Book Review: Aphrodite and the Rabbis

When I started researching Judaism, the first thing I learned was that I didn’t know anything about Judaism. It turns out that Judaism-in-the-Bible (the one I was familiar with) and modern Judaism are pretty different.

Visotzky’s Aphrodite and The Rabbis: How the Jews Adapted Roman Culture to Create Judaism as we Know it explores the transition from Biblical to Rabbinic Judaism. If you’re looking for an introductory text on the subject, it’s a good place to start. (It doesn’t go into the differences between major modern-day Jewish groups, though. If you’re looking for that, Judaism for Dummies or something along those lines will probably do.)

I discussed several ideas gleaned from this book in my prior post on Talmudism and the Constitution. Visotzky’s thesis is basically that Roman culture (really, Greco-Roman culture) was the dominant culture in the area when the Second Temple fell, and thus was uniquely influential on the development of early Rabbinic Judaism.

Just to recap: Prior to 70 AD, Judaism was located primarily in its homeland of Judea, a Roman province. It was primarily a temple cult–people periodically brought sacrifices to the priests, the priests sacrificed them, and the people went home. There were occasional prophets, but there were no rabbis (though there were pharisees, who were similar.)  The people also practiced something we’ll call for simplicity’s sake folk Judaism, passed down culturally and not always explicitly laid out in the Mosaic Law. (This is a simplification; see the prior post for more details.)

Then there were some big rebellions, which the Romans crushed. They razed the Temple (save for the Western Wall) and eventually drove many of the Jews into exile.

It was in this Greco-Roman cultural environment, Visotzky argues, that then-unpracticeable Temple Judaism was transformed into Rabbinic Judaism.

Visotzky marshals his arguments: Jewish catacombs in Rome, Talmudic stories that reference Greek or Roman figures, Greek fables that show up in Jewish collections, Greek and Roman words that appear in Jewish texts, Greco-Roman style art in synagogues (including a mosaic of Zeus!), the model of the rabbi + his students as similar to the philosopher and his students (eg, Socrates and Plato,) Jewish education as modeled on Greek rhetorical education, and the Passover Seder as a Greek symposium.

Allow me to quote Visotzky on the latter:

The recipe for a successful symposium starts, of course, with wine. At least three cups, preferably more, and ideally you would need between three and five famous guests. Macrobius describes a symposium at which he imagined all the guests drinking together, even though some were already long dead. They eat hors d’oeuvers, which they dip into a briny sauce. Their appetite is whetted by sharp vegetables, radishes, or romaine lettuce. The Greek word for these veggies is karpos. Each food is used as a prompt to dig through one’s memory to find apposite bookish quotes about it. … Above all, guests at a symposium loved to quote Home, the divine Homer. …

To kick off a symposium, a libation was poured to Bacchus Then the dinner guests took their places reclining on pillows, leaning on their left arms, and using their right hands to eat. Of course, they washed their fingers before eating their Mediterranean flatbreads, scooping up meats and poultry–no forks back then.

Athenaeus records a debate about desert, a sweet paste of fruit, wine, and spices. Many think it a nice digestive, but Athenaeus quotes Heracleides of Tarentum, who argues that such a lovely dish ought to be the appetizer, eaten at the outside of the meal. After the sumptuous meal and the endless quotation of texts… the symposium diners sang their hymns of thanksgiving to the gods. …

All of this should seem suspiciously familiar to anyone who has ever attended a Passover Seder. The traditional Seder begins with a cup of wine, and blessings to God are intoned. Then hands are washed in preparation for eating the dipped vegetables, called karpos, the Greek word faithfully transliterated int Hebrew in the Passover Haggadah. Like the symposiasts, Jews dip in brine. The traditional Haggadah recalls who was there at the earliest Seders: Rabbi Eliezer … Rabbi Aqiba, and Rabbi Tarphon (a Hebraized version of the Greek name Tryphon). The converation is prompted by noting the foods that are served and by asking questions whose answers quote sacred scripture. …

Traditionally the Passover banquet is eaten leaning on the left side, on pillows. Appetites are whetted by bitter herbs and then sweetened by the paste-like Haroset (following the opinion of Heracleides of Tarentum?) Seder participants even scoop up food in flatbread. Following the Passover meal there are hymns to God.

Vigotzsky relates one major difference between the Greek and Jewish version: the Greeks ended their symposiums with a “descent into debauchery,” announced api komias–to the comedians! Jews did not:

Indeed, the Mishnah instructs, “We do not end the meal after eating the paschal lamb by departing api komias.” That final phrase, thanks to the Talmud of Jewish Babylonia, where they did not know Greek, has come to be Hebraized as “afi-komen,” the hidden piece of matzo eaten for desert.

The one really important piece of data that he leaves out–perhaps he hasn’t heard the news–is the finding that Ashkenazi Jews are genetically about half Italian. This Italian DNA is primarily on their maternal side–that is, Jewish men, expelled from Judea, ended up in Rome and took local wives. (Incidentally, Visotzky also claims that the tradition of tracing Jewish ancestry along the maternal line instead of the paternal was adopted from the Romans, as it isn’t found in the Bible, but is in Rome.) These Italian ladies didn’t leave behind many stories in the Talmud, but surely they had some effect on the religion.

On the other hand, what about Jews in areas later controlled by Islam, like Maimonides? Was Rome a major influence on him, too? What about the Babylonian Talmud, written more or less in what is now Iraq?

Modern Christianity owes a great deal to Greece and Rome. Should modern Judaism be understood in the Greco-Roman lens, as well?

Anthropology Friday: Sacrifice Among the Semites pt. 2

Hello! Today we’re continuing with more excerpts from Smith’s Sacrifice Among the Semites, with all attendant warnings that I don’t necessarily trust Smith’s accuracy.

“Now, if kinship means participation in common mass of flesh, blood, and bones, it is natural ha tit should be regarded as dependent, not merely on the fact that a man was born of his mother’s body, and so was from hi birth a part of her flesh, but also n the not less significant fact that he was nourished by her mil. And so we find that among the Arabs there is a tie of milk, as well as of blood, which unites the foster-child t his foster-mother and her kin. Again, after the child is weaned, his flesh and blood continue to be nourished and renewed by the food which he shares with his commensals, so that commensality can be thought of (1) as confirming or even (2) as constituting kinship in a very real sense.

“… Primarily the circle of common religion and of common social duties was identical with that of natural kinship, and the god himself was conceived as being of the same stock with his worshipers. It was natural, therefore, that the kinsmen and their kindred god should seal and strengthen their fellowship by meeting together from time to time to nourish their common life by a common meal, to which those outside the kin were not admitted.”

White House Passover Seder, 2011
White House Passover Seder, 2011

“… after several clans had begun to frequent the same sanctuary and worship the same god, the worshipers still grouped themselves for sacrificial purposes on the principle of kinship. In the days of Saul and David all the tribes of Israel had long been united in the worship of Jehovah, yet the clans still maintained their annual gentile sacrifice, at which every member of the group was bound to be present. But evidence more decisive comes to us from Arabia, where, as we have seen, men would not eat together at all unless they were united by kinship or by a covenant that had the same effect as natural kinship. Under such a rule the sacrificial feast must have been confined to kinsmen, and the clan was the largest circle that could unite in a sacrificial act. And so, though the great sanctuaries of heathen Arabia were frequented at the pilgrimage feasts by men of different tribes, who met peaceably for a season under the protection of the truce of God, we find that their participation in the worship of the same holy place did not bind alien clans together in any religious unity; they worshiped side by side, but not together.”

EvX: I wish this guy would cite his sources or otherwise back up his claims.

“It is only under Islam that the pilgrimage becomes a bond of religious fellowship, whereas in the times of heathenism it was the correct usage that the different tribes, before they broke up from the feast, should engage in a rivalry of self–exaltation and mutual abuse, which sent them home with all their old jealousies freshly inflamed.”

“…But the notion that the clan is only a larger household is not consistent with the results of modern research. Kinship is an older thing than family life, and in the mot primitive societies know n to us the family or household group was not a subdivision of a clan, but contained members of more than one kindred. As a rule the savage man may not marry a clanswoman, and the children are of the mother’s kin, and therefore have no communion of blood religion with their father. In such a society their is hardly any family life, and there can be no sacred household meal.

“… The rudest nations have religious rule about food, based on the principle of kinship, viz,, that a man may not eat the totem animal of his clan; and they generally have some rites of the nature of the sacrificial feast of kinsmen; but it is not the custom of savages to take their ordinary daily food in a social way, in regular domestic meals. Their habit is to eat irregularly and apart, and this habit is strengthened by the religious rules, which often forbid to one member of a household the food which is permitted to another.”

Frankly, I think he is wrong. Set “meals” may be a modern innovation, but I highly doubt the Bushmen would be so picky as to allow one person in a family to eat a specific animal but forbid it to their spouse; same for the Inuit. There is far too much chance of starvation and hunger in these groups to go turning down good food.

“In Egypt, down to the present day, many persons hardly ever eat with their wives and children, and among the Arabs, boys who are not of full age do not presume to eat in the presence of their parents, but take their meals separately or with the women of the house No doubt the seclusion of women has retarded the development of family life in Mohammedan countries; but for most purposes this seclusion has never taken much hold on the desert, and yet in northern Arabia no woman will eat before men. … in Arabia the daily family meal has never been an established institution with such  a religious significance as attaches to the Roman supper.”

EvX: I don’t know much about Roman suppers, to be honest. I hear the Jews are into their Friday evening meals, though.

“… even among the agricultural Semites there is no trace of a sacrificial character being attached to ordinary household meals. The domestic hearth among the Semites was not an altar as it was at Rome. Almost all varieties of human food were offered to the gods, and any kind of food suffices, according to the laws of Arabian hospitality, to establish that bond between two men which in the last resort rests on the principle that only kinsmen eat together. It may seem, therefore, that in the abstract any sort of meal publicly partaken of by a company of kinsmen may constitute a sacrifice feast. The distinction between the feast and an ordinary meal lie, it may seem, not in the material or the copiousness of the repast, but in its public character. When men eat alone they do not invite the god to share their food, but when the clan eats together as a kindred unity the kindred god must also be of the party.


EvX: I am reminded here of Elijah’s cup, filled with wine and placed on the Passover table just in case the Prophet Elijah decides to show up for dinner. According to Wikipedia:

In the Talmudic literature, Elijah would visit rabbis to help solve particularly difficult legal problems. Malachi had cited Elijah as the harbinger of the eschaton. Thus, when confronted with reconciling impossibly conflicting laws or rituals, the rabbis would set aside any decision “until Elijah comes.”[24]

One such decision was whether the Passover seder required four or five cups of wine. Each serving of wine corresponds to one of the “four expressions of redemption” in the Book of Exodus: … The next verse, “And I will bring you into the land which I swore to give to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob; I will give it to you for a possession. I am the Lord.” (Exodus 6:8) was not fulfilled until the generation following the Passover story, and the rabbis could not decide whether this verse counted as part of the Passover celebration (thus deserving of another serving of wine). Thus, a cup was left for the arrival of Elijah.

In practice the fifth cup has come to be seen as a celebration of future redemption. Today, a place is reserved at the seder table and a cup of wine is placed there for Elijah. During the seder, the door of the house is opened and Elijah is invited in. Traditionally, the cup is viewed as Elijah’s and is used for no other purpose.[25][26]

Returning to Smith:

“Practically, however, there is no sacrificial feast according to Semitic usage except where a victim is slaughtered. The rule of the Levitical law, that a cereal oblation, when offered alone, belongs wholly to the god and gives no occasion for a feast of worshipers, agrees with the older history, in which we never find a sacrificial meal of which flesh does not form a part. Among the Arabs the usage is the same; a religious banquet implies a victim.”


When anyone brings a grain offering to the Lord, their offering is to be of the finest flour. They are to pour olive oil on it, put incense on it and take it to Aaron’s sons the priests. The priest shall take a handful of the flour and oil, together with all the incense, and burn this as a memorial[a] portion on the altar, a food offering, an aroma pleasing to the Lord. The rest of the grain offering belongs to Aaron and his sons; it is a most holy part of the food offerings presented to the Lord.–Leviticus 2:1-3

“‘If the offering is a burnt offering from the herd, you are to offer a male without defect. You must present it at the entrance to the tent of meeting so that it will be acceptable to the Lord. You are to skin the burnt offering and cut it into pieces. The sons of Aaron the priest are to put fire on the altar and arrange wood on the fire. Then Aaron’s sons the priests shall arrange the pieces, including the head and the fat, on the wood that is burning on the altar. You are to wash the internal organs and the legs with water, and the priest is to burn all of it on the altar.–Leviticus 1:3-9

Am I misunderstanding Leviticus, or did Smith mix up the two forms of sacrifice?

Saint Nilus of Sinai
Saint Nilus of Sinai

Now Smith draws upon Nilus, “As to the habits of the Arabs of the Sinaitic desert towards the close of the fourth Christian century”

“The ordinary sustenance of these Saracens was derived from pillage or from hunting, to which, no doubt, must be added, as a main element, the milk of their herds. When these supplies failed they fell back on the flesh of their camels, one of which was slain for each clan … or for each group which habitually pitched their tents together… which according to known Arab usage would always be a fraction of a clan–and the flesh was hastily devoured by the kinsmen…”

According to Wikipedia:

About the year 390[2] or perhaps 404,[3] Nilus left his wife and one son and took the other, Theodulos, with him to Mount Sinai to be a monk. They lived here till about the year 410[4] when the Saracens, invading the monastery, took Theodulos prisoner. The Saracens intended to sacrifice him to their gods, but eventually sold him as a slave, so that he came into the possession of the Bishop of Elusa in Palestine. The Bishop received Theodulos among his clergy and made him door-keeper of the church. Meanwhile, Nilus, having left his monastery to find his son, at last met him at Elusa. The bishop then ordained them both priests and allowed them to return to Sinai.

Continuing with Smith: “To grasp the force of this evidence we must remember that, beyond question, the was at this time among the Saracens private property in camels, and that therefore, so far as the law of property went, there could be no reason why a man should not kill a beast for the use of his own family. And though a whole camel might be too much for a single household to eat fresh, the Arabs knew and practiced the art of preserving flesh by cutting it into strips and drying them in the sun. Under these circumstances private slaughter could not have failed to be customary, unless it was absolutely forbidden by tribal usage. In short, it appears that while milk, game, and the fruits of pillage were private food which might be eaten in any way, the camel was not allowed to be killed and eaten except in a public rite, at which all the kinsmen assisted.”

From his monastery at Sinai Nilus was a well known person throughout the Eastern Church; by his writings and correspondence he played an important part in the history of his time. He was known as a theologian, Biblical scholar and ascetic writer, so people of all kinds, from the emperor down, wrote to consult him. His numerous works, including a multitude of letters, consist of denunciations of heresy, paganism, abuses of discipline and crimes, of rules and principles of asceticism, especially maxims about the religious life. He warns and threatens people in high places, abbots and bishops, governors and princes, even the emperor himself, without fear. He kept up a correspondence with Gainas, a leader of the Goths, endeavouring to convert him from Arianism;[6] he denounced vigorously the persecution of St. John Chrysostom both to the Emperor Arcadius[7] and to his courtiers.[8]

Nilus must be counted as one of the leading ascetic writers of the 5th century.–Wikipedia

“This evidence is all the more remarkable because, among the Saracens of whom Nilus speaks, the slaughter of a camel in times of hunger does not seem to have been considered as a sacrifice to the gods. For a couple of pages later he speaks expressly of he sacrifices which these Arabs offered to the morning star, the sole deity they acknowledged. These could be performed only when the star was visible, and the whole victim–flesh, skin, and bones–had to be devoured before the sun rose upon it and the day-star disappeared. As this form of sacrifice was necessarily confined to seasons when the planet Venus was a morning star, while the necessity for slaughtering a camel as food might arise at any season, it is to be inferred that in the latter case the victim was not recognized as having a sacrificial character. … the Saracens of Nilus, like the Arabs generally in the last ages of heathenism, had ceased to do sacrifice to the tribal or clan god with whose worship the feast of kinsmen was originally connected. The planet Venus, or Lucifer, was not a tribal deity, but, as we know from a variety of sources, was worshiped by all the northern Arabs, to whatever kin they belonged. … ”

According to Wikipedia:

Ptolemy‘s Geography (2nd century CE) describes “Sarakene” as a region in the northern Sinai peninsula.[2] Ptolemy also mentions a people called the “Sarakenoi” living in north-western Arabia (near neighbor to the Sinai).[2] Eusebius of Caesarea refers to Saracens in his Ecclesiastical history, in which he narrates an account wherein Dionysius, Bishop of Alexandria, mentions Saracens in a letter while describing the persecution of Christians by the Roman emperor Decius: “Many were, in the Arabian mountain, enslaved by the barbarous ‘sarkenoi’.”[2]

But a few centuries after that, Europeans started using Saracen as a catch-all for Arabs and Muslims.

I have just started reading the Wikipedia page on Religion in pre-Islamic Arabia, but a quick search does not turn up “Venus” or “star.” I’ll be on the lookout for evidence one way or another regarding Smith’s claims.