Tosefta Sotah 15:10

Responses to the destruction of the Temple and to the Roman persecution that followed the Bar Kokhba revolt

3d CE
Syria Palaestina
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Sotah 15:10

This section of the Tosefta discusses two teachings from Rabbi Ishmael (who was active during the second century CE). In the first passage (A), Rabbi Ishmael discusses the appropriate response to the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE: namely, avoiding wine and meat. However, he explains that rabbinic courts do not issue rulings of this nature because the community would not be able to adhere to such restrictions.

The second passage (B) discusses this sage's reaction to the Roman persecution that followed the Bar Kokhba revolt. Several rabbinic texts mention this persecution, which included a ban on the observance of several Jewish mitzvot (commandments), especially those that entailed public gatherings, such as reading from a Torah scroll, weddings, and circumcision ceremonies. This context opens the possibility for two distinct understandings of Rabbi Ishmael’s teaching: 1) One rendering is: “It was decreed that the world [should remain] desolate.” In this case, the decree upon the world was issued by God; thus, Jews should refrain from both marriage and procreation. This reading suits the other occurrences of the phrase “it was decreed upon” (nigzar ‘al) in tannaitic texts (for example: Mishnah Taanit 4:6; Tosefta Sotah 12:3); furthermore, it reflects the biblical and rabbinic notion that any catastrophe that befalls Israel is a form of divine punishment for Israel’s sins. 2) Nonetheless, most English translators read Rabbi Ishmael’s teaching as: “Let us decree upon (nigzor ‘al) the world to remain desolate.” According to this understanding, Rabbi Ishmael recommends that the rabbis issue a decree for the world to remain desolate via prohibitions against weddings and bearing children. The Erfurt manuscript of the Tosefta reads: “Let us decree upon (nigzor ‘al) Israel that they will not wed wives…” (as does the parallel in the Babylonian Talmud: “We should decree upon ourselves…” (Baba Batra 60b). In both of these sources, Rabbi Ishmael encourages the rabbis to issue a decree against marriage but not against the world as a whole. Actually the world is not mentioned directly or by implication in the parallels for our text. Both possible readings of the tosefta examined here indicate that Rabbi Ishmael proposes for Jews to refrain from marrying and bearing children, thereby causing their natural extinction. One explanation for Rabbi Ishmael’s view is based on the biblical mandate to circumcise Jewish sons (Genesis 17:9-14), which excludes an uncircumcised Jewish man from membership in Israel: “Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant” (Genesis 17:14, NRSV). In light of the Roman prohibition against circumcision ceremonies, perhaps Rabbi Ishmael was arguing that it would be better to avoid marriage altogether since it would eventually lead to the grave sin of failing to circumcise a Jewish son.

Other rabbis rejected Rabbi Ishmael’s conclusion. Assuming that the Jewish community would not follow such restrictions, they contended: “It is better for the community to err unwittingly than to knowingly commit a transgression.” In several cases, the Torah distinguishes between people who inadvertently sinned and those who intentionally transgressed. Rabbinic law follows these categories. The rabbis in the Tosefta assume that the community is unaware that it is sinning, and they deem it preferable that they remain ignorant in that regard so their offense would be considered less severe. However, if the rabbis were to issue a decree that Jews should avoid marriage, by ignoring that ruling, the community would “sin knowingly.”

Overall, this tosefta (A+B) rejects the notion that extreme expressions of mourning and asceticism are appropriate responses to the destruction of the Temple or to Roman persecutions, primarily because the community would not observe such restrictions. This tosefta, which focuses on (im)proper Jewish reactions to these two catastrophes and their aftermath, does not explicitly mention the Romans who carried them out, as if their identity were irrelevant. The Tosefta uses the phrase: “They are uprooting (lit. uproot) the Torah from among us,” meaning that through these restrictions and prosecutions, the law of Torah and its commandments have been terminated and Israel no longer practices them. However, losing the Temple is not synonymous with losing the Torah. According to Rabbi Ishmael, for the loss of the Temple, one should avoid wine and meat, but without the Torah the people of Israel are unable to survive; thus the prohibition from studying Torah and practicing its teachings could result in suicide by the Jewish people.


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