Strange Roman Ritual?

I keep coming across mention of matters Classical in ancient Jewish texts — in this case, the Talmud — which don’t sound quite ‘right’. Here’s one mentioned in the Jewish Journal:

The ancient Romans were known for their wild and weird rituals, but one of them, recorded in the Talmud (Avodah Zarah 11b), is of special interest to us. It is said that once every 70 years, Romans would have a healthy man, wearing the legendary garments of Adam, ride on the back of a limping man, who wore the mask of a Jew as he walked through the streets of Rome. At the head of the parade an announcer would repeatedly say: “Our master’s brother is a forger. Whomever sees this parade let him enjoy, because there will not be another for 70 more years. Forgery has not benefited the forger nor deceit benefited the deceiver!”

via Epitome of Truth: Parashat Toledot (Genesis 25:19-28:9) | Torah Portion | Jewish Journal.

“Legendary garments of Adam”? Was he naked? A ritual held once every 70 years? Mask of a Jew? What would that look like? Sorry … this doesn’t sound  Roman at all …

8 thoughts on “Strange Roman Ritual?

  1. Sounds quite Roman to me. There were several carnivalesque traditions, and mocking imagery like this is still part of contemporary continental carnivals. The alleged 70-year cycle could be a misinterpretation of the chronologies of the ludi saeculares, which varied under different emperors. The legendary garments of Adam were probably the “garments of [animal?] skin” mentioned in Gen 3. As for the dating I suspect the rule of emperor Hadrian (maybe after the Bar Kokhba revolt—were there ludi saeculares under Hadrian?) or of one of his successors, because the Judaeans didn’t exactly have a good reputation among the Romans in those times.

    1. And the cry that “whomever sees this parade let him enjoy, because there will not be another for 70 more years” sounds a little bit like the herald’s cry at the ludi saeculares about the “spectacle, such as [the attendants] had never witnessed and never would again” (Zosimus 2 via en:WP).

  2. The ritual itself might have some Roman-ity to it, but the story referred to is definitely not Roman. This straight out of Rabbinical lore.

    Basically the story is that the coat of skins mentioned in Genesis 3 were carried by Adam and handed down through the years until Noah’s time, but only handed down to those who were deemed worthy of them. Shem was reportedly the rightful holder, but Ham copied them and made his own, thus becoming the “forging” brother (of Shem, the traditional ancestor of the Jews).

    (reference “Tree of Souls: The Mythology of Judaism” (Oxford 2004) — Howard Schwartz talks about both the garments of Adam and the story of Ham stealing them from Noah after the flood on pp 436-7 or so)

    In essence this ritual is some biblical smack-talk. Very odd that it’s ascribed to the Romans though. Good find.

    1. If it’s simply Jewish-Rabbinical lore projected onto a Roman ritual, then it can only be Jewish Anti-Roman polemics. Why else would they ascribe it to the Romans in this way, painting them in a negative light? It’s definitely possible, but can we rule out the other explanations? The Romans knew Jewish legends and literature, so they might have come up with this imagery themselves. (??)

    2. “Good find”??
      Is ignorance something that you brag about??
      The average day school kid has heard about & perhaps learned this gemara.
      WIth that in mind, I find your statement- “but the story referred to is definitely not Roman” to be the height of ignorance!! You have practically no knowledge of gemara yet have no qualms about throwing your ignorant “opinions” around. Thanx. If I ever need the opinion of an uninformed ignoramus, – I will forward my questions to you

      1. As far as I’m aware, the Gemara date to the period either prior to or after the period covered by this blog. Logically, this ‘ritual’ must be post-Constantine and probably much post-Constantine. That is what I mean when I say it’s definitely not Roman in the context of this blog.

      2. @DM: Are you sure it’s post-Constantine? Conservative Jewish scholars say the Avodah Zarah was written earlier. And even if it was written late, it wouldn’t automatically mean that the “ritual” it’s referring to also happened in later times. I found a version of the text here (with notes) – http://www.halakhah.com/zarah/zarah_11.html#PARTb –, and according to the interpretation the “mask of a Jew” was the “scalp of Ishmael”. The notes identify him as one of the “Ten Martyrs” executed under Hadrian. If the Ishamel interpretation in the main text is correct, the “ritual” could have originated much earlier than the 4th (or even 5th) century. A more interesting (and according to the notes more feasible) explanation is that the “ritual” was not aimed against the Judaeans, but was a political polemic by emperor Philippus Arabs against his rival, the traitor and eventually succeeding emperor Decius. This would date the ritual to AD 248. But in both cases we’re dealing with pre-Constantinian times.

      3. Interesting … I’ll have to look into this further. STill, a ritual that’s spaced out every seventy years sounds strange to me ..l

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