Yeshiva University – Revel Graduate School

Hebraism and Hellenism: Greco-Roman Culture and the Rabbis

Spring 2014

Tuesdays 7:00-8:40PM

Richard Hidary


email the class

The Rabbis of Israel during the Talmudic period (70-400CE) lived under the rule of the Roman Empire and were embedded within Greco-Roman culture. The Rabbis rejected many aspects of Greek paganism, beliefs and lifestyle that contradicted their values but at the same time adopted and adapted other parts of Greco-Roman culture that they found beneficial. In so many ways, the opportunities and challenges offered by ancient Hellenism parallel our own confrontation with Western society.


This course will analyze the interaction of the Rabbis of the Talmud with their surrounding Greco-Roman culture regarding such diverse areas as language, law, science, art, mythology, and philosophy with special emphasis on their use of classical rhetoric, the mainstay of higher education throughout the Greco-Roman world. In each class, we will read primary sources from both Greek and Rabbinic sources in order to develop a methodology of how to go about such comparative analysis. We will also review works of modern scholarship on this subject with a critical eye to their methodologies and biases as a way to hone our own skills as we continue to explore this fruitful field of research.



Unit I – Fundamentals

1.     Historical introduction – From Alexander to the Maccabees - powerpoint

Reading: Peter Schafer, The History of the Jews in the Greco-Roman World, (Routledge 2003), 1-64. (please buy this book)

Fonrobert, Charlotte Elisheva. “Plato in Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai's Cave (B. Shabbat 33b-34a): The Talmudic Inversion of Plato's Politics of Philosophy.” AJS Review 31, no. 2 (2007): 277-96. Plato's Allegory, sources

Rosental, Eliezer Shimshon. "Snei devarim." In Sefer Yitshak Aryeh Zeligman: ma'amarim ba-Mikra uva-`olam ha-`atiq, edited by Yair Zakovits and Alexander Rofe, 463-81. Jerusalem: E. Rubenstein, 1983. sourcesheet

2.       Historical Introduction – From the Maccabees to the Romans

Introduction to Rabbinic Literature - powerpoint

Reading: Schafer, ibid., 65-166.

Cohen, Shaye. “Patriarchs and Scholarchs.” Proceedings of the American Academy for Jewish Research 48 (1981): 57-85.

Suggested: Mathew Arnold, Culture and Anarchy, ch. 4 (p. 37ff).


3.       May One Study Greek and Greek Wisdom?

        Kitos War

Reading: Reading: H. A. Fischel, Encyclopedia Judaica, “Rabbinic Knowledge of Greek and Latin Languages.”

Lieberman, Saul. Hellenism in Jewish Palestine. New York: The Jewish Theological Seminary, 1962, 100-114.

Gerald Blidstein, "Rabbinic Judaism and General Culture: Normative Discussion and Attitudes," in Judaism's Encounter with Other Cultures, edited by J. J. Schacter, 4-56. Rowman and Littlefield, Lanham, 1997.

Moulie Vidas, "Greek Wisdom in Babylonia," in Envisioning Judaism: Studies in Honor of Peter Schafer. Tubingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2013: 287-305.

Sperber, Daniel. Greek in Talmudic Palestine. Ramat Gan: Bar-Ilan University Press, 2012, 113-68.

Suggested: Lieberman, Saul. Greek in Jewish Palestine. New York: The Jewish Theological Seminary, 1942.

Assignment I Due - Efrayim


Unit II – Court Procedure and Codification

4.       Lawyers in Earthly Courts

 Were There Jewish Gladiators?: Roman and Jewish Death Penalties - pentakakos


        Mandel, Paul, "`Al 'Patah' ve-`al ha-petihah: `iyun hadash

Kennedy, George A. A New History of Classical Rhetoric. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994, 3-29.

Richard Hidary, “The Role of Lawyers in Roman and Rabbinic Courts.”

Weiss, Zeev. "Theaters, Hippodromes, Amphitheatres, and Performances." In The Oxford Handbook of Jewish Daily Life in Roman Palestine, edited by Catherine Hezser, 623-40. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.

Suggested Reading: Jacobs, Martin. "Theatres and Performances as Reflected in the Talmud Yerushalmi." In The Talmud Yerushalmi and Graeco-Roman Culture I, edited by Peter Schafer, 327-47. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2002.

Berkowitz, Beth. Execution and Invention: Death Penalty Discourse in Early Rabbinic and Christian Cultures. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006, 153-179.


5.       Lawyers in the Heavenly Court

Richard Hidary, "Why are There Lawyers in Heaven?"

Plato, Gorgias.

Kennedy, ibid., 30-63.


6.      Kal vaHomer, Gezerah Shavah, binyan Av

        powerpoint, sources

Reading: Lieberman, Saul. Hellenism in Jewish Palestine, 1962, 47-68.

Daube, David. “Rabbinic Methods of Interpretation and Hellenistic Rhetoric.” Hebrew Union College Annual 22 (1949): 239-64.

Richard Hidary, "Talmudic Topoi," 1-36.

Moshe Bernstein and Shlomo Koyfman. "The Interpretation of Biblical Law in the Dead Sea Scrolls: Forms and Methods." In Biblical Interpretation at Qumran, edited by Matthias Henze, 61-87.Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2005.


7.       Publication of Mishnah

powerpoint, rules of pesikah

Reading: Levine, Lee. Judaism and Hellenism in Antiquity: Conflict or Confluence? Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 1999, 96-138.

Lieberman, Saul. Hellenism in Jewish Palestine. New York: The Jewish Theological Seminary, 1962, 83-99.

Hidary, Richard. Dispute for the Sake of Heaven: Legal Pluralism in the Talmud. Providence: Brown University, 2010, 43-80.

Yaakov Elman, "Order, Sequence, and Selection: The Mishnah's Anthological Choices," in The Anthology in Jewish Literature, 53-80.



Unit III - Aggadah

8.       Why is there a Zodiac in the YU Bet Midrash? - powerpoint

Fine, Steven. Art and Judaism in the Greco-Roman World: Toward a New Jewish Archaeology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010, 186-207.

Nava Sevilla Sadeh, "A Promise of Wisdom."

Pirke Avot: Chreia of the Fathers

Tropper, Amram. Wisdom, Politics, and Historiography: Tractate Avot in the Context of the Graeco-Roman Near East. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004, 157-188.

 Paper Topic Due

9.       Midrash Aggadah

Fables and Myths

Aesop's Fables

Reading: Yassif, Eli. The Hebrew Folktale: History, Genre, Meaning. Translated by Jacqueline Teitelbaum. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999, 191-209.

Hidary, "Rabbis as Orators."

Assignment 2


10.   Philosophy


Was Epicurus an Apikores?

Fischel, Henry. Rabbinic Literature and Greco-Roman Philosophy. Leiden: Brill, 1973, 51-89.

Feldman, Louis, and Meyer Reinhold. Jewish Life and Thought among Greeks and Romans. Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1996, 77-120.

Handelman, Susan. The Slayers of Moses: The Emergence of Rabbinic Interpretation in Modern Literary Theory. Albany: SUNY, 1982, ch. 1.

Suggested: Yadin, Azzan. “Rabban Gamliel, Aphrodite's Bath, and the Question of Pagan Monotheism.” Jewish Quarterly Review 96, no. 2 (2006): 149-79.

Armand Kaminka, “Hillel's Life and Work,” The Jewish Quarterly Review 30, no. 2 (1939): 78-79.

Paper Bibliography Due


Unit IV – Classical Rhetorical Argumentation and Structure in the Talmud

11.   Mirdash halakha and Progymnasmata

Kennedy, 128-224.


12.   Pre-Passover Special

The Seder and the Symposium, From Mishnah to Haggadah, Rabbis as Rhetors

 Bokser, Baruch. The Origins of the Seder: The Passover Rite and Early Rabbinic Judaism. Berkley: University of California Press, 1984.

13.   Talmud Yerushalmi

Greco-Roman Rhetoric in the Yerushalmi

Aristotle. On Rhetoric: A Theory of Civil Discourse. Translated by George A. Kennedy. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007. Try to find one parallel to a Talmudic technique.

Richard Hidary, “Classical Rhetorical Arrangment and Reasoning in the Talmud: The Case of Yerushalmi Berakhot 1:1,” AJS Review 34:1 (April 2010), 33-64.


14.   Talmud Bavli

 Quintilian. Institutes of Oratory: or, Education of an Orator in Twelve Books. Translated by John Selby Watson. London: George Bell & Sons, 1892. Try to find one parallel to a Talmudic technique.

Greco-Roman Rhetoric in the Bavli

Elman, Yaakov. “Orality and the Redaction of the Babylonian Talmud.” Oral Tradition 14, no. 1 (1999): 52-99.

Richard Hidary, “The Agonistic Bavli: Greco-Roman Rhetoric in Sasanian Persia” in Shoshannat Yaakov: Jewish and Iranian Studies in Honor of Yaakov Elman, edited by Shai Secunda and Steven Fine, 137-64. Leiden: Brill, 2012.

Handout, Powerpoint

Unit V - Afikomin

15.   Classical Rhetoric in the New Testament

Kennedy, George A. New Testament Interpretation Through Rhetorical Criticism. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1984, chs. 1 and 6.


Pro-Jewish Attitudes by Romans

Criticism of Jews by Romans

Feldman, Louis, and Meyer Reinhold. Jewish Life and Thought among Greeks and Romans, 305-395 (esp 361f.).

handout - Ancient Anti-Semitism


16.   Greco-Roman Science and Medicine

             Medicine - sources, 8 Month Old Fetus

Reading: Stephen T. Mewemyer, “Talmudic Medicicne and Greco-Roman Science: Crosscurrents and Resistance,” and Samuel S. Kottek, “Selected Elements of Talmudic Medical Terminology, with Special Consideration to Graeco-Latin Influences and Sources,” in W. Haase and H. Temporini, Aufstieg und Niedergang der römischen Welt, Berlin, Walter deGruyter, Part II, Principate, Volume 37.3, 1996, pp. 2895-2911 and 2912-2932.

Simon-Shoshan, Moshe. “'The Heavens Proclaim the Glory of God': A Study in Rabbinic Cosmology.” Bekhol Derakhekha Daehu; Journal of Torah and Scholarship 20: 67-96.