Bathhouse Dispute

Avodah Zara (3:4) | Yisrael Bankier | 2 months ago

The Mishnah (3:4) records that Rabban Gamliel was questioned by Peroklos ben Pelosfus, why he was bathing in the bathhouse of Aphrodite, the idol of which was placed in the bathhouse. Peroklos claimed that Rabban Gamliel was acting against a command of the Torah – "No part of banned property may adhere to your hand" (Devarim 13:18). The Chachamim understand that this pasuk forbids deriving any benefit from an idol. The Meiri explains that Peroklos was himself an idol worshiper and was trying to draw attention to Rabban Gamliel's seemingly contradictory behaviour. Rabban Gamliel informed him that he could not answer while they were inside the bathhouse and explained to him the halacha once they left.

Rabban Gamliel first reasoned, "I did not enter into her domain, she entered into mine". He continues, "we do not say that the bathhouse was made to beautify Aphrodite". Finally he added, "Furthermore, if I a paid you a large sum of money, you would not enter your house of worship, naked, [impure], and urinate in front of it. This [idol] is placed over the pipe and everyone urinates in front of it. The Torah only stated, "their gods", only that which they treat is a god is forbidden. That which they do not treat as a god is permitted." Rabban Gamliel's response includes three statements. We should try to understand each of them and why they were all necessary.

Rashi (44b) explains that the first comment regarding domains, meant that the bathhouse preceded the placement of the idol. In other words, it was already a public bathhouse and placing the idol there cannot "steal" it from the public. Rabban Gamliel then added a second answer, a bathhouse is never considered decorative for an idol. When considering a bathhouse, it would be the other way around. The idol is considered decorating and therefore secondary to the bathhouse. Rashi does not comment on what appears to the be the third answer. Note that according to Rashi the first two statements are two separated answers. The Ritva, who agrees with Rashi, explains that the third answer is that even if it preceded the bathhouse and was decorative, since they treat it disrespectfully, the prohibition does not apply.

The difficulty with Rashi's explanation is that the second and third statements are separated with the word "ve'od" – "and furthermore", implying that the third statement is a separate answer. The first statement however runs into the second. The Ritva is not fazed by this and explains that this is because they are conceptually one.

The Tosfot HaRid however does find the language an issue. Furthermore, he questions the first "answer" of Rashi. How do we know that the public bathhouse preceded the idol? Even if it did, it was in the courtyard of idol worship which was not a location that was free for public use.

The Tosfot HaRid therefore argues that the first two statements are one answer. How we define the master of the domain (the first statement) is based on which object is adorning the other (the second statement). In other words, since it is clear that the idol is decorating the bathhouse, it is considered as if it is entering Rabban Gamliels domain.

The Meiri however presents an explanation that sits between Rashi and the Tosfot Rid. The Meiri explains that there are indeed three answers, yet the second answer draws from the first. Following Rashi's explanation, the first answer is that the bathhouse preceded the idol and it therefore cannot seize what belongs to the public. Having established that it preceded the bathhouse, it is proof that the idol was placed there to adorn the bathhouse - like the Tosfot Rid, it helps to define whose domain it is. Unlike Rashi, an idol is not always secondary to the bathhouse. If the idol preceded the bathhouse, that latter's construction is to try and attract more worshipers. In that case one would be prohibited to use the bathhouse. This is not because the bathhouse is now considered decorative about which the above pasuk would then apply, but rather because using it may drive others to worship the idol. If however the idol was placed in an existing bathhouse, it is clear it was done so for marketing purposes – to draw more people to the bathhouse – and it is therefore secondary to the bathhouse.

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