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A Place of Their Own

鈥淎nd an incident occurred in which they brought a box that was full of bones to the synagogue of Tarsiyim鈥 (Nazir 52a)

Our Gemara is not the beginning of a horror movie but rather part of a complicated discussion on what transmits impurity. For the purposes of this column, the interesting detail here is not the bones but the place they were brought to: the synagogue of the Tarsiyim 讟专住讬讬诐. Who are these Tarsiyim, why do they have their own place of worship and where else do we encounter them?

Some context is provided by a parallel version of this story in the Yerushalmi. As befits a text from Israel, here we have more details about location although the mysterious Tarsiyim are not mentioned:

鈥淚t happened that they brought a chest full of bones from Kefar Tabi to Lod and deposited it in the open air of the synagogue.鈥 (Yerushalmi Berachot 1:1)

Despite the absence of the Tarsiyim, this seems to be the same story as the one in Nazir since the same Todos the physician appears to give his opinion on anatomy. So now we can locate the synagogue in Lod, an important Rabbinic center in the second century CE. But we still do not know about the Tarsiyim and whether they had synagogues elsewhere. For that we have to look at more sources.

The Gemara in Megilla (26a) also mentions a synagogue of the Tarsiyim, in this case it is located in Jerusalem and was sold to Rabbi Eliezer. Shekalim (2:5) mentions a Tarsiyim synagogue in connection with a dispute; according to a parallel source this one is in Tiberias. And finally, the famous Gemara in Sukkah about the enormous Alexandrian synagogue puts the Tarsiyim in their own section, albeit not in a separate congregation:

鈥淩ather, the goldsmiths would sit among themselves, and the silversmiths among themselves, and the blacksmiths among themselves, and the Tarsiyyim among themselves, and the Gardiyim among themselves.鈥 (Sukkah 51b)

Are these people an ethnicity? A professional guild? Why would they have separate synagogues? The allusions to them in the Gemara seem to imply three different but not necessarily contradictory explanations. These are set out in the Tosafot in Avoda Zara 17b. This source relates how Rabbi Elazar ben Porta tells the Romans that his title of Rav refers not to Torah teaching but rather that he is the Rav, i.e., master, of the Tarsiyim. From the continuation of the story it is clear that Romans understood Tarsiyim to mean weavers. Tosafot is puzzled: aren鈥檛 weavers usually called Gardiyim? In keeping with Tosafot鈥檚 vast knowledge of the entire Talmudic corpus, they add that we have seen Tarsiyim who are weavers but we have other sources where it is clear that they work with metal, copper specifically and yet other places where they are a nation on to themselves. Let us look at these various sources.

The proof for Tarsiyim being weavers is what we just saw in Avoda Zara. Perhaps the fact that they sit with the weavers in the Alexandrian synagogue also implies that they are of a similar profession. However, in Hullin (57b) there is a tool called an apron of Tarsiyim, which seems to be to protect them from sparks of hot metal. In our Gemara in Nazir Rashi translates Tarsiyim as coppersmiths. Why would coppersmiths have their own synagogue? Tosafot says that they are objectionable, probably because of their smell; he bases that on the Mishnah in Ketubot (7:10) that lists coppersmiths among the people who can be forced to divorce their wives because they have an unpleasant physical demeanor or profession.

A coppersmith’s workshop in Germany

Heinz-Josef L眉cking, CC BY-SA 3.0 DE <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/de/deed.en>, via Wikimedia Commons

Yet another different explanation for the Tarsiyim鈥檚 identity lies not in their profession but in their nationality. In the Gemara in Megillah we hear about Bigtan and Teresh, the two plotters in the Book of Esther, and how they are caught by Mordechai. The Gemara explains how they were able to plot aloud without fear and how Mordechai understood them:

鈥淩abbi Yo岣nan said: Bigthan and Teresh were two Tarsians, and they would talk in the Tarsian language. . . But they did not know that Mordecai was of those who sat on the Sanhedrin, which convened in the Chamber of Hewn Stone, and that he knew seventy languages鈥 (Megillah 13b)

In this case, Tarsiyim are Tarsians, i.e, people from Tarsus. They are a nation with a distinct language, one that is known to the polyglot Mordechai. Where is Tarsus? Some equate it with Tarshish, the city that Jonah escaped to rather than going to Nineveh. But that location is unclear. However, we know a lot about a city called Tarsus, the capital of Cilicia on the southeastern coast of Asia Minor.

User:Alecmconroy, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

This was a Roman province since the first century BCE and it had a Jewish community. Tarsus plays a rather large part in the history of Christianity. One of early Christianity鈥檚 most fervent opponents, someone who transforms into its strongest proselytizer, is a Jew named Saul, from the city of Tarsus. He comes to Jerusalem and persecutes the early Christians. The Jews from Cilicia seem to have had an expatriate community in Jerusalem, the New Testament book of Acts writes about their synagogue, among other ethnic synagogues:

鈥淭hen some of those who belonged to the synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called), and of the Cyrenians, and of the Alexandrians, and of those from Cilicia and Asia, rose up and disputed with Stephen.鈥 (Acts 6:9)

Saul travels throughout the Roman provinces and on the way to Damascus he has a vision of Jesus and he converts to Christianity. He uses the Greek name of Paul and sets out to missionize among the Jews, and the Gentiles, in the Diaspora.

So are Tarsiyim a particular profession? Or people from Tarsus? Or both 鈥 we know that certain nations specialize in certain professions, even today. A generation ago Yemenite Jews were known as silversmiths. In any case, the idea of small ethnic or guild synagogues is a logical one. Walk through the Nahlaot neighborhoods of Jerusalem today and you will see dozens of synagogues, each one with founders originating from a different place or part of a different social group. Like attracts like, whether in a synagogue or a social club. But will you find any synagogues belonging to Tarsiyim? Unlikely.

One of the many synagogues of Nahlaot

dr. avishai teicher User:Avi1111, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

 

Shulie Mishkin

Shulie Mishkin made Aliyah from New York with a Master's degree in Jewish History from Columbia University. After completing the Ministry of Tourism guide course in 1997, she began guiding professionally and has since taught and guided all ages, from toddlers to retirees. Her tours provide a complete picture of the land of Israel and Jewish heritage, with a strong reliance on sources ranging from the Bible to 19th century travelers' reports. Alongside her regular guide work, she teaches "tour and text" courses in the Jerusalem institutions of Pardes and Matan as wel as the Women's Bet Midrash in Efrat and provides tours for special needs students in the 鈥淒arkaynu鈥 program. Shulie lives in Alon Shvut with her husband Jonathan and their five kids. Shulie Mishkin is now doing virtual tours online. Check out the options at https://www.shuliemishkintours.com/virtual-tours
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