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Talmudic Memory and History

June 7, 2011

Not long ago in Daf Yomi we passed a dramatic story from ancient Jerusalem. The Gemara is debating whether it’s permissible to bring offerings from places beyond Jerusalem’s near vicinity. The inclination is to prefer offerings from nearby, unless there are objective reasons, such as war, which make this impossible. In this context the Gemara (probably at this point from the 4th or 5th century) brings a braita, i.e a mishnaic source from the 2nd or 3rd, about an event which happened “long ago”, when the Hasmonean kings were laying siege to one another:

The Hasmonean kings were laying siege to one another, with Horkanos on the outside [of Jerusalem] and Aristobulus on the inside.  Each day the defenders would lower a basket with coins, and the besiegers would send up offerings [to be sacrificed at the Temple, meaning that both sides were interested in the regular sacrifices continuing in spite of the war]. Inside the city was an old man who knew Greek, and he told the besiegers that as long as the sacrificing went on they would be unable to capture the city. On the next day the defenders lowered the basket with the coins, but the besiegers sent up a pig. Half way up the wall, the pig dug his heels into the stones of the city wall. When this happened, the entire country (400 parsecs in each direction) trembled. At that hour the rabbis decreed “accursed is he who raises pigs, and accursed is he who teaches his son Greek”. And that year [after the besiegers destroyed the crops around Jerusalem] it was permissible to bring offerings from farther away.

Menachot tractate 64b

And note that the Gemara doesn’t tell us who won, if the siege succeeded, or other mundane and uninteresting things like that. There is a later discussion about how serious the proscription of teaching Greek was, at the time and later, and a bit further on (page 65a) the Gemara tells that the judges of the Sanhedrin knew 70 languages so as to be able to listen to any testimony directly and not through a translator; so clearly the purpose of the entire discussion isn’t to teach history; rather, the historical events slip into a halakhic discussion, because they’re useful.

Did any of this really happen, in terms of modern historical research? The best current book for following the minutiae of Jerusalem’s history is Simon Sebag Montefiore’s Jerusalem: The Biography (which is sadly not yet out in its American version, so if you’re of the American persuasion you’ll have to wait till October); Montefiore gives no indication he’s ever heard the story. He does however tell about the war between Horkanos and Aristobulus, which he tells was the event which drew the Romans to Jerusalem: Aristobulus convinced Pompey to intervene, in the year 66BCE (page 71).

I hope for Montefiore’s sake his book is a major bestseller, but no matter how well it sells, I’ve no doubt the number of people learning Daf Yomi is greater, not to mention all the people who have passed this story in their studies these past 2,000 years; which raises interesting questions about what history is, who knows it, and so on.

(If you don’t know what this Daf Yomi thing is, there’s some background on it over here)

4 Comments leave one →
  1. June 7, 2011 6:05 pm


    See Rabbi Dov Linzer’s discussion of this story

  2. June 7, 2011 11:31 pm

    Gosh, me?, I didn’t do THIS!, I hope it for my own sake (and for the sake of Jeru of course), and by the way, Pompey belonged to the kind of the stinking ones, I had to smell him – but I was’nt there, it was my errant cousin, believe me.

  3. Joe in Australia permalink
    June 10, 2011 8:01 am

    I was going to interject that Horkanus’s English name is “Hyrcanus II”, but it’s implicit from Menachem Mendel’s link.

    Yaakov, I dearly love your writing, but you have the Israeli habit of thinking that English transliterations are flexible; they’re not, at least when dealing with the names of most historic figures. My Ivrit teacher used to tell us about the Ashkenazi who was advertising “Milk – kosher for Passover”. He spelt it “כלב – קשר לפתח”. I wonder if there’s a similar cautionary tale that English teachers use in Israel?

    • June 10, 2011 5:16 pm

      Joe –

      Guilty as charged. I was going to say that when I write for real publications I’m usually pretty careful about this sort of thing, but it occurs to me that’s upside-down logic: those places have editors who will catch my sloppiness for me, while blogging is without the editor. Blogging is, by definition, a sloppy sort of writing – but you’re right that I should be more careful.

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