Circuses and Theaters

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In rabbinic literature circuses are generally classed with theaters (Shab. 150a). The rabbis looked down on them as symbols of a debased Greek and Roman culture, in contrast to the houses of learning and synagogues which symbolized Jewish culture. Whenever Neḥunya b. ha-Kanah took leave of his bet ha-midrash he used to say, "I give thanks to Thee, O Lord, that Thou hast set my portion among those who attend the bet ha-midrash and synagogues, and not among those who attend theaters and circuses. I toil and they toil; I arise early and so do they. I toil to inherit the Garden of Eden, but they toil for the pit of destruction" (tj, Ber. 4:2, 7d). According to the Midrash, Naomi said to Ruth: "My daughter, it is not the custom of Israelite women to visit gentile theaters and circuses" (Ruth R. 2:22). Abba b. Kahan expounded: "The People of Israel said to God: Lord of the Universe, I have never entered gentile theaters and circuses and amused myself in them" (pdrk 119). Apparently to reprove the common people who frequented them, the rabbis interpreted the verse: "The land was filled with them" (Ex. 1:7) as "the theaters and circuses were filled with them" (Tanḥ. B., Ex. 2). They foretold that eventually even theaters and circuses would become places of Torah (Meg. 6a). The identification of circuses with pugilism, gladiatorial combat, contests with wild beasts, and activities of doubtful morality in general gave rise to the comment of Phinehas b. Pazzi (to Ps. 1:1): "'Happy is the man who hath not walked in the way of the wicked' – to the theaters and circuses of idolaters; 'nor stood in the way of sinners' – not attending contests of wild beasts; 'nor sat in the seat of the scornful' – not participating in evil schemes" (Av. Zar. 18b; Yal., Ps. 613, Shab. 150a). A baraita quotes R. Meir as saying: "One should not go to theaters or circuses because entertainments are arranged there in honor of the idols," to which the Sages commented: "Where such entertainments are given they are banned because of suspicion of idolatry; where they are not given, they are banned as 'the seat of the scornful'" (Av. Zar. 18b; parallel sources, e.g., Tosef., Av. Zar. 2:5; tj, ibid. 1:7, 40a, omit "circuses," possibly reflecting different places or periods). An additional objection to the theaters lay in their presentations, in which Jews were often derided and their customs and poverty mocked. Abbahu offers a graphic description of a typical presentation, which apparently took place in Caesarea, where he resided: "R. Abbahu opened his discourse with the text, 'They that sit in the gate talk of me' (Ps. 69:13): this refers to the nations of the world who sit in theaters and circuses. 'And I am the song of the drunkards': after they take their places, and have eaten and drunk and become intoxicated, they sit and talk of me, scoffing at me and saying, 'We have no need to eat carobs [the staple food of the poor] like the Jews.' They ask one another, 'How long do you wish to live?' 'As long as a Jew wears his Sabbath shirt.' They then lead a camel into their theater, put their shirts upon it, and ask one another, 'Why is it in mourning?' To this they reply, 'It is a Sabbatical year among the Jews and they have no vegetables, so they eat this camel's thorns; and that is why it is in mourning.' Next they bring a clown with shaven head into the theater and ask one another, 'Why is his head shaven?' to which they reply, 'The Jews observe the Sabbath, and whatever they earn during the week they eat on the Sabbath. Since they have no wood for fuel, they break up their bedsteads for this purpose. As a result they sleep on the ground and get covered with dust, and anoint themselves with oil which is [thus in short supply and] very expensive for that reason [so that to avoid the expense of anointing their heads with oil, they shave them].'" (Lam. R., Proem 17). The Jews did not always take this mockery passively. Once, during a Sabbatical year, the gentiles, in their haste to get to the circus left their produce unattended in the marketplace. When they returned, they found that the Jews had generously helped themselves to it in their absence (Tosef., Oho. 18:16).

Textual sources and archaeological finds in Israel show that the earliest theaters were erected only at the end of the first century b.c.e. One of the earliest theaters in the area was the one at Caesarea which was built between 20 and 10 b.c.e. Theaters have been uncovered at Sepphoris, Dor, Tiberias, Legio, Beth-Shean (two theaters), Shuni, Caesarea, Sebaste, Shechem, Antipatris, Jericho, and Elusa. These mostly date from the second century c.e. and were in use until the later Byzantine period. A theater also existed in Jerusalem but nothing has been found of it except for possible theater seats reused in walls close to the Temple Mount.


Krauss, Tal Arch, 3 (1912), 115–21; O. Seyffert, Dictionary of Classical Antiquities (18943). add. bibliography: A. Segal, Theatres in Roman Palestine and Provincia Arabica (1995); R. Reich and Y. Billig, "Theatre-seats from the Excavations Near the Temple Mount," in: New Studies on Jerusalem, 5 (1999), 37–42; Y. Porath, "Theatre, Racing and Athletic Installations in Caesarea," in: Qadmoniot, 36 (2003), 25–42.

[Jehoshua Brand /

Shimon Gibson (2nd ed.)]