Pesachim 53

When in Rome.

In the Talmud we mostly encounter rabbis living in the Land of Israel and Babylonia because that is where the two major rabbinic centers lay. But the Jewish community of late antiquity extended far beyond these two regions — including all the way to Rome, where (as we learn on today’s daf) the Jewish community had many of its own unique customs.

By the time of the Talmud, Jews had been living in Rome for hundreds of years. Today’s daf introduces us to one of their leaders: Todos (Theodosius) of Rome. Don’t be fooled by his Latin name; Theodosius is a Jewish leader deeply engaged in Jewish law and Torah.  

After the destruction of the Temple, when offering a paschal lamb was no longer possible, the rabbis ordered that people cease eating lamb altogether on Passover so as not to give the appearance of eating sacred meat when it was not possible to properly sacrifice the lamb. But, as we learn in a mishnah on today’s page, some communities continued to enjoy roasted meat on Passover.

Theodosius of Rome apparently took it a step further and “instituted the custom for the Roman Jews to eat lambs roasted whole with their entrails over their heads on the evenings of Passover.” (You might not want to picture that too carefully; because of the entrails hanging around the head of the lamb, this delicacy was called “helmeted lamb.”) In other words, Theodosius instructed his community to eat something that was meant to explicitly mimic the paschal lamb served in ancient Jerusalem, directly contradicting the rabbinic prohibition on eating roasted lamb on Passover in the post-Temple world.

Not surprisingly, the rabbis were not pleased:

The sages sent a message to him: If you were not Todos (i.e. an important person) we would have decreed ostracism upon you, as it appears as if you are feeding Israel consecrated food outside the permitted area.

So although it was against their principles, because of his status the rabbis allow Theodosius’s ruling to stand in Rome. Perhaps they felt they could not exert enough authority or influence to overturn him. Or perhaps they valued preserving local Jewish customs (as today’s mishnah hints).

The incident leads the Talmud’s redactors to ask whether we should understand Todos as righteous or evil. To answer that question, it recounts another of his teachings:

Come and hear: This was also taught by Todos of Rome: What did Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah see that led them to deliver themselves to the fiery furnace for sanctification of the name (i.e. to martyr themselves)? They drew a kal v’chomer inference on their own from the plague of frogs in Egypt. With regard to frogs, which are not commanded concerning the sanctification of the name of God, it is written: And the river shall swarm with frogs, which shall go up and come into your house, and into your bedchamber, and onto your bed, and into the houses of your servants, and upon your people, and into their ovens and kneading bowls. (Exodus 7:28) When are kneading bowls found near the oven? You must say that it is when the oven is hot. If in fulfilling the command to harass the Egyptians, the frogs entered burning ovens, kal v’chomer (all the more so) we, who are commanded concerning the sanctification of the name of God, should deliver ourselves to be killed in the fiery furnace for that purpose.

Todos uses the kal v’chomer method of rabbinic argument (we explained it here) to offer a profound Torah insight. He shows that the biblical Daniel’s three companions learned they must enter the fiery furnace and face certain death for God’s sake from the frogs sent as a plague upon Egypt who themselves willingly entered ovens to do God’s bidding. Theodosius’s teaching is also deeply relevant to his own diaspora community, focusing as it does on how Daniel’s three friends acted when living in exile at the center of a sometimes hostile Babylonian empire. Quoting such a teaching in his name suggests the rabbis viewed him as righteous.

Rabbi Yosei bar Avin agrees with this assessment. He states that: 

Theodosius was one who cast the profits from merchandise into the purse of Torah scholars (financially supported them) as Rabbi Yohanan said: Anyone who casts merchandise into the purse of Torah scholars is rewarded and sits in the heavenly academy, as it is stated: For in the shadow of wisdom, is the shadow of money. (Ecclesiastes 7:12)

For Rabbi Yosei bar Avin too, Theodosius certainly sounds like a righteous man, even meriting to sit in the yeshiva shel ma’alah, the heavenly beit midrash.

Though Romans famously thought that Rome was the center of the world — the proverbial meeting point of all roads — for the rabbis it was the distant representative of an oppressive empire. And yet, here we have a peripheral Jewish communal leader, with a non-Jewish name, instituting rules that are troubling to the rabbis, whom they nonetheless uphold, along with his teachings, as righteous. The rabbinic world turns out to have been bigger than we might have imagined. And in fact, even today Roman and Italian Jews maintain their own nusach, or liturgical rite, among other distinctive traditions.

Read all of Pesachim 53 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on January 13th, 2021. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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