At the “Fountainhead” with Hazal
When I walk the hills and valleys of Eretz Yisrael I “see” Hazal on every byway, under every tree and beside every well carved ancient stone. Each new discovery is a joy and celebration. The newly uncovered fountainhead in the shape of a face from Tzipori (Sepphoris) in the Galilee is no exception. The fact that it was found by a local resident, “who spotted it protruding from the ground” is a particular delight.
Fountainheads like this one have been found in other cities in Israel, and throughout the Roman world. The excitement of this piece, however, is in imaging what people like Rabbi Yehuda ha-Nasi, or R. Yose bar Halafta, inhabitants of ancient Sepphoris, or the recently discovered “Rabbi Yehoshua b. Levi ha-Kappar” inscription (uncovered in Kefar Tzipori), might have experienced and thought about this object. Following are some thoughts, drawn from my Art and Judaism in the Greco-Roman World (Cambridge, 2005), that set out how I understand discoveries such as this fountainhead.
Hazal well understood the complexities of living in the Roman cities of Eretz Yisrael during the period of the Mishna and the Talmud, today called by academics “late antiquity.” These were intensely visual environments, with “idolatrous” sculpture on almost every street corner. The rabbis were a deeply urban community, thriving in the growing cities of Roman Palestine. Their vision of the Roman city began with the local. They called the cities where they lived by historic Hebrew names, not sharing this element of the geography with their imperialist neighbors. Rabbis lived in Lod, while Romans (with, no doubt, some Jews) built up the self-same city of Lydda (after 200 CE Diospolis). They lived in Beth Guvrin, called in Greek, Eleutheropolis, in Sepphoris, known to others as Diocaesarea, and in the Biblical city of Beth Shean, called Scythopolis – all of which were cities of Eretz Israel. Like their co-religionists in the cities and in the backwaters of Eretz Israel, Jews were in constant contact with Roman “idolatry.” Where the Psalmist once could lament, “How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” (Psalm 137:4), the rabbis now were confronted with this question in their own increasingly colonized land.
Living within this environment, Hazal and their followers (and undoubtedly others as well) developed numerous survival tactics, including avoiding certain places, detours beyond the usual path, spitting at idols, and the simple aversion of eyes. These were an internal way of navigating a difficult terrain, a “hidden transcript” – a signal – that might have been obvious to other Jews even as it was unrecognized by non-Jews.
“Toleration of idols” (a term often used to describe some rabbinic positions) was less a matter of tolerance than a necessary survival skill. Stringency was a matter of exceptional piety and had real implications for the course of daily life. Within the Romanized environment of late antique Palestine, the rabbis understood the need to reach a modus vivendi with pagan religious artifacts in public contexts such as baths, streets, and fountains – contexts over which they had little or no control and whose use was of great communal value – if not a necessity.
Tosefta Avoda Zara 6:6, for example, provides an excellent example of a slightly altered behavior as a “hidden transcript” in response to the threat of being religiously compromised through contact with idolatry:
The faces on aqueducts to the cities,
One must not place his mouth on the face,
For it appears as if he is kissing idolatry.
Rather, he should spill it into his hand and drink.
This text permits drinking from public aqueducts “that bring water to cities.” The water conduits in question are said to have had nozzles decorated with “idolatrous” sculpture, of the sort recently found at Sepphoris. Jews could drink from these nozzles, the Tosefta suggests, as long as their lips did not touch the nozzle. Touching the nozzle, the rabbis conjectured, could be misconstrued as an act of “kissing idolatry,” that is, showing reverence for the idol. Instead, the Tosefta suggests that one “receive [water] in his hands and drink. . . .”
Hand drinking is set out as an appropriate response, mediating between Jewish discomfort with idolatrous imagery and the basic need for water. Another member of the rabbinic community would understand and presumably appreciate the “hidden transcript” involved in hand drinking in this way.
This gesture would likely go right past a non-Jewish observer, however! What the Tosefta does not suggest is that Jews refrain from drinking water from fountains bearing forbidden imagery!
By placing the writings of our Sages in conversation with artifacts reflecting the lives of real people in the world of the Mishnah and the Talmud, we can often better understand both. Walking the land thus becomes another form of Talmud Torah. Drink up!
Steven Fine is the Dean Pinkhos Churgin Professor of Jewish History at Yeshiva University and director of the YU Center for Israel Studies.
[Published June 9, 2020]