The Graeco-Roman Trade Fair and the Rabbis

By Cohn, Yehudah B. | The Journal of the American Oriental Society, April-June 2011 | Go to article overview

The Graeco-Roman Trade Fair and the Rabbis


Cohn, Yehudah B., The Journal of the American Oriental Society


Periodic markets are known as a commercial feature of the ancient Mediterranean world, and have received their share of scholarly attention from Roman economic historians. (1) Trade fairs were commonly linked to religious festivals, (2) and are best known from Italy itself, as well as from throughout the eastern part of the Empire, including Palestine. Research related to the subject is now dependent on the 1993 book by Luuk de Ligt, in which he demonstrated that "... both urban and rural fairs were a persistent element in the social and economic infrastructure of the Roman Empire." (3)

Several such fairs (known in Hebrew and Rabbinic Aramaic as yarid, pl. yeridim (4)) are attested in rabbinic sources (5)--we are told of their occurrence in Acre-Ptolemais, (6) Beth Shean-Scythopolis, (7) Botna or Batnan (perhaps to be identified with a fair near Hebron known from Christian sources and archaeological excavations), (8) Gaza (whose fair is mentioned in the seventh-century Chronicon Paschale as dating to the time of Hadrian), (9) and Tyre. (10) Ze' ev Safrai concluded that "during the Roman period the fairs were an important economic, social and religious institution which greatly influenced commerce and trade in Palestine." (11) It is, however, noteworthy that the Tosefta, Talmud Yerushalmi, and Talmud Bavli (as well as Genesis Rabbah) all reflect restrictions related to participation at such fairs, and this clear rabbinic opposition-which extends to going near the site of a fair (according to T Avodah Zarah 1:5)--calls for elaboration. (12)

The rabbis' discussion of the topic, such as it exists, centers on sections of the above works that deal with Avodah Zarah (lit., 'foreign worship'), and it is clear that the problem with fairs, in their view, was related to an association with pagan cults. T Avodah Zarah 1:7 states explicitly that only a pagan fair is prohibited.

In 1959 the late Saul Lieberman asserted that the Palestinian rabbis' prohibition on participation in pagan trade fairs was, however, limited to those that were not merely dedicated in some way to pagan worship, but that simultaneously enjoyed preferential tax treatment, and Safrai subsequently argued a similar point in some detail, concluding that "the reason for the prohibition seems to be that tax or customs benefits were offered at the fair in honor of a pagan divinity. Since it was forbidden for a Jew to derive benefit from idolatry, he could not derive benefit ... from the fair." (13) Rabbinic aversion towards fairs having these twin features was due, in this conception, to the financial -benefit in the form of a tax break--that the participant would have derived by association with pagan ritual. A proscription against enjoying such benefit might indeed have been in keeping with rabbinic law (halakhah) on paganism, as can most easily be demonstrated by even casual reference to M. Avodah Zarah. (14) In the absence of such financial consideration, a mere connection between fairs and paganism would not then, according to Lieberman and Safrai, have aroused such displeasure from the Palestinian rabbis. (15)

This article will argue for an alternative approach to rabbinic attitudes towards the nexus of trade fairs and paganism. Analyzing the issues entails, in the first place, some unpacking of the relevant sections of Mishnah, Tosefta, and Talmud Yerushalmi, each of which seems to interpret the one preceding it in this chain.

The first clause of M. Avodah Zarah 1:4 reads as follows: (16) "If a town contains pagan worship, outside the town is permitted." As the preceding paragraphs deal with prohibitions against business dealings with gentiles on pagan festive occasions--prohibitions specific to time rather than space our text immediately begs the question of how towns came into the picture. Tosefta Avodah Zarah 1:6 apparently takes up the challenge--implicitly elaborating that M. Avodah Zarah 1:4 is referring to a fair, in stating: "If there is a fair in the town, the inside of the town is prohibited, but. …

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