Friday, 26 May 2017

Justinian's Interference with the Synagogue Service in the 6th century

From RRW

Guest Blogger: Mitchell First

A Decree by the Roman Emperor Justinian
Interfering with the Synagogue Service
          Last week, my column dealt with the recital of the Shema in the Musaf Kedushah. I wrote that various sources from the Geonic period had suggested that there was a decree by the government forbidding the recital of the Shema and that this led to the insertion of the Shema into the Musaf Kedusuah.  Like most modern scholars, I concluded that there was no such earlier persecution and that the recital of the Shema in Musaf Kedushah could be explained in a simpler manner. The author of the Musaf Kedushah believed that the role of the angels is to recite kadosh, kadosh, kadosh daily and that our role as humans is to recite the Shema daily. Thus, kadosh, kadosh, kadosh and Shema can be viewed as parallel prayers. This idea is expressed in the Talmud at Hullin 91b and elsewhere in midrashic literature.                                                    
           This week I will discuss a situation where there is reliable documentation of an ancient governmental decree affecting the synagogue service. A book by Amnon Linder, The Jews in Roman Imperial Legislation (1987), collects laws enacted by the second through sixth century Roman rulers relating to the Jews. The book includes an interesting law passed by Justinian in the year 553. The background is that there was a dispute among the Jews in a certain area in the Roman empire as to what language should be used in reading or translating the Torah in the synagogue and they asked the Roman government to get involved and decide the issue. The decree of Justinian records:
            “ We have learned from their petitions, which they have addressed to us, that while some maintain the Hebrew language only and want to use it in reading the Holy Books, others consider it right to admit Greek as well, and they have already been quarreling among themselves about this for a long time. Having studied this matter we decided that the better case is that of those who want to use also Greek in reading the Holy Books, and generally in any language that is the more suited and the better known to the hearers in such locality.” The decree continues that when a Greek translation is used, it must be the Septuagint version, because it is more accurate than all the others. Also, the Septuagint is preferable because of the miracle that was described in the Letter of Aristeas: the translators translated separately, but nevertheless came out with the same version. The decree then reluctantly grants additional permission to use the Greek translation of Aquilas, even though it “differs not a little from the Septuagint.”
                But then the decree continues: “What they call deuterosis [= Mishnah], on the other hand, we prohibit entirely…It is an invention of men in their chatter, exclusively of earthly origin and having in it nothing of the divine.” 
               Scholars have been puzzled by this decree prohibiting the deuterosis. Most are in agreement that “deuterosis” is a reference to the Mishnah. But what is a decree forbidding the Mishnah doing in a decree whose context is the synagogue service?  Moreover, the decree seems to prohibit the Mishnah in all contexts, not just the context of the synagogue.
                 One scholar thinks that word deuterosis, in this particular case, includes all the oral law, including Talmud and Midrash. The interpretations of the Bible used in the synagogue drew on the entire resources of rabbinic thought, and perhaps the intent was to prohibit these types of interpretations in the synagogue.  Another scholar thinks that this particular decree reflected an effort by Justinian to close down all the Jewish batei midrashot. It just happened to get recorded in a decree that was mainly about the synagogue service.
                     The interpretation that I found most reasonable was one expressed by Albert I. Baumgarten in his article “Justinian and the Jews,” pp. 37-44, in the Rabbi Joseph H. Lookstein Memorial Volume (1980). Baumgarten believes that Justinian, a Christian, enacted this law because the Mishnah represented the Jewish claim to have the truer understanding of the Bible. Justinian was here making a symbolic statement against the Mishnah and the Jewish interpretation of the Bible, even though he knew that his prohibition could not be enforced.  The general context of the decree was an attempt to control Biblical interpretation and limit interpretations to acceptable ones. To Justinian, the Mishnah represented unacceptable Jewish Biblical interpretation.
                    As a postscript, it is interesting how this whole scenario developed. The Jews asked the Romans to intervene in a synagogue dispute about a narrow issue. Then the Romans exploited the opportunity and issued a broad prohibition on the study of the entire Mishnah!                                                                                  

Mitchell First is an attorney and Jewish history scholar. When he reads the Torah in Greek translation, he does not use the Septuagint or the translation of Aquilas. Rather, he prefers the Greek translations of Symmachus and Theodotion. (Hopefully, at least one person out there will find this humorous!) He can be reached at

No comments: