Mishnah Sotah 9:14

Decrees following wars against Rome

200 CE to 220 CE
Syria Palaestina
Literary genre: 
Legal text and Teaching
Title of work: 
Sotah 9:14

In this mishnah there is a list of rebellions against the Romans and the decrees that were issued in their aftermath. Though the Mishnah does not specify who issued these decrees, it is clear that they are internal Jewish restrictions that were issued by the rabbis themselves, or by some other leaders. In Tosefta Sotah chapter 15 that also includes a similar list, Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel says that for each public calamity the court (beyt din) annuls a [mode of] rejoicing (15:6). Nevertheless, this explanation is absent from the Mishnah.

While the two first wars in this list are named after Roman generals, the third is named the “the most recent war” (literally the “last war”). The war of Vespasian refers to the 66 CE Jewish revolt known also as the Great Revolt. The “last war” refers to the Bar Kokhba revolt (132-135 CE). In contrast to these wars, the identification of the second war mentioned in the Mishnah is less clear, since there are variations in the transmission of the war’s name. The Parma and Paris 328/329 manuscripts read “Titus,” but the Kaufmann and Cambridge manuscripts offer Qitem,and in some Genizah fragments the word is Qites. Scholars understand this reading as referring to LusiusQuietus, a general ofTrajan who fought during the Parthian war (115 CE) and afterward against the rebels in Mesopotamia among them local Jews. In this regard, Eusebius describes Quietus’s violent oppression of Jewish rebels (Pucci Ben Zeev, Diaspora Judaism in Turmoil, p. 191-194). LusiusQuietus was also the governor of Judea in 117 CE for a few months. During the years 115-117, Jewish communities in Egypt, Libya (Cyrene) and Cyprus also fought against the Romans in what was later named “the Diaspora Revolt.” Scholars debated whether the Jews in Judea participated in this revolt (for the bibliography: Pucci Ben Zeev, Diaspora Judaism in Turmoil, p. 219-220). Some scholars suggest that Quietus was sent to Judea to subdue the Jews who joined their brothers in the other provinces. According to this view, the three wars which are mentioned in the Mishnah took place in Judea. Whatever the case, most scholars accept the identification of the war of Qitem or Qites with the war of Quietus, referring to the events of 115-117, whether in the diaspora or in Judea, naming it the war of Qitus (Pucci Ben Zeev, Diaspora Judaism in Turmoil, p. 238-239).

Yet, some Mishnah manuscripts such as Parma and Paris 328/329 read “Titus,” and so does a parallel in Tosefta Sotah15:8. According to this reading, in this passage of the Mishnah, the great Revolt is divided into two wars: 1) 67-68 CE – Vespasian leads the Roman army; 2) 69 CE onwards – Titus leads the Roman army in Judea, after his father Vespasian became emperor.  Nevertheless, as Gedalyahu Alon noted (The History of the Jews, vol. I, p. 255), rabbinic texts usually do not divide the Great Revolt into two wars.

Most of the prohibitions that were associated with these wars relate to weddings: In the Vespasian war they banned “crowns of bridegrooms,” or perhaps wreaths, and “the erus,” which was a musical instrument used at weddings (probably a drum). In the war of Titus or Quietus, it was the crowns or the wreaths of the brides, and in the “last war” the bride was forbidden from going around the town in a litter for a wedding procession. However, this passage concludes with the statement that “our rabbis permitted that the bride would go out in a palanquin within the town,” suggesting that these proscriptions were not permanent. 

While these prohibitions are all associated with wedding celebrations, the decree that “a man should not teach his son Greek” stands out. This ban is not explained in the Mishnah nor in the Tosefta. The Jerusalem Talmud that discusses this prohibition (Sotah 9:14, 24c) offers one opinion according to which this ban aimed to stop people from becoming informers of the Roman government, as the latter’s administrative language in the east was Greek. In the Babylonian Talmud(Sotah 49b), a prohibition of studying Greek wisdom is dated to the war between the two Hasmonean brothers:Hyrcanus II and Aristobulus II, just before the Romans led by Pompey conquered Judea. Nonetheless, if this ban is indeed associated with the Jewish war of 115-117 (“the Diaspora revolt”), then it can be explained in two ways: according to David Rokeah (“The War of Kitos,” p. 83), the prohibition is a manifestation of solidarity with the Jewish community in Alexandria that was destroyed during this conflict. According to Raz Mustigman (in a private communication), this ban fits the events of 115-117, since except for Mesopotamia, in most provinces the war started as a violent strife between the Jews and their Greek neighbors, and only later did the Romans become involved. Thus, the prohibition fits the hate that accompanied these conflicts between Jews and their Greek neighbors, whether in Judea or in the Roman diaspora.        

In conclusion, although two of the wars are named after Roman generals, it seems that the Mishnah focuses on the Jewish reactions to these catastrophes: the restrictions of modes of joyfulness, or the prohibition of teaching children Greek. Moreover, while other rabbinic texts like the tannaitic midrashim and the Jerusalem Talmud provide many more details about the defiling of the Temple and about Roman wickedness, here, the Mishnah is very restrained and concise.  

Bibliographical references: 

“The Alleged Ban on Greek Wisdom”

Lieberman, Saularticle-in-a-bookHellenism in Jewish Palestine: Studies in the Literary Transmission Beliefs and Manners of Palestine in the I Century B.C.E. – IV Century CE100-114“The Alleged Ban on Greek Wisdom” New YorkThe Jewish Theological Seminary of America1962
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