Tosefta Avodah Zarah 2:5-7

Roman spectacles: theaters, stadia, arenas, and other settings for public entertainment
3d CE
Syria Palaestina
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Legal text
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Avodah Zarah 2:5-7

These sections from the Tosefta present laws regarding Roman theaters and stadia, especially with a focus on Jewish participation in the audience. With certain exceptions, the Tosefta prohibits Jews from attending spectacles. Four analogies are presented as reasons for refraining from such activities, each with a different degree of severity. This source associates such participation with 1) committing idolatry or 2) shedding blood; 3) sitting “in the seat of scoffers,” referring to the verse: “Happy is the man who has not followed the consul of the wicked, or taken the path of the sinner or sat in the seat of scoffers” (Psalms 1:1, based on JPS and NRSV); and, 4) wasting time that could be devoted to the study of Torah. While engaging in idolatry and causing bloodshed are two of the most egregious sins in rabbinic literature (see Jerusalem Talmud Shevuot4:2, 35a; Sanhedrin 3:3, 21b; Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 74a), occupying “the seat of scoffers” simply refers to being in the company of those who are wicked or derisive in word or deed. This accusation may be better understood when considered in relation to Mishnah Avot 3:2, which comments on two men who sit together without discussing the Torah: “Behold – this is ‘the seat of scoffers.’” While less than ideal, such behavior and the neglect of Torah study are mild offenses, far from idolatry or shedding blood. Thus, although these sections from the Tosefta prohibit attending public spectacles, the range of reasons for these restrictions is a significant indicator of varying levels of rabbinic opposition toward these Roman institutions.

Section 5 offers two opinions on attending gentile theaters: First, Rabbi Meir – who was active in the second century CE, after the Bar Kokhba revolt – prohibits this activity on grounds of idolatry, probably because sacrifices and religious offerings were common in these venues. Zeev Weiss describes altars in the theaters found in Palestine, the Decapolis, and Arabia (Public Spectacles, p. 91). However, the sages did not equate going to a theater with idolatry. According to the version in MS Vienna, joining the audience in a theater is never considered idolatry, even if the gentiles make a sacrifice: “When they are ‘spreading manure’ it is forbidden [to attend] on account of ‘the seat of scoffers’ (Psalms 1:1, NRSV).” The meaning of the word mezablin, literally “they are spreading manure,” is not entirely clear here; as noted in the translation above, this term may be a euphemism for offering sacrifices or having idolatrous entertainments or vulgar performances. Yet, in MS Erfurt (usually considered a less reliable source), the sages distinguish between shows that feature sacrifices and those that do not: “When they offer sacrifices, it is forbidden [to attend] on account of idolatry (lit. foreign cult ‘avodah zarah). But if they do not offer sacrifices, it is forbidden [to attend] on account of ‘the seat of scoffers’ (Psalms 1:1, NRSV).” In this instance, MS Erfurt resembles the version in the Jerusalem Talmud (Avodah Zarah 1:7, 40a).

Section 6 prohibits Jews from going to arenas (stadia) and the camps where they could encounter various types of clowns and sorcerers, including theatrical characters such as Bucco and Maccus (for more details, see Zeev Weiss, Public Spectacles, p. 126-127). In rabbinic literature, the word karqomin (perhaps from the Greek charakoō, which means “fence by a palisade”) usually refers to “troops of siege” or a camp of besiegers (see Jastrow, A Dictionary, p. 669), but here it may denote “camps.” Beth A. Berkowitz translates the word karqomin as “circuses,” following Moshe David Herr’s reading as karqosin (Berkowitz, Execution and Invention, p. 156, 282 note 18; Herr, “External influences,” 90, note 95). Yet, karqomin is the version that appears in both MS Vienna and MS Erfurt. Saul Lieberman, understands this word to denote a camp where clowns would entertain soldiers (Studies, p. 380). This section (6) also proscribes Jews from participating in the Secular Games (from the Latin: Ludi Saeculares) and Sigillaria (the Image Feast; namely, the closing days of the Saturnalia “that was marked by the exchange of gifts, primarily the sigilla or small clay figures that gave the festival its name” (Holleran, Shopping, p. 191). According to the Tosefta, these festivities took place in arenas (stadia) and camps. This prohibition is justified by “the seat of scoffers” and the neglect of Torah study. Thus, even though the Secular Games (and, perhaps Sigillaria) surely included sacrificial offerings in addition to theatrical performances, idolatry is not listed as a reason to refrain from watching these celebrations.

Section 7 presents situations when attending theaters, stadia or camps is permissible. Several reasons for their acceptability are described. First, the Tosefta speaks of one who goes to the theater. While the Tosefta prohibits this activity from an interest in the show or a desire to be seen in that venue, it is allowed if motivated by a desire to cry out “for the need of the province (or the city).” Zeev Weiss explains that “Municipal matters in the Roman period were handled by the boule, whose constituents were the local wealthy inhabitants. The rest of the citizens who did not take part in the decision-making process expressed their views regarding such matters during the performances and games or directed their requests with either acclamations or cries of derision to the important people in attendance… At first the masses blessed the gods and the emperor, mentioning the good name of the ruler and the other dignitaries present, and then they set forth their demands, all the while interjecting words of blessing in the rulers’ honor” (Weiss, Public Spectacles, p. 202-203).

Second, the Tosefta discusses one who sits in the arena, probably to watch gladiatorial contests or beast hunting. The Tosefta first states that such a person is shedding blood. According to this view, the audience in these games participated in the murders that occurred in the stadium. The human combatants in the arena were typically members of the lower strata of society, condemned criminals, prisoners of war or slaves. Thus, while viewed as popular entertainment in Roman venues, the Tosefta considered these competitions to be forms of murder. Yet Rabbi Nathan – who was active in the second century CE, after the Bar Kokhba revolt – permits watching such events in arenas for two reasons: 1) one who shouts may save lives; and, 2) he serves as a witness for a wife so she will be able to remarry. Rabbi Nathan seems to be discussing a situation where the combatants are Jewish. If a Jew is in the audience and shouts on behalf of a combatant, may save his life or, alternatively, if that combatant died, this spectator would be eligible to give testimony that would enable the widow to remarry. Zeev Weiss situates Rabbi Nathan’s permission in the aftermath of the Jewish revolts: “After the Great Revolt, or at the end of the Bar-Kokhba Revolt, some of the Jewish war captives were executed in the arena, either having been defeated in a gladiatorial combat or devoured by beasts. The loud cries of the spectators were meant to encourage the combatants in the arena who, more often than not, were condemned to death. The audience’s cries were at times known to have been crucial to the decision made by the emperor, provincial governor, or patron of the game in case of a tie or an unproven loss in the combat” (Zeev Weiss, Public Spectacles, p. 204).

Finally, the Tosefta concludes that one may enter the arena to save lives and a camp “for the sake of the settlement of the province,” however one may not attend events in either setting “to satisfy his own needs, to enjoy himself, to see and been seen by others, or to cooperate with non-Jews” (Zeev Weiss, Public Spectacles, p. 202).

It is not clear whether these sections constitute a unified and comprehensive understanding of rabbinic rules concerning Roman spectacles or whether the editor of the Tosefta aggregated several traditions here because of their thematic connection. In these passages, the Tosefta distinguishes between types of spectacles, provides different reasons against attending them, and articulates circumstances when joining the audience is permissible. These varying positions may be attributed to teachings being assembled from multiple sources. Thus, Section 5 objects to Jews entering the theater due to idolatry and sitting in “the seat of scoffers.” In Section 6, going to spectacles at arenas (stadia) and camps is prohibited lest one sit “in the seat of scoffers” or neglect Torah study. In Section 7, attending the arena is opposed as an equivalent to shedding blood (though exceptions are made to save lives). A more coherent version of this passage sections from the Tosefta appears in Jerusalem Talmud Avodah Zarah 1:7, 40a. Despite these varied discussions, the overall tannaitic attitude toward these Roman spectacles is unambiguously negative.
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