Chapter three of Tractate Beitzah opens with a discussion of the permissibility of trapping fish and other animals for consumption on festivals. A mishnah on today’s daf relates the principle that if traps were set on the eve of a festival, you can only take an animal from the trap on the festival itself if you’re certain the animal had been caught before the festival. Then the mishnah tells this story:
An incident is related where a certain gentile brought fish to Rabban Gamliel, and the latter said: The fish are permitted, but I do not wish to accept them from him.
A logical question follows: Why not? Rashi, always helpful, says simply that Rabban Gamliel “hated him.” But this answer isn’t really complete. Why did Rabban Gamliel hate this unnamed gentile? Does “the fish are permitted” mean it’s okay to eat them or merely to accept them? And why did the gentile give Rabban Gamliel — of all things — fish?
The Gemara goes on to explore the halakhic implications of Rabban Gamliel’s declaration that the fish are permitted, but we’re still left with the first question: What’s going on with Rabban Gamliel and this gentile?
A fascinating article by David Farkas answers this question in a quite unexpected way. But to understand it, we need some background — both about Rabban Gamliel and the symbolism of fish in the rabbinic period.
Gamaliel I, sometimes called “the elder,” lived in the first half of the first century of the Common Era, towards the end of the Second Temple period. In addition to his frequent mentions in the Talmud, he also gets two shout-outs in an unlikely place: the New Testament. In Acts 22:3, he is identified as the apostle Paul’s teacher (presumably before Paul converted to Christianity). And in Acts 5:34-35, he encourages the Sanhedrin to treat the fledgling Christian church and its adherents with tolerance.
But the Rabban Gamliel on today’s daf is most likely Gamaliel I’s grandson, Gamliel II, also known as Rabban Gamliel of Yavneh, the town in central Israel that was a center of post-Temple rabbinic learning. By the time Gamliel II became active in rabbinic circles, things had changed radically from his grandfather’s time: the Temple had been destroyed, the land was under Roman rule and relationships between Jews and gentiles were probably no longer as common as they once were. If that’s the case, why would a gentile give Rabban Gamliel a gift at all?
Here’s where the offering of fish in particular becomes important. The symbol of the fish (specifically, the open-tailed Ichthys) was used by the earliest Christians as a secret way to identify themselves to one another. By Gamliel II’s time, Christianity was no longer just one sect among many; it was fast becoming a full-fledged religion — one that stood in direct competition to rabbinic Judaism. In fact, Berakhot 28b relates that Gamliel II instituted a 19th blessing of the Amidah (still known colloquially as the Shemona Esrei — literally “18 blessings”) that called out minim, or heretics, who are sometimes referred to directly as notzrim, or Christians. The text on Berakhot 28a shares several stories that highlight the adversarial relationship between Gamliel II and local Christians.
Could it be that the fish offered to Rabban Gamliel by this unnamed gentile was not a true present but a slight? Was it in fact intended to mock Rabban Gamliel’s beliefs, not to mention his leadership? If so, Rabban Gamliel might have had good reason to hate this person and reject the gift.
Of course, we can’t be certain that this interfaith encounter is anything but what’s written on the page: a gentile offered some fish as a present to an important local rabbi who wasn’t thrilled with the gift — or the giver. However, the alternative explanation could shed light on both the uncertain setting of second-century Yavneh as well as Jewish-gentile relations over the ensuing centuries all the way to our own time.
Read all of Beitzah 24 on Sefaria.