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Immoral, Weak, Abusive, Untrustworthy, and Murderous

What Talmudic sages thought of the pagan gentiles of their day is disturbingly paranoid and hostile

Adam Kirsch
February 13, 2018
Image: National Library of Wales via Wikipedia
Inset image: Siege and destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans, c. 1504.Image: National Library of Wales via Wikipedia
Image: National Library of Wales via Wikipedia
Inset image: Siege and destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans, c. 1504.Image: National Library of Wales via Wikipedia

Literary critic Adam Kirsch is reading a page of Talmud a day, along with Jews around the world.

Should Jews be afraid of non-Jews? To the rabbis of the Talmud, the answer was obvious: They should be very afraid because every pagan could be expected to seize any opportunity to harm a Jew. For instance, in Avoda Zara 25b, the Gemara says that if a Jew encounters a gentile on the road, he should make sure to walk on the gentile’s left side. This way, the Jew’s right hand is closer to the gentile, so he can more easily draw a weapon to defend himself if necessary. In addition, the Jew should never “bend down before him,” because this would give the gentile the chance to “break his skull.”

The second chapter of Tractate Avoda Zara, which Daf Yomi readers began this week, offers many other examples of such hypothetical aggression. The rabbis warn that a Jewish woman must never be alone in the presence of a non-Jewish man because he will certainly try to have illicit intercourse with her. Of course, a Jewish woman is not supposed to be isolated with a Jewish man, either; but the rabbis explain that, with a Jew, it is permitted if the man’s wife is also present. A gentile’s wife, on the other hand, “does not guard him” against sexual immorality. More disturbingly, a Jewish woman cannot employ a gentile midwife or nursemaid because she is likely to try to kill a Jewish child. The midwife “places her hand on the infant’s temple and kills him,” while the nursemaid “smears poison upon her breast.” Indeed, one gentile midwife was heard to boast that she had killed so many Jewish children that their blood was “like the foam of a river.” Again, a Jew may not allow a gentile to circumcise his son, lest the gentile take the opportunity to cut off the baby’s penis.

It is hard to know how seriously to take the portrait of moral depravity that the rabbis draw of their pagan neighbors. As we have seen, the Roman authorities did persecute the Jews in cruel ways, so it stood to reason that Jews would be suspicious of the state and its agents. But were these tales of pagan cruelty and murderousness based in reality, or were they fantasies born of paranoia and ignorance? For instance, was it reasonable to believe that all pagans habitually had sex with animals? This seems absurd on its face, yet the rabbis take the charge for granted. “One may not keep an animal in the inns of gentiles because they are suspected of bestiality,” the mishna says in Avoda Zara 22a.

As the Gemara points out, however, Jewish law does not consistently hold this point of view. If any animal owned by a gentile must be considered as a potential object of bestiality, then it would follow that a Jew could never purchase an animal for a gentile in order to offer it as a Temple sacrifice because it would be presumptively defiled. Yet a baraita says the opposite: “One may purchase an animal for use as an offering from their [i.e., a gentile] shepherd.” How can this contradiction be explained? The rabbis suggest that there are good reasons why gentiles would refrain from having sex with their own animals: A female animal that is subjected to bestiality would become barren, and a male animal would be weakened. Likewise, a shepherd wouldn’t molest the animals under his care because he might be caught and punished by “the forfeit of his wages.”

But the Gemara replies that this consideration would only deter a shepherd who was in charge of sheep belonging to a gentile. If he had the opportunity to molest Jewish sheep, he would take it, because “we are not aware of them and they are not fearful of us.” In other words, the shepherd wouldn’t worry about getting caught by a Jew, because Jews customarily had no contact with gentiles. This is a revealing statement in the context of the rabbis’ bizarre assumptions about pagan behavior: Perhaps they could sustain these assumptions only because “we are not aware of them,” and have no real sense of “their” practices.

Again, the Sages are divided about whether it is permitted to purchase a red heifer from a non-Jew. The sacrifice of a red heifer was the only way a Jew could be cleansed of impurity after contact with a corpse, making it a particularly valuable animal. And it was rare because it had to be pure in color—just two hairs that were not red disqualified it for use as a sacrifice—and it must never have been used to perform labor. The latter point raises a question for the rabbis: If a Jew buys a red heifer from a gentile, how can he be sure it was never used for labor? The rabbis reason that the gentile would not use it this way, precisely because he would know that he could sell it to a Jew for a high price: “Due to the slight convenience” of using it to carry a load, the owner “will not forfeit a great deal of money.”

Just how high a price a red heifer could fetch is made clear in Avoda Zara 24a, in a story about a non-Jew named Dama ben Netina. This Dama owned some jewels which the High Priest wanted to buy for use in the ephod, a ritual garment, and he was willing to pay a titanic sum—600,000 dinars. But it so happened that the jewels were being kept under Dama’s father’s pillow, and his father was asleep; rather than wake him, Dama declined the chance to make an enormous profit. This story sits oddly with the surrounding assumption of pagan malevolence: Clearly, gentiles could fulfill the commandment of honoring their parents just as well as Jews did, or better. Dama further demonstrated his virtue when he came to sell the Jews a red heifer: “I know that if I were to ask from you all the money in the world, you would give it to me,” he said. But he sold the cow for the same amount that he had previously missed out on, 600,000 dinars. The suggestion that a more ruthless bargainer could have demanded an even higher price helps us to gauge just how rare a red heifer must have been.

Of course, the big question that must occur to any reader of Tractate Avoda Zara is whether the rabbis’ views of gentiles are meant to apply to non-Jews in all times and places. Must Jews think of all non-Jews as potential killers and constant enemies? As the Koren Talmud explains, later Jewish authorities strongly rejected that idea. Starting in the middle ages, leading interpreters established the principle that the Talmud was speaking only of the pagans of the ancient world, who abided by no code of morals at all. Christians and Muslims, on the other hand, were governed by religious ethics, and so the Talmud’s strictures did not apply to them. Clearly, just like a contemporary reader, these sages were troubled by the paranoia and hostility so abundantly on display in this chapter.


Adam Kirsch embarked on the Daf Yomi cycle of daily Talmud study in August 2012. To catch up on the complete archive, click here.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.