Mishnah Avodah Zarah 3:4

Rabban Gamliel at the Bath of Aphrodite in Acre (Akko; Ptolemais)
3d CE
Syria Palaestina
Literary genre: 
Legal text and Teaching
Title of work: 
Avodah Zarah 3:4

This passage from the Mishnah has attracted a significant scholarly attention, as evidenced by its centrality in numerous studies of rabbinic attitudes toward the Greco-Roman world and its cults. This mishnah presents an encounter between a gentile (“Peraqlos son of Pelaslos” in MS Kaufmann, though some scholars suggest “philosophos”) and Rabban Gamliel II, who was active following the destruction of the Temple through the early second century CE and who rabbinic literature portrays as a prominent rabbinic leader. Scholars debate whether he was considered a patriarch, as his descendants would be. It bears mention that one scholarly opinion identifies the sage in this dialogue as Rabban Gamliel III, who was active in the third century CE (see Wasserstein, “Rabban Gamliel and Proclus of Naukratis”; for more on this identification, see Yadin, “Rabban Gamliel,” p. 151, 160-161). This encounter occurs at the Bath of Aphrodite, a public bathhouse in the city of Acre (also known as Akko and Ptolmais). In a study on this well-known feature of Roman life, Yaron Z. Eliavdescribes the sculptures that embellished public bathhouses:

“Statues adorned the Roman baths, constituting an unavoidable part of the environment encountered by the visitor. Statues that were chiseled on the pediment or standing full size on its tip (acroterion), or that were placed on the cornice welcomed the bather at the building’s façade. Inside they were situated at almost every possible spot. There were reliefs engraved on friezes, busts (protomai) carved out of the abaci (the square slabs at the top of the column’s capital), life-sized three-dimensional images arranged on beams spanning the columns, in special niches in the wall or scattered around on pedestals. The subject repertoire of the statues was diverse: emperors, benefactors, gods, mythological scenes, and important figures who were memorialized for various reasons” (“The Roman Bath,” p. 431).

While Roman bathhouses were replete with idols, their treatment – namely, whether these images were worshiped – is a related and critical issue. Pierre Aubert distinguishes between two categories of bathhouses: whereas public baths were not typically places of cultic activity and the statues within were primarily decorative elements, most therapeutic baths were directly connected to a temple. In the latter type, the relationship with a religious cult was self-evident and purification was the primary objective of those who attended. By contrast, Aubert stresses that public baths were not inherently religious spaces. While they could convey a “religious aura” (with a particular god depicted as its patron, for instance), the images that adorned bathing areas and latrines were not necessarily cultic statues (Aubert, “Les thermes,” p. 192). To the contrary, Emmanuel Friedheim argues that worship also occurred in public baths. He adds that, in Rome, the cult of Venus (parallel to the Greek goddess Aphrodite), was frequently practiced in bathhouses and women especially venerated Venus/Aphrodite in such settings (for bibliographical references, see Friedheim, “The Story of Rabban Gamliel,” p. 9-11; see also Eliav,“The Roman Bath,” p. 431-433). In this context, Friedheim cites evidence that the statue of Aphrodite in Acre was not merely decorative but had cultic significance (Friedheim, “The Story of Rabban Gamliel,” p. 9). More broadly, Steven Fine writes that: “Coins minted in Ptolemais under the emperor Galen (ruled 253-268) express the local significance of this goddess” (Fine, Art and Judaism, p. 112), without explicitly stating whether the bath was a locus of cultic activity.

In our mishnah, the encounter between Peraqlos son of Pelaslos and Rabban Gamliel takes place at the Bath of Aphrodite. Most of their exchange, however, occurs outside the bathhouse, since Rabban Gamliel asserts that rabbinic halakhah prohibits discussions of Torah in a public bathhouse.

The issue raised by Peraqlos son of Pelaslos seems straightforward: “[Since] it is written in your Torah: ‘Let nothing that has been doomed (ḥerem) stick to your hand’ (Deuteronomy 13:18, JPS), why do you bathe in the Bath of Aphrodite”? Although, in its Scriptural context, this verse discusses the property of an Israelite city whose population has been lured into idolatrous practice (‘ir ha-nidaḥat), as Seth Schwartz observes, “The rabbis used Dt 13:18 as a source for laws about ḥerem (in their terms, prohibition of benefit, or contact) in general” (Schwartz, “Gamliel in Aphrodite’s Bath,” p. 212). The Mishnah constructs an imagined encounter between Rabban Gamliel and Peraqlos who, as Schwartz argues, uses a biblical verse: “…to demonstrate the impropriety of Rabban Gamliel’s behavior… By your standard, Peraqlos is made to say, this bath is ḥerem, which means that whether or not you destroy it, you may not use it; why then are you here?” (Schwartz, “Gamliel in Aphrodite’s Bath,” p. 212).

However, Ishay Rosen-Zvi explains that: “The citation of this verse in Paroklos’s question looks simple, but in fact is based on a hidden homily: The words ‘and none of the erem shall cling to your hand’ are interpreted as an obligation to distance oneself from the statue (and thus the surrounding bathhouse). Such an interpretation may seem quite innocent, but it is not the only possible legal reading of the verse” as the previous mishnah [Avodah Zarah 3:3] uses the same verse to assert that “ḥerem should be destroyed” (Rosen-Zvi, “Rereading Herem,” p. 52).

Irrespective of the response to this query, the Mishnah seems to restrict the biblical command to destroy instruments of idolatry to objects possessed by Jews. In the case of the Bath of Aphrodite, a sage may enter a public bathhouse that is named for a goddess and be in the presence of her statue. More broadly, as Seth Schwartz observes that the question posed by Peraqlos “reveals several anomalies at the very core of the rabbinic treatment of paganism. How, in the first place, could the rabbis simply ignore the images which decorated both private and public spaces in the cities and larger villages?” (Schwartz, “Gamliel in Aphrodite’s Bath,” p. 212). Moreover, if this statue of Aphrodite were worshiped, the matter raised by Peraqlos would be even more astute.

The Mishnah attributes a two-part response to Rabban Gamliel. He opens by stating: “I did not come into her domain, [but rather] she came into my domain!” (A), then explaining: “They do not say ‘Let us make a bathhouse for (to honor) Aphrodite, but [rather] Aphrodite is made as an ornament for the bathhouse’” (B). First, Rabban Gamliel identifies a Roman public bathhouse as “his domain,” despite being known as “the Bath of Aphrodite”; thus, he did not actually enter her domain (A). Further, Aphrodite is secondary to this public institution, for those who built and named it regarded the sculpture of this goddess to be decorative (B). Scholars have sought to explain the relationship between these two sections of his reply. Regarding the first part, Seth Schwartz writes: “I do find Rabban Gamliel’s first response difficult to understand, but it may in fact mean no more than that bath-houses are for bathers, not worshipers, so the goddess, not the bather, is the intruder” (Schwartz, “Gamliel in Aphrodite’s Bath,” p. 214). Interestingly, in his interpretation of this story, Yaron Z. Eliav does not comment on this portion of the sage’s response (Eliav, “Viewing the Sculptural Environment,” p. 424-425). Moshe Halbertal reads this sentence (A) together with the next section (B), so he does not explain it independently: “The bath is not Aphrodite’s domain which Raban Gamliel invaded, it is the other way around; it is Raban Gamliel’s domain which Aphrodite invaded. Thus Raban Gamliel claims that Aphrodite is an adornment to the bath and not vice versa” (Halbertal, “Coexisting with the Enemy,” p. 167). According to Yaron Z. Eliav, in the second part of his answer (B), Rabban Gamliel: “…is appealing to the general opinion, to the view on the street, to prove that the particular statue of Aphrodite that was standing in the bathhouse was not perceived as a worshipped idol” (Eliav, “Viewing the Sculptural Environment,” p. 424).

Some scholars treat this section (B), which defines the idol as ornamental, together with the portion introduced by “Another thing (davar aḥer)” (C) and ascribe this closing passage to Rabban Gamliel as well. However, “Another thing” typically precedes a passage that was added to the Mishnah at a later editorial stage or, at least, indicates a transition to a new textual segment. According to Azzan Yadin, “There is no question that davar aḥer represents a structural break in the narrative and that arguments … which appear after that phrase, are no longer to be understood as part of the conversation between Rabban Gamliel and the philosopher” (Yadin, “Rabban Gamliel,” p. 162-163). Yet the Mishnah presents this section as part of the dialogue. In this section of the answer, by either ascription, the biblical commands regarding idolatry – as in Deuteronomy 12:2: “You must demolish completely all the places where the nations whom you are about to dispossess served their gods…” (NRSV), for example – refer only to items that gentiles regard as gods. The statue of Aphrodite, which: “stands over the opening of the sewer and all people urinate in front of her” does not meet this criterion. Seth Schwartz reads the second part of Rabban Gamliel’s response and the answer introduced with “Another thing” (B and C) together, arguing that: “…they produce a kind of ‘doctrine of mere decoration’: the pagans themselves would say that Aphrodite in the bath is secondary, a mere ornament – indeed, they themselves do not hesitate to stand before her naked, behavior they would not countenance in their own temples. An idol is only a god, and so subject to (our attenuated version of) the biblical prohibition, if it is treated like one. If it is erected in a bath-house or, by extension, used to decorate tableware, or simply neglected, it is perfectly acceptable” (Schwartz, “Gamliel in Aphrodite’s Bath,” p. 214). Yaron Z. Eliav writes: “Even though Aphrodite was surely a ‘worshiped deity’ (in the sense defined by the sages above [in Mishnah Avodah Zarah 3:1]), with other statues of her kind enjoying rituals, temples and so on, the position presented by Rabban Gamliel is that a statue in a given location is forbidden only if that particular one has a function in a ritual worship” (Eliav, “Viewing the Sculptural Environment,” p. 424).

However, if Emmanuel Friedheim’s assertion that the statue of Aphrodite in the public bath of Akko was worshiped is correct (Friedheim, “The Story of Rabban Gamliel,” p. 26-27), the multistage reply ascribed to Rabban Gamliel, which permits Jews to attend Roman bathhouses, is striking as for its contradiction of well-documented realities in the Greco-Roman world. In such a case, this sage’s response represents an imagined construction. It is more logical, therefore, to presume that the figure of Aphrodite was not worshiped in that setting. 

Bibliographical references: 

, “Les thermes comme lieux de culte”

Aubert, Pierrearticle-in-a-bookLes thermes romains. Actes de la table ronde organisée par l’École Française de Rome (Rome, 11-12 novembre 1988) 185-192“Les thermes comme lieux de culte” CEFR 142Rome1991
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