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9 - Coexisting with the enemy: Jews and pagans in the Mishnah

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  08 March 2010

Graham N. Stanton
Affiliation:
King's College London
Guy G. Stroumsa
Affiliation:
Hebrew University of Jerusalem
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Summary

This essay aims to analyse some aspects of the rabbinic outlook in the second century, concerning the norms that govern relationships between Jews and pagans. The Mishnah tractate Avodah Zjarah – which is the main source for the following analysis – reflects a reality of two communities, Jewish and pagan, entangled with one another, within the setting of the Hellenistic cities of the land of Israel. The Mishnah's main concern is to create a complex set of norms which will constitute the proper response of Jews towards an environment saturated with pagan worshippers and symbols. The most extreme and telling case of such close proximity between Jews and pagans, which the Mishnah aims to address and regulate, is represented in the Mishnah's ruling concerning a Jewish house which shares a wall with a pagan temple:

If [an Israelite] has a house adjoining an idolatrous shrine and it collapsed, he is forbidden to rebuild it. How should he act? He withdraws a distance of four cubits into his own ground and there builds. [If the wall] belonged both to him and the shrine, it is judged as being half and half …

(Avodah c arah 3.6)

The normative question that arises in the Mishnah is: what happens in a case where the wall which is shared by the temple and a neighbouring Jew's house has fallen, and the Jew wants to rebuild the wall? If the Jew re-erects the wall, it will involve not only rebuilding his own house, but also rebuilding a pagan temple. He therefore has to withdraw a distance of four cubits into his own ground.

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Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 1998

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