Labor relations are mentioned in almost all five sections of the idolatry chapter. In the first section, Jews are listed as possible helpers for Roman basilica-builders, bath-builders, scaffolds, or stadiums. Gentiles are not mentioned as possible construction labor for the Jewish population. On the other hand, Jews do appear to play a key role as merchants during the Roman Empire. Several passages in the chapter on idolatry relate to what can and cannot be sold to a Gentile, and when. Rules establish boundaries between the business partners, so that they are not on equal footing. The authors of the Mishnah are either reacting to or creating social stratifications that are necessary for the preservation of group identity. The social stratifications and normative boundaries might also have been important for the economic cohesiveness of Jewish communities during Roman times. In other words, the taboos against the selling of certain goods might also have been a way to maintain self-sustaining Jewish communities by keeping certain goods within them.
Ritual purity remains the central concept of the Mishnah chapter on idolatry, however. Jews may help Romans build their baths, but not the part of the bath house where the idol is kept (I, 7). No Jew can aide a Gentile in the construction of a basilica. That basilica is bound to be tainted with idols. Jewish artisans and craftsmen cannot manufacture any objects that might be use to adorn Roman deities. Again these labor-related taboos are not solely for the purpose of establishing rules for religious purity. They are also a means of segregating labor and defining how Jewish labor can and cannot be sold on the common market.
The Jewish perspective of Gentiles during the time of Mishnah authorship was prejudicial. Gentiles are "suspected of bestiality," and therefore Jewish ranchers should not leave them alone with their cattle (II, 1). A Jewish daughter cannot serve as a midwife to a Gentile mother because the child being brought into the world...
Ironically, it seems, a Jewish baby can suckle a Gentile wet nurse. Drinking the milk of Gentiles seems like it should be a ritual taboo but it is not. The contradiction can be explained in relation to the desire to strengthen and preserve the Jewish population. If a Jewish baby lost its mother, then it is in the best interests of the community to keep that baby alive by whatever means possible. Thus, suckling from a Gentile wet nurse is acceptable. On the other hand, a Jewish wet nurse is prohibited from suckling a Gentile baby. The Gentile baby is the taboo object, treated almost like an idol.
Jewish dietary laws (kashrut) are clarified also in the second section of the Mishnah idolatry chapter. Rules related to cheese making and pickles seem arbitrary and often contradictory. They are meaningful more on a symbolic level, enabling the Jewish community to establish clear boundaries of when and how to share food with others. Breaking bread and supping with others is a major social function. Distinguishing between Gentile and Jewish food is important for maintaining social boundaries. Likewise, wine is a target of taboo in the Mishnah. Jews cannot drink from Roman libation wine. Even flasks and funnels that have touched libation wine are considered to be contaminated (V. 7).
In spite of the negative implications of the stereotypes and insults in this chapter, the relationship between the Jews and Gentiles under Roman rule was relatively amicable. Jews and Gentiles do regular business with each other and even live side by side (III, 6). Granted the Jew wants nothing to do with the idol worship that characterizes Roman religion. One section refers to wartime in terms that suggest that the two communities bond together, and even share their food (IV, 6). Mistrust between Gentiles and Jews seems to be a major theme in the Mishnah, yet on closer examination, mistrust is not directed at the Gentiles per se. What seems like mistrust is only another means of retaining Jewish cultural identity. For example, if a Jew did not observe how a wine was produced or how a cheese was made, it can be assumed that that product is not made according to Jewish custom. Gentile doctors, customers, and neighbors are all mentioned as if the two communities lived side by side but within a self-segregated society. Notions of cleanliness and ritual purity defines members of the in-group vs. The out-group, not…
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