Bava Kamma 83

“Cursed be the man who teaches his son Greek wisdom.”

Yesterday’s daf ended with a fascinating story about two Hasmonean brothers engaged in a battle for the throne. Aristobulus and Hyrcanus were the great grandsons of Simon Maccabee and they fought one another for power after their mother Salome died without leaving a clear heir to the throne. According to the beraita, Aristobulous besieged Jerusalem while Hyrcanus was fighting from inside the city. Despite the war between them they worked in partnership to continue the daily Temple sacrifices. The people inside the city would lower down money to pay for a sheep, and the besieging army would send one up. This went on every day until:

There was a certain elder there who was familiar with Greek wisdom, and he said to those besieging Jerusalem: “As long as they occupy themselves with the Temple service, they will not be delivered into your hands.”

The next day, they lowered down money in a box as usual, but this time they sent up to them a pig. When the pig reached the midpoint of the Temple wall it stuck its hooves into the wall, and the land of Israel quaked over an area of 400 parasangs by 400 parasangs.

Sending a pig, the epitome of impurity, was a betrayal so great that it shook the very land and the regular sacrificial service ground to a halt, allowing Aristobulus to win the battle. Ultimately, this civil war paved the way for Rome to acquire Judea as a vassal state in 63 BCE. The ground shakes, perhaps, because this betrayal was the beginning of the end of Jewish sovereignty.

Because Aristobulus was aided by a man of Greek wisdom, it was declared on that very day: 

Cursed be the man who raises pigs, and cursed be the man who teaches his son Greek wisdom. 

The disavowal of all things Greek actually surprises the rabbis on our daf. Greek was considered a necessary language for legal documents and diplomacy, but was also declared a beautiful language, so much so that Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel allowed a ritual Torah scroll to be written in Greek. So the Gemara asks:

And is Greek wisdom actually prohibited? But doesn’t Rav Yehuda say that Shmuel says in the name of Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel: … There were 1,000 children in the household of my father; 500 of them studied the Torah, and 500 studied Greek wisdom. (All of them were killed by the Romans) and the only ones that remain are me, who is here, and the son of my father’s brother, who is in Asia Minor. 

Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel laments the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE and describes the young children, students of Torah and Greek wisdom alike, who were killed by the Romans. His point appears to be that the Romans did not distinguish between soldiers and students, young or old, nor those who received a Hellenized education and those who were fully dedicated to Jewish study and lifestyle. The Romans cruelly killed everyone. 

But the Gemara uses his lament differently, as proof that in the illustrious house of Rabban Gamliel the children were trained in both Torah and Greek wisdom. So how could Greek wisdom be prohibited? The answer given by the Talmud is the following:

The household of Rabban Gamliel is different, as they held close ties with the government.

The Gemara wraps up its discussion about the prohibition of studying Greek wisdom a bit too neatly. If you are a diplomat and it is instrumental to your work with the ruling Roman aristocracy, you can study the otherwise problematic Greek wisdom; but for everyone else it is prohibited. This sharp division doesn’t distinguish between different kinds of Greek wisdom; for example, Greco-Roman medicine, philosophy, and astronomy were allowed to influence Jewish culture in various ways, while polytheism and the cult of the body and the gymnasium were held at bay. 

Therefore, I would suggest that the curse of those who teach their children Greek wisdom is not about banning Plato or Galen but about declaring Jewish cultural and political independence from the dominant power of the day. Aristobulus’s pig symbolizes the danger of allowing Rome to settle internal Jewish political rivalries. And, in the wake of the eventual destruction of the Temple by Rome, Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel presents a complex, almost contradictory view on Greek wisdom: Jews will always be integrationists, learning from surrounding cultures and rising to positions of power and influence. At the same time, his testimony serves as a warning that Jews will never be truly integrated nor safe even if they study Greek wisdom and become close with the Roman elites.

Read all of Bava Kamma 83 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on January 24th, 2024. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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