Talmud pages

Bava Kamma 97

A pretty picture.

The second commandment states: “You shall not make for yourself a sculptured image, or any likeness of what is in the heavens above, or on the earth below, or in the waters under the earth” (Exodus 20:4). For this reason, many assume that Jews in the ancient world refused to create figural images not just of God — which is widely known to be against Jewish law — but also of people and animals. This taboo is also found in Islam, which is why so much Muslim art and architecture features fantastic geometric patterns.

However, there is often a gap between what we imagine should have been and what was. In fact, archaeological evidence shows that Jews of antiquity — both in the land of Israel and in the Jewish diaspora (Rome, Dura Europos, and many other places) — decorated their homes and synagogues with lots of beautiful imagery of fish, birds and animals both human and otherwise (and, in one outstanding situation, even a Roman god). One floor mosaic found at the archeological site of a sixth-century synagogue at Beit Alpha, Israel, has a pictorial depiction of the binding of Isaac with all the characters neatly labeled in Hebrew, ram included. 

These images were created at the same time the rabbis were creating and compiling the Mishnah, Tosefta, and the two Talmuds. So what are we to make of this apparent contradiction between what we think we know about ancient Jews and what the evidence actually tells us? Should we assume that all these Jews decorating their homes and synagogues with pictures of people and animals just hadn’t gotten the memo about figural representation? Maybe the rabbis understood that images were prohibited, but their ideas had not yet spread more widely. 

Today’s daf adds another piece to this complex visual puzzle. Because it turns out that the rabbis are also aware of figural representations — and indeed, associate such images with some of the heroes of Jewish tradition. 

The context is a discussion of what kinds of coins can be used to desacralize one’s ma’aser sheini — to transfer the second tithe status of produce onto money so that one can more easily transport it to Jerusalem. This discussion of coinage leads the rabbis to discuss some of the most ancient coins in the Jewish imagination.

The sages taught: What is the coin of Jerusalem? David and Solomon on one side, and Jerusalem the Holy City on the other side. And what is the coin of Abraham our forefather? An old man and an old woman on one side, and a young man and a young woman, on the other side.

The medieval commentator Rashi insists that the coin of Jerusalem had the words “David” and “Solomon” written on one side, and the words“Jerusalem the Holy City” written on the other side. But he explains the coin of Abraham differently, describing it as containing the images of Abraham and Sarah (the old couple) on one side, and Isaac and Rebecca (the young couple) on the other. What’s the difference? Why would Rashi be OK with figural images on Abraham’s coin but not the coins of the Davidic dynasty? Though he doesn’t say so explicitly, it seems like the chronology of the giving of the Torah at Sinai plays a role here. After the articulation of the second commandment, of course the Davidic kings would not include figural representations in their money! 

Rashi’s descendants, the Tosafot, take this one step further and insist that even the coin of Abraham only had the words “old man and old woman,” “young man and young woman,” because “it is forbidden to make the image of a human being.” The Tosafot insist that even before the giving of the Torah at Sinai, Abraham followed all the mitzvot contained within it.

Rashi and Tosafot are brilliant thinkers, working to make sense of our ancient tradition in light of their experiences, and the way they understand Judaism to function in their own lives. And it is clear from their glosses that in medieval Europe, there is a lot of anxiety about the role of figural images in Judaism. 

But the Talmud itself does not appear to have this same anxiety. The simplest reading of the rabbinic tradition quoted in the Talmud is that all these coins bore images of these foundational men and women. Further, this kind of imagery seems to be normal and accepted — the rabbinic discussion continues without interrogation of the numismatic design.

This highlights what is, for me, one of the most exciting things about doing Daf Yomi: those moments where the Talmud challenges our assumptions about how Judaism is or was, how it is understood and practiced in particular time periods and as a consistent whole. The saying goes that there are 70 faces to the Torah — and sometimes, perhaps, at least one of them is an actual image of a face. 

Read all of Bava Kamma 97 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on February 7th, 2024. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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