Tosefta Avodah Zarah 1:4

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
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Avodah Zarah 1:4


This passage from the Tosefta speaks of non-Jewish festivals. Like Mishnah Avodah Zarah (meaning “idolatry” or, more literally, “foreign worship”), in the Tosefta, this tractate discusses issues that relate to non-Jewish festivals, including some which are associated with the Roman Empire’s ascent to power and important moments in the life of its emperors. These celebrations usually involved idolatrous practices, among them blood sacrifice or other offerings, as well as prayers, banquets, performances or games; thus, 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 this context, the first passages of Tosefta Avodah Zarah (1-3) address several topics regarding work, social interactions, and business transactions between Jews and non-Jews before and during non-Jewish festivals. While Mishnah Avodah Zarah 1:1-2 focus on selling, lending and borrowing in the Land of Israel and prohibit such transactions three days before non-Jewish festivals, the Tosefta discusses these regulations in the diaspora (Avodah Zarah 1:1). Sections 2 and 3 address business negotiations, inquiring about a gentile’s well-being (and allow such verbal exchanges “for the sake of peace,” namely good neighborly relations, see Veltri, A Mirror of Rabbinic Hermeneutics, p. 77-79, for a possible Roman contextualization of this practice), and employer-employee interactions between Jews and non-Jews during the latter party’s festivals.

Tosefta Avodah Zarah 1:4 speaks of the festivals themselves, similar to Mishnah Avodah Zarah 1:3. Section A of our tosefta refers to a situation in which certain members of the non-Jewish population celebrate – varying by town (or city), among peoples or families – and concludes that prohibitions against conducting business with and working for gentiles (mentioned in the preceding passages of the Tosefta) apply only to families, towns or nations that celebrate these festivals. Such distinctions are absent from Mishnah Avodah Zarah 1:1-3, which only mention public and individual festivals.

Section B discusses the Calends, meaning the first day of the month. However, in its discussion of the corresponding mishnah, the Jerusalem Talmud Avodah Zarah 1:3, 39c states that this term specifically refers to the first of January. As the festival that opened the Roman year, its rituals 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; for more on the Calends, see the commentary on Mishnah Avodah Zarah 1:1-3). This tosefta acknowledges that everyone celebrates the Calends, but qualifies that prohibitions toward business and work only pertain to those who worship idols during that festival. Thus, the Tosefta implies that some people celebrate without idolatrous worship, and Jews are not restricted from engaging in business with them. By contrast, Mishnah Avodah Zarah 1:3 lists the Calends as one of the festivals on which business transactions with non-Jews are suspended, without exception. As in Section A, which differentiates festival celebrants from those who do not participate, the Tosefta’s categorization of those who worship on the Calends from those who do not seems to further narrow this prohibition, thereby allowing more associations between Jews and non-Jews during this festival.

Section C lists a number of public celebrations:

A)    Saturnalia – This religious festival honored Saturn and was held on December 17-23, thus signifying the end 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). Its observance included sacrifices, feasts, exchanging gifts among friends, celebrations, and a carnival. The Saturnalia also was also characterized by breaking of social norms and role-reversal within the Roman hierarchy; for example, masters would serve their slaves at meals (Henk S. Versnel, Transition and Reversal, p. 146-150).

B)    “The day on which they seized the kingdom; Qratisis” – It is unclear whether Qratisis is defined as “the day on which they seized the kingdom” or whether two different festivals are mentioned here. The Mishnah also lists Qratisis but spells it as “Qrtisim” (both variants are from the Greek kratēsis, defined as “might,” “power” or “dominion”). The Jerusalem Talmud Avodah Zarah 1:3, 39c, describes as “The day when they seized the kingdom.” Thus this source seems to speak of one festival, known as Qratisis, which the Tosefta and the Jerusalem Talmud define in identical terms. This celebration is directly related to Roman dominion (for more on the possible origins of this festival, see the commentary on Mishnah Avodah Zarah 1:1-3).

C)    “The day of the gnisiya (from the Greek genesia) of kings” – This refers either to the day when emperors ascended to the throne or to their birthdays. According to the Jerusalem Talmud Avodah Zarah 1:3, 39c, this is the kings’ birthdays. 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 this to be the birthday of the emperor (“Roman Festivals in Syria Palaestina,” p. 439).

After mentioning these festivals, much like Mishnah Avodah Zarah 1:3, the Tosefta distinguishes between public and individual festivals. The differentiation between public holidays (feriae publicae) and private celebrations (feriae privatae or feriae singulorum) of 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 “were family anniversaries or celebrations, not recorded in official calendars. Yet for some of the larger families, these could take the form of a great public spectacle, including many other festival features…Yet the ruler-cult and imperial celebrations were clearly more official, as the ruler personified the state and carried its political authority” (“What is a Graeco-Roman Festival?” p. 20). In that context, the Tosefta distinguishes between two groups of festivals: public celebrations, which were related to emperors and the imperial cult: “The day of each and every king (lit. each king and king) – Behold, [this is] a public [celebration]”; and, private occasions, even when high-ranking officials were involved. Thus, whereas celebrations in the lives of kings (namely, emperors) were necessarily public, those of persons outside the imperial family were defined as private occasions, even when they were celebrated by prominent figures amid throngs of people: “[Regarding] individual [celebrations] – Even his wedding day and the day when he became governor (or was appointed to another powerful office).” It is noteworthy that the mishnaic parallel offers a different list of private celebrations: the first time a young man shaves his beard and cuts off locks of his hair; upon returning safely from a journey at sea; and, upon being released from prison (and, perhaps, one’s birthday and the day of death). These occasions seem modest by comparison to a wedding or being appointed governor.

This tosefta concludes with an addition attributed to Rabbi Meir, who was active in the second century: “Even the day when he recovered (lit. arose) from his illness – [It] is prohibited.” Rabbi Meir suggests that the day of recovery from an illness also constitutes a reason for celebration. It is not clear whether this statement refers to the emperor or to a private individual. According to Christine Hayes, Rabbi Meir’s comment refers to a private celebration (Between the Babylonian and Palestinian Talmuds, p. 156).

We may conclude that the Tosefta displays an awareness that some festivals were celebrated throughout the Roman Empire, while the observance of others was limited to certain families, towns, or collective groups. Consequently, in such cases, restrictions on conducting business pertained only to celebrants, or even to those whose celebrations included idolatrous worship. Such qualifications enabled Jews to engage in business transactions and work within the Roman world, with its abundant festivals. Thus, even as the Tosefta acknowledges that nearly everyone celebrated the Calends, it distinguishes those who worship and from those who do not, and permits economic activity with members of the second category. A comparison with Mishnah Avodah Zarah seems to suggest that our tosefta seeks to reduce the restrictions on associating with non-Jews before and during their festivals. Moreover, the list of public and individual celebrations in this source indicates that the Tosefta specifically opposes festivals that celebrated Roman power and the imperial cult. 

Bibliographical references: 

“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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