TALMUD. The 27rd Massekhet – Avoda Zara

The prohibition against Avoda Zara is the most severe prohibition in the Torah. It includes the belief and worship of all deities whether on their own or in concert with God, whether they are perceived as spiritual, natural forces or animals. Any worship of these deities, whether worshiping the concept, the thing itself or a representative object, is forbidden as Avoda Zara. This prohibition appears in the Ten Commandments and is repeated throughout the Torah and the books of the prophets. In explanation of the severity of this act it must be understood that idol worship is the antithesis of the most basic Jewish concept, that is, the belief in a single, unique God who rules over all things. The Rabbinic statement that expresses this idea states “Whoever accepts Avoda Zara denies the entire Torah.”

to be continued in the form of comments
the link to the previous Massekhet:
http://kabbalistnyc.com/?p=4412

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30 Responses to TALMUD. The 27rd Massekhet – Avoda Zara

  1. Massekhet Avoda Zara: Introduction to the Tractate

    The prohibition against Avoda Zara is the most severe prohibition in the Torah. It includes the belief and worship of all deities whether on their own or in concert with God, whether they are perceived as spiritual, natural forces or animals. Any worship of these deities, whether worshiping the concept, the thing itself or a representative object, is forbidden as Avoda Zara. This prohibition appears in the Ten Commandments and is repeated throughout the Torah and the books of the prophets. In explanation of the severity of this act it must be understood that idol worship is the antithesis of the most basic Jewish concept, that is, the belief in a single, unique God who rules over all things. The Rabbinic statement that expresses this idea states “Whoever accepts Avoda Zara denies the entire Torah.”

    Due to the severity of this prohibition, we find that the Torah commands us not only to refrain from idol worship, but also to destroy it and to stay away from it and from its adherents in a variety of different ways. Thus we are forbidden from following the ways of idol worshipers or attempting to appear like them (see, for example, Vayikra 18:3). The Sages added further limitations whose purpose is to discourage interaction with Avoda Zara and its followers.

    Massekhet Avoda Zara is found in Seder Nezikin as one of the tractates that follows Massekhet Sanhedrin, and it expands on the ideas that are found there. While Massekhet Sanhedrin focuses on the criminal aspects of Avoda Zara, the punishments for its worship, and so on, Massekhet Avoda Zara deals with what is permissible and what is forbidden, under what circumstances, etc.

    Another interesting aspect of Avoda Zara that is discussed in Massekhet Sanhedrin is the fact that Avoda Zara is forbidden not only to Jews but to all people of the world, as it is one of the Seven Noaḥide laws. This impacts on Jews, as well, since they are commanded to destroy the idol worship in the land of Israel and, theoretically, throughout the world. Even if is not within the power of the Jewish people to accomplish this, nevertheless Jews are not allow to support those who want to worship idols or assist them in doing so.

    As noted, the focus of Massekhet Avoda Zara is on the need to remove oneself from idol worship and things connected with it. It is forbidden to derive benefit from the idols themselves, as well as their ornaments and donations made to them, and the Sages even decreed a severe level of ritual defilement for coming in contact with them. Similarly, participating in pagan holidays and festivals is forbidden. Much of Massekhet Avoda Zara works at defining the boundaries of what would be forbidden, whether indirect benefit from Avoda Zara or passive participation in religious ceremonies would be permitted.

    Part of the prohibition against benefitting from Avoda Zara forbids eating food that has been sacrificed as part of a pagan ritual. One aspect of these laws revolves around wine, and specifically yayin nesekh – wine that was libated on an altar to a deity. It was common practice for idol worshipers to pour off a small amount of wine to honor their deity before drinking. Such a libation would prohibit the wine, and the practice was so widespread that it was reasonable to assume that any wine that had been touched by a non-Jew had likely been poured off to a pagan deity. This led to the establishment of a Rabbinic injunction of stam yeinam – that even ordinary wine of non-Jews that had not been used for religious purposes was forbidden. This ruling was made both because of the concern with yayin nesekh as well as because of a general interest in limiting the social interaction between Jews and pagans, as the Gemara teaches (Massekhet Avoda Zara 36b) “The Sages decreed about their wine because of their daughters.”

    Since Massekhet Avoda Zara teaches about the need to remove oneself from idol worship and associated practices, it is necessary to describe the details of some of the common activities that were done as Avoda Zara. What we find in this tractate are mainly descriptions of Greco-Roman pagan practices as they expressed themselves in Israel and surrounding countries during the period of the Talmud. The Talmud anticipates that we will be able to reach conclusions regarding other pagan practices based on what we find here.

    The teachings of the Torah focus on actual Avoda Zara, and into the times of the Mishna and Gemara Jews found themselves living among people who practiced pagan religions. Over time, however, new religions developed whose basis is in Jewish belief – such as Christianity and Islam – which are based on belief in the Creator and whose adherents follow commandments that are similar to some Torah laws (see the uncensored Rambam in his Mishne Torah, Hilkhot Melakhim 11:4). All of the rishonim agree that adherents of these religions are not idol worshippers and should not be treated as the pagans described in the Torah. Moslems certainly worship a single God and do not offer libations of wine. There are different approaches to Christians, where we find that the Rambam views them as basically pagans, while Tosafot – and even more so the Meiri – view them as monotheists. Therefore, although many of the laws limiting interaction with non-Jews remain in place in order to avoid intermarriage and assimilation, other laws – e.g. limits on business dealings prior to their holidays – are assumed to be permitted. This is based on statements made in the Gemara that in the Diaspora it is impossible for Jews to avoid such interactions (7b) and that non-Jews living in Diaspora countries are not truly idol worshippers, they are just following the traditions of their fathers (Massekhet Ḥullin 13b).

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    Avoda Zara 2a-b: Jewish Merchants and Pagan Holidays
    January 17, 2018
    The Torah commands the Jewish people to remove themselves from interaction with pagan idol worship and from its adherents, so the reality of a Jewish population that lives in close proximity with non-Jews and interacts with them on a regular basis raises many questions. Given the centrality of idol worship to the daily life of a pagan, especially around certain holidays and places, the first perek of Massekhet Avoda Zara discusses the need for Jews to avoid business interactions with these non-Jews around the time of their holidays.

    The first Mishna forbids engaging in business interactions – e.g. borrowing and lending – with pagans for three days before their holidays. Although this would appear to forbid both buying and selling, Tosafot and other rishonim quote Rabbeinu Tam as teaching that only selling would be forbidden, and even in the case of selling, only selling things that can be used in the course of worship cannot be sold.

    The Gemara (6a) offers two reasons for this prohibition. One suggestion is that the non-Jew will be pleased with his purchase and will come to thank the pagan deity when the holiday comes about. Another suggestion is that by selling him something that will allow him to fulfill his worship, the Jew transgresses the prohibition of lifnei iver lo titen mikhshol – not to put a stumbling block before the blind. Since pagan idol worship is forbidden as one of the seven Noaḥide laws, it would be prohibited for a Jew to assist the non-Jew in performing this worship.

    The Gemara does not reach a clear conclusion as to which of these reasons is primary. We find that Rashi quotes only the first reason – that the non-Jewish pagan will thank his god. The Meiri and the Ritva, however, argue that the main reason is because of lifnei iver, and the other reason that is mentioned is taught only for a case where lifnei iver would not apply.

    This essay is based upon the insights and chidushim of Rabbi Steinsaltz, as published in the English version of the Koren Talmud Bavli with Commentary by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, and edited and adapted by Rabbi Shalom Berger.

  2. Avoda Zara 2a-b: Jewish Merchants and Pagan Holidays
    The Torah commands the Jewish people to remove themselves from interaction with pagan idol worship and from its adherents, so the reality of a Jewish population that lives in close proximity with non-Jews and interacts with them on a regular basis raises many questions. Given the centrality of idol worship to the daily life of a pagan, especially around certain holidays and places, the first perek of Massekhet Avoda Zara discusses the need for Jews to avoid business interactions with these non-Jews around the time of their holidays.

    The first Mishna forbids engaging in business interactions – e.g. borrowing and lending – with pagans for three days before their holidays. Although this would appear to forbid both buying and selling, Tosafot and other rishonim quote Rabbeinu Tam as teaching that only selling would be forbidden, and even in the case of selling, only selling things that can be used in the course of worship cannot be sold.

    The Gemara (6a) offers two reasons for this prohibition. One suggestion is that the non-Jew will be pleased with his purchase and will come to thank the pagan deity when the holiday comes about. Another suggestion is that by selling him something that will allow him to fulfill his worship, the Jew transgresses the prohibition of lifnei iver lo titen mikhshol – not to put a stumbling block before the blind. Since pagan idol worship is forbidden as one of the seven Noaḥide laws, it would be prohibited for a Jew to assist the non-Jew in performing this worship.

    The Gemara does not reach a clear conclusion as to which of these reasons is primary. We find that Rashi quotes only the first reason – that the non-Jewish pagan will thank his god. The Meiri and the Ritva, however, argue that the main reason is because of lifnei iver, and the other reason that is mentioned is taught only for a case where lifnei iver would not apply.

  3. Avoda Zara 3a-b: Can Non-Jews Learn Torah?
    According to the Gemara (2a) Rabbi Ḥanina bar Pappa offered a homily suggesting that at the End of Days God will hold a Sefer Torah and announce that the ultimate reward will be given to those who involved themselves in Torah study. In this context the Gemara quotes the teaching of Rabbi Meir who teaches that a non-Jew who studies Torah should be treated like a kohen gadol. This is based on the passage (Vayikra 18:5) that says that we must perform the laws of the Torah that a person does – asher ya’aseh otam ha-adam – and the terminology used is the generic ha-adam – “a person” – rather than Jewish people, like kohanim, levi’im and yisra’elim. Thus the credit given to someone who studies apparently applies even to non-Jews.

    Tosafot note that according to the Gemara in Sanhedrin (59a) non-Jews are prohibited from learning Torah based on the passage (Devarim 33:4) Torah tziva lanu Moshe morasha – Moses commanded the Torah to us as an inheritance. The only exception would be the study of the seven Noaḥide laws, and Tosafot suggest that this must be Rabbi Meir’s intent. The Maharsha adds that we should not view the Torah that is permissible to non-Jews as being limited to those seven mitzvot. In fact, there are many Torah laws that apply to non-Jews aside from those seven that are emphasized because of their severity.

    The Meiri argues that Rabbi Meir is speaking about the entire Torah, and that the Gemara in Sanhedrin that forbids Torah study to non-Jews is limited only to those whose interest in learning Torah stems from curiosity or an academic interest in the subject. If, however, the non-Jew is searching for truth, which leads him to the Torah, or if he studies the Torah and fulfills it out of a sincere desire for a relationship with God, then this is not only permissible, but he is considered to be like the kohen gadol.

  4. Avoda Zara 4a-b: Were the Talmudic Sages Experts in the Written Torah?
    Were the Talmudic Sages experts in the written Torah?

    The Gemara relates that Rabbi Abbahu spoke highly of Rav Safra before a group of minim – sectarians – who arranged to free him from paying taxes for 13 years. One day they met Rav Safra and asked him to offer an interpretation of the passage in Sefer Amos (3:2) where it is taught that God favors the Jewish people, which is why he punishes them for their sins. Why would God take out His anger specifically against those whom he loves and favors?

    Rav Safra did not answer their question, and they threw a scarf around his neck (either they were trying to choke him since he would not reveal the meaning, or else they took off his turban and threw it around his neck, embarrassing him). Rabbi Abbahu came upon this scene and demanded an explanation. The minim said to him that they found that the man who Rabbi Abbahu presented as a great person could not explain a passage in the Bible! Rabbi Abbahu replied that Rav Safra was great in his knowledge of the oral law, but not of the written Torah. He further explained that the Babylonian Sages spent all of their efforts studying the oral law, but since there were heretics in Israel who challenged the Sages with their interpretations of the Bible, the Sages in Israel needed to study the written Torah in order to respond to them. In closing Rabbi Abbahu offered an explanation to the passage, that God takes out his anger slowly against the Jews, while against others he brings down a severe punishment all at once.

    During Rabbi Abbahu’s time – at the end of the 3rd century CE – groups of sectarians, especially Christians, began to come to positions of power in Israel, which is how they had the ability to influence tax collection on individuals. These sectarians were very interested in the Bible and its interpretation, which is why they felt deceived when they discovered that Rav Safra was not as great an expert in the field as they had supposed.

  5. Avoda Zara 5a-b: One Considered As Dead
    The Gemara on today’s daf suggests that the term “death” in the Torah may occasionally refer to other situations that bring one to be considered as dead. The four situations are:

    Oni – a poor person
    Suma – a blind person
    Metzora – someone who suffers from Biblical leprosy
    Mi she’en lo banim – someone who is childless.
    The Gemara offers support for each of these from Biblical passages.

    Poverty –

    After spending time exiled from his home, Moshe is told that he can return to Egypt since all of those who desired his life had died (Shemot 4:19). The Gemara identifies “those who desired his life” as Datan and Aviram (see Bamidbar chapter 16). This is consistent with the Sages’ identification of all unnamed enemies of Moshe – e.g. the two fighting Hebrews (see Shemot 2:13-15) – with these people. Although we know that they remained alive they apparently had lost their property and become impoverished, and no longer had the ability to harm Moshe.

    The Iyyun Ya’akov teaches that we find the idea that poverty is worse than death in many sources, since it is ongoing, painful experience. The Maharsha explains that the passage brought in the Gemara that parallels the experience of poverty to that of Adam, based on the passage in Tehillim (82:7), is to be understood as follows: Just as Adam was condemned to suffer in this world (see Bereshit 3:19), so too the Jewish people will suffer oppression and poverty.

    Blindness –

    The passage in Eikha (3:6) parallels blindness with death

    Metzora –

    When Miriam, Moshe’s sister, is struck with leprosy, Aharon’s appeal to Moshe to pray on her behalf suggests that she is in a situation similar to death (see Bamidbar 12:12).

    Childlessness –

    When Rachel turns to Ya’akov and demands children, she insists that without children she will be considered as one who is dead (Bereshit 30:1).

  6. Avoda Zara 6a-b: Pagan Holidays
    According to the Mishna (2a) it is forbidden to do business with non-Jewish idol worshippers for three days prior to their holidays.

    What are these pagan holidays?

    The Gemara on today’s daf quotes a baraita that mentions three holidays: Kalenda, Saturnalia and Kratesis.

    Rav Ḥanin bar Rava explains that Kalenda refers to the holiday that is celebrated for eight days following the winter solstice, while Saturnalia is the eight day festival that precedes it.

    Kalenda or Calenda usually refers to the first day of the month according to the Roman calendar, but in our case the Sages are talking about the first day of the first month of the year – Kalendae Januirae – that is to say, the first day of the month of January. As the Gemara explains, the celebration of this festival began immediately following the winter solstice on December 22 and lasted for eight days. As part of the celebrations the Roman would bring sacrifices to the pagan gods and arrange for games and related activities at the circus.

    Saturnalia became one of the most popular Roman festivals. It was marked by sacrifices to the god Saturn and general revelry that included reversal of social roles, in which slaves and masters ostensibly switched places.

    Originally celebrated for a day, on December 17, its popularity saw it grow until it became a week long extravaganza, ending on the 25th day of the month.

    Saturnalia involved the conventional sacrifices, a couch (lectisternium) set out in front of the temple of Saturn and the untying of the ropes that bound the statue of Saturn during the rest of the year. A Saturnalicius princeps was elected master of ceremonies for the proceedings. Besides the public rites there were a series of holidays and customs celebrated privately. The celebrations included a school holiday, the making and giving of small presents (saturnalia et sigillaricia) and a special market (sigillaria).

  7. Avoda Zara 7a-b: Second Opinions in Jewish Law
    There is a common assumption that once a person goes to a Rabbi for a rabbinic ruling, he cannot turn to a second Rabbi to seek a “second opinion.”

    The basis for this assumption appears on today’s daf. The baraita teaches that if someone approached a Sage for a ruling regarding a question of ritual purity and the ruling was that it was impure, he should not turn to a second Sage to see if he would rule it pure. Similarly, if someone approached a Sage for a ruling regarding a question of whether something was permissible according to Jewish law and the ruling was that it was forbidden, he should not turn to a second Sage to see if he would rule it permitted.

    Tosafot argue that there is no prohibition against turning to additional rabbis in an attempt to clarify the matter. They claim that the intent of the baraita is to ensure that the person asking the question will let the second rabbi know that a first opinion had already been given. The onus is on the second rabbi to make sure that when he offers his ruling, he takes into account the reasoning – and dignity – of the person who first offered a response to this question.

    According to The Ran the main problem is the dignity of the first rabbi, so if the second one were to engage the first in discussion of the matter and were he to agree to the arguments of the second rabbi, there would be no problem whatsoever.

    A different perspective is offered by the Ra’avad who suggests that the first ruling creates a situation where the object being discussed has been declared forbidden, and that status cannot be changed (according to this, the rule would not apply to situations of monetary rulings, where there are two sides in the matter). The Meiri points out that even according to this approach, the only problem would be if the second rabbi were asked to rule on the exact same case that had already been decided. If, however, a different, but similar, case is brought before him, he has every right to offer the ruling that makes the most sense to him.

  8. Avoda Zara 8a-b: Rabbinic Ordination at a Crossroads
    Rav Yehuda quotes Rav as telling about Rabbi Yehuda ben Bava who must be remembered for keeping the laws of kenasot -penalties – from being forgotten. The Gemara explains that under Hadrian the Roman government forbade for rabbinic ordination to be conferred. They announced that anyone giving or receiving ordination would be killed and nearby cities and provinces would be destroyed and uprooted. Rabbi Yehuda ben Bava gathered five students to a place midway between large mountains and cities – between the teḥum Shabbat areas (the distance that one can walk from a habitated area on Shabbat) surrounding Usha and Shefaram – and conferred rabbinic ordination on Rabbi Meir, Rabbi Yehuda, Rabbi Shimon, Rabbi Yosei and Rabbi Elazar ben Shammua. The Roman garrisons spotted them and Rabbi Yehuda ben Bava instructed his students to flee, while he protected the path by sacrificing himself to the onslaught of the Roman soldiers. While he was killed for his efforts, his students survived to act as teachers and judges.

    The cities of Usha and Shefaram were among the centers of Jewish life in the Galilee at the end of the Second Temple period. Usha was situated in the lower Galilee and for a time played host to the Sanhedrin, which wandered in the Galilee at the time of the destruction of the Second Temple. Today there is an Arab village in the area that carries the name “Husha”.

    Shefaram was the Sanhedrin’s next stop after Usha. It was in the same area, about three kilometers to the northeast of Usha. Today a Christian-Druze community lives there. The area between these two communities is hilly. An age-old tradition points to the burial cave of Rabbi Yehuda ben Bava being on the road between the two cities, immediately next to an ancient notice in Greek indicating the end of the teḥum Shabbat from Usha.

  9. Avoda Zara 9a-b: Basing Real Estate Decisions on Eschatology
    Our Gemara brings a teaching from Tanna deVei Eliyahu:

    The world will last for six thousand years –

    Two thousand of tohu (waste)

    Two thousand years of Torah

    Two thousand years of Messianic times.

    The tanna continues that due to our sins we have already lost some of the years of Messianic times, since mashi’aḥ has not yet come.

    Rashi explains that this exposition is based on the model of the days of a week (as in the passage in Sefer Tehillim 90:4), where each day represents one thousand years. The seventh day – Shabbat – parallels the thousand years of aḥarit ha-yamim – the End of Days – a period of peace and tranquility on earth. The two thousand years of Messianic times is the time period during which mashi’aḥ has the potential to arrive, although he can arrive at any point during that time.

    Regarding Messianic times, Rabbi Ḥanina taught that if 400 years after the destruction of the Temple someone were to offer you a field valued at one thousand dinar for a single dinar, you should not waste your money and you should turn down the offer. A baraita is quoted offering that same advice beginning with the year 4231 from the creation of the world (the Gemara concludes that the difference between these two opinions is only three years).

    Rashi suggests that the intent of Rabbi Ḥanina (and the baraita) is to establish a date that is the end of the Redemption, and that at that time it would serve no purpose to purchase land in Israel, since at that time all Jewish people will return to the original inheritance of their forefathers in the land. According to the Ritva, however, the date mentioned by these Sages does not refer to a final Redemption, rather it is a time in which there was great potential, but also the possibility of great danger to the Jewish people if the Redemption did not occur. The recommendation in the Gemara is to avoid purchasing land in uncertain times.

  10. Avoda Zara 10a-b: Rabbi and Antoninus

    In the context of defining the term Yom Geinuseya shel Melakhim, which is ultimately understood as the day that the rule of the Roman leader was established, the Gemara on today’s daf tells of the close relationship between Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi (Rabbi) and the Roman emperor Antoninus. According to the opening story, Antoninus turned to Rabbi for advice on how to establish his son as his successor, something that was unusual in a political reality where the Senate chose the leader and generally refused to have a son follow his father as emperor. In the continuation of the stories of their relationship, the Gemara describes how Antoninus had a secret tunnel erected between their houses so that he could visit and serve Rabbi.

    The Gemara concludes that at the time of Antonius’ death Rabbi eulogized him saying nitparda ḥavila (the bundle is separated) – “the pact has been broken!” Rashi explains that this refers to the close, personal relationship that existed between Rabbi and Antoninus, and Rabbi was expressing his own sense of loss at the end of that connection. Others suggest that this is a reference to Rabbi’s recognition that although he had promised Antoninus that he would receive a portion in the World-to-Come, nevertheless it would not be on the same spiritual level as what Rabbi would receive, so their relationship could not be continued. The Maharal takes a different approach, explaining that without Antoninus, the mutual respect between Rome and Israel no longer existed and he was predicting a period of discord, disagreement and ultimately discrimination and edicts.

    The identity of the emperor Antoninus in this story is the subject of some debate. Some identify him as Caracalla, born Lucius Septimius Bassianus and later called Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, who ruled from 211-217 CE. His good relations with the Jewish community were well-known. Others point to his father, Septimus Severus who ruled from 193-211 CE who also had very good relations with the Jews under his rule, and who, indeed, succeeded in having his son named as emperor following his rule. Still others suggest that Antoninus was the original Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, who ruled from 161-180 CE.

  11. Avoda Zara 11a-b: The Haircut Holiday

    We have learned that it was forbidden for Jews to engage in business with pagans for three days before their holidays. The Mishna (8a) lists a number of such holidays, as well as a number of days on which no business can be done, although it would be permissible to do business on the days that preceded them. Such holidays included the day that a man’s beard or blorit were cut. The Gemara on today’s daf quotes baraitot that explain that these holidays took place on the day that the beard was cut and the blorit was left, as well as on the day that both the beard and the blorit were cut.

    In Rome it was common practice for the day that the Caesar’s beard was cut – either as an indication of entrance into manhood or for some other reason – to be considered a festival; sacrifices to pagan gods were part of the ceremonies, which included special religious services aimed at the Roman goddess of fortune who was appointed as responsible for beards, Fortuna barbata – “Fortune of the Beards”. Similarly, many individuals established these days as days of personal or family celebration.

    Many suggestions are offered to define the term blorit, but no word in Greek or Latin is a perfect match for it. The hairstyle involved allowing the hair to grow long particularly on the sides and in the back of the head, and the hair was tied and braided into different shapes. Later on, the braided hair was shaved off in a special pagan festive ceremony. This ceremony was most often performed in honor of the Egyptian goddess Isis and her son, the Egyptian deity Horus. During the period of the Mishna there was a growing movement throughout the Roman Empire that introduced Eastern beliefs and practices in concert with the local pagan ones. Thus, the worship of Isis became popular throughout the Roman Empire.

  12. Avoda Zara 12a-b: Don’t Put Your Mouth on Public Water Fountains!

    Aside from actual idol worship, it is also forbidden to engage in activities that will appear as if a person was bowing down before an idol. Based on this concept, the Gemara on today’s daf quotes a baraita that teaches that if someone drops coins in front of an idol he should not bend over to pick them up, if it appears as though he is bowing to the idol. Similarly, if a public drinking fountain is built with a face so that the water flows from its mouth, a person may not place his mouth on the mouth of the figure in order to drink, since it appears as if he is kissing the idol.

    This water fountain was in use in Pompeii during the time of the Mishna. In many places in the ancient world – and in some places to this day – it was common for public drinking fountains to be built for general use. Sometime these fountains were simple pipes, but in many places the mouth of the fountain was made into shapes, oftentimes in the figure of a face. While most of these decorative features were made simply to beautify the public area, occasionally the faces were those of idols. This led to a concern lest drinking directly from such fountains may appear to be kissing an idol, which would be forbidden.

    Tosafot Ḥakhmei Anglia ask whether the same concern existed with regard to picking up coins that have dropped, if they have on them an engraved form, perhaps even an engraving of an idol. They argue that forms that are minted onto coins are certainly not placed there for purposes of worship and there is no need to be concerned that bending over to pick up coins with such forms on them might be misconstrued as praying to them.

  13. Avoda Zara 13a-b: Prohibited Sales

    Among the things that the Mishna prohibits selling to a pagan idol worshiper are:

    itzterubalin – pinecones

    benot shuaḥ – white figs

    petotarot­ – stems (of the abovementioned itzterubalin and benot shuaḥ, which were hung by their stems in front of the idol)

    levona ­- frankincense

    tarnegol lavan­ -a white rooster

    All of these are forbidden to be sold since a Jew is not allowed to assist a non-Jew in performing pagan idol worship. As one of the seven Noaḥide laws, such worship is prohibited to the non-Jew, and therefore forbidden to the Jew because of lifnei iver lo titen mikhshol – the prohibition against putting a stumbling block before the blind (see Vayikra 19:14).

    Unlike the items that are mentioned as being forbidden to sell to pagans specifically around festival time, these cannot be sold to them throughout the year. These are items that are used specifically for pagan sacrifice, or else they are things that are difficult to find that are used for such sacrifice. For these reasons we fear lest they will be sacrificed even though it is not the holiday, or else that they will be held for use at the next holiday. The Ra’avad notes that we do not have such concerns when we sell an animal to the pagan, since animals are available at all times, as opposed to these things that are more difficult to find.

    The term itzterubol comes from the Greek strobilus that refers to any round object, but specifically to the fruit of one of the different types of pine tree. Pinecones, which were used for medicinal purposes as well, were used to sacrifice to Asclepius, the Greek god of healing.

    The idea of sacrificing a tarnegol lavan­ fits in with a common priority in many religious ritual practices that favored white animals. White roosters were also used in sacrifices for Asclepius.

  14. Avoda Zara 14a-b: Selling Animals Large and Small

    According to the Mishna, there were places in Israel where Jews sold behemot dakot – small domesticated animals (sheep and goats) – to their non-Jewish neighbors, while in other places they did not. Behemot gasot – large cattle – however, were not sold to non-Jews in any place.

    The Gemara explains that the source for these restrictions is not because they were worried about pagan idol worship, rather they stem from other halakhic concerns. Behemot gasot were used for field work that would be done on Shabbat as well as during the week. Since Jews are obligated to ensure that their animals do not work on Shabbat, they cannot lend their animals or rent them to non-Jews if they will be used on Shabbat. Since we are concerned that people would mistake purchase for renting or lending, even selling such animals was prohibited.

    The reason given for restricting the sale of behemot dakot is a different one. The Gemara explains that bestiality was commonplace among some of the non-Jews who lived in Israel in the time of the Mishna. Since sexual relations with animals is forbidden to non-Jews as one of the seven Noaḥide laws, it would be forbidden for a Jew to aid and abet such behavior. Understandably, in places where such behavior was unheard of among the non-Jews, sale of these animals was permitted.

    The Talmud Yerushalmi offers a different approach, suggesting that behemot dakot cannot be sold to non-Jews since that takes away from them the ability to be involved in mitzvot (e.g. sacrificing the first-born or offering the first shearings to the kohen). Ultimately, this suggestion is rejected by the Yerushalmi, since then it could be argued that even produce should not be sold to non-Jews, since mitzvot like tithes would be lost to the crops. Nevertheless, the Meiri writes that such reasoning should be considered and that we need to distinguish between common animals that can be sold out of concern for the livelihood of the Jewish cattlemen, and those that are less common.

    This essay is based upon the insights and chidushim of Rabbi Steinsaltz, as published in the English version of the Koren Talmud Bavli with Commentary by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, and edited and adapted by Rabbi Shalom Berger.

  15. Avoda Zara 15a-b: Selling to Samaritans

    Parallel to the laws taught in the Mishna on yesterday’s daf, the Gemara quotes a baraita that teaches a similar halakha regarding kutim. Thus, there were places in Israel where Jews sold behemot dakot – sheep and goats – to kutim, while in other places they did not.

    The term kutim refers to those people who were brought to Israel in a population exchange during first Temple times, when the kings of Assyria exiled the Northern kingdom and replaced them with other nations – not all of whom were truly kutim. They settled in the area around the city of Shomron (Samaria), which is why they are also called Shomronim or Samaritans.

    In II Melakhim (chapter 17) the navi describes how these nations accepted upon themselves some of the Jewish laws and customs out of fear after they were attacked and killed by lions – which is why they are often called gere arayot – converts because of lions. At the same time they did not renounce their own gods and religious traditions.

    At the beginning of the second Temple period, when Jews of the Diaspora began returning to the land of Israel, the relations between the Jews and the Shomronim became tense, with the Shomronim trying to bring down the efforts to rebuild the wall surrounding the city of Jerusalem and the beit hamikdash. At the same time, there were Jewish families – including families of kohanim – who intermarried with the Shomronim and assimilated with them.

    During some periods, the relations between the two groups reached levels of overt warfare; Yohanan Hyrcanus even attacked and destroyed their temple on Mount Gerizim. During other periods, however, there was cooperation between the groups – during the bar Kokheva rebellion, for example.

    Generally speaking, the Sages believed that the kutim were scrupulous in keeping those mitzvot that they accepted, and our Gemara argues that kutim were not known to engage in acts of bestiality. Nevertheless, places where such behavior was commonplace among the local non-Jews the tradition was to avoid selling animals to kutim lest they sell them to the pagan idol worshipers.

  16. Avoda Zara 16a-b: Interfaith Construction Projects

    The Mishna on today’s daf discusses building projects that should not be done in partnership with non-Jews. Such projects include building a basilica, a gardom (a tribunal), an itztadeyya (a stadium), and a bima (a platform). Nevertheless, one may join them in building pedestals and bathhouses, although when they reach the arched chamber in which an idol is placed, the Jew must not build.

    The Rambam and Ra’avad explain the prohibitions as based on the general concern with Avoda Zara. All of the buildings that are forbidden included stages and altars built for idol worship, which would make it impossible for Jews to play a role in their erection. Other rishonim view the prohibition differently. The Ritva writes that these were places of judgment, and since the pagan legal system killed people without proper reason, Jews should not assist them in building such courts. Rashi argues that there is even concern that Jewish people will be killed so that helping to build these buildings may play a role in the murder of Jews. According to the Meiri, different parts of legal proceedings took place in each of these buildings. He adds that the Talmudic rule dina d’malkhuta dina – that “the law of the land is the law” – notwithstanding, that applies to monetary judgments and not to capital crimes.

    According to Rashi, the pedestals that can be built in partnership with non-Jews were not directly built for idol worship, as they could be used to hold any object. Most of the other rishonim have other readings for this word, including a different type of bathhouse (Tosafot, Ramah), palaces (Rambam) or other building used for leisure activities or entertainment (Re’ah, Ritva). Such public buildings often included arched chambers in which idols were placed which made the niche for the idol considered to be a place of actual avoda zara.

  17. Avoda Zara 17a-b: The dangers of learning from Yeshu HaNotzri

    Following the description of Roman law courts that appears in the Mishna on yesterday’s daf, the Gemara on today’s daf tells of a number of Sages that were tried by the Roman government for a variety of alleged crimes. Somewhat surprisingly, Rabbi Eliezer was imprisoned and taken to the gardom – the tribunal – for sentencing, because he was suspected of minut – of belonging to an unrecognized cult. During the time of the Mishna, the Romans accepted, recognized and tolerated certain religions, but unrecognized cults – including Christianity – were viewed as superstitions, and participation in them was a crime. We do not know why Rabbi Eliezer was suspected as belonging to such a cult, although it is possible that his ascetic lifestyle and the fact that he was somewhat removed from the other Sages, led to the charge against him.

    The Gemara describes that Rabbi Eliezer avoided punishment when the Roman judge misunderstood his statement ne’eman alai ha-dayyan – “I trust the Judge” – which he said regarding God, but the Roman understood as referring to himself. Nevertheless, Rabbi Eliezer was upset that he had been accused of this behavior. His student, Rabbi Akiva suggested that perhaps he had heard a teaching of the minim and got pleasure from the teaching. Rabbi Eliezer then recalled an incident in the marketplace in Tzippori where he met one of the students of Yeshu HaNotzri who asked him whether an etnan zona – payment made to a prostitute – could be used to build a bathroom in the Temple for the kohen gadol, given that the Torah forbids bringing such money to the Temple (see Devarim 23:19). Although Rabbi Eliezer did not respond to Yeshu’s student, he did admit to having enjoyed the teaching that the student related in Yeshu’s name, which argues based on a wordplay in the passage in Mikha (1:7) that such money would appropriately be spent in an unclean place.

    In standard printings of the Talmud, this story appears without the name Yeshu HaNotzri, which was removed by censors for reasons of sensitivity to the Christian society in which they lived.

    This essay is based upon the insights and chidushim of Rabbi Steinsaltz, as published in the English version of the Koren Talmud Bavli with Commentary by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, and edited and adapted by Rabbi Shalom Berger.

  18. Avoda Zara 18a-b: Wanted: Rabbi Meir

    One of the greatest Sages of the Mishna was Rabbi Meir, who was married to Berurya, the daughter of Rabbi Ḥanina ben Teradyon, one of the asara harugei malkhut – the ten Sages who were martyred. During this period of upheaval, Berurya’s sister was taken captive by the Romans and placed in a brothel. Encouraged by his wife, Rabbi Meir made his way to the brothel in order to negotiate her release. Her guard explained to Rabbi Meir that he was afraid of being punished were he to release her, at which point Rabbi Meir gave him a large sum of money, some for himself and some to pay those who questioned him about her disappearance. When the guard asked what he should do in the event that his money ran out and he was caught, Rabbi Meir told him to simply say elaha d’Meir aneini – “God of Meir answer me!” – and he would be saved. Unconvinced, Rabbi Meir suggested that he try it in the face of attack dogs, and it worked, so the guard turned Berurya’s sister over to Rabbi Meir.

    The Gemara relates that the guard was ultimately caught and was sentenced to be hanged. When he was at the gallows he said elaha d’Meir aneini and they were unable to kill him. Demanding an explanation, the soldiers found out what had happened and put up “wanted” posters with a picture of Rabbi Meir, which forced him to flee Israel and move to Bavel.

    Rashi explains that the money that Rabbi Meir originally gave to the guard was to bribe the officials who came looking for the missing girl, while Tosafot suggest that it was to pay whatever taxes or expenses were involved in the transfer. The Maharal explains that Rabbi Meir did not tell him to use the magical statement elaha d’Meir aneini in the first place because the money that was paid at the beginning needed to be paid, while any additional demands were clearly unreasonable and should not be paid. The Maharsha writes that Rabbi Meir did not want to suggest that he rely on miracles as long as he could be protected by ordinary means.

  19. Avoda Zara 19a-b: A Lifetime of Torah Study

    Basing himself on the passage in Sefer Tehillim (1:3) Rabbi Tanḥum bar Ḥanilai taught that Torah study should be divided into three parts, and a person should divide his years so that one third of the time is spent studying mikra (the written Torah), one third studying Mishna (oral traditions) and one third Gemara (underlying concepts and discussion of the Mishna). The Gemara objects to this suggestion, arguing that a person cannot possibly know how long he will live, and will not be able to divide up his time properly. In response the Gemara concludes that a person should divide up his days, rather than his years.

    Rashi understands the suggestion of dividing days to mean that the days of the week should be devoted to different areas of study. Tosafot disagree, and rule that every day should be divided up. This appears to be the source for the Ge’onic tradition – one that appears in our prayer books to this day – that includes korbanot, a section of readings culled from the written Torah, the Mishna and the Gemara, whose focus is on the daily sacrifices. Traditionally, people rely on a different suggestion raised by Tosafot in the name of Rabbeinu Tam, that the standard Babylonian Talmud includes a mixture of mikra, Mishna and Gemara, and its study fulfills the requirement of dividing the days between these different areas of Torah study.

    In his Lekutei Torah, Rav Shne’ur Zalman mi-Liadi suggests that the categories should be viewed more broadly, and that mikra refers not only to the written Torah, but also to the midrashim and commentaries written about it, while Mishna refers to the halakhic part of the Torah. This allows a person to keep a schedule of dividing Torah into three parts even as his develops intellectually and needs less time for “simpler” aspects of Torah study.

  20. Avoda Zara 20a-b: Traditional Values

    Traditional values regarding sexuality seem somewhat old-fashioned in the modern age. Nevertheless, the Gemara on today’s daf shows a deep understanding of sexual drives and the need to avoid situations that will lead to inappropriate thoughts and actions.

    The Gemara quotes a baraita that interprets the passage in Sefer Devarim (23:10) that warns people to avoid all evil things – venishmarta mi-kol davar ra – to be referring specifically to issues of sensuality. Thus the baraita forbids a man from gazing at a beautiful woman, even if she is unmarried, or at any married woman, even an unattractive one. Similarly, the baraita forbids watching animals engage in sexual relations or even looking at the colorful clothing worn by women. In the Gemara, Rav Yehuda quotes Shmuel as extending this prohibition to the clothing itself, even if the clothing is hung out and is not being worn; Rav Pappa limits this prohibition, however, only to cases where the man knows the woman to whom these clothes belong.

    The emphasis on colored clothing should be understood in the context of the times of the Mishna. From the limited archaeological evidence that we have, together with information that we find in histories of the time, men’s clothing was usually a single color – either the original color of the fibers or else yellowish brown or black. Special clothing would have stripes of a brighter color, like blue or purple. Women’s work clothing also was ordinarily a single, plain color. Clothing that women wore for celebratory purposes – or for purposes of intimacy – were specially made to be colorful (see Sefer Shoftim 5:30). Such clothing was, therefore, considered to be sexually “suggestive” in-and-of itself.

    Thus we find that the Gemara attempts to limit activities that will lead a man to gaze upon out-of-the-ordinary sights that may be sexually stimulating.

  21. Avoda Zara 21a-b: Rent Control

    According to the Mishna on today’s daf, there are a number of restrictions on selling or renting houses or fields to non-Jews. These restrictions may stem from concern that the places that are given to the non-Jews may lose the opportunity for fulfillment of mitzvot – e.g. that tithes will no longer be separated from the produce of the field – or that there is a prohibition against giving a non-Jew a stakehold in the land, based on the interpretation of the passage in Sefer Devarim (7:2) that concludes with the words lo teḥanem.
    Rabbi Yosei distinguishes between three different areas:

    The Land of Israel itself, where these laws are most severe,
    Syria, and area to the north of Israel, where some of these laws apply while others do not, and
    Ḥutz la’aretz – the Diaspora – where both houses and fields can be sold to non-Jews.
    The area of Syria mentioned in the Mishna is the Biblical area to the north of Israel, known as Aram Damesek and Aram Tzovah. We find that Syria has a unique status in halakha with regard to many halakhot, not only because of its proximity to the Land of Israel, but because it was part of the northern Kingdom of Israel under several kings during the period of the first Temple. Furthermore, some opinions suggest that the northern border of Israel extends well to the north of the Jewish settlement in Israel during the second Temple period. There was also a large Jewish population center there, and some of the political leaders there were descendants of Jews (like the grandchildren of King Agrippas) or were closely allied with them.

    All opinions in the Mishna agree that houses should not be rented as dwelling-places, since the pagan will bring his idols into the house, and the Torah forbids allowing such gods into one’s house (Devarim 7:21). The rishonim are aware that it is common practice to rent houses to non-Jews, and they differentiate between Israel and the Diaspora, arguing that the passage in Sefer Devarim really forbids only a Jew from bringing idols into his home, and that there is no prohibition against allowing others to do so.

    This essay is based upon the insights and chidushim of Rabbi Steinsaltz, as published in the English version of the Koren Talmud Bavli with Commentary by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, and edited and adapted by Rabbi Shalom Berger.

  22. Avoda Zara 22a-b: The Torah of the Samaritans

    As we learned above (daf 15) the term kutim refers to those people who were brought to Israel in a population exchange during first Temple times, when the kings of Assyria exiled the Northern kingdom and replaced them with other nations – not all of whom were truly kutim. They settled in the area around the city of Shomron (Samaria), which is why they are also called Shomronim or Samaritans.

    In II Melakhim (chapter 17) the navi describes how these nations accepted upon themselves some of the Jewish laws and customs out of fear after they were attacked and killed by lions – which is why they are often called gere arayot – converts because of lions. At the same time they did not renounce their own gods and religious traditions. Furthermore, they have their own version of the Torah, which they believe and present as the true Torah. This creates a situation where the kutim are meticulously careful with those mitzvot that are found in their Torah, but will not accept other commandments that they do not find written there.

    This becomes important when the Gemara explains the difference in attitude that we have towards a kuti and a non-Jew with regard to renting or leasing to them workplaces that others will perceive as belonging to the Jewish owner. Thus, Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel teaches that a bathhouse cannot be rented to a non-Jew, since he will operate it on Shabbat. The Gemara discusses whether it can be rented to a kuti, since he will not work on Shabbat, although he will heat the water on ḥol ha-mo’ed – the intermediate days of the festivals – when work unrelated to the festival should be avoided. Once the Gemara concludes that even Jews are permitted to operate a bathhouse on ḥol ha-mo’ed it becomes obvious that it can be rented to a kuti. On the other hand, Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar teaches that a field cannot be leased to a kuti, since he will work the field on ḥol ha-mo’ed. Interestingly, the Gemara concludes that Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar would permit renting the field to a non-Jew, since the Jewish owner can insist that the field not be worked on ḥol ha-mo’ed and the non-Jew will listen to him. The kuti, however, cannot be trusted to accept such a limitation, since he is convinced that his understanding of the Torah is better than the Jew’s.

  23. Avoda Zara 23a-b: Ritual Objects and Gentiles

    Rabbi Eliezer forbids purchasing a Para Aduma – a Red Heifer used in the process of purifying someone who was ritually defiled because of contact with the dead (see Sefer Bamidbar chapter 19) – from a non-Jew. The Sage, Sheila, explains that Rabbi Eliezer’s ruling is based on his reading of the passage (Bamidbar 19:2) that commands that Jewish people must “take” the animal, which is understood to mean that they must take it from a fellow Jew.

    This explanation is challenged because there are other similar passages, for example when the Torah commands that contributions be taken from the people to build the mishkan – the Tabernacle – the same language is used, yet we know that some of the components used in the Temple were purchased from non-Jews. The specific example referred to is the famous story of Dama ben Netina, a non-Jew in Ashkelon, who had stones that were needed for the breastplate of the High Priest. When the Sages came to purchase them his father was asleep and the keys to the safe were under his father’s pillow. Dama ben Netina chose to lose the opportunity for a lucrative business deal, rather than wake his father, a decision that so impressed the Sages that they used this story to illustrate how far a child must go to fulfill the commandment of “Honor your father and your mother.”

    Dama ben Netina was one of the leading members of the non-Jewish community in Ashkelon during Second Temple times, and he served as one of the representatives on the city council. It appears that he was a very wealthy individual who was well-respected in his community and beyond. The story related in our Gemara is just one of many that appear in the Gemara describing the respect and honor that he showed his parents.

  24. Avoda Zara 24a-b: The Animal of a Non-Jew

    As we learned on yesterday’s daf Rabbi Eliezer forbids purchasing a Para Aduma – a Red Heifer (see Sefer Bamidbar chapter 19) – from a non-Jew. The Gemara on today’s daf brings a number of Sages who believe that Rabbi Eliezer applies that same limitation to all sacrifices. Thus all animals used for sacrifices must be purchased from Jews.

    This ruling seems to be contradicted by a list of stories throughout Tanakh where animals belonging to non-Jews were brought as sacrifices. For example:

    Moshe tells Pharaoh that not only will he free the Jews to worship themselves, but he will contribute sacrifices, as well (see Shemot 10:25).
    Yitro comes to join the Israelite community in the desert and brings sacrifices (see Shemot 18:12).
    King David is instructed to end a plague by building an altar on the place of the granary of Aravnah the Jebusite, the hilltop that was destined to become the Temple Mount (see Shmuel II chapter 24). Aravnah offers his granary, together with his cattle for sacrifices and the morigim and other utensils as firewood. King David insists on purchasing these from him.
    Regarding the first cases, the Gemara explains that this rule did not apply before the Torah was given. In King David’s case, Rav Naḥman suggests that Aravnah was a ger toshav – someone who accepted the laws incumbent upon him in order to live among the Jews (in his commentary on this story in Tanakh, the Abravanel quotes our Gemara as saying that Aravnah was a ger tzedek – a righteous convert. It appears that he had a variant reading in the Gemara). The Talmud Yerushalmi suggests that King David did not actually bring these animals as sacrifices, rather it was his prayer that brought an end to the plague.

    In a side comment, Ulla explains that the morigim donated by Aravnah were boards that were used to thresh the grain. In the time of the Mishna these implements were still in use – as they still are today – albeit in a more developed form that allowed the animal driver to sit while the wheels of the morigim threshed the grain.

  25. Avoda Zara 25a-b: Rain in a Drought

    The Gemara refers to the well-known story of Nakdimon ben Guryon, who is known from a number of stories that appear about him in the Talmud as one of the wealthy Jews who lived in Jerusalem at the time of the destruction of the Second Temple. (There appear to be references to him in Josephus’ works, as well.) While his Hebrew name was Boni – as is mentioned in the Gemara – it was common for members of the upper class to have Roman names, as well. His Roman name – Nakdimon – is the subject of a Rabbinic midrash, as is related in the story related by the Gemara in Ta’anit (19b-20a).

    One year, during a drought, there was no water available for the Jewish pilgrims who were coming to Jerusalem for the holiday. Nakdimon ben Guryon approached one of the Roman officers with an offer. He wanted access granted to twelve Roman cisterns on behalf of the Jewish pilgrims. He personally guaranteed that the cisterns would be refilled by a certain date, or else he would pay him twelve talents of silver. When the day arrived, the Roman officer demanded to receive either the water or the silver. Nakdimon ben Guryon responded that the day was not yet over. The officer ridiculed the notion of Nakdimon ben Guryon expecting the cisterns to be refilled in a year of drought. Laughing, he went to the bathhouse, looking forward to his windfall. Nakdimon went to the Temple and prayed to God that his concern for the Jewish people should not lead to financial ruin. The skies filled with clouds and rain began to fall, filling the cisterns. Upon completing their missions, Nakdimon and the Roman officer met outside in the rain. Nakdimon pointed out that the cisterns were not only filled, but were overflowing, and he claimed that the Roman owed him the overflow. The Roman admitted that God had brought the rain on behalf of Nakdimon, but he argued that the debt had not been paid on time, for the day was over! At this point, Nakdimon prayed and the clouds dispersed, allowing the sun to peek through – nikdera ḥamah ba’avuro – proving that the day was not over.

    On a literary note, the Maharsha points out the contrast in the story, of the Roman officer entering the bathhouse – the beit hamerḥatz – to bathe while people are desperate for water, whereas Nakdimon exits the Beit HaMikdash and demands that the excess water be made available to the people.

  26. Avoda Zara 26a-b: The Consequences of Truth

    The Mishna (22a) warned that a Jew should not allow himself to be alone with a pagan, since they are suspected of killing without compunction. On yesterday’s daf the Gemara quotes a baraita that warns a Jew who is traveling among pagans to be careful in their presence, and to refrain from giving clear information about his ultimate destination. The model for this behavior is the Patriarch Ya’akov who tells his brother, Eisav, that he planned to continue to Seir (see Bereshit 33:14) when, in fact, he did not plan to continue past Sukkot (see Bereshit 33:17).

    To support this teaching, the Gemara tells two stories of Jews who found themselves in these types of situations. Rabbi Akiva’s students were traveling to Keziv and found themselves amongst a band of robbers. Telling the robbers that they were planning on going to Akko – which was further south – they left the road at Keziv, leading the robbers to praise them and their teacher for their care in traveling. The Gemara on today’s daf tells of Rav Menashe who was traveling to Bei Torta and told the thieves who he met that his destination was Pumbedita. When he left the road at Bei Torta the thieves ridiculed him, calling him the student of Yehuda Rama’ah – Yehuda the trickster. In response, Rav Menashe declared a ban on the thieves, who were unsuccessful in their endeavors for years until they begged his forgiveness. The Gemara concludes by pointing out the difference between robbers in Israel who showed respect and admiration for those who protected themselves, and thieves in Babylon who could only insult those who they could not take advantage of.

    The Midrash, as well as many of the later commentaries, asks how Ya’akov, who is seen as a man of truth, could be the archetype of the man who uses subterfuge to save himself. The suggested approach is to say that Ya’akov did not lie, since he ultimately planned to reach Seir (see Ovadiah 1:21) at the End of Days. The Iyyun Ya’akov derives from this that even when acting with deceit in order to protect oneself, one should try to avoid a baldface lie. He suggests that the statements of Rabbi Akiva’s students as well as Rav Menashe should be understood in this light, even though a person is permitted to lie in order to protect the peace (see Yevamot 65a).

  27. Avoda Zara 27a-b: Choosing a Mohel

    Can a woman – who does not have a circumcision – circumcise a baby?

    Must the person who circumcises a Jewish child be Jewish himself?

    Two passages are brought on today’s daf that limit the kind of people who can perform circumcision. Daru bar Pappa quotes the pasuk that permits only those like Abraham and his descendants to act as a mohel (see Bereshit 17:9), while Rabbi Yoḥanan quotes the pasuk that is understood to limit a brit milah only to people who, themselves, have been circumcised (see Bereshit 17:13).

    The Gemara suggests several differences that may stem from these different sources. For example, according to the first pasuk, women may be excluded, since they cannot be circumcised. According to the second pasuk, however, since women are considered as if they have been circumcised, they would be able to circumcise others – with Moshe’s wife, Tzippora a prime example (see Shemot 4:25).

    Another suggested difference relates to a non-Jew. According to the first pasuk, a non-Jew may not play the role of someone like Abraham or his descendants, and therefore cannot circumcise. According to the second pasuk, however, nations that circumcise their children for religious reasons may be able to circumcise Jewish children, as well. Thus it is possible that an Arab or a Gavnuni who has been circumcised can circumcise others.

    Although the suggestion that an Arab, that is, a descendant of Abraham’s son, Yishma’el, is circumcised and can circumcise others is fairly straightforward, identifying a circumcised Gavnuni presents more of a challenge. Some rishonim had a variant reading in the Gemara that substitute Givoni, referring to the tribe that converted in the time of Yehoshua (see Sefer Yehoshua chapter 9), although the Ra’avad objects, arguing that they are true converts and therefore Jewish themselves. The Arukh suggests that the Gavnuni are one of the children of Keturah, Abraham’s second wife (see Tehillim 68:16-17), who lived in the mountains. These people may be obligated in circumcision, and keep it to this day.

  28. Avoda Zara 28a-b: Saving Lives on Shabbat

    We know how seriously the Torah takes the laws of Shabbat, yet for piku’aḥ nefesh – when there is danger to life – the laws of Shabbat are pushed aside.

    The Gemara on today’s daf notes that this is true not only when there is a clear danger, but also when there is any makah shel ḥalal – an internal injury – we will automatically be willing to treat the person, although Talmidei Rabbeinu Yona explain that this does not refer to a minor pain or complaint, only a known injury or serious pain.

    This discussion leads to a question about whether an injury or disease to teeth and gums would be included. Are they considered to be “internal”? As a proof to this question, the Gemara tells of Rabbi Yoḥanan who was suffering from tzafdina, and was treated by a Roman matron, who agreed to share the secret of the treatment if Rabbi Yoḥanan swore not to reveal it to others. Rabbi Yoḥanan replied “I swear to the God of Israel I will not reveal it.” Upon learning the cure, he told her that he would publicize it, explaining that he had taken a vow not to reveal it to the God of Israel, but to His people he planned to reveal it.

    Clearly, Rabbi Yoḥanan viewed the information about the cure as being a life-and-death matter that had to be shared publicly. The Ritva and Meiri point out that even so, he was obligated to explain to the matron that his oath was not binding and that he planned to tell others the cure.

    From the description in the Gemara, tzafdina appears to be scurvy, a disease marked by a lack of Vitamin C, which leads to a weakening of teeth and gums, internal bleeding and anemia. The descriptions in the Gemara of various methods that were used in an attempt to cure tzafdina were, apparently, attempts to make up the lack of this vitamin by ingesting it in a concentrated manner.

    This essay is based upon the insights and chidushim of Rabbi Steinsaltz, as published in the English version of the Koren Talmud Bavli with Commentary by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, and edited and adapted by Rabbi Shalom Berger.

  29. Avoda Zara 29a-b: Talmudic Medicine

    Following the discussion on yesterday’s daf regarding offering cures on Shabbat, the Gemara on today’s daf continues with descriptions of remedies for a variety of illnesses.

    The Gemara also offers general recommendations for a healthy body, teaching that there are six things help the sick to recover from sickness and have a real curative effect – that is they not only help remove the symptoms, but that they heal the illness and strengthen the body. These include: cabbage, beets, dry sisin, tripe (the contents of the stomach), womb and the lobe above the liver; some say, also small fish; moreover small fish keep the whole human body in a fit condition.

    Not only in Talmudic times, but even until relatively recently, the internal organs of an animal were not considered edible under ordinary circumstances. At best, the innards of the animal were viewed as being “lower grade” in comparison with the main parts of the animal that were eaten – the muscular part, and, to a lesser extent, the fat of the animal. This applies not only to the windpipe, but even to the liver and spleen, heart, lungs and other inner organs, which were eaten only by poor people who could not afford to purchase regular meat. Traditional “Jewish foods” that are made from these parts of the animal were either made specifically by the poor, or were specially prepared for particular needs (e.g. for someone who was ill).

    According to the Ge’onim, the sisin referred to here is Matricaria chamomilla of the composite family Asteraceae. This annual plant grows wild in Israel. Even today, Chamomile is used medicinally to treat sore stomach, irritable bowel syndrome, to strengthen the body against colds and as a gentle sleep aid. It is also used as a mild laxative and is anti-inflammatory and bactericidal.

    This essay is based upon the insights and chidushim of Rabbi Steinsaltz, as published in the English version of the Koren Talmud Bavli with Commentary by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, and edited and adapted by Rabbi Shalom Berger.

  30. Avoda Zara 30a-b: Leaving Food Uncovered

    A number of different concerns are presented by the Gemara regarding food and drink that have been left uncovered. The main issue appears to be the concern that a snake may come to eat or drink from the uncovered liquid and leave behind venom that may injure or even kill.

    The Sages forbid drinking from a barrel that had been left open even if others have already drunk from it, arguing that the venom may be at the bottom of the barrel. Furthermore, the Gemara quotes a baraita that forbids using water that had been left uncovered overnight even to wash the floor, to give to animals to drink or to use to wash his hands and his face. Another opinion in the baraita limits the prohibition to cases where the person has an open wound, but if the person has no open wounds this would not be a concern.

    The care that is required by the Gemara to avoid coming into physical contact with a snake’s venom actually depends on the type of snake. Most of the poisonous snakes in Israel and the surrounding areas are vipers, whose venom is made up of enzymes. Such venom could not affect a person simply by physical contact, unless there was an open wound that would allow the venom to enter the bloodstream. Other types of snakes have venom that affects the nervous system, which could enter the body through the eyes, for example, which is why washing the face with water that contains venom may be dangerous.

    Given that the concern with uncovered food and drink is related to a very specific issue, the Gra (Shulḥan Arukh Yoreh De’ah 116:1) accepts the argument made by Tosafot that these rules apply only in times and places where such snakes are found, but the Sages never intended to extend the prohibition to other places where they are not found.

    This essay is based upon the insights and chidushim of Rabbi Steinsaltz, as published in the English version of the Koren Talmud Bavli with Commentary by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, and edited and adapted by Rabbi Shalom Berger.

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