Prokelos the son of Plosfos met Rabban Gamliel while bathing in the Greek goddess Aphrodite’s bathhouse in Acco and asked him how he could bathe there, given the clear prohibition in the Torah against benefiting from pagan idols. According to the Mishnah, he went so far as to quote the passage in Sefer (13:18) that is the source for the prohibition.
Rabban Gamliel said to him “I cannot respond to you and discuss Torah ideas in the bathhouse.”
Upon exiting, Rabban Gamliel did respond to the question posed by Plosfos. Several possible responses appear in the Mishnah –
- No matter how much you were paid, you would not enter before your god naked and urinate before it, which is the common use of the bathhouse; clearly in this setting the statue is not an idol.
- I did not come into her space, rather she came into mine; the bathhouse was not built in honor of the goddess, rather the idol was placed there afterwards to beautify the bathhouse.
Aphrodite was the Greek goddess of beauty, and she was represented by a beautiful, young female form, which is why statues of her were often used for decoration, rather than as an idol to be worshipped.
In response to this exchange, the Gemara asks how Rabban Gamliel could have even explained his inability to respond in a bathhouse, since that statement, itself, was a halakhic teaching. The Gemara further emphasizes that this prohibition remains in force even if the Torah is taught in a foreign language. Ultimately the Gemara is forced to explain that Rabban Gamliel only told Plosfos that he could not respond to him in the bathhouse when they were already outside.
The Talmud Yerushalmi discusses this question at length. While one opinion accepts the conclusion of our Gemara, another opinion presented there permits Torah teachings in a bathhouse if they are about halakhot that relate to bathhouses. According to that opinion, the Yerushalmi explains that there were other reasons that Rabban Gamliel did not want to engage in conversation with Plosfos in the bathhouse.