Interpreting The Exemptions

The contrast between the stricter Mishnaic approach and the material collected in the Tosefta and the two Talmuds has been noted by scholars, who categorize the later allowances as an attempt to relieve some of the strictures in the area of Jewish-pagan relations. Ephraim E. Urbach, for example, notes that relationships between Jews and their neighbours relaxed and became more lenient over the years, claiming that all kinds of goods were permitted because of economic necessity (1959, 189-205). The presence of zodiac mosaic floors (with sun-gods and other human images) in synagogues would reflect this relaxed approach to paganism. Saul Lieberman also thinks that economic necessity drove Jews to trade with pagans, even though some regulations were still maintained in order to "deter Jews from falling victims to it [idolatry] under duress or for lucrative reasons" (1950, 121). Safrai concurs with Urbach and Lieberman but introduces a more sophisticated approach, suggesting that it was only in the Ushan period (135-180 ce), following the Bar Kochba revolt (when, Safrai claims, the termyarid first appears in this literature), that the more relaxed approach to trade was announced. Safrai feels that it was only after substantial losses that the Jews accepted Roman rule, and reduced their criticism of fairs.

After Bar Kochba, Roman rule had more direct and dramatic effects on the land of Israel. For instance, the Romans introduced practices of paganism on the Temple site, and introduced or reintroduced many more fairs. Safrai notes that Rabbi Yohanan, in particular, abrogated prohibitions in the Mishnah (ca. 240 ce). There is also some textual evidence to suggest that Jews attended fairs, with the Jerusalem Talmud requiring, for instance, that purchased items must be destroyed (Avodah Zarah 1:4), and the Tosefta (1:8; see also Jerusalem Talmud 1:4) introducing a justification for the purchase of slaves: "[An Israelite] buys houses, fields, and vineyards, animals, slaves, handmaids from [pagans] because [his action is] considered as if he redeems [the property] from their hands. And he writes down [the binding documents] and deposits them in their courts." The Babylonian Talmud (Avodah Zarah 13a) is aware of this Palestinian explanation and, recording it, introduces another explanation: one is permitted to purchase these items from a regular householder because he (unlike a merchant) does not contribute tax to the fair.

R. Yohanan is said to have omitted other restrictions as well, so that it became possible to purchase items from an innkeeper (at fair time), particularly staple goods. Only certain fairs were still prohibited, like the well known one at Botna, also known as Bet-Elonim, which hosted a fair already during the Second Temple period. Herod fortified the town, which was destroyed by the Romans and rebuilt by Hadrian as a pagan settlement. Church Fathers refer to Jewish slaves being sold there cheaply. Coin discoveries reveal that the fair attracted traders from all over the empire. R. Yohanan even allows that one may purchase items in wreathed stores, providing the wreath is free of the myrtle plant (Jerusalem Talmud Avodah Zarah 1:4), and admits to uncertainty as to whether or not the commercial event at Aza should be considered a fair (Aza was revived as a fair by Hadrian). Safrai (1984, 149) also notes that non-Jewish writers such as Sozomenous and Epiphanius, who mentions having met at a fair a Jew named Jacob, speak of Jews participating in such gatherings.

The question of economics is central to the perspective of Safrai and Urbach. Did an impoverished situation in the land of Israel cause legal strictures against trade with pagans to be weakened? Daniel Sperber (1978, 160-76) offers support for this point of view, citing material from both Jewish and Roman sources to show that conditions in Palestine changed radically during that time. Land prices dropped, and much land was sold to non-Jews. Many of the laws dealing with adherence to the land seem to have been written in response to this difficult situation. Gary Porton also agrees with these views, providing a long list of items that could have been restricted, but which the Mishnah and the Tosefta in fact allowed to be traded freely. Porton claims an even wider-ranging economic rationale than the others. Few restrictions were placed on marketplace activity, and those restrictions that were in place are said to be "few and relatively innocuous" (Porton 1988, 335n. 67).

Porton is also concerned with another related topic: How was the idolater viewed in this literature? This question is relevant when we ask about the extent to which the restrictions embedded within Jewish legal literature were meant to reflect purely economic concerns, and the extent to which they expressed a desire to abstain from trading with a pagan on unapproved holidays. Was the pagan to be avoided at all times, or just during the time of his worship events? Porton thinks that the texts created times to avoid trade and times to engage in it: "Our authors differentiated between occasions when overtly religious activity within the spheres of social and economic life were evident and periods when they were not" (1988, 243). This implies that the writers did not in fact want their readers to refrain from all interactions with pagans, but only those that took place on certain significant days.

Saul Lieberman (1950) writes that the "principles of idols and idol worship" are omitted intentionally in Jewish literature, all forms of opposition toward pagan practices being curtailed because the Greco-Roman writers already recognized the flaws in their own system. Edwyn Bevan

(1940, 63f) already refers to the pervasive Cynic protests against idolatry. Although the secondary literature refers to scattered pieces of criticism against paganism (see, e.g., Wallach 1977, 389-404; Fischel 1977; Herford 1903), little of this evidence is drawn from Avodah Zarah. The general view, then, is that the tractate functions as an extended note on economic matters. The only scholar opposed to this point of view is Stern (1994:145).

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