So There's Actually No Connection Between Rome and Edom?
A popular assumption without an apparent source
Note: based on feedback, this article was updated at the bottom
Some might think that my recent obsession with the connection between the Biblical nation of Edom and Rome is a bit strange. Well. Sure. It is a bit strange. But in my defense I’ll suggest that the conflicting accounts might tell us more about some interesting historical and social trends than about the Torah itself.
So let me restate the problem. On the one hand, it’s widely repeated that “Rome” (whichever population group that’s supposed to represent) is descended from Yakov’s brother, Eisav. It follows that Rome - which was a dominant political and military force for some 500 years - can be seen as the Jewish people’s ancient and eternal rival from our very earliest experiences (see Beraishis 32:25).
And on the other hand, there doesn’t seem to be a shred of evidence for any of this in the pages of Tanach or Chazal. For clarity, by “Chazal” I mean the rabbis of the Mishna and Talmud. Rashi is widely understood to highlight the connection in a number of places, but I’m not convinced that that’s what he actually says.
There are two Gemara passages that do seem to suggest a relationship between Eisav/Edom and Rome. The first (as I recently explored) was in Pesachim 42b. There, Rashi associates Edom with the city of Tzor (Tyre). For reasons noted in that earlier article, I’m not at all sure that that’s the simplest reading of the Gemara.
The second source is in Avoda Zara 11a:
ויאמר ה' לה שני גוים בבטנך אל תקרי גוים אלא גיים וא"ר יהודה אמר רב אלו אנטונינוס ורבי שלא פסק משלחנם לא צנון ולא חזרת ולא קשואין לא בימות החמה ולא בימות הגשמים
And God said to her (Rivka): ‘Two nations are in your womb’ don’t read it as ‘nations’ but as ‘exalted ones’. And Rabbi Yehuda said in the name of Rav, these are Antoninus and Rebbi whose tables never lacked radish nor lettuce nor melons either in summer or winter
A first glance this does leave the impression that, in her prophecy, Rivka was shown two notable descendants of the twins she was carrying. Antoninus, who is often styled as a Roman emperor, would thus be a scion of Edom.
But is that really what the Gemara said? Perhaps we would be better off reading it like the Maharsha:
והוא ודאי דבשאר מלכים הקודמים מיעקב ועשו גם המה לא היו חסרים משלחנם כל הדברים אבל נקט רבי ואנטונינוס שהיו בזמן אחד במקום אחד דהכי משמע קרא שני גוים בבטנך כמו יעקב ועשו שהיו בזמן אחד במקום אחד בבטן
…And it is certainly so, for many kings who lived before Yakov and Eisav also lacked nothing from their tables. Rather, (the Gemara) chose Rebbi and Antoninus because they both lived at one time and in one place. For that fits the verse: “two nations are in your womb”. Just as Yakov and Eisav lived at one time and in one place…
According to the Maharsha, then, the Gemara isn’t suggesting that Antoninus was related to Eisav in any way, but that his well-known relationship with Rebbi made the two of them the perfect illustration of the verse’s meaning.
In fact, even the wording of Rashi’s famous commentary to Beraishis 25:23 contains nothing that wouldn’t fit perfectly with the Maharsha.
Similarly, Rashi’s two-word commentary to Beraishis 36:43 is often quoted as proof that “Rome” is, in one way or another, the product of Eisav/Edom. But, in fact, Rashi may actually be suggesting nothing more than that Eisav was given control over Magdiel (Rome) as reward for his giving ground to Yakov.
This is not to dismiss the undeniable fact that many later authorities and darshanim have indeed assumed a direct connection between Eisav and Rome. But it would seem that they do it without an obvious source in Chazal. So where might the idea have actually originated?
R’ Shmuel Dovid Luzzato (Beraishis 27:40, quoted here with all the usual caveats) suggests that, following the destruction of the Second Temple, the Jewish people began to use “Edom” as a veiled reference to their Roman tormentors. This made sense, both because openly criticizing the dominant empire in the region could be dangerous, and because we had a national memory of centuries of cruel treatment at the hands of Edom.
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The much-appreciated (and voluminous) feedback from my previous post has, besides warming my cold, cold heart just a bit, accomplished two things:
Brought some more relevant sources to light
Forced me to better define what I’m after here
So here’s an update to that earlier post. Instead of leaving the update on the site, I’ve added this new content to the original post.
First, here are those new sources along with my thoughts on each.
Avoda Zara 11b
עוד אחרת יש [להם] ברומי אחת לשבעים שנה מביאין אדם שלם ומרכיבין אותו על אדם חיגר ומלבישין אותו בגדי אדם הראשון ומניחין לו בראשו קרקיפלו של רבי ישמעאל ותלו ליה [בצואריה] מתקל [ר'] זוזא דפיזא ומחפין את השווקים באינך ומכריזין לפניו סך קירי פלסתר אחוה דמרנא זייפנא
Another (practice found in) Rome: once every 70 years they would bring a healthy man and have him ride on a lame man…and they would announce… ‘This is the image of the treacherous brother of our master’
Not without cause, Rashi interprets the “healthy man” as Eisav and the “lame man” as Yakov. But “interprets” is key, here. Because the Gemara doesn’t actually say it and, to my knowledge, there’s no explicit source that does the identification for us.
Oh, c’mon Clinton! You’re just splitting hairs here!
Hold that question, I’ll be coming back to it later.
Yerushalmi Taanis 4:5
תני א"ר יהודה בן ר' אלעאי ברוך ר' היה דורש (בראשית כז) הקול קול יעקב והידים ידי עשו קולו של יעקב צווח ממה שעשו לו ידי עשו בביתר
‘The voice is the voice of Yakov and the hands are the hands of Eisav’ the voice of Yakov screams from what the hands of Eisav did at Betar.
On first glance, that would seem to seal the deal. After all, I’m the last guy on earth would would claim that the Yerushalmi doesn’t count as “Chazal” or “authoritative.” And this Yerushalmi just attributed the Roman massacre at Betar during the bar Kochba revolt to Eisav.
Except that not everyone seems to agree that it was the Romans. Here’s the Korban Ha’Eidah:
ידיו של עשו בביתר. אע"ג דגדולה היא מה שעשאו בחרבן בה"מ מ"מ בחרבן ביתר לא היה שם אלא בני אדום
Even though what had happened during the Temple’s destruction (60 years earlier) was worse than the destruction of Betar, nevertheless, at Beter only the Sons of Edom were present.
The implication here is that the Temple destruction was executed by representatives of many ethnic groups and, undoubtedly, orchestrated by the Romans. But, according to the Korban Ha’Eida (the principle and most widely relied-on commentator to Yerushalmi), believed that only Edom participated in the Betar massacre. In his eyes, Edom would seem to be distinct from Rome.
Yerushalmi Avoda Zara 1:2
יום שנסתלק בו אליהו הועמד מלך ברומי [מלכים א כב מח] ומלך אין באדום נצב מלך
The day that Eliyahu left (the world) a king was appointed in Rome (as it says:) ‘And there was no king in Edom; a governor ruled.’
However, the simple reading of that verse would seem to follow Rashi (I Kings 22:48) that the words “…There was no king in Edom…” are a reference to II Kings 8:20 (“And in his days, Edom rebelled from under the hand of Yehuda and appointed for themselves a king”). That passage would seem to be about a king appointed by Edom to rule locally, not a place 1,500 miles away. (See especially Radak to II Kings 8:22.)
So the simple meaning of verse on which that Yerushalmi is based is unconnected to the Yerushalmi’s topic. Which, I believe, changes the “mood” of the Yerushalmi from historical to homiletic.
Ok. So now what’s all this stuff really about?
I’ve struggled with the problem of finding objectively correct meaning within various classes of derush for many years - and with limited success. One of the most promising approaches I’ve begun to explore is trying to visualize how the authors of a Gemara or Midrash or even a Rashi would have wanted us to read their words.
Put a different way, what was the intellectual environment within which a sage wrote and how might that have colored his thinking?
This might sometimes lead to politically delicate moments: is it possible that the scientific, geographic, or historical assumptions that were common at the time a work was created - but which are foreign or even unknown to us - could have left an impression on the content?
But there are also potentially some fabulous opportunities: is it possible that, by putting ourselves into the worlds of our great teachers, we might sometimes understand them better?
One consequence of recognizing that Chazal wrote within an intellectual world we don’t fully comprehend is that we must acknowledge our inability to understand everything they wrote. This will be especially true for aggadita passages which are ambiguous almost by design.
So that’s one of the reasons I’m reluctant to jump to historical conclusions based on interpretations of ambiguous texts. I’m certainly not minimizing the value of, say, a particular comment of Rashi. But I do insist that we show it appropriate respect by not assuming he’s simply tossing out a superficial historical factoid.
Gemara is better than that. Rashi is better than that.
That surely doesn’t mean that I never “trust” the top-level narrative of any source. Many passages seem clear and unambiguous, so I’m fairly comfortable taking them at face value.
Please do let me know what you think about all this.
In any case, besides those extra sources, readers also offered interesting theories to explain the enduring popularity of the Rome-Edom connection. The one that struck me as drawing on particularly useful context suggests that there most certainly is a direct connection between Rome and Edom - it’s just not a connection that’s genealogical or even particularly ancient.
So what’s this connection? Think about how Antipater and Herod (Hurdos) were real-live Edomim who, through political decisions made years earlier by Yochanan Chashmonoy, found themselves within the elite strata of Jewish society. Their eventual alliances with Roman authorities created association that might easily have left the public impression of something much older. Or, alternatively, Jews might have chosen to emphasize the relationship for various political reasons.