If one takes up the many volumes of Jewish Social Studies journal, he may conclude either that there was no “social history” of the Jews in former eras or that simply the whole issue had no relevance for them. This is not necessarily to find fault with the editors of that journal or to say that such a conclusion is correct. Rather, this absence is a sign that either historians didn’t pay attention to social issues of the far past or that they thought, and still do, that modern social studies don’t apply to Ancient times, or maybe both. Any neglect can be caused by several factors and it will not be easy to say who is to blame: modern historians, raw data of the past or the method of studying the past.
What is clear
is that though today we have all sorts of social histories of the past of
several nations, we do lack such a “Daily Life in the Land of Israel in the
First Centuries C.E.’ although we can read its counterpart about the daily
life, of the same era, in Rome, Egypt, Carthage and the like. It is true that
Jewish sources are much to be blamed for not being a good source for historical
data, certainly social history. However, when one reads a general history of
private life in the
What is true about social life in general is even truer when one looks for the criminality of Jews in the past. There are data about criminality among European nations, for example, but for fraternal reasons a Jewish historian is not likely to write about crimes among the Jews, if not because of apologetics. Adding to those basic problems of this subject, as are evident in the lack of studies about “simpler” issues, and the obstacle becomes clear. Certainly, it is easier to show how Jews were killed by their enemies in the weeping trend of history than to show that some Jews were killed by their fellow Jews. Any such history might be considered as a kind of a “new” history and as such it is suspected of being myth-breaking if not rebellious. Working with murderers can’t add glorification to anyone involved, either as a jailer or as a historian who writes about such “nasty” things.
For these reasons, it must be stated that the following study is, unluckily, the first of its kind, and as such the reader is asked to pardon the writer for misusing any historical method that was used in such cases in other societies. Our main goal is in contrast to other histories. In other studies the main issue depends on the right method in analyzing social studies, criminality and social deviation. However, in the Ancient Jewish realm we are about to gather and discuss (without any statistical analysis pretension), for the first time, some data concerning the criminal life of Jews in Antiquity.
delving into the issue itself, a few words about Jewish society in Antiquity
will not be out of place. In the
In other words while we are examining here only one aspect of the society, one should keep in mind that we are dealing with a multi-faceted process of social change and only because of lack of space are we concentrating on one aspect only: violence.
In modern times and culture, when we think of penology, that “philosophy” behind punishment, there is no violence, or rather we think there shouldn’t be. However, in Antiquity violence played a great role in punishing. This is especially true in regard to Biblical law, a law that could be summarized in two words: Lex Talionis. However, when one turns to Rabbinic sources, even people with minimal knowledge of Rabbinic culture and texts know very well that in Rabbinic normative Judaism all these horrible punishments recommended in the Bible are disappeared. The halachic explanation as well as the exact understanding of this attitude towards punishment is out of place here but one statement should be made: Judaism in Antiquity, that is normative Judaism, preferred non-violent action as punishment. Traditional society cannot say that this is a new method in Penology and oral tradition can be a great excuse explaining the gap between old written practices and relatively different “modern” behavior. However, for the modern observer it is apparent that Jewish society made a big change in its values. No more killing in court, no more amputation: everything should be settled by money, and a new age of values penetrated one Mediterranean society.
For an orthodox Jew, the above-mentioned gap is no gap at all, since Halacha has no time-table and everything that occurred in the wilderness of Sinai still prevails. Modern scholarship penetrates time in texts and historians are supposed to explain these discrepancies between sources. Now, since the Rabbinic answer, as well as Medieval philosophic and apologetic answers, are useless it seems that only from History can one draw the answer. For that reason it should be kept in mind that during these centuries under which this new method evolved, the Jewish people was under the rule of the Roman army, and only God knows how many Jews perished under these circumstances. That is to say that a sage in antiquity, assuming he was sitting in court and judging a thief, for example, might have found himself in the position of the hated enemy. Not only did Roman soldiers kill Jews but Rabbis as well, not only Romans were cruel to Jews but Jews intersected their own brethren. In other words a new penology was derived from the new status of the Jews under the Romans and the consequent sufferings.
This explanation might be taken as a modern theory and an historian should ask himself whether we can hear this explanation in the Rabbinic sources themselves. For that reason one should read the following text from B. Bava Mesia 83b:
So they sent for R. Eleazar b. R. Simeon, who went and arrested thieves.
R. Joshua b. Qorhah went and sent word to him, “Vinegar son of wine! How long are you going to betray the people of our God for slaughter.”
He sent word to him, “I am weeding thorns from the Vineyard.”
He sent word to him, “Let the Owner of the Vineyard come and pull up his own seeds.”
Here we have a Rabbinic sage, a son of a Rabbinic
sage (that is from the heart of Rabbinic society), who was told by his
colleagues he should rather let God himself punish Jewish criminals. Under
Roman sovereign, under long centuries of oppression Jews had the fe
Under pressure from others Jews restricted themselves in punishments as part of legal system, as was described here, and more to be stated later. However, this does not mean that all Jews behaved peacefully without violence and never offended each other. On the contrary, it seems (though not proven) that a cruel world leads to a cruel life and a violent and cruel regime was a good model for violence in one’s home.
So there was
no Lex Talionis any more,
no capital punishments, and eventually more of this judicial system
disappeared. Biblical law demanded that juvenile d
As a turning point in the concept of violence one can see the new attitude towards the hero. Needless to say, the Bible is full of heroes, of all sorts. Some of these old heroes could kill a lion with bare hands and others could kill a giant and many enemies. The Bible as a text that represents conquest and war, must have had heroes, as is evident. However, among the Rabbis one can find a new attitude towards the hero, simply by re-adjusting the whole concept of hero into something else: no more a hero of flesh and blood but a hero of self control, a hero of the mind.
In m. Abot 4:a there is a very famous
saying of the Rabbis, attributed to ben Zoma (second century c.e.): “Who
is mighty? – He who conquers his lusts”. This saying
is part of the ethical sayings of the Rabbis, and as such signifies the world
of the sages, not less, if not more, than some of the Halachot
expressed by the Rabbis. In such a compilation of sayings, one loses, d
In b. Tamid 31b ff. there appears a long conversation between
Alexander the Great and “Elders of the South”, self-evidently Jewish sages. It
should be noted that this story assumed to have taken place in the fourth
century b.c.e. when Alexander conquered the
This answer to
Alexander the Great sounds very appropriate to the occasion claimed to be its
source. When the great conqueror of the world came to the
One can insist on finding this idea already in the Prov. 16:32: “And he that ruleth his spirit [is better] than he that taketh a city”. However, such sayings in Proverbs (some much older than King Solomon to whom they are attributed), are the sayings of wise people during generations of socialization and education and one should not take them as a mere reflection of history. Here, on the other hand, we can see the new value on its historical background: in contrast to Biblical heroes and in harmony with centuries of subjugation, first to the Persians and then to the Greeks. That is to say that political reality is to be blamed for this change in the attitude towards might, from Biblical to Jewish concepts. Under these circumstances the hero shifted from the physical to the spiritual, from a man of power to the outside into a man of power in the inside, no harm, no violence.
It looks that according to these new values the
whole Biblical past was refined to be something else. Without critical
understanding of the past, it is no wonder the past was colored according to
the new ideas of “who is a hero?”, and here are few examples. Was Joshua, the
conqueror of the
And what about The Maccabees, the real heroes, could you tell me something about their heroism? Well, actually, they were no heroes at all. It is evident in the famous Berayta in b. Shabat 21b, while discussing the basic historical facts of Hannuka that the Makkabees played no role in achieving political power. There was no such power, nor were there any warriors that achieved victory. The reason for Hanukah was a mere miracle. With miracles there is no need for heroes, and the “giborim” that are mentioned in the Jewish liturgy piece for Hannuka, “Al ha-Nisim” (presumably from around the 5-8th centuries), were the Greeks, while the Jews are characterized as a weak people.
That is to say, the past was reshaped for the purpose of the new present, under the oppression of the Romans, and after two unsuccessful rebellions it was better to have only this new type of hero. The “new” hero was a man of self-discipline, not a warrior, but a strict observer of Rabbinic law.
In this chapter we will move from the history of ideas and mentality to the “real” history of violence in daily life in Antiquity. That is to say that “ideas” are one thing but real history is a bit different.
To begin with, it should be noted that scholars
have already shown that in the
Outlaws are one thing but killing in the
A. M‘SH: There were two who got there at the same time, running up the ramp. One shoved the other [M. Yoma 2:2A-B], within four cubits [of the altar]. The other then took out a knife and stabbed him in the heart.
B. R. Sadoq came and stood on the steps of the porch and said,
C. “Hear me, O brethren of the house of
D. “Come so let us measure to find out for what area it is appropriate to bring the calf, for the sanctuary, or for the courts!”
E. All of them moaned after his speech.
F. And afterwards the father of the youngster came to them saying, “O brethren of ours! May I be your atonement. His [my] son is still writhing, so the knife is not yet been made unclean.”
G. This teaches you that the uncleanness of a knife is more grievous to Isra
H. On this basis they have said, “Because of the sin of murder the presence of God was raised up, and the sanctuary was made unclean”.
It is quite clear that life was not considered
valuable in Antiquity, and this story, much like an item in a modern daily
paper, shows that nothing has changed in human behavior. However, the focus
here should be not on the case itself but rather on the arena: the
One case can’t tell much, and the aforementioned
evidence, horrible as it was, could be taken as a case of bad luck. However,
this was not the situation in the
A. When hedonists became many, fierce wrath came upon the world, and the glory of the Torah ceased.
While in former testimonies it wasn’t clear whether
robbers were an exception, in this particular case, actually: two different
issues adultery and murder (if not hedonism also), we have first-hand testimony
of aggression. True, we don’t have exact numbers of murderers or the
rate of social corruption. “Many” is a relative matter and we cannot compare
the situation with other societies in other places and times (as can be done in
high Middle-Ages Europe, for instance). However, one thing is clear, a
sage of the first league states that in his days, probably during one of the
years 60-70 c.e. people got
Obviously murders that were once sporadic became
a daily occurrence, and these misdeeds went together with the disappearance of
morality in family matters together with hedonism. These phenomena were
observed by the sages, or by the priests, who preferred to annul ancient
practices, seeing that they were about to see the disappearance of the glory of
the Torah, that is the
There are several sources concerning the changes during the years before the Destruction, among them the annulment of the judicial courts. In b. Yoma 39b the sages said:
Forty years before the destruction of the sanctuary, the lot did not come up in the right hand, and the thread of crimson never turned white, and the westernmost light never shone, and the doors of the courtyard would open by themselves,
Rabban Yohannan b. Zakkai rebuked them. He said, “
In b. Sanhdrin 41a it is stated that 40 years before the Destruction, the Sanhedrin left its place to the “market”, that is to say the beginning of the exile. However, in p. Sanhedrin 1:5, 18a, it is written:
It was taught: Forty years before the destruction of the Temple the right to judge capital cases was withdrawn, and it was in the days of Simeon b. Shatah that the right property cases was withdrawn.
Not only were there bad omens before the
destruction of the
Before leaving this subject, one issue should be clear: we do have more cases of people being killed in Antiquity, usually by members of their own family. What exactly can be learned from these sources is hard to tell since in every society, so it seems, from the very days of creation, there have been killings in the family. However, while discussing murders in the Jewish family in the past, special attention should be given to battered wives, some of whom were murdered by their husbands.
So far only very little attention was paid to wife-beating among the Jews, at least until considerably later. In t. Baba Qamma 9:14 the Rabbis taught:
A. He who inflicts injury upon his wife –
B. whether he injured her or whether others injured her -
C. they collect [damages] from him…
That is to say that Rabbinic law is aware of husbands that beat their wives. More than that, according to one of the Rabbis, beating one’s wife is characteristic of people outside of the circle of the sages, being called “am Ha-Aretz”, as was taught in b. Pesahim 49b:
R. Meir would say, “Whoever marries his daughter off to an unlettered man is as though he tied her up and laid her out before a lion. Just as a lion tramples the prey and eats it shamelessly, so the unlettered man beats up his wife and rapes her shamelessly.”
Being part of the Rabbinic circle means, also, ethical relation between a man and his wife, unlike the misbehavior of others. One can not tell whether this was really typical of people outside of Rabbinic circles. However, it should be recalled that in quite a famous story in b. Yoma 83b, a man who wanted to cheat the Rabbis, not only did not succeed, but at the end was so furious that he killed his wife.
One can add the widespread beating of children, to get the impression that violence was really part of everybody’s and everyday life. Either the whole society was under a process of collapsing, or it was just normal behavior, nothing special.
One of the gaps between modern and pre-modern societies is, inter alia, the attitude towards violence, especially concerning public order (that is: in criminal law). In modern times the idea that the state is supposed to restrain its force to non-corporal punishment, though with differences all over the world, is fairly new (18th century onward). Society reached this conclusion for several reasons, basically based on the rights of the individual, as well as the recognition that the civilian is no longer the property of his state.
However, in Antiquity this was not the case in general, and the Bible reveals a high incidence of violence in daily life, from war to legal punishment. With this perspective, it is interesting to see that the Rabbis exemplify a new standard of thinking concerning violence, an idea that looks more modern than its Biblical heritage. This new understanding is evident in the Rabbinic code of penalty on the one hand, and in the new characterization of hero in general and Biblical hero in particular, on the other. It has been shown that Rabbinic sources bear evidence of a society in collapse, a society that became more violent than its predecessor, both by the rulers and the inhabitants alike. It is true that in Rabbinic sources, unlike in pre-modern archives one can not get exact data concerning these changes but nevertheless, the gross facts are clear.
For that reason it is argued that there was a connection between all these incidents and that violent life under centuries of conquerors took its price in the change of attitude towards heroism and the code of punishment. Jews could not bear the idea that they were about to behave like their enemies and instead they left the duty of rooting out all evil to God. Together with the new identity the past received, Judaism became something other than Biblical code-bearers while “modern” ideas penetrated and changed the core values.
The aim of this study was to deal with different sorts of violence that Jewish society suffered from in Antiquity. This violence came not only from the enemies of the Jewish people but also from criminals within. Under these circumstances, the whole system of penalty was changed to be less harmful, Lex Talionis was abandoned, and a new idea concerning “who is a hero?” became part of Rabbinic Judaism.
With the growth of criminal disorder, the ancient
laws and courts were annulled before the destruction of the
This paper aims to discuss
violence in Jewish society, thought, r
The role of violence is demonstrated in three different aspects of Jewish sources: 1. Using violence as punishment; 2. Deheroisation of Biblical figures; 3. Crime and social deviation in daily life.
A social analysis is given at the end trying to evaluate the data gathered earlier as the role of violence in mentalitè as well as in the daily life of the Jewish People in Antiquity.
 Philip Aries and George Duby
(eds.), A History of Private Life, I, From Pagan
 J. G. Bellamz, Crime and Public Order in
 I. Drapkin, Crime and
Punishment in the Ancient World,
 For the sake of this study there is no need to delve into this vast subject and only a few cases will be mentioned. See: D. Daube, Studies in Biblical Law, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 1947, pp. 102-153; M. Greenberg, ‘Some Postulates of Biblical Criminal Law’, J. Goldin (ed.), The Jewish Expression, New York: Bantam Books, 1970, pp. 5-28; B. Jackson, ‘Reflections on biblical criminal law’, Journal of Jewish Studies, 24 (1973), pp. 8-38; C. Carmichael, Biblical Laws of Talion, Oxford Centre for Postgraduate Studies, Oxford 1986.
 J. Neusner (translator),
The Talmud of Babylonia: An American Translation, XXIV: Tractate Bava Mesia, Chapetrs
 Elizabeth Bellefontaine, ‘Deuteronomy 21:18-21: Reviewing
the Case of the Rebellious Son’, Journal for the Study of the Old Testament, 13
(1979), pp. 13-31; D. Marcus, ‘Juvenile
 For full discussion: E. E. Halevi, Shaarei Haagada, Tel-Aviv 1964, pp. 129-137 (Hebrew).
 P. J. Haas (translator), The Talmud of Babylonia: An
American Translation, XXXV: Tractate Meilah and Tamid,
 B. Isaac,
 Judges 11:3; I Sam. 25:10.
 B. D. Shaw, ‘Banditry in the
 J. Neusner, The Tosefta: Translated from the
Hebrew, Second Division,
 J. Neusner, The Tosefta:
Translated from the Hebrew, Third Division,
 The Talmud of
 The Talmud of The
 S. B. Hoenig, The Great Sanhedrin,
 T. Ketubot 11:4; Deut. Raba 2:25.
 J. Neusner, The Tosefta: Translated from the
Hebrew, Fourth Division,
 Naomi Graetz, Silence is Deadly: Judaism
 The Talmud of
 John J. Pilch, ‘“Beat His Ribs While He is Young” (Sir 30:12): A Window on the Mediterranean World’, Biblical Theology Bulletin, 23 (1993), pp. 101-113.
 On Capital punishment among the Jew in Antiquity, see: E. E. Urbach, Hahalacka: Its Sources and Development, Givataim: Massada, 1984, pp. 53-55 (Hebrew).