כ״א באלול ה׳תש״ע (August 31, 2010)

Avodah Zarah 17a-b – The dangers of learning from Yeshu ha-Notzri

Following the description of Roman law courts that appears in the Mishnah on yesterday’s daf(=page), the Gemara on today’s daf tells of a number of Sages that were tried by the Roman government for a variety of alleged crimes. Somewhat surprisingly, Rabbi Eliezer was imprisoned and taken to the gardom – the scaffold – for sentencing, because he was suspected of minut – of belonging to an unrecognized cult. During the time of the Mishnah, the Romans accepted, recognized and tolerated certain religions, but unrecognized cults – including Christianity – were viewed as superstitions, and participation in them was a crime. We do not know why Rabbi Eliezer was suspected as belonging to such a cult, although it is possible that his ascetic lifestyle and the fact that he was somewhat removed from the other Sages, led to the charge against him.

 

The Gemara describes that Rabbi Eliezer avoided punishment when the Roman judge misunderstood his statement ne’eman alai ha-dayyan – “I rely on the Judge” – which he said regarding God, but the Roman understood as referring to himself. Nevertheless, Rabbi Eliezer was upset that he had been accused of this behavior. His student, Rabbi Akiva suggested that perhaps he had heard a teaching of the minim and got pleasure from the teaching. Rabbi Eliezer then recalled an incident in the marketplace in Zippori where he met one of the students of Yeshu ha-Notzri who asked him whether an etnan zonah – payment made to a prostitute – could be used to build a bathroom in the Temple for the kohen , given that the Torahforbids bringing such money to the Temple (see Devarim 23:19). Although Rabbi Eliezer did not respond to Yeshu’s student, he did admit to having enjoyed the teaching that the student related in Yeshu’s name, which argues based on a wordplay in the passage in Michah (1:7) that such money would appropriately be spent in an unclean place.

In standard printings of the Talmud, this story appears without the name Yeshu ha-Notzri, which was removed by censors for reasons of sensitivity to the Christian society in which they lived.