Laying Down the Law
This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Laying Down the Law *

According to the traditional Jewish chronology, the Torah was revealed through Moses at Mount Sinai fifty days after the exodus from Egypt, on the first Shavu‘ot. Although the Ten Commandments were proclaimed with great fanfare, the revelation at Sinai also included the hundreds of additional laws and commandments that are set out in the subsequent sections of the Torah. Later, the Torah speaks of Moses instructing the people in those precepts from the “Tent of Meeting” in the course of their sojourn in the desert.

The rabbis of the Midrash posed the question of why was it necessary, after the entire Torah had already been given at Sinai, for Moses to repeat it all? The fourth-century teacher Rabbi Eleazar ben Pedat answered that the proclamation at Sinai was not yet completely binding on the people, but only had the status of a general statement of principles, a protective “hedge” to discourage them from committing sins. However it did not become fully enforceable until it was explained to them in detail in the Tent of Meeting.

The Midrash elucidates Rabbi Eleazar’s answer with the help of a parable: “This is analogous to a written and signed edict—’diatagma’—that has been brought into a city. The citizens of the city may not be punished for violating the edict until it has been promulgated in the public square.”

The “diatagma” (or "prostagma") is indeed a well-known term in the Roman legal vocabulary, designating an ordinance issued by a high government authority. The use of an institution from Roman jurisprudence to explain a biblical text, or even to derive a principle of Jewish law, should not surprise us; in the ample corpus of rabbinic parables, this was the the widespread rhetorical convention rather than an exception. In the most common type of rabbinic parable, relationships between God and his creatures are illustrated by means of tales about flesh-and-blood rulers and their subjects. The authors of those parables often demonstrate an intimate familiarity with the protocols and intrigues of the Roman imperial courts.

So too in this parable explaining the need for Moses’s repeated teaching of the Torah’s commandments, the midrashic reference to the diatagma is perfectly accurate and appropriate, and it attests to the author’s excellent grasp of Roman legislative procedures.

Under Roman law, edicts could be issued by the emperors or by high ranking magistrates. Sometimes they took the form of ad hoc rulings intended to deal with a particular situation or emergency; however, a magistrate might also issue a “perpetual” diatagma at the outset of his term of office, which would set out the policy that would remain in force for the duration of that term.

Of especial relevance for understanding Rabbi Eleazar’s parable is the fact, well known to subjects of the Roman empire, that the edicts did not take legal effect until they had been posted in a public place and made known to the populace. It was not enough merely to have the enactments issued and signed by the authorities.

We can therefore appreciate how that Roman legal convention provided Rabbi Eleazar with a useful key to understanding the need for two separate promulgations of the Torah’s commandments—first at Mount Sinai, and then later in the Tent of Meeting.

When a newly issued Roman imperial >edict was read out before a community, it was a very sombre affair that was attended by intense and respectful silence. The ancient Christian preacher John Chrysostom was most impressed with the solemn atmosphere that accompanied the reading of missives from the emperor: “There is complete silence, all din and tumult hushed, everyone standing with rapt attention and desiring to hear what it is the imperial letters convey; anyone making the slightest noise or interrupting the flow of the reading runs the greatest risk.” From this model, Chrysostom derived practical implications as to the appropriate behaviour of a congregation when listening to readings from sacred scriptures: “All the more so is there need to stand in fear and trembling, to maintain utter silence, and rid yourselves of any confusion in your thinking so that you may be able to understand what is being said.”

Ancient Jewish preachers also turned to the reading of imperial edicts as a source of instructive parables for describing the Torah’s greatness. Commenting on the words of the prophet Micah “O my people, what have I done to you, and wherein have I wearied you,” Rabbi Isaac observed: This is analogous to a king who sent out his edict (“prostagma”) to a certain city. What did the residents do? They rose to their feet, uncovered their heads and read it in fear, trembling and agitation. In exactly the same way the Holy One said to Israel: The recitation of the Shema‘ is my prostagma, and yet I did not impose upon you any onerous obligations. I did not require that you recite it while standing on your feet, or while uncovering your head—on the contrary, you may recite it even ‘when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way.’”

In blatant contrast to John Chrysostom’s homily, Rabbi Isaac’s remarkable exposition employs the comparison between the Torah’s commandments and the Roman edicts in order to demonstrate (disarming any gripes about the allegedly burdensome quality of Jewish observance) that the Torah is actually more indulgent than the emperor when it comes to the demands that it makes on its followers.

Yet another rabbinic parable refers to a similar occasion in order to illustrate the biblical episode in which king Jehoiakim ripped up and burned the scroll that contained Jeremiah’s prophecy foretelling Judah’s imminent downfall at the hands of the Babylonians. The parable likens this episode to an incident when an edict was being promulgated throughout the empire. Every city in which it arrived greeted the edict with reverence and affection. Only in the king’s own hometown was the document insolently torn up and burned.

On the surface, this passage strikes us as contrived and arbitrary in the way that it concocts an unlikely-looking scenario to resemble the details of the biblical story about Jeremiah and Jehoiakim. However, ancient authors preserve records of an actual historical episode that precisely fits the facts of the rabbinic parable. An imperial edict denying civil honours to Christians was accepted obediently throughout the empire; when it arrived in Nicomedia, however, it was torn up. Nicomedia, the sole city to reject the edict, was at the time the capital of the eastern Roman empire, the residence of the emperors. The rabbinic parable is thus seen to contain a reference to a news headline that must have been common knowledge to many subjects of the Roman empire.

Our present world of democratic republics and parliamentary legislation does not easily provide apt metaphors for conveying the majesty of God or the reverence inspired by the Torah. Indeed, I wonder if the ancient Jewish homilists would have enough ingenuity to derive instructive theological analogies from the political wrangling, lobbying and deal-making that have become necessary ingredients for the enactment of so many of our current laws.


This article and many others are now included in the book

A Time for Every Purpose
A Time for Every Purpose

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My email address is: eliezer.segal@ucalgary.ca

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  • First Publication:
    • The Jewish Free Press, Calgary, May 23, 2014, p. 11.
  • For further reading:
    • Appelbaum, Alan. The Rabbis’ King-Parables: Midrash from the Third-Century Roman Empire. Judaism in Context 7. Piscataway, NJ: Gorgias Press, 2010.
    • Lieberman, Saul. Hellenism in Jewish Palestine: Studies in the Literary Transmission, Beliefs and Manners of Palestine in the I Century B. C. E.-IV Century C. E. Texts and Studies of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America v. 18. New York: Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 1950.
    • ———. “Roman Legal Institutions in Early Rabbinics and in the Acta Martyrum.” The Jewish Quarterly Review 35, no. 1. New Series (1944): 1–57.
    • Sperber, Daniel. A Dictionary of Greek and Latin Legal Terms in Rabbinic Literature. Dictionaries of Talmud, Midrash, and Targum 1. Ramat-Gan, Israel: Bar-Ilan University Press, 1984.
    • Tropper, Amram. “Roman Contexts in Jewish Texts: On ‘Diatagma’ and ‘Prostagma’ in Rabbinic Literature.” The Jewish Quarterly Review 95, no. 2. New Series (2005): 207–227.
    • Ziegler, Ignaz. Die Königsgleichnisse Des Midrasch: Beleuchtet Durch Die Romische Kaiserzeit. Breslau: S. Schottlaender, 1903.