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Blog: Roman Festivals in Rabbinic Literature and the intersection of Judaism and Rome

Roman Triumphal arch panel copy from Beth Hatefutsoth, showing spoils of Jerusalem temple. Image via Wikimedia under a CC BY-SA 3.0 License.

Over the past year I have had the amazing opportunity of being a Rome Prize Fellow in Ancient Studies at the American Academy in Rome. In this month’s blog, as a sort of farewell to the city, I briefly discuss my own research on holidays and festivals in ancient Jewish literature and the research I completed in Rome. I also briefly describe the evidence of the intersection and interaction of Jews, Judaism, and Rome found in the city.

I came to Rome to complete my dissertation entitled, “Foreign Holidays and Festivals in Rabbinic Literature,” in which I analyzed ancient Jewish, specifically ancient rabbinic, descriptions of ancient Roman holidays, including the holidays of Saturnalia and the Roman New Year Festival of the Kalends of January. Sarah Bond, Associate Professor of Classics at University of Iowa and current editor of the SCS blog has previously discussed early Christian and pagan arguments about the Kalends of January. The Kalends of January and Saturnalia are mentioned in the ancient rabbinic works of the Mishnah, Tosefta, and the Palestinian and Babylonian Talmuds, and according to the Mishnah, it is one of the non-Jewish holidays on which it is forbidden for rabbinic Jews to interact economically with non-Jews. These individual Roman holidays listed and described in rabbinic literature have typically either been seen as mere historical data detailing the timing of historical events, or these holidays have been used to reconstruct the ancient Roman calendar. However, instead of merely looking for the historical details of these holidays in the ancient world to determine what holidays were observed when, I analyze how ancient Jews used Roman holidays and possibly why.


Detail of a menorah found on a column at the Synagogue at Ostia Antica. Image by Catherine Bonesho, unpublished.
Detail of a menorah found on a column at the Synagogue at Ostia Antica. Image by Catherine Bonesho, unpublished.

I argue that the ancient rabbis, writing after the Roman destruction of the Temple (70 CE) and Jerusalem, describe Roman holidays and invent their own origin stories for these holidays toward their larger interests of vilifying Roman rule over Judea and promoting rabbinic authority. For example, the rabbis claim in the Palestinian Talmud that the name of the festival Saturnalia is derived from a Hebrew phrase meaning “hidden hatred” (שנאה טמונה). On the other hand, the Palestinian rabbis claim that the Kalends of January was actually founded by the biblical Adam, taking the holiday out of the hands of the Romans. In doing so, the rabbis assert that the Kalends of January is actually a biblical holiday that the Romans later corrupt. The ancient rabbis thus understand Rome as a hateful and corrupting force. The ancient Jewish descriptions of Roman holidays then do not only tell us about the Romans and their calendar but, more importantly, tell us about how the ancient Jews responded to Jewish suffering under Roman rule.

While much of my work on rabbinic descriptions of Roman holidays meant close textual readings at my desk at the American Academy in Rome, my research benefitted from actually living in Rome itself. In order to better understand the communal celebration of holidays, I observed many holiday celebrations around the city. I attended the lighting of the largest menorah in Rome at Piazza Barberini on the first night of Hanukkah to study what it means to celebrate a Jewish holiday in an overtly Christian environment. I also attended the stations of the cross papal mass held near the Colosseum, highlighting the importance of space to the observance of holidays. Finally, as I described in a previous blog post, on Pentecost I witnessed the dropping of the rose petals in the Pantheon to see how space can be reused and to aid in understanding worship in the ancient world. All of this “field” research nuanced my project on ancient Jewish descriptions of Roman holidays and helped me decipher the intricacies of the celebration and descriptions of holidays. It also gave a sense of the world the rabbis interacted with, as I routinely walked past buildings and statues that stood during the rabbinic period.


The lighting of the menorah in Piazza Barberini on the first night of Hanukkah with the Fontana del Tritone in the background. Image by Catherine Bonesho, unpublished.
The lighting of the menorah in Piazza Barberini on the first night of Hanukkah with the Fontana del Tritone in the background. Image by Catherine Bonesho, unpublished.

A final effect of working here in Rome on my research on ancient rabbinic descriptions of Roman holidays and the most rewarding has been understanding the intersection of Jews and Judaism and Rome. Recent scholarship on the ancient rabbinic movement has emphasized that the rabbis “are best understood as shaping their texts and their religious, social, and political stances as Roman provincials.”[1] The worlds of Rome and the rabbis then collide in rabbinic discussions of how to live in a world ruled by the Romans, including legislation on Roman institutions like the baths, temples, icons of Roman deities, and coins that depict Roman emperors.

Though not specific to the ancient rabbis, during the past year I have accessed the spaces that showcase this interaction and intersection of Judaism and Rome, from the depiction of the menorah on the Arch of Titus and the ancient synagogue at Ostia Antica to the bronze cobblestones found throughout Rome commemorating the victims of the Holocaust, among others. There is even a plaque commemorating the burning of copies of the Babylonian Talmud by inquisitors on 9 September 1553 in Campo dei Fiori. Indeed, these sites and spaces emphasize that one cannot simply study Rome or ancient Judaism without attending to the other.


The plaque located in Campo dei Fiori commemorating the burning of the copies of the Babylonian Talmud in Rome in 1553. Image by Catherine Bonesho, unpublished.
The plaque located in Campo dei Fiori commemorating the burning of the copies of the Babylonian Talmud in Rome in 1553. Image by Catherine Bonesho, unpublished.


[1] Hayim Lapin, Rabbis as Romans (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 3.

Header Image: Roman Triumphal arch panel copy from Beth Hatefutsoth, showing spoils of Jerusalem temple. Image via Wikimedia under a CC BY-SA 3.0 License.

Catherine Bonesho's picture

Catherine Bonesho is an Assistant Professor in the Near Eastern Languages and Cultures Department at the University of California, Los Angeles. She writes on the intersection of ancient Judaism and empire in the Near East. bonesho@ucla.edu.

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