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February 18, 2011 / 7 Adar 8, 5771
Unravelling the Mishnah of Tractate Avodah Zarah

Chapter 3, Mishnah 4

Proclus the son of a philosopher asked Rabban Gamliel in Acco (a seaport in Phoenicia) while he was bathing in a bathhouse in which there was a statue of Aphrodite. “It is written in your Law (Torah Dt. 13:18), Let nothing that has been doomed stick to your hand, in order that the Lord may turn from his blazing anger and show you compassion.” Why are you bathing in a bathhouse where there is a statue of Aphrodite? Rabban Gamliel responded, I can't answer (questions of Torah while nude) in the bath”

Once he had exited the bath, Rabban Gamliel answered, “I wasn't within her limits and she was in mine!" (People) do not say, “Let us build a bath as an adornment for (the statue) of Aphrodite” they say, “Let us make a statue of Aphrodite as an adornment for the bath.”

“And further, If I gave you a lot of money would you enter before the (symbol of) your god naked or when you were having or just had a discharge? Would you urinate in front of her? Look this Goddess stands at the mouth of the gutter and people urinate in front of her! Our text says “what is treated as a god is forbidden but what is not treated as a god is permitted.”

AZ P3 M4

Rabban Gamliel lived in the aftermath of the Roman's destruction of the second Temple's post 70 C.E. Yet the Mishnah uses the term “Aphrodite”. Aphrodite was the Greek goddess of love. Her Roman counterpart was Venus. The Mishnah and the Gemarra used both Greek and Roman terms almost interchangeably. This could be because Greek names continued to be used in the Roman world or that the rabbis used them in this fashion because it didn't matter to them. Greek was the lingua franca among cultured pagans, including Romans, in the Eastern part of the Empire. All the synagogue mosaics that have been discovered are either in Hebrew or Greek, the Theodosius inscription in Jerusalem, which dates to the period immediately before the destruction of the Temple, is in Greek and even the stone marker which warned non Jews to proceed no further into the Temple precincts, on pain of death, was in Greek.

Sefer HaRazim (a book of practical magic from the Amoraic period and written in Eretz Yisrael) has incantations to Helios, the Greek Sun god (who for monotheistic purposes is portrayed as an angel), and not to Sol Invictus, the Roman equivalent. In fact, the correspondence between Libanius and one of the very later Patriarchs (Nesiim) was also conducted in Greek. It may very well be that Proclus used the Greek term Aphrodite when speaking to Rabban Gamliel. Latin, was spoken by the Roman administrators and the Roman troops, only amongst themselves.

The text makes a number of points. First Jews, unlike Greeks or Romans, do not discuss religion unless they are suitably attired. Greek and Roman philosophers, however, philosophize in their bathhouses. This is not our way. Second, apparently Jews and non-Jews, used the same bathhouses. How interesting!

Third, Gamliel understood the statue as an adornment not as an object of worship. I am reminded of a recent discussion I had with a European colleague who, while visiting New York in the last week of December went to Rockefeller Center to see the ice skaters and suddenly came upon “the tree”. He didn't know what to do. On one hand he admired its beauty. On the other hand he felt awkward in the presence of what he understood to be another people's religious object. Gamliel believes that religious objects that are venerated are one thing and objects of art were another.

Would seeing a rabbi in a bathhouse be similar to seeing a hasid in a non-kosher restaurant?

The complete Hebrew text for Avodah Zarah may be found online at http://www.bmv.org.il/shiurim/az/az-h.html

This week's Mishnah lesson was written by
Rabbi Charles Simon,
Executive Director of the FJMC and author of
"Building A Successful Volunteer Culture: Finding Meaning in Service in the Jewish" Jewish Lights Publishing

The opinions expressed in this Unraveller are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the FJMC.

FJMC Yom HaShoah Yellow Candles
For those who do not know the original concept, the Yellow Candle is just another Holocaust observance among the many that exist.  But the FJMC Yellow Candles™ Yellow Candlesare different.  They relate directly to Jewish religious life and to memory.  We are commanded to remember.  This program cannot be dismissed as an afterthought.  Every home should be given the opportunity to “Light a Candle and Preserve a Memory”.  We remember, so that our children and future generations will know and understand their past, so that each will declare “Hineni, here am I, a survivor”.
FJMC Yom HaShoah Yellow Candles

No Limits: In Motion

Amazing Israel & Canada Israel Experience is happy to announce the return of our No Limits: In Motion trip for the Summer of 2011. This unique Taglit-Birthright Israel program is designed for people who use wheelchairs. Go rappelling in the North of Israel, visit a winery in the Golan heights, experience Shabbat In Jerusalem, go sailing in Tel Aviv, see the magic of the desert in the South of the country – all while participating on an accessible Taglit-Birthright Israel trip!
Appropriate for: All Jewish Backgrounds
Ages: 18-26
Tour Specifically designed for participants who use a wheelchair
Departing from both New York and Toronto
For more information contact: Nicole@routestravel.com  

No Limits: Seeing Possibilities

Amazing Israel, Canada Israel Experience and the Perkins school for the Blind are excited to announce a unique Taglit-Birthright Israel trip for Summer 2011. No Limits: Seeing possibilities is a trip that has been specially designed for participants with visibility limitations. Experience all of Israel- from the lush north to the desert oasis’s in the south. Enjoy the excitement of Tel Aviv and the uniqueness of Jerusalem – all on this accessible Taglit-Birthright Israel trip!
Appropriate for: All Jewish Backgrounds
Ages: 18-26
Tour Specifically designed for participants with visibility limitations
Departing from both New York and Toronto
For more information contact: Nicole@routestravel.com

Please forward these Taglit-Birthright trips to anyone who wishes to attend. Open to residents of USA, Canada. Other countries please contact Nicole@routestravel.com for availability.

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