In common Jewish parlance this word is used to signify that a man is a heretic, unsound in his belief, or lax in his religious practise. The word is derived from the Greek 'Eπικύρōς;, but Maimonides (Commentary on the Mishnah, Sanh. xi. 1), deriving it from the New Hebrew = freedom, explains it to mean one who refuses obedience to the Law. In the Mishnah (see also Acts, xvii. 18) the word evidently means an adherent of the Epicurean philosophy: the context shows this clearly. It reads: "All Israelites have a share in the future world. The following, however, have no share in the future world: He who says there is no resurrection [the words are, as Rabbinowitz has proved, interpolated], he who says the Law has not been given by God, and an " (Sanh. x. 1, Gem.90a). There can be no doubt that Apiḳoros, in this connection, refers to a man who refuses to believe in life after death. Incommenting upon Num. xv. 31, Sifre (Num. 112) says: "For the word of the Lord he has despised; this is the Sadducee: and his commandment he hath broken; this, the Apiḳoros."

The first mention of Epicureans in relation to Judaism is found in Josephus, "Ant." x. 11, § 7:

"Those who read the prophecies of Daniel may thence discover how the Epicureans are in error who cast Providence out of human life and do not believe that God takes care of the affairs of the world, nor that the universe is governed and held by that blessed and immortal being, but say that the world is carried along of its own accord, without a ruler and provider; which, were it destitute of a guide to conduct, as they imagine, it would be like ships without pilots which we see drowned by the winds, or like chariots without drivers which are overturned —so would the world be dashed to pieces by its being carried without a providence and so perish and come to naught."

Undoubtedly this is the original meaning of Apiḳoros. See also Frankel, "Monatsschrift," 1852, p. 212, who finds Epicureanism to have affected Judaism in the time of Antigonus of Soko.

Meaning of the Term in Talmudic Literature.

The Talmudic authorities of the third and fourth centuries either did not know the real meaning of the term or extended it intentionally. Some say: "Apiḳoros is one who despises a rabbi, or who insults his neighbor in the presence of a rabbi, or one who says, 'What good did the rabbis do to us? They study Bible and Mishnah [for their own pleasure or for their own benefit].'" Another opinion sees the type of the Apiḳoros in the school of Benjamin the Physician, who taught: "What good did the rabbis do to us? They have neither permitted the raven nor prohibited the dove," evidently meaning that their whole work was of little consequence. Another opinion sees an Apiḳoros in a man who speaks of the rabbis disrespectfully as "these rabbis," or addresses his teacher by his name instead of calling him "Rabbi" (Sanh. 99b, 100a).

In the Tosefta (Sanh., ed. Zuckermandel, xiii. 5, p. 43) the term is evidently used in the stricter sense of the materialist where it is said: "The Minim [Judæo-Christians], the apostates, the informers, and the Apiḳorsim are punished in hell forever." The same passage, with slight changes, is found in the Talmud (R. H. 17a); and from it the doctrine of the eternity of hell for the Apiḳorsim is taken into the codes of Alfasi (ad loc. ed. Vienna, 209b) and of Maimonides ("Yad ha-Ḥazaḳah, Hilkot Teshubah," iii. 5; see also Lampronti, "Paḥad Yiẓḥaḳ," s.v. , who upholds the belief in the eternity of hell against Leon di Modena).

The Midrash sees a type of the Apiḳoros in the snake (Gen. R. xix.). In Talmud Yerushalmi (Sanh. x. 27d), Korah appears as a type of the Apiḳoros by his ridicule of the Law. He asks Moses whether a blue garment requires fringes; and when Moses answers in the affirmative, Korah says: "How ridiculous! One blue cord suffices to comply with the Law, while a garment which is all blue does not" (see also Num. R. xviii. 2 and Tan., Korah, 2, where the word "Apiḳoros," however, does not occur).

In Rabbinical Codes.

The "Shulḥan 'Aruk" defines Apiḳoros as one who does not believe in the divine origin of the Law and in prophecy ("Yoreh De'ah," § 158, 2). The laws concerning such an unbeliever are very strict. He may be killed directly, or his death may be caused indirectly (ib.). A scroll of the Law, otherwise a sacred object, if written by an Apiḳoros, shall be burned (ib. § 281, 1). A rabbi of recognized standing can not be excommunicated, even if he be a sinner; but if he read a book written by one of the Apiḳorsim his immunity ceases (ib. § 334, 42). A man suspected of being an Apiḳoros is not permitted to read the prayers before the congregation ("Oraḥ Ḥayyim," § 53, 18). If an Apiḳoros says a benediction, it is not permitted to respond with "Amen" (ib. § 215, 2).

The later rabbis extend the term "Apiḳ;oros" still further than the Talmudic rabbis. Moses Chages, in his "Leḳeṭ ha-Ḳemaḥ" ("Yoreh De'ah," p. 103a, Amsterdam, 1697), thus inveighs against those who refuse to accept blindly the authority of the medieval rabbis: "Satan enters through a needle's eye and teaches people first to refuse obedience to the rabbis of their age, and having become accustomed to this, they reject what displeases them even of the words of great men like Maimonides, saying, 'He was also merely a man of flesh and blood and subject to error like one of us; but it is a fundamental principle of our religion that every one who denies the authority of a religious work, great or small, is called an Apiḳoros.'" Similarly, Eliezer Papo (rabbi in Silistria, Bulgaria, at the beginning of the nineteenth century) says in his very popular text-book of religious ethics, "Pele Yo'eẓ," p. 18b, Vienna, 1876: "One who doubts or ridicules one word of the Torah or of the rabbinical authors is an Apiḳoros in the fullest sense, an infidel who has thrown off the yoke; and there is no hope for him."

  • Lampronti, Paḥad Yiẓḥaḳ, s.v. ;
  • Rapoport, 'Erek Millin, s.v.;
  • Hamburger, R. B. T. supplement I., under Epikuräer.
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