This mishnah contains a famous story of a discussion between Proclos, a Greek philosopher and Rabban Gamaliel, the Jewish patriarch.
In order to understand this mishnah we must remember that Roman and Greek society would have been full of statues. Indeed, anywhere a Jew turned his head, he probably saw a statue, often a statue of a god or goddess. If the Jews were to adopt an overly strict attitude towards these statues, and consider them idols, Jews would effectively be prohibited from taking part in most of Greco-Roman society, including such communal institutions such as the bathhouse, roads, bridges and marketplaces. In this mishnah Rabban Gamaliel shows a remarkable degree of flexibility and accommodation to this situation.
The story begins with Proklos, the son of Plosphos (this may be the word for philosopher) pointing out that the Torah forbids Rabban Gamaliel’s being in Aphrodite’s bathhouse. Rabban Gamaliel responds that it is not appropriate to respond in the bathhouse. When they leave the bathhouse Rabban Gamaliel answers Proklos’s question. The bathhouse was not made for Aphrodite. Rather it was made for the public use and Aphrodite was merely placed there as adornment. As such, Rabban Gamaliel’s presence in the bathhouse is not a form of worship to Aphrodite, as it would be in her temple. Furthermore, people do not say that the bathhouse was made to adorn Aphrodite. Rather she is ancillary to the bathhouse and it is the central structure.
Rabban Gamaliel further points out that if this sculpture of Aphrodite were truly considered to be a goddess, people would not walk naked in front of her, or have seminal emissions or urinate. Such actions are signs of disrespect, which would not be appropriate in front of a goddess. When the Torah states that a Jew is commanded to destroy idols, the intent is to destroy idols that are treated as gods, and not those that are treated with disrespect.
Today’s sugya begins to comment on the Rabban Gamaliel story.
In the Mishnah itself, Rabban Gamaliel responds to Proklos that it is prohibited to respond in the bathhouse. He knows that one should not talk Torah in a place in which naked people are found, even if he does not utter the words in Hebrew. But this is not sufficient for the Talmud. They think that even saying this in the bathhouse is not permitted. Thus a tanna teaches that Rabban Gamaliel responded only when he had already left the bathhouse.
There is an argument here over whether urinating in front of the statue is really a sign that people do not treat the statue with sanctity. According to R. Oshaia, it is not. After all, Rava pointed out that people defecate in front of the Peor statue and this seems to be a sign of honor, not disrespect. Thus Rabban Gamaliels’ answer was deceptive.
R. Hama b. Joseph says that there is a difference between the Peor statue and Aphrodite. Peor is worshipped by defecating in front of it (at least according to the rabbis). But Aphrodite is not worshipped in this way, and therefore one who urinates in front of her has disrespected the idol and thereby annulled it.
The amoraim continue to discuss whether Rabban Gamaliel’s response to Proklos was deceptive.
Abaye offers a different alternative as to what the deception may have been. One of Rabban Gamaliel’s answers was that he did not enter Aphrodite’s domain, she entered his. But Abaye points out that it is permitted to enter the domain of an idol in order to take a bath, or a stroll in the garden. The prohibition is only to provide direct benefit to the idolatry. Thus Rabban Gamaliel did not need to say that he didn’t enter her domain.
But Abaye himself points out that this answer is not actually deceptive. Rabban Gamaliel is a very important person, a real macher. His mere entrance into someone’s domain is considered providing a benefit. So if Rabban Gamaliel had entered Aphrodite’s domain, it would have been a problem. But he did not. She entered his.
R. Shimi b. Hiyya locates a different way in which Rabban Gamaliel’s answer was deceptive. Urinating on an idol is not considered annulment, according to the mishnah. Thus the fact that people urinate it does not mean that he can derive benefit from it.
But R. Shimi b. Hiyya explains that one person urinating on the idol may not be considered annulment. Later, when he calms down, he will make peace with his idol. But people urinate in front of the idol all the time. Thus it is annulled.
Rabbah b. Ulla has yet another answer as to how Rabban Gamaliel’s response may have been deceptive. Rabban Gamaliel claims that people do not say that the bathhouse was made for Aphrodite. But, Rabbah points out, even if they did say this, it still would not cause the bathhouse too become prohibited because items cannot be dedicated to idol worship. Even if they are, they are still permitted.
But Rabbah b. Ulla says that the remark was not actually deceptive. While we would not consider the bathhouse to have been dedicated to idolatry, it still would have been prohibited as an ornament for idolatry. Thus Rabban Gamaliel needed to point out that it is not prohibited because the idol adorns it; not the other way around.