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Actors and Theaters, Rabbis and Synagogues: The Use of Public Performances in Shaping Communal Behavior in Late Antique Palestine

Zeev Weiss

Judging by the large number of buildings known to date in many cities throughout late antique Palestine, theatrical performances were quite popular in drawing audiences of thousands. The vibrancy of these shows was not alien to the Jews, who frequented them on a regular basis, as did their non-Jewish neighbors. The rabbis, like the church fathers, objected to public performances on moral and religious grounds, and looked askance upon this cultural behavior. Aware of the fact that the performances were not foreign to the Jewish population, the rabbis had hoped that by imbuing their sermons with parables and terminology taken from the world of public spectacles they would be more effective in bringing their message to the members of their communities.

            The rabbis ostensibly had a personal familiarity with theatrical shows and consequently referred to them in their sermons. They emphasized the virtues of attending the synagogue instead of the theater on the Sabbath, compared the behavior of the audiences at each venue, and criticized the nature of the performances, at times even naming to specific performers and providing information about actual performances. The rabbis rejected and condemned the theater from the outset, yet, surprisingly enough, there were those among them who expressed a positive attitude toward mime.

            My paper discusses  the rabbis in late antique Palestine who intentionally incorporated the theater and its performances into their sermons. Despite their fierce opposition to these shows, by speaking about these very same issues in their sermons, the rabbis essentially, and perhaps deliberately, became actors in their own communal theater – the synagogue. The interior plan of the synagogue – several benches along three walls and a bema with the Holy Ark serving as a focal point on the fourth, at the far end of the prayer hall –somewhat resembles the layout of the theater. The rabbi presenting his sermon in the synagogue stood near the bema and commanded the attention of the audience gazing upon him from all sides, as was the case with the actor performing on the theater stage. Moreover, the rabbi’s sermon was formulated, similar to the actor’s script in a theatrical performance.

It will be argued – based on a careful reading of the literary sources – that by the ironic usage of the same tools and props employed in the theater, the rabbis not only sought to condemn public entertainment, including theatrical performances, but also urged their community to shun this leisure activity in favor of other “spectacles” more conducive and appropriate to their religious realm.

Session/Panel Title

The Role of “Performance” in Late Antiquity

Session/Paper Number


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