What’s an epikoros?
In the 1950s, you would think Crown Heights was populated by a gallery of rogues, scoundrels and losers with terrific names like shikker, shnook, shlepper, shmendrick, shnorrer, shlemazel, goniff, mamzer, or my favorite, vance. One of the most chilling, because I wasn’t sure what it meant but it was always muttered darkly, was epikoros. My grandmother pronounced it with her thick Polish inflection, chapikoiyris, but you could also hear apikoros or apikorsis.
Over time, I realized the word referred to Jews who actively flouted any Jewish observance, a heretic or at least someone who went off the path – the derech as they say in Hebrew – in a serious way. But the word had a long history before it hit the streets of Brooklyn.
Epikoros originates as a Jewish curse at least as far back as the Talmud. The sages single out the epikoros as one of the three kinds of heretics, Jews who lose their immortal souls, an eternal death sentence. But the word sticks out because it doesn’t sound like anything Hebrew and doesn’t have any precedent in Aramaic. It obviously seems to refer to the great Greek philosopher Epicurus (341-270 BCE).
Who was Epicurus?
Epicurus taught that death was the end of both the body and the soul. He insisted that only the material world is real, and he denied the existence of God or Heaven on rational grounds. After all, what kind of supreme being would introduce so much pain and misery into the world? For what purpose? Anyway, no one has ever brought a shred of proof of an afterlife where the soul receives reward or punishment. All we get, Epicurus taught, is this one go-round in the material world, so we better make the best of it. That meant seeking pleasure and avoiding pain, especially the physical and psychic suffering that attends death. Today we call his followers “epicureans,” folks who pursue refined pleasures of the body, (gourmands or wine snobs, for instance).
That’s the cartoon version. In fact, Epicurus had a sophisticated philosophy for how the cosmos works without any metaphysical explanations or invocations of Divinity. Far from just urging self-indulgence or licentiousness, he said people must behave civilly and educate themselves, ennoble their spirits and enrich their lives while alive because being good is intrinsically rewarding and satisfying. It also enables society to support us peacefully in creating the best possible lives. He also fought any hint of cosmology from other philosophers, like Plato or Democritus, that required irrational or metaphysical assumptions. In short, Epicurus was the very archetype of the relentlessly rational heretic, a dangerously sophisticated atheist.
At first glance, it seems obvious that the rabbis’ idea of a heretic and their use of the Greek philosopher’s name refers to him or his followers. But they refuse to admit it. Perhaps they are reluctant to acknowledge Greek sources. (Elsewhere the Talmud warns against teaching Greek: see Perpetual Chanukah in the West – or – Why the Pythagorean Theorem is More Than Just Math). Greek philosophy was especially dangerous, since its intellectualism and soaring embrace of the cosmos was naturally appealing to the Jewish mind, just as science and philosophy are today. Surely Epicureanism seduced many Jews over the centuries and continues to do so.
Or perhaps the rabbis were simply following their policy of building a self-contained Jewish epistemology without acknowledging Greek influence or its competitive view of the world. So how do they explain the term and its origin? Exploring their etymology uncovers both the profound world view of the Talmud and important distinctions between received ideas of the afterlife in Western culture and purely Jewish ones.
Hell for Jews?
Jews don’t really have a hell, at least not in the sense of the fiery, eternal torture chambers Dante elaborately portrays in The Inferno (1321). Instead, they have a very Jewish idea of eternal punishment: call it hell for stiff-necked, skeptical folk who really distrust authority.
All Jews, the Talmud says, will be resurrected for the afterlife, unless they do one of three things:
- Deny that the Resurrection of the Dead is promised in the Bible [Torah]
- Deny that the Bible’s author is Divine
- Be an “epikoros”
Go there and they’re dead meat. They lose the possibility of being re-connected with their souls when the Messiah comes.
When we first encountered this list, my classmate in Talmud study, Dr. Jack Brandes, noted that the list doesn’t make much sense. Denying that the resurrection of the dead is promised in the Torah seems like a petty infraction compared to denying the the resurrection deal altogether. Accepting that our mouldering bodies will be revivified and reunited with their souls is a much higher hurdle for belief in the first place. For that matter, denying that God wrote the Torah (#2) seems much more fundamental. Than #1 and should come first logically.
And then, what the heck is an epikoros anyway? Why does it have its own word, one that hardly occurs anywhere else in Talmud and seems to be named after a Greek philosopher? After all, when we arrive at this discussion of how to lost your eternal soul, at the end of Sanhedrin, we’ve just come from pages of the Talmud that discuss rebellious sages and false prophets. Those bad boys seem much more worthy of eternal punishment than a common garden-variety sensualist or atheist, yet they are only condemned to mortal death. The epikoros, by contrast, faces eternal death. Where’s the equity here? “Lo fair!” as my son’s classmates used to shout in kindergarten in Israel, “No fair!”
Worse, when the rabbis finally get around to describing the epikoros nine long pages of Talmud later, they seem to have saved up their greatest outrage for him in a self-serving festival of indignation. What does the epikoros do that’s so bad?
Are the Sages too thin-skinned?
Why, he has the chutzpah to make fun of those same rabbis and Torah scholars. The epikoros mocks them for being useless or self-serving, or he questions the absurdity of their rulings. He disparages them for making senseless rules that make life harder just to keep themselves busy (“They forbade us the raven but let us eat dove”). He may only insult them in front of others, or maybe just make the wrong face or ask a question that has a little passive aggression in it, maybe. Wow, are these rabbis thin-skinned!
The over-sensitivity of the sages to even the merest slight leaves plenty of room for cynicism and almost invites the epicureanish behavior it condemns, to the point it feels like the sages constructed a great, self-serving Catch-22: if you make fun of us and our authority you are going to die an eternal death.
Yet, by contrast, the discussion (Cheilik – “Portion”) has some of the most elegant, monumental flights of exegesis and story-telling in the Talmud. The rabbis’ eloquence is warranted. They aren’t just adjudicating civil or capital penalties in this world, they are describing awesome cosmic events like the resurrection of the dead, when the Messiah comes, and the ultimate fate of your immortal soul and its share (thus “portion”) in the world to come. So maybe when they come to the discussion of the epikoros, we should look at their condemnation as more than just an extended fit of self-serving peevishness and self-aggrandizement.
Indeed, if we delve this strange word more closely, it tells a deeper story, one that reveals a startling unity to these seemingly mismatched list of three big sins. It uncovers a hidden sophistication, informed by theological power, of faith in authority. While on the surface it invites a cynical view of the rabbis as a bunch of racketeers protecting their turf, I think by delving their subtlety, it only enhances our admiration for these learned mortals who have undertaken the dauntless task of trying to read the Divine Mind.
The rabbinical etymology of epikoros
When the sages consider the meaning of epikoros, they avoid any mention of the connection to Greek philosophy. It seems pretty tenuous bit of avoiding the elephant in the room. Indeed, they pun around it, as if to cover its big tracks. And later commentators seem to contort themselves to follow the Sages’ lead and construct a completely non-Greek and much less plausible etymology:
- Talmud (ca 300): After its first use here (Sanhedrin 90), they later use an Aramaic word with similar spelling and Greek sound – apkayrousa – to define an irreverent Torah student (Sanhedrin 100a).
- Rashi (1040-1105) expands the Talmud’s version by saying it alludes to epkorousa – אפקרותא – disrespect.
- Meir Abulafia (1170-1244, known as the Ramah) claims the word derives from hefker, abandoned property that’s up for grabs.
- Maimonides (1138-1204, known as Rambam) agrees with Ramah. Their agreement is even more ironic because Ramah called Rambam a heretic for, ironically, denying the Resurrection of the Dead.
Rambam goes on to explain this non-obvious derivation of the word most completely: “The word epikores is Aramaic,” he insists. “Its meaning is one who abandons (mafkir) and denigrates the sages or a specific Torah scholar or denigrates his teacher.”
We can see where he’s coming from. Both words share three root letters: P-K-R, פקר. Mafkir comes from hefker. By connecting these words for abandonment with disrespect for a teacher, it gives a new and profound sense of walking away from your half of a teacher-student relationship that has transcendent duties. Indeed, in his next sentence, Maimonides gives more examples of heresy, and then just a few sentences later he announces his Thirteen Principles of Faith, one of the most influential codifications of Jewish belief ever written.
Is it possible they ALL were unaware of the popular Greek philosopher of pleasure?
Why is everyone purposely avoiding the plain meaning?
Epicurus continues to this day to be one of the continuously most influential of the Greek philosophers, rivaling Plato and Aristotle. Romans Plutarch and Cicero wrote about him in the 1st century CE. In the 3rd century CE, contemporary with the rabbis of the Talmud, he’s treated in a bestselling work, The Lives and Opinions of the Greek Philosophers by Diogenes Laertius, and he was well-known throughout the Medieval period (witness Catholic theology and Dante).
Maimonides was well aware of Greek philosophy in general as a follower of Aristotle. In fact, he mentions Epicurus several times in his Guide for the Perplexed (1190)! So no, it’s not possible the sages weren’t aware of the obvious etymology of the word. Instead, they insist on a hidden meaning of the word, purposefully ignoring the obvious, to get at something else. But what?
The answer lies, I believe, in going back to the original Greek name, surprisingly.
Have you ever sung a well-rehearsed song with others in a tight circle? You were probably moved beyond mere geometry to experience solidarity, intimacy, maybe even a feeling of spirituality or transcendence. Chasidim know this. The word epikoros evokes this, in the Greek χορός – chorus or koros – a circle of singers, probably part of an ancient ritual. In classical Greek theatre, it evolved into the group of players who stand together, sometimes in a ring, and dance back and forth across the stage singing verses of point and counterpoint to the main players or themes. Koros in turn is traced back to the Proto-Indo-European root gher, meaning “trap” or “catch,” a core concept signifying the containment around something. It is easy to see how it also evolves into the Greek cognate of chorus, χόρτος – khórtos, meaning “enclosure,” like a corral.
The other part of the name is more familiar, the prefix epi–meaning “on top of.” We use it for words that survive intact from ancient Greek like epiphany (a shining or appearance from above, a manifestation or revelation of heavenly presence), or in science for technical terms like epidermis (the top layer of skin) or epicenter (the point above the enter of an earthquake).
But the prefix can also carry a sense of contrast, opposition, something after, above, atop, or even against – in short, different from – the root. An epi-gone is an inferior successor, like Fredo, the weak brother in The Godfather, or like the imitators of the great artist Caravaggio to whom the term was applied.
Epikoros might well have chosen the name for himself to echo this sense of breaking from the herd. He was known as and branded himself as a radical who broke out of – superceded – the circle of Platonic belief. Indeed, the little we may know of him makes him sound like a compulsively self-aggrandizing rebel, rejecting his teacher Democritus and other predecessors, including Plato and Pythagoras, to claim he was self-taught.
So now back to the word in the Talmud: In his treatment of Maimonides use of the word from the traditional Jewish perspective, David Curwin, author of the brilliant Hebrew etymology website Balashon, notes
Imagine cattle herded into a pen. One breaks out and gets lost, to wander ownerlessly. There’s our Jewish epikoros! Some wiser-than-thou guy opposes his teachers and breaks out of the closed circle of learning and faith to embrace a terrible fate. Like, Maimonides’ mafkir, and the original Epicurus, the epikoros acts willfully, intentionally.
Breaking the circuit between Heaven and Earth
The epicurean in the Greek sense cuts the circuit between heaven and earth. What you do on Earth has no consequences, he says, because there’s nothing else, so seek pleasure. He is the archetype of the radical denier, that wise guy who has to say that one other, defiant thing, the pathologically compulsive skeptic whose goal is to break the circle of belief in anything that he can’t grasp with his appetites or senses or material, empirical experience. His behavior, the rabbis are warning him, has led him to abandon his soul. So why aren’t the rabbis content to let this derivation stand?
I believe the rabbis are not disingenuous here but are knowingly digging deeper to get at this more ancient, resonant aura around the word epikoros. But how does that explain their fixation on their own pride and sensitivities? And though they are excellent linguists to be sure, how would they have gotten access to etymology pieced together only recently by centuries of painstaking archeology and philology?
One explanation goes to the root of the traditional foundation of Jewish rabbinical authority, undergriding the continuous project of interpreting Torah: they are transmitting knowledge preserved in the Oral Torah that Moses also received on Sinai, antedating Epikoros by 1000 years. When they invoke “epikoros” as derived from hefker, they do so to re-appropriate an oral tradition that is much deeper and older than mere superficial cultural allusions. Their word play is more than a cynical effort to protect their monopoly on Torah authority. It’s an affirmation of first principles. It’s also a test of our status, too: either we are heretics, or we believe this tenet on which rabbinic Judaism rests.
The road to Jewish Heaven is paved by scholars
At first glance, the epikoros’ offense seems the least dire of the three Big Ones and the one mostly driven by the very earthly concerns of defensive rabbis protecting their turf.
But when viewed through this deeper meaning, the list of three offenders defines three versions of the same form of heresy: they all break the circuit of authority from God through Moses into the Oral and Written Torah and from thence into the Mishnah and to Gemarah (the discussions of the rabbis of Mishnah) that comprise the Talmud.
Who is the epikoros? His transgression is the most personal, immediate, and pedestrian of the three Big Ones, but in some ways that makes his sin the most dreadful of them all. He diminishes, even in apparently slight ways – he slights – the authority and respect due the sages and teachers who interpret and transmit the Torah. Why is this worthy of the ultimate penalty? Because rabbinical authority has to be absolute, equivalent to the Torah’s Divine authority. The Torah, and the ongoing rabbinical authority that continues to nurture it and allow it to blossom as we evolve, resides on Earth, not in Heaven, with all the human frailty that implies.
To prove the point, immediately after describing offense #1, the rabbis put on virtuoso performances demonstrating the value their authority provides. Offense #1 is to deny that the Torah tells us that the dead will be resurrected after the messiah comes. But scour the Torah, and the normal reader can’t find any such statement, at least in any literal way. Then how do we know? We’ll show you! And they proceed to so do in a display of pages of exegetical brilliance.
In short, the sages’ job, and the project of the Talmud and all subsequent authoritative commentary, is to unfold the hidden meanings in the written text based on Oral Law, received also at Sinai. Though they are human and imperfect, as the varying interpretations show, they are acting in good faith. They’re pros at what they do, and their conclusions have the force of Divine Law. How do we know when a rabbi is authoritative and not just a rebellious sage or a false prophet? It’s complicated, but the Rebbe, R. Menachem Mendel Shneerson, had a good rule of thumb: less authoritative rabbis, probably the majority in the world, routinely compromise laws to to accommodate the pressures of society. “But,” he said, “You shouldn’t sanctify the compromise!”
By rejecting the superficial meaning of epikoros to invoke the deeper more ancient one, Rambam and Ramah and all those who follow are enacting the lesson, self-reflexively: the apparent surface meaning of the Torah doesn’t say anything about resurrection of the dead, but our elaborations show it does incontrovertibly. Epikoros sounds like it refers to a persuasive Greek philosopher, but it really means something else. Watch this performance of our skills … If you deny our reading, as arcane and incredible as it first seems, it is as serious as denying the Torah comes from God. And just as you must build a fence around the Torah, you must also protect not only the dignity, authority and majesty of our rabbinic project of unfolding its hidden meanings, but also our personal dignity, authority, and majesty, even if it makes us look like a mafia and even if we are only human.
Now we can see that the three ways to lose your soul forever not only make sense, they are really re-statements of one principle:
#1 Don’t question the authority of the rabbis because their authority is continuous with the Oral Torah and the Written Torah, which have Divine authority. Encroaching on their personal dignity impugns the truth of their sacred project.
In short, the sages’ bravura performance in Cheilek achieves transcendent coherence. It’s a meta-text that defines even as it demonstrates the meaning of Torah, its continuity and ongoing elucidation on earth through the agency of rabbinical authority.
The Route to Immortality is Paved by Rabbinic Intention
Mock the authority on which the belief rests, become too disputatious, and you’ve become an epikoros. Renounce ownership of your place in it, and your very soul will be destined to roam ownerlessly, orphaned in a desolate, unnamable space with no hope for redemption. Your road to immortality is paved by rabbinic authority.
The proper translation of Olam HaBah is not the static “World to Come,” but the dynamic “World that is Coming.” Heaven is unfolding, approaching, in process, and we’re always on the way to it. The Talmud and our earthly interpretation of Torah are the accomplice and mirror of an Olam HaBah that’s approaching us. The two are coming to greet each other on the road.
San Mateo, CA
 See the entry on Epicurus in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/epicurus/
 Long footnote, excerpted from my earlier blogpost on Dante and Catholic theology’s appropriation of the Talmudic concept of epikoros:
In Canto X, Dante and Virgil, his tour guide, visit the sixth ring of hell. It’s filled with open graves where fires perpetually burn the still-conscious bodies in them. Dante asks why the graves are open, and Virgil says,
Within this region is the cemetery
of Epicurus and his followers,
all those who say the soul dies with the body.
After Judgement Day, when everyone else will be resurrected from the dead, they will be deposited here with the bodies they left behind on Earth. Furthermore, as one of the doomed tells Dante,
“… our awareness
will die completely at the moment when
the portal of the future has been shut.”
In short, followers of Epicurus’ seductive philosophy die forever, just as they said would happen: the soul dies with the body. Dante even sees Epicurus himself on his tour. The only problem is that when they die, the Epicureans are shocked to find out they do have eternal souls, those souls go to hell, and instead of winking out of existence they are roasted agonizingly for a very long time in graves. Worse, those “awarenesses” have to live – or should we say die – with the knowledge that they got it all so very wrong. Finally, when the messiah comes – Dante calls that time by the euphemism “visiting Jehosephat” – those souls are judged. While other souls are reunited with their resurrected and refreshed bodies, Epicureans are consigned to be reunited with their rotted corpses and while others live eternally, they die forever. Ouch.
Dante’s Sixth Ring of Hell is based on a very specific discussion among Jews from a thousand years earlier. In the Talmud, (Sanhedrin), the sages discuss the ways Jews can lose their souls forever. They single out the “epikoros” for particular doom. Yet, while Dante was friendly with Jews in his time, and no Jews appear in his version of hell, Dante did not know Hebrew or Aramaic and Dante never read the Talmud. So how and why did Dante echo such arcane Jewish theology? The answer is obviously that Dante really knew his Catholic theology, and it somehow transmitted this bit of arcane Judaism.
Certainly, Jesus was an expert Jewish theologian. And Judaism and Christianity had much more fluid conceptual entanglements in the early centuries after Jesus. As the Roman Empire became the Holy Roman Empire, and Catholic Church solidifies its control over the narrative, Jews become the owners of the “Old” Testament. Off and on (mostly on) are persecuted, killed, ghettoized. The Talmud, which preserves and evolves the core of Jewish tradition. Is eventually burnt. But, a few years before Dante is born, Pope Innocent IV called for the rehabilitation of the Talmud and had very select excerpts translated into Latin in 1245.
But where Dante takes the connection to Epicurus at face value, the Jews have a very different notion of hell, one revealed by their strange refusal to acknowledge Epicurus. The difference between the two versions illustrates two points: one is that the Jewish tradition finds its way into Dante. Epicureans are punished by losing their eternal souls. On the other hand, Dante’s version loses the subtlety of the rabbinical discussion of the epicurean heresy and in doing so illustrates the way the intricacies of Jewish theology are both borrowed and simplified by Christian doctrine. What’s remarkable is that they come to the same conclusion: heresy is denying resurrection of the dead and immortality of the soul and the punishment is to lose the privilege.
For more about the differences between Jewish and Christian concepts of hell, see J. Harold Ellens’ Heaven, Hell and the Afterlife ; Alan Bernstein’s Hell and Its Rivals ).
 Sanhedrin 10B; 90A et seq. Sanhedrin 99b-100a
 Sanhedrin 99
 Rambam on Mishnah Sanhedrin 10:1. (https://www.sefaria.org/Rambam_on_Mishnah_Sanhedrin.10.1?lang=en
 The forebear of most European and Near Eastern language from the Early Bronze Age, about 4000 BCE
In the interim since I first posted an earlier version of this blog in October, 2018, Fredo has become a news item as a provocateur posted video of insulting a not-very sophisticated but famous newsman by calling him “Fredo.” The newscaster took the bait and threatened violence. Just sayin’.
 They do so several times throughout Cheilek, as when Rabbi Yehuda shows that an apparently tainted bird (“a raven”) is kosher (“a dove”) and vice versa. (Sanhedrin 99b5)
 See R. Joseph Telushkin, Rebbe (Harper, 2014))