Avodah Zarah, Chapter Three, Mishnah Four



This mishnah contains a famous story of a discussion between Proclos, a Greek philosopher and Rabban Gamaliel, the Jewish patriarch. 


Mishnah Four

1)                     Proclos, son of a plosphos, asked Rabban Gamaliel in Acco when the latter was bathing in the bathhouse of aphrodite. 

2)                     He said to him, “It is written in your torah, ‘let nothing that has been proscribed stick to your hand (Deuteronomy 13:18)’;  why are you bathing in the bathhouse of Aphrodite?”

3)                     He replied to him, “We do not answer [questions relating to torah] in a bathhouse.” 

4)                     When he came out, he said to him, “I did not come into her domain, she has come into mine.  People do not say, ‘the bath was made as an adornment for Aphrodite’; rather they say, ‘Aphrodite was made as an adornment for the bath.’

5)                     Another reason is, even if you were given a large sum of money, you would not enter the presence of your idol while you were nude or had experienced seminal emission, nor would you urinate before it. But this [statue of Aphrodite] stands by a sewer and all people urinate before it.

a)                                 [In the torah] it is only stated, “their gods” (Deuteronomy 12:3)  — what is treated as a god is prohibited, what is not treated as a deity is permitted.



In order to understand this mishnah we must remember that Roman and Greek society would have been full of statues.  Indeed, anywhere a Jew turned his head, he probably saw a statue, often a statue of a god or goddess.  If the Jews were to adopt an overly strict attitude towards these statues, and consider them idols, Jews would effectively be prohibited from taking part in most of Greco-Roman society, including such communal institutions such as the bathhouse, roads, bridges and marketplaces.  In this mishnah Rabban Gamaliel shows a remarkable degree of flexibility and accommodation to this situation.

The story begins with Proklos, the son of Plosphos (this may be the word for philosopher) pointing out that the Torah forbids Rabban Gamaliel’s being in Aphrodite’s bathhouse.  Rabban Gamaliel responds that it is not appropriate to respond in the bathhouse. 

When they leave the bathhouse Rabban Gamaliel answers Proklos’s question.  The bathhouse was not made for Aphrodite.  Rather it was made for the public use and Aphrodite was merely placed there as adornment.  As such, Rabban Gamaliel’s presence in the bathhouse is not a form of worship to Aphrodite, as it would be in her temple.  Furthermore, people do not say that the bathhouse was made to adorn Aphrodite.  Rather she is ancillary to the bathhouse and it is the central structure.


Rabban Gamaliel further points out that if this sculpture of Aphrodite were truly considered to be a goddess, people would not walk naked in front of her, or have seminal emissions or urinate.  Such actions are signs of disrespect, which would not be appropriate in front of a goddess.  When the Torah states that a Jew is commanded to destroy idols, the intent is to destroy idols that are treated as gods, and not those that are treated with disrespect.


Questions for Further Thought:

·                      What is the function within the story of Rabban Gamaliel’s pointing out that one does not respond within the bathhouse?  How might this connect to the end of the story?