1,800 years ago, sages prohibited drinking from this ‘idolatrous’ waterspout
Anxious to prevent bending to worship idols, Talmudic rabbis would have frowned at richly decorated humanized lion gargoyle, uncovered at Tzippori National Park in northern Israel
Amanda Borschel-Dan is The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology editor.
An ancient 1,800-year-old waterspout was recently uncovered by chance at northern Israel’s Tzippori National Park, according to an Israel Nature and Parks Authority press release on Monday. The humanized lion spout is exactly the type of “idolatrous” faucet head that the Babylonian Talmud warns Jews against drinking from in Tractate Avodah Zarah.
The 3D gargoyle measures 15 centimeters x 12.5 centimeters (6 inches by 5 inches). Its gaping mouth leaves room for a 2-centimeter diameter pipe, from which water would have splashed in a drinking fountain or bathhouse. It is formed from marble, likely imported from Turkey, according to the Parks Authority. Similar gargoyles have been discovered in the Hamat Gader, Beit She’an and Caesarea national parks.
Ornately decorated drain spouts were usually formed into the images of animal heads or characters from mythology. They were in use from the Hellenistic era through the Roman/beginning of the Byzantine era as common architectural elements, and had a resurgence of popularity in the Renaissance, said Iosi Bordowicz, director of the Israel Nature and Parks Authority’s Heritage Section.
The newly discovered “fountain head” was uncovered near the archaeological site’s ancient bathhouse by David Goren, a resident of modern Tzippori, who turned it over to the Parks Authority.
In a brief video presenting the find, Bordowicz references the Babylonian Talmud’s controversial Tractate Avoda Zarah, which clearly prohibits drinking from such faucets. “With regard to figures of human faces [partzufot] that spray water in the cities, i.e., fountains, one may not place his mouth on the mouths of the figures and drink, because he appears to be kissing the object of idol worship. Similarly, one may not place his mouth on a pipe [sillon] and drink, here due to the danger that this practice poses. (Avodah Zarah 12a, William Davidson Talmud via Sefaria)
The talmudic tractate is a commentary on rabbinical wisdom or mishnayot, many of which written at Tzippori. It deals with idol worship and in part regulates appropriate behavior of Jews when they brush up against non-Jews. Because of a perception that Christians would be included in the category of idol worshipers, this tractate was often historically expunged from Talmud editions produced in Europe.
The archaeological site Tzippori, also known by its Greek name Sepphoris, is most known for its famous “Mona Lisa of the Galilee” mosaic. The Western Galilee city was a major home to a flourishing mixed pagan, Christian and Jewish community during the 4th-7th centuries CE. The settlement’s vast water system of aqueducts and cisterns dates back to the 1st and 2nd centuries and was in use until the 7th or 8th.
After the Jewish Revolt and destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, many sages moved north and by the third century CE, it was the longtime residence of Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi, aka Judah the Prince, where he began compiling the Mishnah.
The “prohibited” anthropomorphic lion gargoyle will be turned over to the Israeli Antiquities Authority for study and in the future the Parks Authority hopes to again display it onsite in Tzippori alongside its dozens of colorful mosaics and well-preserved structures.