Tuesday, August 31, 2010

A strange Roman ritual, and two interpretations of it

On BT Avoda Zara 11b, Rav Yehudah b. Ezekiel (d 299) provides a description of a Roman ritual which he attributes to his teacher Shmuel (d 250)
Said Rab Judah in the name of Samuel: They have yet another festival in Rome [which occurs] once every seventy years. Then a healthy man is brought and made to ride on a lame man; he is dressed in the attire of Adam, on his head is placed the scalp of R. Ishmael, and on his neck are hung pieces of fine gold to the weight of four zuzim, the market places [through which these pass] are paved with onyx stones, and the proclamation is made before him: 'The reckoning of the ruler is wrong. The brother of our lord, the impostor! Let him who will see it see it; he who will not see it now will never see it. Of what avail is the treason to the traitor or deceit to the deceiver!'; and they concluded thus: Woe unto the one when the other will arise [Soncino translation]
According to Rashi, the ritual is a Jacob and Esav pageant. Soncino summarizes Rashi's view:
Jacob, representing the Jews, here impersonated by the lame man (Gen. XXXII, 32 and he halted upon his thigh); and to Esau, representing Rome, impersonated by the healthy man; The reckoning which is pronounced as wrong alludes Jacob's prediction as to what would happen to his descendants at the end of days (Gen. XLIX, 1) the treason being an allusion to Jacob's deceitful gaining of the paternal blessing which was intended for Esau, and the concluding threat is a warning to Israel for whom the rising of Rome would be fraught with trouble
In short, Rashi seems to beleive that Rome created a ceremony in which various Rabbinic teachings are expressly rebuked. The problem is we don't have any reason to assume that Rome accepted Rabbinic teachings. The idea that Esav = Rome, for example, is nowhere found in scripture. Its an interpretation, propagated by the Rabbis after Rome ascended; prior to the rise of Rome, Esav was identified with Edom.  It's also hard to understand why Rome would go to the bother of establishing a ritual designed specifically to rebuke this teaching. What would such a ritual accomplish? Why go to the trouble of putting on such a show, unless you shared the perspective of the Rabbis, which Rome certainly did not?

A better answer (no offense to Rashi) is provided by Soncino:
Quite a different interpretation is offered by Rapaport ('Erek Millin s.v. [H]). According to him, Samuel here presents an account which reached him of one of the Ludi Saeculares, the spectacular carnivals and pompous pageants, of which altogether ten are known to Roman history. This one must have been arranged by the Roman Emperor Philippus, about 247 C.E., who introduced into the pageant the spectacle of a halting dancer ridden upon by a strong man. This was intended to satyrise and discredit P's rival, Decius, who pretended to be a friend and 'brother' of the Emperor, yet had accepted the crown which P. fondly hoped would be handed to his own son. The lame dancer with a larva, or kind of mask, tied at his neck (described by the Rabbi as R. Ishmael's scalp), thus impersonated Decius the treacherous 'ruler' whose plans and plottings are declared as wrong. The rider was impersonating Philippus. When he (or his son) rises woe betide his rival. The exclamation 'Let him who will see it etc.' alludes to the festivity which occurs but once in a lifetime. The fact that Samuel lived till 3 or 13 years after the date of this Game lends added feasibility to this interpretation.
This is a much better explanation of Samuel's words, but its not without problems. First, Samuel assumes that the larva was actually R. Ishmael's scalp (apparently the Rabbis thought Rome kept it as a souvenir after murdering him); second  he imagines one of the men was dressed in the "attire of Adam."  According to Rapaport's reading, Samuel was wrong on both counts. Can we say such a thing? Yes, I think, we can. Samuel's interpretation of the Roman event does not have the status of Torah She Ba'al Peh. We can't say that he received his description or interpretation of the ritual as part of an unbroken chain stretching back to Sinai, as the revelation occurred over a thousand years before the event in Rome. We can also rely on the teaching of Shmuel Hanagid (d 1050) who said that the non-halachic parts of the Torah are not binding on us, and that we're free to disregard or accept them as we see fit. (a view shared by many) Therefore it strikes me as perfectly okay to say that Samuel was wrong when he misidentified the larva as R. Ishmael's scalp; likewise, its valid to suggest that Rashi was mistaken when he interpreted the ceremony as having to do with Jacob and Esav.

What do you think?

Aside: Last night I had a whole long discussion with @unclechaim and others about this on Twitter in which I erroneously attributed Rashi's explanation to Samuel. As you can see from the cite, Samuel never claimed that the ritual had anything to do with Jacob or Esav.

Search for more information about Rome at 4torah.com.

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