Tosefta Avodah Zarah 1:5-8

Are Jews permitted to attend fairs?
3d CE
Syria Palaestina
Literary genre: 
Legal text
Title of work: 
Avodah Zarah 1:5-8

These passages from the Tosefta consider Jewish participation in fairs (occasional or seasonal markets). The primary theme here is whether fairs represent a locus for idolatry. The Greco-Roman fair was “a very large periodic market situated inside a big city or in a large rural center, and it was dependent on a sizable surrounding population. … Fairs were generally held once a year, also some took place more often” (Rosenfeld and Menirav, Markets, p. 50-51, see p. 53-54 for various types of fairs). Jack Pastor explains that “Whereas the local fairs seem to have served the population of the adjacent areas, the regional and international fairs were dedicated to large‐scale trade. Their importance can be judged by the fact that the emperor would grant tax exemptions to merchants who participated in them. These fairs would last from two weeks, in the case of regional fairs, up to eight weeks for the great international fairs” (Pastor “Trade, Commerce, and Consumption,” p. 303; see also Rosenfeld and Menirav, Markets, p. 53-54). According to Luuk de Ligt, the host city typically granted exemptions from sales tax during a fair, to facilitate the provision of meals and accommodation for visitors and to enhance the popularity of the fair and, by extension, the prestige of that municipality (Fairs and Markets, p. 230-234). Fairs also were known for entertainment, medical treatment, and prostitution (de Ligt, Fairs and Markets, 37). Often fairs were associated with religious gatherings and festivals, “that naturally tended to be accompanied by what can be classified as ‘accessory festal markets,’ markets intended to provision those attending important religious festivals” (Claire Holleran, Shopping, p. 190, citing: de Ligt, Fairs and Markets, p. 14). Thus, it is unsurprising that the Tosefta (and, possibly, the Mishnah) explores this topic immediately after discussions of non-Jewish festivals (Tosefta Avodah Zarah 1:4) (Safrai, “Fairs in the Land of Israel,” p. 140-142).

Tosefta 5 presents opinions from Rabbi Meir and the sages. They all agree that Jews are prohibited from entering a city while a fair is being held there. However Rabbi Meir – a fourth-generation tanna who was active in the mid-second century – asserts that Jews should avoid nearby towns and, even, the roads leading to that city, lest it seem that they are attending the fair. Ben-Zion Rosenfeld and Joseph Menirav suggest that this sage, who was active after the Bar Kokhba revolt, takes this strict stance because thousands of Jews were sold into slavery at such fairs in that era (Markets, p. 60-61). However, Rabbi Meir’s tendency toward stringent restrictions on business transactions that relate to idolatry are not limited to this setting: similar rulings are ascribed to him in Mishnah Avodah Zarah 3:1 and Tosefta Avodah Zarah 2:5-7, independent of fairs. For the rabbis, as the site for this gathering, only the city is prohibited.

Tosefta 6 specifies additional categorizations: When a fair is held within a city, Jews may visit its surroundings and, conversely, when a fair is outside a city, that area is prohibited but the city itself is permitted. However, shops that are affiliated with the fair are always forbidden. This tosefta concludes with a qualification that a Jew who is traveling by caravan may enter a city where a fair is being held. Thus, Tosefta 6 aims to ease the restriction regarding the fair by prohibiting only the exact area where it is located (for caravans, even that is permitted) and by banning only the shops that are associated with the fair. It has been suggested that Mishnah Avodah Zarah 1:4, which concerns a city where idolatry is practiced, is parallel to Sections 5 and 6 of this Tosefta, albeit without explicit mention of a fair:

A)    עיר שיש בה עבודה זרה. חוצה לה מותר. היה חוצה לה עבודה זרה. תוכה מותר.

B)    מה הוא לילך לשם. בזמן שהדרך מיוחדת לאותו המקום אסור. אם יכול לילך בה ממקום אחר מותר.

C)    עיר שיש בה עבודה זרה והיו בה חנויות מעוטרות ושאינן מעוטרות. זה היה מעשה בבית-שאן. ואמרו חכמ'. מעוטרות אסורות ושאינן מעוטרות מותרות.

A)    A town where there is idolatry (lit. foreign worship; avodah zarah) [practiced] within it – Its external [area] is permitted. If [idolatry] is [practiced] outside – Its internal [area] is permitted.

B)    What [is the rule] for going there? When the road is specifically [reserved for] this place – It is prohibited. If one can go on it (this road) from another place – It is permitted.

C)    A town where there is idolatry (lit. foreign worship; avodah zarah) [practiced] within it and it has shops that are decorated [with wreathes] and [others that are] unadorned (lit. wreathed shops and non-wreathed shops), as (lit. this) was the case in Beit-She’an (Scythopolis) – The sages ruled (lit. said): “The decorated (lit. wreathed) [shops] are prohibited and the unadorned (lit. non-wreathed) [shops] are permitted.”

The Jerusalem Talmud 1:4 39c explains that this mishnah is discussing fairs, since such measures would not be reasonable if there were one idol in a town. Zeev Safrai similarly posits that fairs are at issue here, even though they are not explicitly mentioned; otherwise this teaching would ban Jews from entering most cities in the land of Israel (“Fairs,” p. 140-141). In contrast, Hanoch Albeck understands this mishnah as a continuation of the previous treatment of non-Jewish festivals (Mishnah Avodah Zarah 1:1-3); thus, it may address fairs on market days as well as festivals (Albeck, The Mishnah, p. 326 and 488). He reads these prohibitions against entering towns according to the dates of their celebrations.

Yehudah B. Cohn also considers this a discussion of fairs; he and Zeev Safrai assume that our passage from the Tosefta is familiar with this mishnah and expands on it. From that perspective, the Tosefta (not only the Jerusalem Talmud) understood fairs to be the focus of this mishnah (Safrai, “Fairs,” p. 141; Cohn, “The Graeco-Roman Trade Fair,” p. 188; see also Rosenfeld and Menirav, Markets, p. 60). For these scholars, the fact that the Tosefta reads fairs as the topic of this mishnah serves as a proof that this is indeed the mishnah’s focus. However, the possibility that the Tosefta contains early halakhic material which the Mishnah subsequently processed should also be considered. As Shamma Friedman writes, comparisons of parallel legal content in the Tosefta and the Mishnah have shown that the latter source often reflects more intensive editorial work (“The Primacy of Tosefta”). Thus, rather than viewing this as an example of the Tosefta elaborating on the Mishnah, this mishnah may have drawn from these sections of the Tosefta or similar material. In that case, it is less certain that this mishnah addresses fairs.

Let us now briefly compare Tosefta Avodah Zarah 1:5-6 and Mishnah Avodah Zarah 1:4: Sections A and C of the Mishnah and Tosefta 6 address similar issues; as do Section B of the Mishnah and Tosefta 5:

Mishnah Avodah Zarah 1:4 A and C

Tosefta Avodah Zarah 1:6

A. עיר שיש בה עבודה זרה. חוצה לה מותר. היה חוצה לה עבודה זרה. תוכה מותר.

C. עיר שיש בה עבודה זרה והיו בה חנויות מעוטרות ושאינן מעוטרות. זה היה מעשה בבית-שאן. ואמרו חכמ'. מעוטרות אסורות ושאינן מעוטרות מותרות.

ירוד שבתוך הכרך תוך הכרך אסור חוץ הכרך מותר ושחוץ לכרך חוץ לכרך אסור תוך הכרך מותר וחנויות המוכללת לו מכל מקום הרי אילו אסורות [...]

A. A town where there is idolatry (lit. foreign worship; avodah zarah) [practiced] within it – Its external [area] is permitted. If [idolatry] is [practiced] outside – Its internal [area] is permitted.

C. A town where there is idolatry (lit. foreign worship; avodah zarah) [practiced] within it and it has shops that are decorated [with wreathes] and [others that are] unadorned (lit. wreathed shops and non-wreathed shops), as (lit. this) was the case in Beit-She’an (Scythopolis) – The sages ruled (lit. said): “The decorated (lit. wreathed) [shops] are prohibited and the unadorned (lit. non-wreathed) [shops] are permitted.”

A fair within a city – The internal [area] of the city is prohibited; [but] the external [area] to the city is permitted. But [for a fair that is] outside the city – The [area] which is external to the city is prohibited [but] the internal [area] of the city is permitted. And the shops that are included [in the fair] are prohibited everywhere […]


Mishnah Avodah Zarah 1:4 B

Tosefta Avodah Zarah 1:5

מה הוא לילך לשם. בזמן שהדרך מיוחדת לאותו המקום אסור. אם יכול לילך בה ממקום אחר מותר.

ירוד שבתוך הכרך אין הולכין אותו לא לאותו הדרך ולא לעיירות הסמוכות לו מפני שנראה שהוא הולך לו לירוד דברי ר' מאיר וחכמים או' אין אסור אלא הכרך בלבד

What [is the rule] for going there? When the road is specifically [reserved for] this place – It is prohibited. If one can go on it (this road) from another place – It is permitted.


 “A fair within a city – One should not go there, nor on the road [that leads there], nor to nearby towns because he appears to be (lit. it appears that he is) going to the fair.” These are the words of Rabbi Meir. But the sages say: “Nothing but the city [itself] is prohibited.”


While this mishnah could refer to fairs, it may also have been formulated to include religious festivals that featured shops and selling. In its discussion of this mishnah, Jerusalem Talmud 1:4 39c associates the differentiation between the city and its surroundings with the tax exemption granted to business transactions at a fair. Following this line of reasoning, Saul Lieberman and Zeev Safrai argue that these restrictions on Jewish participation in fairs were developed in response to this tax policy, through which Jews might benefit from idolatry (Lieberman, “Ten Words,” p. 78; Safrai, “Fairs,” p. 141). As mentioned above, Luuk de Ligt writes that cities often waived sale taxes for festival commerce; this practice was most common in the eastern regions of the empire, regarding indirect forms of taxation (Fairs, 225-227). Assuming that Mishnah Avodah Zarah 1:4 focuses on fairs, Safrai learns from this text that shops which were exempted from taxes were adorned with wreaths. However, Fritz Graf suggests that this mishnah “mentions the shops festooned during a festival, perhaps … the Saturnalia” (“Roman Festivals,” p. 442; more on Saturnalia in the commentary on Mishnah Avodah Zarah 1:1-3).

While Yehudah B. Cohn agrees that this mishnah regulates Jewish attendance at fairs, he challenges the notion that a temporary exclusion from taxes prompted these rabbinic prohibitions; rather, he asserts that “all fairs associated with pagan ritual were considered equally problematic” (Cohn, “The Graeco-Roman Trade Fair, p. 190). Indeed, this tax exemption is mentioned in one passage of the Jerusalem Talmud, but it does not appear in our tosefta or mishnah.

Tosefta 7 further narrows these restrictions by permitting Jews to attend fairs that were sponsored by: the “kingdom,” namely, the Roman government or the emperor; the “province,” meaning the governor or high-ranking provincial officials; or, the “great people of the province.” Effectively, this prohibition is limited to fairs “of idolatry.” Indeed, Ben-Zion Rosenfeld and Joseph Menirav identify three agents that could administrate such events: “(a) Fairs arranged by the imperial government – the Emperor himself, or the Senate. (b) Fairs arranged by provincial authorities. (c) Fairs that were the personal initiative of a local ruler or a wealthy lord, for the purpose of furthering municipal interests or for the organizer’s personal glory” (Markets, p. 54). Given that Rosenfeld and Menirav do not cite references for these categories, perhaps they derive them from our tosefta. Zeev Safrai posits that the three types of fairs accepted by the rabbis were rare, whereas those dedicated to idolatry were commonplace. He also states that establishing a fair relied on the emperor’s permission and initiative (“Fairs in the Land of Israel, p. 140, 142). However, Rosenfeld and Menirav argue that consent from the emperor was not required; rather, approval from the Senate or the governor of the province was sufficient for some fairs (Markets, p. 54-55). Safrai also contends that this tosefta posits an artificial differentiation between fairs sponsored by the emperor and idolatrous fairs (“Fairs in the Land of Israel, p. 140, 142). Indeed, it is not clear that fairs organized by these three entities were not idolatrous. However, this passage may be part of a broader attempt to limit rabbinic prohibitions on Jewish participation in fairs (as in Tosefta Avodah Zarah 1:5-6); therefore, the sages only barred fairs that were established primarily for idolatry.

Tosefta 8 continues on this trajectory of increasingly lenient positions on Jewish participation in fairs. Here the Tosefta allows attendance at a fair to seek care for property, probably livestock; however, seeking medical assistance for persons is prohibited. This section of the Tosefta also encourages Jews to buy houses, fields, vineyards, cattle, and female and male slaves at fairs, thereby saving them from non-Jewish owners.

The identity of the slaves mentioned in this tosefta is ambiguous; as acknowledged in Jerusalem Talmud Avodah Zarah 1:4, 39c-d, which discusses this passage, there are two possibilities: First, this teaching speaks of Jews who are sold to gentiles (Catherine Hezser reads this as the original meaning of this text in “The Social Status,” p. 107). In this case, Jews are obligated to attend the fair to prevent their sale to non-Jews. Hezser states that, “The general tenor of a number of manumission laws in the Mishnah and Tosefta is to liberate Jews from enslavement by gentiles, a tendency which is understandable in the social-political situation after the destruction of the Temple and the Bar Kokhba revolt, when many thousands of Jews were captured and enslaved by Romans” (“Slaves and Slavery,” p. 173). Alternatively, this teaching may refer to non-Jewish slaves. Servitude in a Jewish household was viewed as an opportunity for non-Jewish slaves to join Judaism. Tosefta Avodah Zarah 3:11 mentions circumcision followed by ritual immersion as a requirement for non-Jewish male slaves that were purchased by Jews (more on the circumcision of slaves in the commentary on Jerusalem Talmud Yevamot 8:1, 8d [1]). Yet, the process of conversion was concluded only after a slave became a freedman (Hezser, Jewish Slavery, p. 36-39). This process resembles Roman practices whereby freedmen of Roman citizens received Roman citizenship after their manumission. Thus, the act of buying non-Jewish slaves may have been considered a form of rescue, by giving them the option to join Judaism. Irrespective of whether this tosefta concerns Jewish or non-Jewish slaves, this text seems to consider participation in a gentile fair as a good deed. Moreover, Zeev Safrai reads Tosefta 8 as “part of a Jewish effort to redeem Jewish properties from the gentiles, as part of the contest over the ownership of the land of Israel” (“Fairs,” p. 147).

We therefore see that these passages from Tosefta Avodah Zarah, Chapter One are presented from the most to least strict: starting with the stringent prohibition by Rabbi Meir, followed by the sages’ opinion that narrows this exclusion to the city hosting the fair, then additional categories that further refine the prohibition, and finally a ruling that favors attending fairs, for Jews in the land of Israel would then be able to prevent property (and perhaps fellow Jews) from being purchased by gentiles. Rather than eliminate rulings that object to Jews’ participation at fairs, the Tosefta organizes these traditions in decreasing levels of restriction, leading to permission to attend, provided that goods are purchased from non-Jews. This pattern for ordering opinions appears in other discussions of this material: for example, Mishnah Avodah Zarah 1:1-3 begins with a tradition that prohibits business transactions with non-Jews three days before their festivals (1), followed by a limited list of festivals to which this restriction pertains (3); and, similarly, in Tosefta Avodah Zarah 1:4. However, in their discussions of these festivals, both the Mishnah and the Tosefta focus on central and well-known observances (Calends and Saturnalia) or rituals that related to the imperial cult and Roman power. By comparison, the prohibition in our source seems to focus on idolatry, without association to specific celebrations or the imperial cult and Roman power. For example, Tosefta 7 states: “A fair that the kingdom sponsored (lit. gave), the province sponsored (lit. gave) or the great people of the province sponsored (lit. gave) is permitted. Only a fair of idolatry (lit. foreign worship; avodah zarah) is prohibited.” Since Jews are permitted to attend fairs that were organized by the emperor or Roman officials, the issue being addressed is not Roman authority, but idolatry per se.

Tosefta Avodah Zarah, Chapter Three also includes a ruling that bars Jews from engaging in business transactions at a gentile fair:

3:19 (4:4 in MA'AGARIM The Hebrew Language Historical Dictionary Project):

המוכר עבדו לירוד של גוים ד(י)מיו אסורין ויוליך לים המלח וכופין את רבו שיפדנו אפי' מאה בדמיו ויוציאנו לחרות נמצאת אומ' הנושא ונותן בירוד של גוים בהמה תעקר כסות וכלים מעות וכלי מתכות יוליך הנאה לים המלח פירות את שדרכו לישפך ישפך לישרף ישרף לקבר יקבר

[In a case of] the one who sells his slave at a gentile fair – Payment (from this sale) is prohibited and he should carry it to the Dead Sea (lit. Sea of Salt). And they force his master (who sold him) to redeem him (the slave), even [if it costs] one hundred times the payment [that he received], and he must manumit him (lit. bring him into freedom). Therefore you turn out to say: The one who negotiates business (lit. buys and sells) at a gentile fair: cattle will be mutilated (or hamstrung); clothing, vessels, coins, and metal vessels, he should carry the profit to the Dead Sea (lit. Sea of Salt); fruit that [is destroyed by] pouring will be poured, [fruit] that [is destroyed by] burning will be burned, [and fruit] that [is destroyed by] burial will be buried (another translation: fruits that [he may destroy by] pouring, he will pour; those that [he may destroy by] burning, he will burn; those that [he may destroy by] burial, he will bury).

This passage starts with the case of a Jewish master who sells his slave at a gentile fair. As mentioned above, in tannaitic texts, non-Jewish slaves in a Jewish household are assumed to be potential Jews (after manumission; if slaves are of Jewish origin, it is even more clear that such a sale is banned); therefore, the prohibition against selling a fellow Jew to gentiles applies to slaves held by Jews as well. Not only does the Tosefta forbid such a transaction, but it also requires the former Jewish master to reverse his actions: he must discard the payment that he received, buy this slave back at any cost, then grant his/her manumission. The Tosefta then articulates the conditions that should be applied to other business transactions from this case: none of the items that were bought at a gentile fair may be used or sold; moreover, anything procured there should be destroyed. This passage of the Tosefta does not mention the fairs that Jews may attend (detailed in the first chapter of the Tosefta). The Jerusalem Talmud Avodah Zarah 1:1 39b and 1:4 39c note the contradiction between the complete ban from participation in fairs in this tosefta and Tosefta Avodah Zarah 1:8 (analyzed above), which considers the fair a venue for rescuing property – especially slaves, perhaps Jewish and non-Jewish – from gentile ownership.

Since the Tosefta incorporates material from a significant time span, it is difficult to date these traditions on fairs. It is unclear whether these differing views – ranging from an absolute prohibition to various leniencies – reflect a change in perspectives that occurred over time, namely, opening with an absolute prohibition and, as time passed, a more moderate approach emerged (as suggested by Rosenfeld and Menirav, Markets, p. 61, 67) or a debate between sages of the same generation. However, the Tosefta undoubtedly includes traditions that absolutely ban Jews from going to “a gentile fair” as well as teachings that allow or even encourage Jewish participation in such fairs, especially for particular purposes (medical treatment for livestock, or purchasing slaves, homes or fields). The relationship between these sections of the Tosefta and Mishnah Avodah Zarah 1:4 (if it indeed addresses fairs) is also important. Several options are feasible: First, if this mishnah is later then the Tosefta, the editor of the Mishnah omits the term “fair” (which does not appear anywhere in the Mishnah) and offers a general ruling. Second, if these passages from the Tosefta are later than the Mishnah, this ordering may support the view that more lenient approaches to gentile fairs developed over time. Third, the editor of this mishnah may have had access to Tosefta Avodah Zarah 1:5-6 but not 7-8, which would suggest that these sections were later compositions.

The Greco-Roman fair was both an economic and religious institution, which may also be considered political when sponsored by the emperor, the senate, the governor or the provincial elite. These texts incorporate a range of rabbinic attitudes toward Jewish participation in these fairs; even within a single source, the Tosefta, differing views on this subject are presented.

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

“Ten Words”

Lieberman, Saularticle-in-a-journal71-89 3“Ten Words” Eshkolot 1959

“Trade, Commerce, and Consumption”

Pastor, Jackarticle-in-a-bookThe Oxford Handbook of Jewish Daily Life in Roman PalestineCatherine Hezser297-307“Trade, Commerce, and Consumption” OxfordOxford University Press2010
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