Avoda Zara 44 - 50
The Rabbi, a Philosopher and a Statue
Rabban Gamliel said, “We don’t say that the bathhouse was made for (the statue of) Aphrodites, but rather that Aphrodites was made for the bathhouse.”
This is the second of three answers that Rabban Gamliel offered when explaining why he was permitted to bathe in a bathhouse that was located in the courtyard of the idol Aphrodites (ancient Greek for “Venus”, a statue for those who worship the planet by that name, and the pagan deity for marriage — Tiferet Yisrael).
The mishna on our daf teaches: Prokalus (a pagan philosopher) asked Rabban Gamliel in Acco, who was bathing in a bathhouse of Aphrodites, “Why are you bathing here? Isn’t it written in your Torah: And nothing that is doomed to destruction shall cling to your hand? (Dev. 13:18, referring to the prohibition against receiving benefit from the spoils of an idolatrous city or from any idolatry).”
The mishna continues: Rabban Gamliel said, “One may not answer (with words of Torah) in a bathhouse” (since people are undressed, it would be a dishonor to the Torah to speak words of Torah there, even in a foreign language — Rashi).
And then the mishna states: “And when he went out, he said to him, “I did not come into its (the idol’s) boundary; it came into my boundary.” (The bathhouse was built first, for all to use, and only later was the statue put there. It doesn’t have the right to steal the use of the bathhouse from the public — Rashi).
The mishna records a second reason that Rabban Gamliel gave for permitting the benefit of bathing there, despite the idol’s presence, “We don’t say that the bathhouse was made as an adornment for Aphrodites; rather we say that the statue of Aphrodites is there as an adornment for the bathhouse” (therefore the idol is “serving the bathhouse,” and is secondary and inconsequential relative to it — Rashi).
The third reason Rabban Gamliel offers in the mishna: “Even if a person would give you much money, you would not go in front of your idol in an undressed and impure state, and empty out your bodily wastes in front of it. But this idol is placed on the opening to the sewage drain from the bathhouse, and all of the people are emptying their wastes into the conduit that drains onto the statue. The Torah prohibits benefit from an idol only if it is treated as a deity (‘You will utterly destroy…their gods, upon the lofty mountains and upon the hills, and under every lush tree.’ — Dev. 12:2); but there is no prohibition to receive benefit if the idol is not treated with the ‘dignity’ of a deity.”
The gemara raises a question regarding Rabban Gamliel’s initial reply: “One may not answer (with words of Torah) in a bathhouse.” Since halacha forbids speaking words of Torah there due to the undressed state of the people there, how could Rabban Gamliel provide this reply, which itself is a statement of Jewish Law, that it is forbidden to speak words of Torah in a bathhouse?
The gemara answers by citing a beraita with a different text than we see in our mishna: “When he went out, he replied, ‘One does not speak words of Torah in a bathhouse’.” What is meant by this answer? Tosefot notes the Rashbam’s explanation: “After he (Rabban Gamliel) went out of the bathhouse, he said, ‘The reason I didn’t answer your question until now, earlier on the inside, is because the halacha is that one may not speak words of Torah inside a bathhouse.’” Rabban Gamliel only then proceeded to give his three answers to the original question of why he was permitted to bathe there.
Tosefot mentions an alternate text of the beraita: “And when he went out, he replied, ‘One does not speak words of Torah in a bathhouse’.” This text implies that this is the only answer he gave when he went out. HaRav Rabbeinu Elchanan says that this seems problematic, since the text of our mishna suggests that he answered the original question when he went out (in three ways!), and didn’t just explain why he didn’t answer it before going out. Tosefot quotes the “Ri”, who clarifies what actually happened, based on a gemara in Masechet Shabbat (10a). There are three rooms in a bathhouse: an inner one where people are undressed, a middle one where people are both dressed and undressed, and an outer room where the people are dressed. In the inner room no words of Torah are allowed. In the middle room, although one is not permitted to speak words of Torah, it is more lenient than in the inner room, and, for example, “sheilat shalom” (a greeting) is permitted. In the outer room words of Torah are permitted. Initially, Rabban Gamliel was in the inner room and gave absolutely no reply. And when he went out to the middle room, where words of Torah are still forbidden, he nevertheless permitted himself to explain that that he wasn’t yet allowed to answer the original question there. He was permitted to do so in order to maintain peace with the pagan and not potentially provoke his wrath. When he reached the other room, where Torah is permitted, Rabban Gamliel answered the original question in triplicate.
To summarize: Rashbam: On the inside he answered nothing; on the outside he answered everything and explained why he didn’t answer on the inside. Ri: Inner room, nothing; middle room, explanation of why no answer yet; outer room, full answers.
The Tiferet Yisrael asks why Rabban Gamliel didn’t simply tell the pagan, when he was still inside (either in the middle room or even in the inner room), that he would tell him later? This would not be speaking words of Torah and would at least be a response that should lessen the chance that the pagan would become angry with him in the meantime for not saying anything inside, something that could possibly lead to danger. After the Tiferet Yisrael first answers that this too might upset the powerful pagan, he suggests a perhaps more profound answer. Had Rabban Gamliel initially stalled by saying “Later,” it may have appeared to the pagan that he did not have an answer to the question, and was stalling for time to think some more. For the Rabbi to be benefiting there without apparently knowing why it should be permitted might be construed as a chillul Hashem, and Rabban Gamliel therefore explained as much as he could as soon as he was permitted.
- Avoda Zara 44b