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Aaron Cherniak

Under the Microscope:
Babylonian Rabbinic Approach to Issues of Public Image

The position of American Jewry challenges rabbinic authorities to consider issues of public image when rendering legal decisions and ponder the wider ramifications of their verdicts. Jews exiled to Babylon, and their experience there, set a precedent for Jewish life in a predominantly non-Jewish environment. The rabbinic literature of the time1, which has profoundly impacted considerations of Jewish identity since, reveals a lasting impression of the ideas and laws of the Zoroastrians of the Persian Empire on Jewish ritual, philosophy, and legal tradition (Elman, Socioeconomics of Babylonian Heresy). Still unexplored is the following question: precisely how were halakhic decisions of the sages affected by their concern for a positive image of their people in the eyes of their neighbours? Focusing on the examples of cosmopolitan Mahoza and the more insular Pumbedita, this article will explore issues such as gentile neighbours, yuhara, rumours, mar’it ayin, and public sanctification of God’s name. Mahoza and Pumbedita Mahoza was the cross-river suburb of the Mesopotamian capital in Ctesiphon in southeastern Baghdad. A “highly acculturated and cosmopolitan” city, Mahoza was home to one of the most important Jewish communities in Babylon. Its proximity and accessibility to the Tigris river trade route and Ctesiphon, the political, religious, and cultural centre of the Persian Empire, and the presence of the capital’s bishop surely had an influence, as will be illustrated, on the Jews and the presiding exilarch, who resided in
1  Much cross-pollination occurred between the Zoroastrians and the communities of Jewish exiles in Mesopotamia during a period of relatively peaceful coexistence that prevailed for the majority of the Babylonian exile until the end of the Amoraic period (Elman, Middle Persian Culture and Babylonian Sages).  




  Under  the  Microscope:   Babylonian  Rabbinic  Approach  to  Public  Image  




Mahoza (Elman, Acculturation to Elite Persian Norms). This impact drove Mahozan authorities to be be more troubled by issues of public behaviour and the way it was perceived. Pumbedita, the other main Jewish community in Babylon, sat on the Euphrates River, which, unlike the Tigris, was used solely for irrigation (Holt). This reason, combined with the 100 km that separated it from the capital, made Pumbedita more insular and, as will be shown, less reserved in their public performance of ritual and less concerned about image. Gentile Neighbours One of the major areas in which the Zoroastrian influence seeped into the Jewish psyche was mysticism. An example of this is the Zoroastrian demonological view that serves as the foundation of the discussion of how one should dispose of nail parings (Mo‘ed Kattan 18a). However, the Mahozan sages were prudent in forbidding actions that suggest any form of witchcraft, which is prohibited by the written Torah itself, even when it came to performance of rituals. The Talmud considers the cases in which danger would exempt a person from the ritual searching for leavened bread before Pesah. R. Nahman b. Yitzhak quotes an opinion that the danger is that of gentiles. He explains that the Talmud is speaking of a case in which there is a wall shared between a gentile and Jewish family. If a gentile sees his Jewish neighbour searching with a candle at night, the gentile might suspect him of witchcraft (Pesahim 8b). In cosmopolitan Mahoza, the sages were frightened by the possibility of this kind of situation in public because they had more reason to be concerned about the way the gentiles perceived them.


  Under  the  Microscope:   Babylonian  Rabbinic  Approach  to  Public  Image  



3   In Pumbedita, on the other hand, the more insular city, one could not imagine

being neighbours with a gentile. In ‘Eruvin 63b-64, a community asked both ’Abaye and Rava how to set up an ‘eruv2 despite the presence of a gentile that was preventing the fitting type of ‘eruv. Rava advised them to approach the gentile with a certain agreement whereas ’Abaye’s answer, based on a loophole, is built on the premise that living beside a non-Jew is unusual. In fact, it seems that ’Abaye never entertained the possibility of the community engaging the non-Jew in dialogue. This idea is highlighted by Rashi’s interpretation of Rava’s suggestion. Let him cultivate good relations with the non-Jew until he becomes his friend, and the non-Jew will lend him a place in his courtyard to rest himself for a time, for since now the Jew resides in the courtyard of the non-Jew, this Jew becomes like the hired hand or retainer of the non-Jew3. This is clear evidence that it was necessary for Mahozan sages to take into account the presence of their non-Jewish neighbours when deciding halakha. Interactions with nonJews were typical and therefore needed to be addressed. In contrast, Pumbeditan sages were not accustomed with such circumstances and could not even entertain the solution offered by the Mahozans – they seldom encountered these issues. Since the Mahozan community was more steeped in the gentile environment, and their success under foreign rule was dependent on their image as a people who would benefit their empire, the sages aimed to portray the Jews’ behaviour as tolerable as possible. Indeed, the dictum of Rava, that “wherever the sages have forbidden anything because of appearances, it is forbidden even in the innermost chambers”, occurs 37 times in the Babylonian Talmud. However, the isolated Pumbeditans only seldom interacted with gentiles and this is reflected in rabbinic literature.                                                                                                                
2 3

An ‘eruv is an enclosure around a home or community that enables a Jew to carry objects of doors for Translation from Elman, Socioeconomics of Babylonian Heresy.


  Under  the  Microscope:   Babylonian  Rabbinic  Approach  to  Public  Image  



4   A discussion recorded in Tractate Shabbat (10b) contains another argument about

public behaviour in which the Mahozan is more sensitive than the Pumbeditan. Following the principle that “if one gives a gift to his neighbour, he must inform him [beforehand]”, ’Amora’im debate the ruling of what one must do to inform the parents of a child to whom he gives a gift. Said ’Abaye, he must smear him with oil and paint him with kohla4. But now that we fear witchcraft5 what [shall be done]? Said R. Papa: he must smear him with the self-same kind6. In this case, even when the interaction in question is between Jews, R. Papa, the Mahozan, rules stringently and ’Abaye, the Pumbeditan, decides leniently in relation to the possibly suspicious behaviour. Besides the aforementioned biblical prohibition of witchcraft, perhaps the Mahozans were more concerned than the Pumbeditans because they did not want their gentile neighbours perceiving them as dangerous and give them a reason to suspect and arrest them. Such peculiar behaviour could provoke violence that would disrupt the peaceful, yet delicate, relations between Jews and gentiles in Babylonia. In addition, one can suggest that they were stringent even in matters restricted to the Jewish community because they wanted to project an image of calm and unity to their non-Jewish neighbours – a populace that included, Persian soldiers who boarded in Jewish homes (Shabbat 47b, Pesahim 5b, Ta‘anit 20b-21a) and minim, Jewish-Christians who would use any opportunity to dispute Jewish claims (Neusner 1965–70, vol. 3, 12–

A powder used for painting the eyelids. Seeing this, his mother will ask the child about the materials on his skin, and the child will tell her about the gift as well. 5 The mother may think that the child was put under a spell. 6 Assuming a gift of food, the giver must smear him with the food he gives the child.


  Under  the  Microscope:   Babylonian  Rabbinic  Approach  to  Public  Image  




14, 20–29)7. The Pumbeditan society was never as permeable as Mahoza and this caution used the Machozans was unnecessary in Pumbedita. Intercity Rulings: Yuhara and Rumours An act of yuhara, defined as a public, arrogant display of an unnecessary stringency in the halakha, is another divisive issue that Mahozans wished to prevent. One example is the following passage from Tractate Bava Kamma (59b)8: El‘azar Ze’era once put on a pair of black shoes and stood in the market place of Nehardea. When the attendants of the house of the Exilarch met him there, they said to him: ‘What ground have you for wearing black shoes?’ He said to them: ‘I am mourning for Jerusalem.’ They said to him: ‘Are you such a distinguished person as to mourn over Jerusalem9?’ Considering this to be a piece of arrogance on his part they brought him and put him in prison. This excerpt shows that the exilarch, who was stationed in Mahoza, reacted strongly to El‘azar’s overt display of arrogance; so much so that he felt it necessary to travel the distance to Nehardea to respond. Evidently, Mahozan sages were so driven by their sensitivity for public behaviour that they felt it necessary to apply their carefully strict rulings on public image even beyond their city limits – even though Nehardea was a selfsustaining city and the home of great Talmudic sages. Pumbeditan sages also eagerly volunteered their relatively lenient judgments on public image to other communities. Tractate Gittin (89a) contains a debate that revolves around speculation specific to women and their faithfulness with broader implications. The section deals with the proper treatment of a rumour that, after investigation, was not proven true or false. That is to say, the choice is whether or not to silence such a rumour.                                                                                                                
Note that many of the statements listed that caution against heretics are made by Mahozans. Other examples of Mahozans concerned for arrogance are R. Nahman’s statement regarding one who washes his hands before a meal without bread Hullin 106a and R. Papa’s inference from R. Shimon b. Gamliel’s statement in Pesahim 55a about work on the eve of the ninth of Av. 9 Mourning for Jerusalem is not the issue; the fact that it was public and blatant was problematic.
8 7


  Under  the  Microscope:   Babylonian  Rabbinic  Approach  to  Public  Image  




The dispute ends with R. Yosef, a Pumbeditan, reporting approvingly of the custom in Nehardea to do nothing to silence the rumour. It is possible that R. Yosef, acclimated to giving verdicts tailored to the distinct Jewish community of Pumbedita, was not so troubled by rumours because all rumours would stay in the community anyway; there was no risk of such news falling upon gentile ears and tarnishing the image of the Jews. Such a possibility in Mahoza, more of an open society, was more of a cause for concern. Another example, an excerpt from the same page (Gittin 89a), is the rule of Rava, a Pumbeditan ’Amora, that a report that a woman who prostituted herself in the market to a heretic or slave is not taken seriously10 because the report may merely be based on immodest behaviour which did not end in intercourse. Perhaps, as a result of the insular nature of the community, Pumbeditans were able to afford being more lax in relation to rumours than other cities and their sages. In Pumbedita, such a case could possibly be investigated without fear of tarnishing the image of the resident Jews. In the volcanic Mahoza however, the prospective drama resulting from giving validity to such a rumour outweighs the potential gain in store if the sages were to insist on verifying it. Also, in the same passage as the above section (Gittin 89a), the Mahozan Rava attempts to ensure that a certain common standard is met when reacting to rumours. He proposes cases in which he argues even the Pumbaditans, who, as established, are generally lenient about silencing rumours would concede and censor them. Briefly returning to the topic of yuhara, it seems that Mahozans would take a stand on public displays even if they seemingly constituted no attempt to aggrandize one’s self or embarrass some one else through it. For instance, when some would spend                                                                                                                
The woman is still allowed to marry a priest; had there been concrete knowledge that the woman had fornicated with either of the two, she would be invalidated for marrying a priest because a priest must marry a virgin.


  Under  the  Microscope:   Babylonian  Rabbinic  Approach  to  Public  Image  




large sums of money on lavish funeral processions, R. Papa encourages the, then growing, custom of being buried in an inexpensive shroud so as not to embarrass anyone even incidentally (Mo‘ed Kattan 27b). It is conceivable that R. Papa was fearful of an elaborate ceremony creating tension in the Jewish community and drawing negative attention from the greater gentile population. Mar’it ‘Ayin Mar’it ‘ayin, a principle that applies to many areas of halakha, is a cause of many rumours like the one mentioned above. It is defined as the prohibition of doing something, that may be permissible according to the letter of the law, that may raise suspicion that one violated halakha, or that an observer may misinterpret and violate halakha. It seems to be another matter of public behaviour that the same disagreement occurs. The Talmud (Mo‘ed Kattan 12a) says the following: Shmu’el says that non-Jewish contractors (hired before Shabbat) may do work for a Jew on Shabbat and Yom Tov11. R. Papa counters that this is only true if the work they are doing is out of the Shabbat boundary12 of a city, so that no one will see what they are doing and suspect that they were hired on Shabbat. This is a context in which a Mahozan prohibits something, that is technically permissible, because it might lead others astray13. One could suggest that, in the general tendency of Mahozan laws to be designed to preserve the gentile perception of the Jews, Mahozan sensitivity to public behaviour surfaced in other areas of halakha as well. Alternatively, it is possible that, because Mahoza was a particularly cosmopolitan city in which it would not be surprising if the gentiles had an elementary knowledge of Jewish ritual, the                                                                                                                
Statement of Shmu’el given for context only. Tehum; 2000 cubits outside the town limits. 13 Other examples of mar’it ‘ayin prohibitions decreed by Mahozans include: the prohibition of fish blood – even though it is permissible, it was forbidden because it looks identical to blood of cattle (Keritot 21b);
12 11


  Under  the  Microscope:   Babylonian  Rabbinic  Approach  to  Public  Image  




gentiles might lose respect for the Jews for not practicing properly and see an opportunity to encourage their assimilation. However, the most realistic answer is that behaviour not known to most to be permissible may have posed a welcome opportunity to groups who challenged rabbinic authority. … Among them [were] “most people”14, “the household of Dr. Benjamin”15, and Ya‘akov the Heretic16, with whom he debates a point of rabbinic legal exegesis17. (Elman, Middle Persian Culture and Babylonian Sages) These outspoken groups and individuals were not shy about disregarding and disparaging rabbinic authority as well as encouraging others to do the same. Mahozan rabbis were forced to maintain exceptional levels of vigilance to protect themselves and their people from their scoffing. Sages of Pumbedita, on the other hand, did not have to face this type of challenge. Consequently, on some occasions that the Mishnah warns against issues of mar’it ‘ayin or other behaviours that should not be done in public, the Pumbeditan sages dismiss the concern given. In Tractate Shabbat (146b), the Mishnah instructs: If one’s garments fall into water on the road, he may walk in them without concern18. When he reaches the outermost courtyard he may spread them out in the sun but not in the sight of other people. This Mishnah teaches that, even though it is permissible to put out wet clothing to dry on Shabbat one may not do so in front of other people because they might suspect that the person did laundry on Shabbat – a Torah prohibition. In a related discussion in the Gemara, certain circumstances are given in which it would be prohibited or permissible                                                                                                                
Makkot 22b. Sanhedrin 99b-100a. 16 Hullin 84a. 17 These people lived specifically in Mahoza. 18 The Mishnah is teaching that there is no need to be concerned that the person will wring out his wet clothing and thus violate the Torah prohibition of sehita, squeezing, on Shabbat.
15 14


  Under  the  Microscope:   Babylonian  Rabbinic  Approach  to  Public  Image  




to shake dust off a prayer shawl on Shabbat. The following inference can be made by comparing the Mishnah with the Gemara: just like the Mishnah takes into account the potential reactions of observers, the Gemara could be doing the same. Since the Gemara lists differing opinions about the halakhic status of a particular activity, perhaps one should be cautious and perform the activity in a subtle way so as not to offend those who believe it to be prohibited. An extreme example would be a guest of a member of the NRA at a convention politely staying silent regarding their views about gun registry as opposed to jumping on the buffet table and voicing their unpopular opinion. However, the Gemara (Shabbat 147a) reports the following story: ‘Ulla visited Pumbedita. Seeing the scholars shaking their garments, he said, “the scholars are desecrating the Sabbath.” Said R. Yehuda19 to them, “shake them [even] in his presence, [for] we are not particular at all20.” ’Abaye was standing before R. Joseph. Said [R. Yosef] to [’Abaye], ‘give me my hat.’ Seeing some dew upon it [’Abaye] hesitated to give it to him. “Shake it and throw it off,” [R. Yosef] directed, “[for] we are not particular at all”. In addition to conveying the stance of Pumbeditan sages on this issue of hilkhot Shabbat and the blatant disregard of Pumbeditans for the concern of the Tannaim in the Mishnah that this activity would be an issue of mar’it ayin, this demonstrates the Pumbeditan readiness to make a public statement. If Mahozan gentiles were to see their neighbours openly disregarding their leaders, it might have strained their relationship as well. In Pumbedita however, the gesture recounted in the Gemara would only have been seen by Jews and, therefore, the citizens were more ready to stage such a protest. Public Sanctification and Desecration of God’s Name                                                                                                                
While R. Yehuda did not spend a major part of his life in Pumbedita, he was the head of the academy there and, supposedly, was a leading halakhic figure. 20 That is to say, they were not particular at all about this rule because they thought it was permitted. They continued to shake out their garments in front of Ulla to demonstrate their conviction that it was permissible.


  Under  the  Microscope:   Babylonian  Rabbinic  Approach  to  Public  Image  



10   The topic of kiddush Hashem and hillul Hashem, sanctification of God’s name

and desecration of God’s name is a sensitive one but one that can encapsulate the essential values in Judaism. Following increasing trends in Jewish persecution, Tractate Sanhedrin (74a) records the decision that when forced to choose between violating halakha and death, except for the three major prohibitions21, one must violate the law in order to live. Defining a previous statement that even a “light mitzvah” must be violated if one is in public, Rava said in the name of Rav that one must give up one’s life even if only asked to change his shoelace from the customary Jewish shoelace. The simple interpretation of “light mitzvah” is perhaps one that is considered light by the people or a rabbinic obligation; surely a barely noticeable custom should be violated in order to save a life. However, the two Mahozans quoted were so concerned about the backlash of a Jew submitting to a gentile and violating the law in public that they ruled that one should sacrifice oneself rather than change one’s shoelace, seemingly representative of even the least important law. Perhaps they were troubled by the potential increase in gentile threats caused by this capitulation. It is also possible that the Jews who witness such a scene will be inspired by conviction and demoralized by weakness. Mahozan sages, as they consistently do, understood the impact of public displays and ruled accordingly. Conclusion What emerges from careful examination of statements of sages from Mahoza and Pumbedita is sensitivity of the rabbinic leaders to their circumstances; Mahozan ’Amora’im, due to caution about their cosmopolitan surroundings, often were stringent in matters that affected public relations while Pumbeditan ’Amora’im, set in their insular community, did not need to enact as many decrees to maintain a positive image, both in                                                                                                                

Idolatry, incest, and murder.


  Under  the  Microscope:   Babylonian  Rabbinic  Approach  to  Public  Image  




and out, of their city. Further work should be focused on determining to what extent this distinction affected the course of Babylonian Jewish history and how much of this dual tradition was transmitted to later generations; surely, such investigation would provide much insight as to the chronicles of the Jewish people, its current standing, and its destiny.


  Under  the  Microscope:   Babylonian  Rabbinic  Approach  to  Public  Image  




Bibliography Elman, Yaakov. "Acculturation to Elite Persian Norms and Modes of Thought in the Babylonian Jewish Community of Late Antiquity." Neti'ot Ledavid. Jerusalem: Orhot, 2004. 31-56. -- "The Socioeconomics of Babylonian Heresy." Studies in Mediaeval Halakhah. New York: Jewish Law Association, 2007. 80-127. -- "Middle Persian Culture and Babylonian Sages: Accommodation and Resistance in the Shaping of Rabbinic Legal Tradition."The Cambridge Companion to the Talmud and Rabbinic Literature. Eds. Charlotte Elisheva Fonrobert and Martin S. Jaffee. Cambridge University Press, 2007. Cambridge Collections Online. Cambridge University Press. Holt, Zach, Marggie Clark, Pam Duckworth, and Grant Howes. "Euphrates River History."Bryant University. May 2000. Web. 3 Feb. 2011. <http://web.bryant.edu/~langlois/ecology/history.htm>. Neusner, Jacob. A History of the Jews in Babylonia. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1969.


  Under  the  Microscope:   Babylonian  Rabbinic  Approach  to  Public  Image  




The position of American Jewry challenges rabbinic authorities to consider issues of public image when rendering legal decisions. They must ponder wider ramifications of their verdicts. Jews exiled to Babylon, and their experience there, set a precedent for Jewish life in a predominantly non-Jewish environment. The rabbinic literature of the time, which has profoundly impacted considerations of Jewish identity since, reveals a lasting impression of the ideas and laws of the Zoroastrians of the Persian Empire on Jewish ritual and philosophy. During a period of relatively peaceful coexistence that prevailed for the majority of the Babylonian exile until the end of the Amoraic period, there was a surprising amount of cross-pollination between the Zoroastrians and the communities of Jewish exiles in Mesopotamia (Elman, Middle Persian Culture and Babylonian Sages). This influence manifests itself in the Babylonian Talmud; these sources indicate the impression that cultural interaction left on Jewish ritual and even on the development of rabbinic legal tradition (Elman, Socioeconomics of Babylonian Heresy). Precisely how were halakhic decisions of the sages affected by their concern for a positive image of their people in the eyes of their neighbours? Focusing on the examples of cosmopolitan Mahoza and the more insular Pumbedita, this article will explore issues such as gentile neighbours, yuhara, rumours, mar’it ayin, and public sanctification of God’s name.


  Under  the  Microscope:   Babylonian  Rabbinic  Approach  to  Public  Image  


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