Cutting a Peace: The Story of Ketiah bar Shalom

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Shlomo Zuckier

Avodah Zarah 10b features a fascinating story about an obscure figure, Ketiah bar Shalom, situated in Caesar’s court. More than just a story about Roman-Jewish relations, we will see that it represents a rabbinic meditation on the nature of the part and the whole, on belonging and representation.

קטיעה בר שלום מאי (הוי)? דההוא קיסרא דהוה סני ליהודאי, אמר להו לחשיבי דמלכותא: מי שעלה לו נימא ברגלו, יקטענה ויחיה או יניחנה ויצטער? אמרו לו: יקטענה ויחיה. אמר להו קטיעה בר שלום: חדא, דלא יכלת להו לכולהו, דכתיב: כי כארבע רוחות השמים פרשתי אתכם, מאי קאמר? אלימא דבדרתהון בד’ רוחות, האי כארבע רוחות, לארבע רוחות מבעי ליה! אלא כשם שא”א לעולם בלא רוחות, כך א”א לעולם בלא ישראל; ועוד, קרו לך מלכותא קטיעה. א”ל: מימר שפיר קאמרת, מיהו כל דזכי (מלכא) שדו ליה לקמוניא חלילא. כד הוה נקטין ליה ואזלין, אמרה ליה ההיא מטרוניתא: ווי ליה לאילפא דאזלא בלא מכסא! נפל על רישא דעורלתיה קטעה, אמר: יהבית מכסי חלפית ועברית. כי קא שדו ליה, אמר: כל נכסאי לר”ע וחביריו. יצא ר”ע ודרש: והיה לאהרן ולבניו – מחצה לאהרן ומחצה לבניו. יצתה בת קול ואמרה: קטיעה בר שלום מזומן לחיי העוה”ב. בכה רבי ואמר: יש קונה עולמו בשעה אחת, ויש קונה עולמו בכמה שנים.

What is the story of Ketiah bar Shalom? There was a certain Caesar who hated the Jews. He said to the notables of his Empire: “One who has a strand [of desiccated flesh] on his leg – does he amputate it and live or leave it and remain in pain?” They said to him: “Let him amputate it and live.”

Ketiah bar Shalom said to them: “Firstly, you will be unable to [overcome] all of [the Jews], as it is written (Zech. 2:10): ‘For I have spread them [out] like the four winds of heaven.’ What [is the verse] saying? If it is saying that He scattered them to the four winds, this [phrase] ‘ke-arba’ ruhot [like the four winds] should be ‘le-arba’ ruhot [to the four winds]! Rather, just as the world cannot exist without winds, so too the world cannot exist without Israel. Furthermore, [if you kill all the Jews] they will call you ‘a cut-off Empire.’”

[Caesar] said to [Ketiah]: “You have spoken well. Nevertheless, whoever bests the Emperor, they throw him into a furnace full of dirt [and he suffocates].”

When they had seized [Ketiah] and were going, a certain lady said to him: “Woe to the ship that sails without [paying] the tax!” [Ketiah] fell on the tip of his foreskin, and cut it off. He said: “I have paid my tax. I will pass.”

When they were throwing him [into the furnace], he said: “All my possessions [are bequeathed] to R. Akiva and his colleagues.” R. Akiva went out and interpreted: “(Ex. 29:28): ‘and it shall be to Aaron and his sons’ – half to Aaron and half to his sons.”

A Heavenly voice went out and said: “Ketiah bar Shalom is invited to the life of the World to Come.” Rabbi wept and said: “There are those who acquire their world in one instant, and there are those who acquire their world over a number of years.”

This story depicts a Caesar planning to exterminate the Jews in his kingdom, only to be convinced otherwise by one Ketiah bar Shalom, the figure for whom the story is named. Despite his successful arguments, Ketiah is nevertheless seized and taken out to be killed. Prior to his demise, he is convinced by a certain noblewoman to self-circumcise, and bequeaths his estate to Rabbi Akiva and his colleagues, as he earns a share in the World to Come.

This fascinating story is wide-ranging, as it vacillates between a genocide averted, a righteous courtier’s untimely demise, and the determination of his legacy.  

However, upon closer inspection, one common theme – or, rather, one common tension – holds this story together, and it is contained in the name of its protagonist, for whom the story itself is named. Ketiah bar Shalom literally means “the cut one, son of peace.” Now, the name bespeaks an internal contradiction, as cutting and peace are hardly natural friends. Moreover, the word shalom is related to the term shalem, or “whole,” the polar opposite of something that is cut. Indeed, this creative tension between being whole and being divided is the central theme of this story that brings its overall cohesiveness into focus.

The Caesar, hating the Jews, wishes to excise them. The metaphor used to describe the Jews in his rhetorical question is instructive: “One who has a strand [of desiccated flesh] on his leg – does he amputate it and live or leave it and remain in pain?” The term used for “amputates” is yikta’enah, built on the same root as that of our protagonist Ketiah! What is at stake is the possible removal of Israel from the empire, purportedly to eradicate this irritant and preserve Rome’s structural integrity.  

Caesar’s council recommends amputation, until the peacemaker Ketiah bar Shalom enters the scene. He offers two possible arguments against the plan of “cutting off” the Jews: Citing a verse from Zechariah 2:10, he compares Israel to the four corners of the earth, in the sense that “the world cannot exist without Israel.” While it might be possible to amputate a limb, Israel is a vital organ. His second argument is that, if Caesar does somehow “amputate” Israel, his will be known as a “cut off empire,” recognizably deficient absent its Jews. Both arguments – whether based on the unworkability of the procedure or the undesirability of its outcome – militate for the inseparability of Israel from the nations, or at least from this nation. Rather than cutting Israel off from Rome (keti’ah), Caesar settles on keeping the empire whole (shalom).

While Ketiah’s arguments win the day, he falls victim to the rule that anyone who bests the king is placed in a furnace packed with dirt (as explained by Rashi), presumably a form of burial alive and attendant asphyxiation. One cannot help but note the fitting result that one asserting Israel’s inseparability from the four corners of the earth is now himself to be united, fatally, with that same earth.

As he is being sent to his demise, a Roman matron mourns the fact that “the ship is sail[ing] without [paying] the tax.” As the story makes clear, Ketiah’s uncircumcised foreskin stands to prevent him from participating in Israel’s inheritance in the World to Come. [It is not clear throughout this story whether Ketiah is Jewish or not, possibly an intentional ambiguity contributing to the question of Israel’s status among the nations. We will assume that he is not Jewish, since his Jewishness is never asserted.] This matron is mourning the fact that, despite his successfully argued defenses on behalf of Israel, he will not inherit along with them. Although Ketiah succeeds in convincing Caesar of Israel’s integrity within the Roman Empire, which should rightfully earn him a connection to Israel, his lack of circumcision serves to block this naturalization process. Ketiah’s immediate response is to fall upon his foreskin and cut it off, with the word “cut” represented as kate’ah, our leitmotif for the story. [The root k.t.a appears in the story a total of seven times, appropriately a typological number.]

Circumcision plays an important thematic role in this story. In one sense, a circumcision is a sort of amputation, albeit of a relatively minor organ, and thus it relates to the metaphoric amputation of Israel situated at the outset of the story. However, while that proposed process would separate Israel from Rome, the cutting off of a foreskin is precisely what serves to integrate an individual into the nation of Israel, both for born Jews and converts. In fact, this concept of integration by excision is a central theme (and pun!) of the biblical discussion of circumcision. As Genesis 17:14 puts it:

וערל זכר אשר לא ימול את בשר ערלתו ונכרתה הנפש ההוא מעמיה את בריתי הפר 

Any uncircumcised male, who will not circumcise his flesh, will be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.

An uncircumcised male, who does not cut off his foreskin, is himself cut off (k.r.t)! Retention of the foreskin entail a rejection of the covenant; to circumcise means to join the covenant. As Israel’s founding covenant, Abraham’s “Treaty between the Pieces,” implies (Gen. 15:7-21), covenants are set, or, more literally, cut (k.r.t), by splitting an animal into two and walking between the pieces, joining the two parties over the split animal. The inversion of this Biblical verse, then, is the amputation of Ketiah’s foreskin, the elimination of that vestigial organ, which earns him membership in Israel and its corresponding reward. In this case, the amputation serves not to break up an integrated whole but to shed a superfluous appendage in the interests of a larger unity. The Heavenly voice calls out that Ketiah is invited to the World to Come. A cutting (keti’ah) for the sake of integrity (shalom).

But Ketiah’s name signifies more than that. The Roman Empire’s centuries-long dominant reign was known, from as early as 55 CE, as the Pax Romana, the Roman Peace, as wars were purportedly eradicated due to the Empire’s overwhelming power. The Jewish people, by contrast, are signified symbolically by circumcision, possibly more than through any other mark; the term “circumcised” is used throughout rabbinic literature as a synonym for “Jew.” (See, e.g., mNed 3:11.) The transition from notable of the Roman Empire to Jew can thus be properly described as a shift whereby a son of the Pax Romana (=bar Shalom) becomes a Jew who is circumcised, or cut (=keti’ah).

While Ketiah has done his part to deserve an otherworldly inheritance, the question of who will receive his this-worldly estate remains to be determined. As Ketiah has entered the Jewish covenant, he wishes that his assets be kept within Israel, and he thus bequeaths his monies to the great rabbinic court of the generation, to “Rabbi Akiva and his colleagues.” But this Talmudic meditation on the whole and its parts would hardly allow this ambiguous line to stand unprobed. Does this bequest mean that Rabbi Akiva and his students are each to receive a proportional share of the pie? Or does it mean that half of the estate is destined for Rabbi Akiva, with the other half to be split among his students? Do we first split the estate in two or do we divide it as one whole entity? Rabbi Akiva, the great Torah scholar, resolves this issue himself. Like the Heavenly voice that “went out and said” what Ketiah’s fate in the next world would be, Rabbi Akiva also “went out and interpreted” the law, determining the fate of his material possessions in this world through biblical exegesis. Referring to one of the priestly entitlements, the verse reads “And it shall be for Aaron and his sons,” (Ex. 29:28) understood in rabbinic tradition (tKip 1:5, yYom 1:2, bYom 17b, bBB 143a) as meaning “half for Aaron and half for his sons.” Death portends the demise of the holistic individual, and inheritance, the distribution of the deceased’s personal effects among inheritors, reflects this dissolution. Rabbinic tradition implies that, in cases where two groups are named in a will, it is first split in half and then divided among relevant parties. Of all biblical characters to be associated with this splitting in half, it is Aaron, known in the Talmud as the great splitter (botzea; see bSan 6b), not to mention the great peacemaker (mAv 1:12). Who better than Aaron to teach about splitting Ketiah’s inheritance! It might be intriguing to consider how this relates to Aaron’s grandson Pinhas, who has his own experiences with keti’ah and shalom (see bKidd 66b and my analysis here) and excising in order to make whole.

There is also an economic question at play here, relating to inheritance and empire. As history has made clear, the cleaving of an empire into multiple parts after the death of its sovereign holds great risk. Empires split in such a manner run the risk of rapidly losing influence. The way to preserve an empire’s, or an estate’s, power and integrity (sheleimut) is primogeniture, which ensures that all or most of the empire is given to one heir, preserving the large mass to maintain its great influence. Bestowing the estate primarily to one individual ensures that Ketiah bar Shalom’s estate remains largely held by a single party, no less than the great Rabbi Akiva, a veritable “Caesar of the Jews.” Although the estate is split (keti’ah), it remains largely whole (shalom).

As we have seen, this story includes more than one metaphor – Israel is an infected limb, Ketiah’s death represents a boat’s passing through a toll port. I suggest that another metaphor, although unstated, presents itself in this story’s structure. With apologies to the man, it is possible to view Ketiah as representing a foreskin undergoing the process of circumcision. He is cast out of Caesar’s council, to his death, but it is only through this removal of Ketiah that a greater integrity can be achieved, between the Roman Empire and Israel. If a foreskin can be understood as an offering of sorts, a small sacrifice to preserve a greater integrity and peace, Ketiah is similarly cast off from the Romans, an individual sacrificed for the cause of maintaining Roman-Jewish integrity. Ironically, while this self-sacrifice separates him from the Roman people, it ensconces him in Israel and its reward for all eternity.

Rabbi is moved by this story, exclaiming: “Some earn their place in the World to Come in a single moment, while for others it takes many years”! Ketiah manages, in this final act, to earn eternal life, bypassing the usual, more extensive process of living a life of virtue. Here again, the part stands for the whole, with one action, a single moment, fatefully sealing Ketiah’s fate for all time, determining the reward on behalf of his entire life. The importance of the minor part – Ketiah – a single council member, in one moment of his life, can have ramifications for his entire legacy, as for all of Israel, for eternity. For Ketiah, whose single voice won the day in saving Israel, a single moment was sufficient to seal his own fate. In this case, the part (keti’ah) determines the fate of the whole (shalom).

A final note: one wonders about the context of this rabbinic meditation on part and whole. As several studies have made clear, the Jews (or Judeans) held a liminal position within the Roman Empire – were they comparable to other inhabitants or citizens of the Roman Empire, or was there something distinct about them? It is in this context that the rabbis consider not only questions of part and whole but also Israel’s place among the Romans: Are they a festering limb awaiting amputation or an intrinsic part of the Roman empire? Additionally, how might one shift from Roman to Jewish status, as Ketiah did? In this story primarily about Romans, the rabbis find an opportunity to express some core questions facing the Jews: Part and Whole, Israel and the Nations, sacrificing for the greater good, and earning the World to Come.

As this story teaches, whether a cut yields a peace or mere pieces is no simple matter and depends on complex questions of identity, belonging, and integrity. Our protagonist stands at the crossroads of all these issues; he offers his piece, rests in peace, and shows that the “cut Jew” can coexist with the “Rome of Peace.” In so many ways, this is fittingly called the story of Ketiah bar Shalom.

Note: This story has received some attention in academic circles, including in extended analyses by Daniel Boyarin and Alyssa Gray, and a shorter treatment in the recent thesis and book by Mira Beth Wasserman. The translation of the passage used here largely follows Gray, although modified in several places, following Rashi and other considerations. Rather than trying to recover a redactional stage or process, this article presents a literary analysis of the received form of the text. Many thanks to Ayelet Wenger, Wendy Amsellem, Elli Fischer, Eli Natan Kupferberg, and Chana Zuckier for their insightful comments.




Shlomo Zuckier
Rabbi Shlomo Zuckier, a Founder of the Lehrhaus, is a PhD candidate in Ancient Judaism at Yale University and a member of Yeshiva University’s Kollel Elyon. Previously he served as Director of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus at Yale University. Shlomo is an alumnus of Yeshivat Har Etzion and Yeshiva University (BA, MA, Semicha), as well as of the Wexner, Tikvah, and Kupietzky Kodshim Fellowships. He has lectured and taught widely across North America, and is excited to share Torah and Jewish scholarship on a broad range of issues. Shlomo serves on the Editorial Committee of Tradition, is co-editor of Torah and Western Thought: Intellectual Portraits of Orthodoxy and Modernity, and is editing the forthcoming Contemporary Uses and Forms of Hasidut. He is teaching at Yeshiva College and Yale Divinity School in the fall.