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Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Ruins in Rabbinic Literature

One of the subjects we are examining is the historic place of ruins in the city throughout history. We can show this through pieces of art, as we did in our post "Ruin Uses in Art" and also through literary references. Of particular interest to me are the tidbits we can glean from the Rabbinic Literature of Late Antiquity, which contain much anecdotal information about how ruins were used. The term "ruin" is commonly used as a synonym for "open space" in a town or an uninhabited area. They are depicted as prone to collapse, dangerous and sometimes the locus of crime. However, in other cases they can be well-trafficked and used for industry or farming. For example, one ruling in the Mishna reads:
"A Synagogue that is in ruins – one does not eulogize in it, and one does not make rope in it, and one does not spread nets in it, and one does not spread out fruit on its roof, nor should one use it as a shortcut. If grass grows in [the synagogue ruins], you should not pick it, since it adds to the anguish.” (Mishna Megilla 3:3)
Since the Mishna feels the need to specify that in the ruins of a synagogue one does not do these activities, the implication is that these are normal activities done in ruins.

In a aggadic story in the Talmud we are told that:
"For three reasons one does not enter ruins: due to suspicion [that prostitutes are there], due to collapses, and due to demons." (Babylonian Talmud, Brachot 3a)
This understanding of ruins is in line with other descriptions of ruins from Late Antiquity. Ruins were seen as being out-of-the-way places where illicit activity could take place; they were seen as dangerous; and perhaps more than all, they were considered to be inhabited by demons. In fact, in Christian literature we often find monks living in ruins, both because they solitary places and because by driving out the demons the monks could prove the superiority of Christianity.

Another story, this one from Midrashic literature, we are told the following story:
“R. Hanina says: Once he saw his fellow townsmen bring sacrifices [to the Temple]. He said ‘Everyone is bringing offerings to Jerusalem and I am not bringing anything.’ What did he do? Immediately he went out to the wilderness of his city in the ruin of his city and found there a stone. He chiseled it and finished it. He said, ‘Now I must bring it up to Jerusalem.’" (Song of Songs Rabba 1:4)
Here we see yet another common use of ruins: as a quarry for building material.

These are three out of dozens of examples of ruins in Rabbinic Literature.

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