve objects that were used during these celebrations and, thus, were associated with idolatry.

Section 3 lists public observances then personal celebrations (including two whose categorization is not clear).

The public festivals are:

A)    Calends (from the Latin Kalendae: the first day of the month) – According to the Jerusalem Talmud Avodah Zarah 1:3, 39c, this mishnah refers to the first day of January. William A. L. Elmslie also writes: “New-Year’s Day feast held on 1st January [sic]” (The Mishna on Idolatry, p. 5, 19-20); Fritz Graf concurs and shows that, in the Eastern Empire, this term denoted this specific festival: “Pagan and Christian Greek texts from the imperial epoch sometimes refer to this important festival simply as kalandai, treating the word as an ordinary festival name, not the least because it lasted several days, against the original meaning of the Latin term as the name of the first day of the month” (“Roman Festivals in Syria Palaestina,” p. 437). Thus, this celebration opened the Roman year. Its observances included prayers to the gods, sacrificing white bulls to honor Jupiter, and extending well-wishes and giving gifts to relatives and friends (Veltri, A Mirror of Rabbinic Hermeneutics, p. 75-76).

B)    Saturnalia – This religious festival honored Saturn and was held from December 17-23, thus marking the close of the Roman year. As William A. L. Elmslie writes: “It was the occasion for the most unrestrained merry-making by all classes of society” (The Mishna on Idolatry, p. 21). This celebration included sacrifices, feasts, exchanging gifts among friends, and a carnival. Saturnalia also featured the inversion of social norms and role-reversal within the Roman hierarchy: for example, masters would serve meals to their slaves (Versnel, Transition and Reversal, p. 146-150; Hezser, Jewish Slavery, p. 372-373).

C)    Qrtisim (from the Greek kratēsis, defined as “might,” “power” or “dominion”) – The Jerusalem Talmud, Avodah Zarah 1:3, 39c, explains that, on this date, Rome seized “the kingdom.” Scholarly opinion on the meaning of this term and the event(s) that it marks varies. According to Hanoch Albeck, it celebrates August 1, 30 BCE, when Augustus (Octavian) seized Alexandria (The Mishnah, vol. 4, p. 325). William A. L. Elmslie explains that it probably refers to: “[T]he two festivals kept in the period of the Empire throughout the Roman dominions, being celebrated, the one as an Empire-Day, and the other to commemorate the reigning Caesar’s accession to imperial power. Both were known in Latin as Dies Imperii” (The Mishna on Idolatry, p. 5, 21). Daniel Sperber writes that this term refers to a “Roman festival, commemorating conquest of eastern countries” (Dictionary of Greek and Latin Legal Terms, p. 195). However, Fritz Graf contends that “There are no parallels for such a festival name in our material on Eastern Greek heortology; thus, it is not a festival name, but a descriptive term” (“Roman Festivals in Syria Palaestina,” p. 437). Graf offers two possible explanations: 1) the acquisition of Egypt by Augustus; and, 2) the current emperor’s ascent to the throne. He then claims that, based on evidence of festivals in the Roman East, the latter option is correct (Roman Festivals in the Greek East, p. 68-69; “Roman Festivals in Syria Palaestina,” p. 437-438).

D)    The genesiya (from the Greek genesia) of kings – This festival marks either the king’s accession to power or his birthday. According to the Jerusalem Talmud Avodah Zarah 1:3, 39c, this is the birthday of the kings, whereas the Babylonian Talmud Avodah Zarah 10a provides two alternatives: first, the day on which the reigning king ascended to the throne; second, the birthday of the reigning king or his son. William A. L. Elmslie explains that, in Philo, Josephus, and the New Testament, this term “acquired the meaning ‘birthday-feast’” (The Mishna on Idolatry, p. 22). Fritz Graf understands it as the emperor’s birthday (“Roman Festivals in Syria Palaestina,” p. 439; see also Giuseppe Veltri, A Mirror of Rabbinic Hermeneutics, p. 91-92; Fuhrmann, Policing the Roman Empire, p. 109).

The first two celebrations, Calends and Saturnalia, were major religious Roman festivals, whereas the latter two were associated with Roman power and the empire. Jon W. Iddeng writes that “[T]he festivals of the Roman Empire were surely also about unifying the people under Roman rule” (“What is a Graeco-Roman Festival?” p. 29). These passages from the Mishnah, however, seek to distance Jews from such festivals, even preventing them from having contact with celebrants before and during their observance.

The next two celebrations are more difficult to define: (E) the day of birth and (F) the day of death may be related to the kings, much like (C) and (D), and thus refer to public celebrations, or they may mark birthdays and deaths of ordinary individuals, and therefore signify private celebrations. The birthdays of emperors were celebrated throughout the Roman Empire with festivities, sacrifices, and spectacles, including gladiatorial games. Not only was the current emperor’s birthday celebrated but also those of his predecessors. As Clifford Ando writes: “Epigraphical records of the celebration of imperial holidays — the birthdays and dates of accession of divi — also explode in frequency in the Antonine period” (Imperial Ideology, p. 38). These anniversaries of births and deaths could also be understood as the first items on the list of private celebrations. This is the division described in Jerusalem Talmud Avodah Zarah 1:3, 39c: “The day of birth and the day of death: up to here [this list refers to] public [festivals], from here onward, [the list refers] to [festivals celebrated] for individuals.” This reading fits the idea that “the genesiya of kings” (D) refers to their birthdays. If “the day of birth” referred to emperors’ birthdays, the Jerusalem Talmud would have viewed the Mishnah as having mentioned the monarchs’ birthdays twice. The Talmud, therefore, defines genesiya (D) as the birthdays of kings and “the day of birth” as the birthday of a private individual. However, according to William A. L. Elmslie, (E) “the day of birth” and (F) “the day of death” explain the term genesiya (D), rather than representing independent festivals (The Mishna on Idolatry, p. 5); thus, they should not be considered as separate items on the list, whether as public or private festivals. Indeed, according to William F. Ardent and Wilbur Gingrich’s dictionary, genesiya is a “birthday celebration earlier[Hdt. 4, 26 al.] meant a commemorative celebration on the birthday of a deceased pers.” (A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, p. 153; italics in original). Thus, these two meanings were placed in the mishnah as explanations.

With respect to the day of death, the Mishnah presents a dispute between Rabbi Meir and the sages. According to Rabbi Meir, who was active in the second century, the days of birth and death are both considered festivals to which the prohibitions mentioned in Mishnah Avodah Zarah 1:1 apply. The sages, however, rule that death rituals are only considered idolatrous if they entail burning. This may be understood as burning the body or the possessions of the deceased (see Babylonian Talmud Avodah Zarah 11a). In contrast to the Jerusalem Talmud, William A. L. Elmslie claims that this argument does not pertain to the death of private individuals but to a death in the imperial family (The Mishna on Idolatry, p. 22-23). If so, this mishnah may refer to apotheosis ceremonies: during this ritual (typically conducted by the succeeding emperor), in which the late emperor became deified, his image was burned. In that context, one may consider Tosefta Shabbat 7:18, which discusses a fire that was kindled to memorialize Jewish kings and patriarchs and the ceremonial burning of their beds and personal property.

The following private celebrations are then listed:

G)    “The [first] day of shaving his beard and [the first day for cutting] his locks [of hair].” Shaving facial hair for the first time was a ritual that signified the transition to manhood which was often accompanied by celebrations. Christine Hayes discusses ritual hair dedication (Between the Babylonian and Palestinian Talmuds, p. 88-89). It is unclear whether this mishnah refers to two distinct rituals or two components of a single ritual.

H)    “The day when he returned (lit. came up) from the sea.” As William A. L. Elmslie writes: “Offerings were regularly made on safe return from a journey,” especially from “a sea voyage” (The Mishna on Idolatry, p. 24).

I)       “The day when he comes out of prison.” William A. L. Elmslie notes that some prisoners dedicated their fetters or offered a sacrifice upon being released. He also suggests that such a celebration may have taken place in “the case of a slave receiving his freedom” (The Mishna on Idolatry, p. 25).

This mishnah prescribes that with respect to private celebrations like those mentioned here, the regulations mentioned in Section 1 and prohibitions from business transactions with non-Jews are limited to the day of that occasion and the its celebrant(s). Such differentiation between public holidays (feriae publicae) and private festivals (feriae privatae or feriae singulorum) for families or individuals originated in the Greco-Roman world (Jérôme Carcopino, Daily Life in Ancient Rome, p. 226). Jon W. Iddeng explains that private festivals (feriae privatae) “were family anniversaries or celebrations, not recorded in official calendars” (“What is a Graeco-Roman Festival?” p. 20).

It is noteworthy that, with regard to public festivals, Mishnah Avodah Zarah 1:3 refers only to major and well-known festivals (Calends and Saturnalia) and celebrations that were related to the imperial cult and Roman power. Thus, whereas Mishnah Avodah Zarah 1:1 prohibits business transactions before all gentile festivals, Mishnah Avodah Zarah 1:3 restricts the scope of this prohibition to those that relate directly to Rome.
Bibliographical references: 

The Mishnah

Albeck, HanochbookThe Mishnah Tel Aviv Dvir1959

“Roman Festivals in Syria Palaestina”

Graf, Fritzarticle-in-a-bookThe Talmud Yerushalmi and Graeco-Roman Culture, III Peter Schäfer435-451“Roman Festivals in Syria Palaestina”TübingenMohr Siebeck2002
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Mishnah Avodah Zarah 1:1-3
Author(s) of this publication: Yael Wilfand
Publishing date: Fri, 04/20/2018 - 08:50
URL: https://www.judaism-and-rome.org/mishnah-avodah-zarah-11-3
Visited: Sat, 04/13/2024 - 21:20

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