The Gladiator Rabbi
Babylonian Talmud, Bava Metzia 84a
One day R. Johanan was bathing in the Jordan, when Resh Lakish saw him and leapt into the Jordan after him. Said he [R. Johanan] to him, ‘Your strength should be for the Torah.’ — ‘Your beauty,’ he replied, ‘should be for women.’ ‘If you will repent,’ said he, ‘I will give you my sister [in marriage], who is more beautiful than I.’ He undertook [to repent]; then he wished to return and collect his weapons, but could not. Subsequently, [R. Johanan] taught him Bible and Mishnah, and made him into a great man. Now, one day there was a dispute in the schoolhouse [with respect to the following. Viz.,] a sword, knife, dagger, spear, hand-saw and a scythe — at what stage [of their manufacture] can they become unclean? When their manufacture is finished. And when is their manufacture finished? — R. Johanan ruled: When they are tempered in a furnace. Resh Lakish maintained: When they have been furbished in water. Said he to him: ‘A robber understands his trade.’ Said he to him, ‘And wherewith have you benefited me: there [as a robber] I was called Master (Rabbi), and here I am called Master (Rabbi).’ ‘By bringing you under the wings of the Shechinah,’ he retorted. R. Johanan therefore felt himself deeply hurt, [as a result of which] Resh Lakish fell ill.
- How does this passage show us how the rabbis viewed gladiators?
Tosefta Avodah Zarah: 2, 2
תוספתא עבודה זרה: ב, ב
One who goes to the theaters of the idolaters, if he yells because of necessity, it is permitted, but if he intends to yell, this is forbidden. One who sits in the amphitheater (of the gladiators) is like a murderer.
Rabbi Natan permits it for two reasons: Because he may shout and save lives, and because he may give testimony enabling a woman to remarry.
העולה לתרטיאות של עובדי כוכבים אם צווח מפני צורך מותר ואם מתחשב ה"ז אסור. היושב באסטרין הרי זה שופך דמים ר' נתן מתיר משום שני דברים מפני שצוח ומציל את הנפשות ומעיד על האשה שתנשא
Commentary by Rashi
Because he may shout and save lives - if you see a Jew being attacked, you should scream, have compassion for them and save him.
שצווח ומציל - אם רואה שיגיחו שם יהודי צועק ומתחנן להם ומצילו.
- What is the overall picture that is being painted in this text?
- Why did the rabbis want to discourage Jews from attending the theater or gladiatorial games?
- How is one who sits in the amphitheater ‘like’ a murderer?
- Are spectators responsible for what goes on in that sport? Why or why not?
- What about television audiences?
- How do you interpret, if he yells out of necessity versus intending to yell? What are some possible scenarios.
- How are modern sports games, especially football, similar to and different from the events mentioned in this text?
- What are the major differences?
- Rabbi Natan’s permission might be read as grudgingly permissive or as an overall endorsement. How do you read it? Explain why.
- How can ‘shouting’ save lives?
- What can shouting look like in our time?
- Does it matter if one watches the sport in the stadium or at home on television?
Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5
משנה סנהדרין ד:ה
How do we press the witnesses in a capital case? We bring them in (to the court's chambers) and press them: "Perhaps what you say (isn't eyewitness testimony) is but your own assessment, or from rumors, or your witnessing an actual witness testify, or your reporting what a trustworthy said. Or perhaps you were unaware that by the end we'd interrogate you, with examination and inquiry. Know that capital cases are not like monetary ones. In monetary cases, (a false witness) can return the money and achieve atonement. But in capital cases, the blood of (the victim) and all his future offspring hang upon you until the end of time. For thus we find in regard to Cain, who killed his brother, "The bloods of your brother scream out!" (Genesis 4:10) - the verse does not say blood of your brother, but bloods of your brother, because it was his blood and also the blood of his future offspring (screaming out)! [Another explanation of the verse: for his blood was splattered over the trees and rocks (i.e. there was more than one pool of blood).] (The judges' speech continues:) "It was for this reason that man was first created as one person (viz. Adam), to teach you that anyone who destroys a life (some editions: from Israel) is considered by Scripture to have destroyed an entire world; any any who saves a life (some editions: from Israel) is as if he saved an entire world." [And also, to promote peace among the creations, that no man would say to his friend, "My ancestors are greater than yours." And also, so that heretics will not say, "there are many rulers up in Heaven." And also, to express the grandeur of The Holy One [blessed be He]: For a man strikes many coins from the same die, and all the coins are alike. But the King, the King of Kings, The Holy One [blessed be He] strikes every man from the die of the First Man, and yet no man is quite like his friend.] (The judges' speech continues:) "Maybe you (the witnesses) will now say, 'What do we need this, and all this anxiety for (let's not come forward even with true testimony)!' But Scripture has already spoken: "If he be a witness - having seen or known - if he does not express it, he shall bear his sin." (Lev. 5:1) Maybe you will now say, 'What do we need this, to be responsible for another man's death?' But Scripture has already spoken: "When the wicked are destroyed there is rejoicing." (Prov. 11:10)"
כיצד מאימין (את העדים) על עדי נפשות. היו מכניסין אותן ומאימין עליהן. שמא תאמרו מאמד, ומשמועה, עד מפי עד, ומפי אדם נאמן שמענו, או שמא אי אתם יודעין שסופנו לבדוק אתכם בדרישה ובחקירה. הוו יודעין שלא כדיני ממונות דיני נפשות. דיני ממונות, אדם נותן ממון ומתכפר לו. דיני נפשות, דמו ודם זרעיותיו תלוין בו עד סוף העולם, שכן מצינו בקין שהרג את אחיו, שנאמר (בראשית ד, י) דמי אחיך צעקים, אינו אומר דם אחיך אלא דמי אחיך, דמו ודם זרעיותיו. דבר אחר, דמי אחיך, שהיה דמו משלך על העצים ועל האבנים. לפיכך נברא אדם יחידי, ללמדך, שכל המאבד נפש אחת מישראל, מעלה עליו הכתוב כאלו אבד עולם מלא. וכל המקים נפש אחת (מישראל), מעלה עליו הכתוב כאלו קים עולם מלא. ומפני שלום הבריות, שלא יאמר אדם לחברו, אבא גדול מאביך. ושלא יהו מינין אומרים, הרבה רשויות בשמים. ולהגיד גדלתו שלהקדוש ברוך הוא, שאדם טובע כמה מטבעות בחותם אחד וכלן דומין זה לזה, ומלך מלכי המלכים הקדוש ברוך הוא טבע כל אדם בחותמו שלאדם הראשון, ואין אחד מהן דומה לחברו. לפיכך כל אחד ואחד חיב לומר, בשבילי נברא העולם. ושמא תאמרו מה לנו ולצרה הזאת, והלא כבר נאמר (ויקרא ה, א) והוא עד או ראה או ידע אם לוא יגיד וגומר. ושמא תאמרו מה לנו לחוב בדמו שלזה, והלא כבר נאמר (משלי יא, י) ובאבד רשעים רנה.
- This text specifically speaks to those who are witnesses of crimes and who testify. In capital cases, why is a witness taught these specific teachings?
- “But in capital cases, the blood of (the victim) and all his future offspring hang upon you until the end of time.” We see here that the text can be read with or without the words, the victim. Who else can be included other than the victim?
- How do we reconcile the first half of the text that reminds us of the sanctity of human life, with the second half that encourages us to punish the wicked appropriately in order to derive joy?
- Does this say anything about humanity and our tendency to violence?
- What is the significance of adding or subtracting the word, ‘from Israel’? Referring, back to Rashi’s commentary, how can this relate to our case?
- What does this text teach us about human nature?
- How can we expand the category of witness?